Jeynce Poindexter
Jeynce Poindexter is a Black trans woman who fights to protect other trans individuals in Detroit. A case manager at the Ruth Ellis Center, Poindexter is pictured here speaking at the Charles H Wright Museum during the Women’s March in Detroit. (Emily Elconin photo)

State Sen. Adam Hollier is reviving the push to have sexual orientation and gender expression included in Michigan’s hate crimes law stressing transgender women of color are among the most vulnerable and in need of protections.

The Detroit Democrat introduced the amendment last week saying “these are not people who can be thrown away” and revising the law will strengthen the powers of police and prosecutors.

“Our government should be doing everything we can to take care of the most marginalized and the people who are most often victimized by the system,” Hollier said. 

Hollier’s bill comes amid the release of a University of Michigan Poverty Solutions  report that highlights the struggles and increased risk factors for transgender teens in Michigan, including homelessness. 

Transgender youths are a vulnerable population in the state, and in the city of Detroit quality of life is often worse. Community agencies say a lack of affordable housing options, health care and the prevalence of violent crime are among the issues that make life for young transgender people in Detroit especially difficult.

Dionta Brown, program coordinator at LGBT Detroit, a nonprofit that works to create wellbeing for LGBTQ people in the city, said many transgender kids in the city end up homeless because their families aren’t accepting of their sexual orientation or gender expression.

“People like to pretend Detroit is a very liberal or left-leaning city, but a lot of Detroiters are very conservative and religious,” Brown said, “so oftentimes parents will kick teens out of the house when they come out simply because they don’t agree with the way their kid sees themself.”

Homelessness itself comes with risks for LGBTQ youth and especially transgender youth, he said.

“(Many) were kicked out of the house young and didn’t finish high school,” he said, “so they do whatever they can to make money and that can sometimes mean sex work and ending up in positions where they face sexual and physical violence, and sometimes death.”

‘Out on my own’

Jeynce Poindexter said she faced judgment from her family when she began asserting her identity. She left her home in Detroit at 14 and “was completely on my own” and disconnected, she said.

Black trans activist Jeynce Poindexter works with transgender youth in Detroit every day. Poindexter is pictured here speaking at the raising of the pride flag in Hart Plaza in downtown Detroit in 2017. (Emily Elconin photo)

“I didn’t have proper documentation, so I was 14 and I was out on my own,” said Poindexter, a case manager with the Ruth Ellis Center, a nonprofit that provides housing, healthcare resources and work opportunities for LGBTQ youth and young adults in Detroit.

“I’ve slept outside, I’ve went hungry, I’ve lived in hotel rooms and I’ve had to do survival sex work,” said Poindexter, who also is vice president of the Trans Sister of Color Project. “ All of those things have definitely been a part of my story.”

Jeynce Poindexter is a case manager at the Ruth Ellis Center and an outspoken advocate for transgender people in Detroit. Poindexter spoke at the Creating Change conference in Detroit in 2019. (Emily Elconin photo)

Jennifer Erb-Downward, a researcher with Poverty Solutions who co-authored the study released in Feburary, said transgender youth in Detroit face a higher risk of homelessness than peers who do not identify as trans or LGBTQ.

“There’s a lot of trauma that is experienced in the course of being homeless and not having a safe and stable place to live,” Erb-Downward said. “And that places youth who don’t have a safe place to live at risk for their physical and mental well being.”

During the 2017-18 school year, about 1 in 4 transgender youth in Michigan reported being homeless or at risk for homelessness while just over 1 in 10 of their peers, who do not identify as LGBTQ, were in the same situation. 

Erb-Downward estimates that there are about 421 transgender students in the Detroit Public Schools Community District and about 109 of them had experienced homelessness within 30 days of when the 2019 data used for the estimate was gathered. 

About 55% of the homeless youth surveyed for the study reported “couch surfing” –  staying temporarily in the home of a friend, family member, or another person who was not their parent or legal guardian. Over a quarter of those youth reported living in a situation that was disconnected from social support structures. 

