Eight years ago, in December 2005, community members, organizers, artists, friends and sweethearts poured through the doors of a small gallery on the Lower East Side to join the Sylvia Rivera Law Project at the first annual art auction benefit, Small Works for Big Change. Forty artists donated their art, helping SRLP raise $9,000 to support a movement for gender self-determination centered in racial and economic justice, and to celebrate the dynamic and visionary artists among us.
SRLP is a collective organization that works to guarantee that all people are free to self-determine their gender identity and expression, regardless of income or race, and without facing harassment, discrimination or violence. SRLP roots its work in an understanding that gender self-determination is inextricably intertwined with racial, social and economic justice.
Transgender and gender-nonconforming communities, especially communities of color, face persistent and severe discrimination and violence in employment, housing, health care and education, leading to disproportionate poverty. Because the state criminalizes trans people's limited survival options, such as sex and drug work, and low-income trans people and trans people of color are already commonly profiled by the police, these factors lead to disproportionate incarceration. In prison, trans people suffer additional harms, including harassment, violence and denial of gender-affirming health care. For trans immigrants, disproportionate targeting and its consequences multiply exponentially. All these factors combine into an interlocking system of oppression.
Recently, a young, homeless, trans Latina woman came to SRLP to get her green card updated with her name and gender. Shortly after coming to SRLP, she was arrested for sex work. Trans women of color face disproportionate police profiling and arrest for simply "walking while trans." Deeply aware of the dangers of incarceration for trans women, SRLP staff attorneys successfully worked with our client's public defender to ensure that she was not incarcerated or deported. SLRP staff also supported her in safely accessing health care by helping her apply for a replacement green card with her name and gender changed, which allowed her to enroll in Medicaid.
In the past year, SRLP, the Audre Lorde Project, Queers for Economic Justice and FIERCE collaborated to achieve three critical victories for trans and gender-nonconforming people in prison, and for trans and gender-nonconforming youth. These victories include winning the first appellate case in New York to affirm the right of trans people in prison to change their names without providing medical evidence; pushing the Department of Justice to include meaningful protections for incarcerated trans, gender-nonconforming and intersex people within the final rule implementing the Prison Rape Elimination Act; and pushing the Department of Justice to create and adopt a gender identity and expression nondiscrimination policy that includes gender-affirming health care coverage for youth and individualized assessments for placement. With allies and friends, SRLP is part of a broader movement that is resisting, growing and thriving.
On a daily basis, SRLP provides direct legal services to meet immediate needs; brings litigation and works on policy reform for systemic change; and utilizes public education, leadership development and community organizing for long-term sustainable impact. Our community is fighting for crucial and life-affirming changes to violent and oppressive systems, institutions and cultural practices. The stakes are high.
Sometimes, in similar high-stakes situations, organizations suspend their politics, sacrificing issues or members to attract donors, attain resources and win short-term victories to continue their work. They say it's temporary. They say they'll come back later for the rest. Yet we've seen what happens. Those who are asked to wait are always the most vulnerable, and there's no going back. Every choice we make is a brick in the foundation our future. Our work to transform this world and build the one we want needs to happen at every level, from fundraising to movement building to structural change.
On Saturday, May 18, at the eighth Small Works for Big Change, we saw again what it means to align grassroots fundraising with racial and economic justice in order to challenge the race and class hierarchies and histories of structural violence and oppression that typically play out in fundraising. Every year at Small Works we see our community and our community's support for SRLP grow because we put our politics into practice. Modeling the politics and relationships we want to see in the world is both possible and necessary for our movements to remain accountable and sustainable. It's not the biggest donors but the people who are most directly affected by SRLP's work who have the most ownership, the most decision-making power and the loudest voice.
We are told time and again that our politics, our visions, our practices and our bodies are impossible. We're told that we're being unrealistic, that it can't last, that our heads are in the clouds. I say that that's fine. Down in the possible it's hard to breathe, isolating and lonely. But trying to imagine other things, picturing the impossible, I feel spacious, like there's room to fight and build, to gather tools, to test out a structure, break it down and try something new. There's room to reach out and touch another person, to find community. Up in the impossible, I can see the world I want. Will we get there in this lifetime? It doesn't matter. I don't want to work for anything else, even if it takes 10 generations to arrive.
It takes a hell of a lot of creativity and imagination to keep fighting at odds with what we are told is possible, at odds with the options available in our given systems steeped in racisim, classism, ableism, homophobia, transphobia and centuries of violence. By celebrating the visionary and transformative artists in our communities and centering the stories, experiences and desires of low-income trans and queer artists and trans and queer artists of color, Small Works for Big Change is a natural extension of the politics and practice at the core of our work. Small Works gives us a space to honor and learn from the artists who trace our histories, express our desires, challenge us to transform and sustain us on the long and winding path toward the impossible.
Follow Avi Cummings on Twitter: www.twitter.com/srlp