Transgender individuals have it hard in St. Louis. Some don’t have access to cars, and some are homeless. Now many have also lost access to one of the only support groups where they feel welcome.
According to Sayer Johnson, co-founder and executive director of local nonprofit Metro Trans Umbrella Group, or MTUG, hardship is nothing new for the community. But with the COVID-19 outbreak, Johnson explained during Thursday’s St. Louis on the Air, life has gotten much worse.
He said many transgender and nonbinary individuals — and especially those who lack permanent housing — are going through a “frightening time.” His group runs a food bank and offers help where it can, but its resources are limited.
“What we have are sleeping bags and tents that we can provide for folks. We have lockers that folks can use that have their own lock,” Johnson said. “Prior to [COVID-19], it was already abysmal, and now there’s a level of hopelessness.”
Ashe Valentine, a nonbinary individual and drag performer, lost their job in the retail industry. They’ve filed for unemployment but have yet to get a payment. “It’s daunting,” Valentine said. “I’m still waiting on my first check, and it’s constant stress.”
In some ways, though, Valentine is fortunate. A kind landlord has proven a lifesaver. “Thankfully, my landlord is freezing all bills at this point,” Valentine said.
Others in the transgender community haven’t been so lucky.
“They’re frightened they’re going to be kicked out of their homes,” Johnson said. “They’re frightened that they’re not going to be able to pay their electric bill or their gas bill. There’s this enormous amount of fear and, without that communal spirit that we worked hard to create for ourselves, it’s taking a toll on folk’s mental health.”
The Metro Trans Umbrella Group operates out of a two-story house in St. Louis’ Benton Park West neighborhood. It previously served as a hangout for those with no place to go, or those looking for support. Now, as a result of the pandemic, the building has turned into a “giant food pantry.”
Before the outbreak, Johnson said the nonprofit’s food bank served approximately 30 people in a month. Now it often sees more than that in a single day. “The food security need has skyrocketed,” he said.
The organization is struggling financially, Johnson said, but has received help from the community to keep the food bank stocked.
“We’ve had enormous amounts of support from the local queer communities,” he said. “The St. Louis Community Foundation provided us with a grant that has helped us get a deep freeze and shelving. But we’re scrambling.”
Johnson said the group is thinking of other ways to raise money. “We’re struggling to think of creative ways to fund this crisis.”
While the coronavirus remains a threat, support groups and other meetings have moved online.
“A lot more folks have joined in to get that Zoom support,” Johnson said.
Valentine’s drag work also continues online.
“All the bars that I used to perform have completely shut down. We’ve all gone virtual,” they said.
Valentine misses the in-person interactions.
“I love the social aspect of drag,” Valentine said. “I could care less [about] the money part. …[It] is a huge thing for me because I love the community — especially the queer community in St. Louis. There’s a certain togetherness in being a performer [that is] representative to the public.”
To donate to the Metro Trans Umbrella Group, click here.
“St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill, Lara Hamdan and Joshua Phelps. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.
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