The UM report recommends increasing transitional housing options for youth experiencing homelessness, allowing unaccompanied minors to give consent for basic medical care and investing in strong transitions out of foster care and juvenile justice centers. 

Krystina Edwards, community engagement manager for the Ruth Ellis Center, said along with the need for housing, transgender youth need “gender affirming” health care – or healthcare provided by people who respect their gender identity and expression. 

Bridget Butts, who manages the drop-in center at the Ruth Ellis Center, is preparing the space for young people’s arrival. (Ruth Ellis Center photo)

“There are trans men who don’t get pap smears and there are trans women who don’t get their prostates checked,” Edwards said. “These things seem simple, but when there’s not a doctor you can trust to take you and your health concerns seriously, chances are you don’t get any preventative care.”

Edwards also said there are about 10 trans youth who are Detroit Public Schools Community District students staying at the Ruth Ellis Center. Many of them have concerns for their safety when they aren’t at the center, she said. School and public transportation are often places where these youth are bullied. 

“We know that trans people are targeted… even (by) police so it’s important that they have a safe space to express themselves, but also be safe on a daily basis,” she said. 

Embracing identity expression

The Detroit public school district has adopted training programs and other accommodations to help ease the experience of trans youth in schools. 

Chrystal Wilson, assistant superintendent of communications for DPSCD, said in an email to BridgeDetroit that the district creates inclusive and supportive environments for all of its students. 

“We recognize that many of our students have identities that put them at risk of marginalization at the hands of their community, and we work diligently to support these students, accepting all identities and embracing their identity expression,” Wilson wrote. 

Wilson said DPSCD has mandatory training for staff to understand the gender spectrum but did not share the cost of this or other programs developed for transgender youth in DPSCD.

“We also offer specialized professional learning opportunities for staff in Supporting LGBTQ+ Youth of Color as the intersection of their identities put them at greatest risk for a variety of challenges, including homelessness, chronic absenteeism, learning challenges, mental health issues, and even contact with the juvenile justice system,” she said.

Wilson said the district has adopted “Gender Identity Support Plans” and name-change procedures.

“We have also created all-gender bathroom options at a number of our schools and have supported programming for youth through Gender & Sexuality Alliances, our annual PRIDE events, and a variety of partnerships with community agencies,” she said. 

Push for policy change 

Erb-Downward with Poverty Solutions said one of the best ways to increase support for transgender youth in Detroit and elsewhere is to look at public policy.

“We need to change our current laws so that youth who are experiencing homelessness have a right to consent for their own basic primary care,” Erb-Downward said. 

Edwards agrees and said Medicaid should be expanded to pay for gender affirming care and federal housing policy must include options that are supportive of LGBTQ and trans people.

“(Policymakers must be) intentional in how they interact with trans people and how they are building policies around the environment in the community,” she said. She urged policymakers not to make life for trans youth who already face myriad challenges “worse.”

Hollier, who is running for an open seat representing the 13th Congressional District, made a similar bid last year to amend the state’s hate crimes law, but it failed. However, he said this time there’s bipartisan support behind his latest effort. 

Julisa Abad, director of transgender outreach and advocacy with the Fair Michigan Justice Project, said Michigan is a so-called at-will state right now since its law doesn’t have those LGBTQ protections in place. 

“So individuals can be denied housing, shelter, employment or medical services because of how they identify,” Abad said. 

Abad said Fair Michigan is actively working to update the state’s Elliott Larsen Civil Rights Act to include protections for sexual oreintation and gender identity. 

Poindexter said without a change in the state’s civil rights act there will still be legal room for discrimination against transgender people to occur. 

“Every part of my life from education, to living, to health care, to victimization, every part of it is up for debate,” Poindexter said. “Before I’m an LGBTQ community member, before I’m a Black person, before I’m a Black trans person, I’m a person.”

Bryce Huffman is a reporter for BridgeDetroit. He was formerly a reporter for Michigan Radio, and host of the podcast, Same Same Different.

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