Trans advocate ‘the perfect storm’ of success

Kendall Stephens and Roary, the mascot

After high school, Kendall Stephens had the world ahead of her. She had several college acceptance letters under her belt, alongside a diploma with honors, a freshly broken Penn Relays record and the unveiling of her trans identity. 

“I went and told my family because I was so excited: ‘I know what I am! I know what’s going on here! I’m definitely transgender!’” said Stephens, now 33. “The response I got back was, ‘Well, if you continue down this road, then we’re going to pull all support for you.’”

The opportunities Stephens had set up for herself began to crumble. She lost her college scholarships because her mother refused to fill out the FAFSA forms. Instead of heading to a dorm room, Stephens wound up experiencing homelessness, finding herself in and out of shelters, couch surfing and living on the streets in the “very most degrading experience of [her] life.”

But the trans woman of color, a lifelong Philadelphian living in Point Breeze, didn’t let adversity keep her down. Driven by memories of sleeping on park benches in the freezing cold and having to wash out her only pair of underwear each night, Stephens is now a powerhouse in the city’s LGBTQ community. 

Since 2015, she has served as co-facilitator of TransWay, a two-hour weekly support group for trans and gender-nonconforming people at William Way LGBT Community Center, which honored Stephens with its New Emerging Leader Award in October. Stephens also facilitates support groups and assists yoga classes as an intern at Morris Home, the Southwest Philadelphia recovery center for trans and gender-nonconforming folks with addiction. 

The LGBTQ advocate juggles her community work with studying behavioral health and human service at Community College of Philadelphia, where she ranks on the honor roll and dean’s list and acts as president of the school’s LGBTQ club. 

“The crux of my advocacy work is helping those that need some guidance, that just need a helping hand, get past a point of their lives that is very difficult for them,” Stephens said. “If I can give that hand to them and help them help themselves, then it’s mission accomplished for me.” 

Stephens can be found every Thursday night opening a TransWay session with a health and wellness check-in for the approximately 20 group members. Folks are able to discuss the happenings in their lives and seek advice from other participants in an environment Stephens described as “akin to being in your dining room around the table amongst family.”

Elizabeth Williams, a 71-year-old trans woman who has known Stephens for several years, co-facilitates TransWay. Stephens and Williams met via the support group, and Williams describes their leadership as “complementary.” The two are of different generations and ethnicities, but each focuses on promoting inclusivity, Williams said. 

Stephens is “extraordinarily poised, fiercely intelligent and her intelligence transcends book learning,” Williams told PGN, noting Stephens is happy to share her success and lead by example. 

“She’s like the perfect storm coming together to create a success story, but none of it is by accident,” Williams added. “Any success that she has had has been through intention and through showing up and doing the work, whatever that work may be.” 

Vincent Scarfo, a nonbinary trans person who works as the coordinator at CCP’s MarcDavid LGBTQ Center, has known Stephens for roughly two years through Philadelphia’s queer advocacy scene. The duo worked together following the unveiling of the school’s new nonbinary lion mascot Roary to urge students to see the furry icon as a symbol of inclusivity, Scarfo told PGN. They are collaborating with the institution’s marketing and communications team to bring Pride-themed college swag to the campus bookstore in 2020. 

Scarfo described Stephens as “relentless.” Some activists “burn out because they try things and they get shot down,” but Stephens continues pushing for change, Scarfo said.

“[That] is what we really need from our activists and from our advocates for the community because without people really pushing the envelope and standing up and saying, ‘This is not right,’ or, ‘This needs to happen,’ it’s never going to change,” they added. “I admire her tenacity and her ability to really keep pushing things when she feels they’re important.”

While Stephens acknowledges it is “very frightening” being openly trans in today’s climate, she encourages young people to come out when they feel safe enough to do so. Living authentically creates a sense of freedom and empowerment, Stephens said.

“I really want everyone to understand that whatever hatred or confusion or judgment that you may have to any community, if you could put that aside for a moment and try to see people as just people, the world would be a much better place,” she added. “We would all exist in harmony.”

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