Monday morning marked the official opening of a unique transgender services facility in North Chicago.Touted as the first of its kind in the nation, the TransLife Center (TLC) will offer a range of programs, including legal counsel, employment services and housing to the transgender community. The TLC is a project of the Chicago House and Social Service Agency, an outreach nonprofit that focuses on providing supportive services to the LBGT community and people with HIV and AIDS.Through a combination of donations and government grants, Chicago House renovated its four-story AIDS hospice building into the new center, which includes nine bedrooms, large bathrooms and computers.
“That place where people got to die with a sense of dignity is now going to be a starting place for people to move forward with lives of dignity, and we’re so excited,” says Stan Sloan, CEO of Chicago House.Aside from its conventional services, the house will also function as a shelter for transgender homeless people, who are often misplaced and mistreated in state-run facilities due to their gender identity. “Nothing works, even in the emergency systems, if you’re transgender. You go to a shelter and they send you to the men’s side even though you’re a woman because your ID still says ‘male,’” says Sloan. “There are huge gaps in services for the transgender community nationwide.”Demonstrating the significance of the opening, even though the address was embargoed, dozens of supporters turned out to witness the ribbon cutting and tour the house. Several icons in the transgender community were also present at the event, including transgender Hollywood producer Lana Wachowski of Matrix fame and Mara Keisling, founding executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality—described by Sloan as “the woman Obama calls when he needs advice on transgender issues.”Although transgender support networks exist in cities like Charlotte, San Francisco and Washington, D.C., the TLC is unique in that it will provide legal, job, medical, housing and shelter services all under one roof. Its supporters are confident that the opening marks another step forward for transgender rights, coming on the heels of a recent Social Security Administration change that will make it easier for people to change their gender on agency documents.Janet Mock, a writer and LGBT advocate, recently discussed the slippery slope that makes facilities like the TLC so vital to the transgender community in an interview with the Huffington Post: Oftentimes for young trans women of color [the inability to get a job due to discrimination] leads to sex work. You need to survive, so you survive by using what you have. It’s their only choice often at times, which makes them more vulnerable to criminalization, police brutality, HIV/AIDS and the heightened violence against trans women of color period.A National Gay and Lesbian Task Force report released in 2011, titled Injustice at Every Turn: A Report of the National Transgender Discrimination Survey, found that transgender respondents experienced unemployment at twice the rate of the general population. Moreover, nearly one-fifth had been homeless at some point in their lives, and 41 percent reported having attempted suicide, compared with 1.6 percent of the general population. “My mother disowned me. I was fired from my job after 18 years of loyal employment. I was forced onto public assistance to survive. I have walked these streets and been harassed nearly every day, but I will not change. I am back out there the next day with my head up,” one respondent wrote.Stormie Williams, the TLC’s first resident, says that in an era of increased acceptance of homosexuality, discrimination is still the status quo for many transgender and gender-nonconforming people. “[People] don’t address you properly at all, they expect for you to respect them, but they’re not respectful toward you,” she says. “A lot of [transgender people] endure it because they feel like they have to.”Williams adds that she has experienced work discrimination throughout her life, including being rejected for jobs because of her gender identity. “Things are getting better but people still need help and they can get it here,” Keisling says. “Real people are going to get real help, and it’s going to save real lives.”The responsibility of connecting residents like Williams with job, health and legal services falls to Channyn Lynne Parker, the center’s care coordinator. The Chicago native notes, however, that such services only go so far to combat the problems faced by the transgender community—the general public must also be educated, she says.“The overall fear and dispelling the stigmas, that’s the first thing, putting a face on transgender people. They have rights like anyone else,” she says. “Discrimination stems from ignorance. When you have so many false images in the media it’s hard not to discriminate. But a house divided can’t stand.”
Lewis Kendall is a Summer 2013 editorial intern at In These Times.