Leaders in trans community share guidelines and resources during pandemic

Kendall Stephens and Elizabeth Coffey-Williams at TransWay group dinner

In continued efforts to combat the spread of the new coronavirus, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf mandated temporary closures of all non life-sustaining businesses, and Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney issued a Stay at Home Order as of March 23. The order calls for non-essential businesses to close their physical locations and for residents to remain in their homes except to purchase food or supplies, seek medical care or engage in other permitted activities related to wellness.  

Like many marginalized communities, it is paramount that certain subsets of the LGBTQ+ community take extra precautions to avoid exposure to the virus and maintain support systems.

The National Center for Trans Equality (NCTE) published a set of guidelines to help transgender folks navigate life during the the new coronavirus pandemic. The guide includes suggestions such as establishing support systems with family and friends, creating an emergency contact list, following universal safety precautions such as washing hands and social distancing and, perhaps most importantly, ensuring ample supplies of hormones, medications and any other items needed for day to day life.  

Trans leaders in the Philadelphia community talked to PGN about local resources and guidelines that trans individuals may find useful as government officials enforce measures to control the spread of the new coronavirus. 

“Exercising balance between being visible and operating out of an abundance of caution and a pronounced sense of safety,” are just a couple of Kendall Stephens’ guidelines to help trans folks stay safe during this pandemic. Stephens is a trans woman of color who co-facilitates the TransWay support group along with Elizabeth Coffey-Williams. Under usual circumstances, Stephens also runs support groups as an intern at Morris Home, a residential recovery program for trans and gender-nonconforming individuals. 

In addition to the universal precautions of self-isolation and avoiding even small groups of people, Stephens also included advisory measures for those who rely on survival sex work. 

“Carry hand sanitizer, practice condom use and stay away from clients who are exhibiting any signs of symptoms including coughing, sneezing and running nose,” she said. She also suggests that “clients wash hands thoroughly or sanitize hands before interacting with them physically.”

A 2019 study by the Williams Institute of the UCLA School of Law reported that within the U.S. LGBTQ population, transgender people have the highest rates of poverty at 29.4 percent. By contrast, the study reported that cisgender straight people experience a poverty rate of 15.7 percent.   

Kendall Stephens and Elizabeth Coffey-Williams, co-facilitators of TransWay

Stephens and Coffey-Williams both stressed the need to maintain social connections and support systems remotely during this harrowing time. In light of continuing to interact with and support one another, the two TransWay facilitators said they would be opening up the TransWay Facebook group to the general Facebook public and plan to host TransWay meetings virtually. 

“I personally feel that the members of the TransWay as siblings would be well served to maintain some form of connection during this time of potential isolation,” Coffey-Williams said. “We need it in general, but I think we need it now more than ever.” Coffey-Williams is a trans activist, former actress and a well-known tenant of the John C. Anderson Apartments, Philly’s affordable living quarters for LGBTQ seniors. 

Stephens mentioned other staple trans support groups that can be accessed via social media, such as Mazzoni Center’s group Sisterly L.O.V.E. and the Trans Masculine Advocacy Network, as well as the new Facebook group Trans Quarantine Space.

She also told PGN that she has been doing her part to donate everyday supplies to people in her community, noting that elderly folks and people living with disabilities may need extra help during this time. 

“To me, this is this perfect opportunity to maintain selflessness and really build those connections that we took for granted,” Stephens said. “We often, in these times, don’t speak to our neighbor; We can no longer live that way — this virus is showing us that we need connections more than anything.” 

Deja Lynn Alvarez works for World Health Care Infrastructures (WHCI) formerly known as The Philadelphia AIDS Consortium. WHCI is currently primarily serving the public remotely but has designated open hours when clients can pick up medication at 112 N. Broad St.

WHCI facilitates securing comprehensive healthcare and social services for folks without access to affordable care. According to the nonprofit’s website, WHCI serves people who experience behavioral health challenges, face barriers to navigating the health system, have HIV or sexually transmitted illnesses. WHCI also provides medical care for transgender individuals, Alvarez said. Folks can get hormones through WHCI clinics, even without insurance.

At this time, WHCI is open only for clients who need to pick up their medication on Tuesdays and Fridays from 1-3 p.m. Those seeking emergency medical services provided by the clinic need to make an appointment, and all other clients are seen remotely.  

“We set up a clinic to happen a few times a month for those who don’t have insurance or for whatever reason may not want to access traditional medical settings,” she said, like people who see doctors through the Department of Public Health or are housing insecure. Alvarez said medications are delivered to WHCI for those folks and “they know they can come here any day of the month to pick up their medications, or we notify them if they have access to cell phones.” A longtime trans activist and LGBTQ advocate in the Philadelphia community, Alvarez co-chairs the Philadelphia LGBTQ+ Police Liaison Committee and serves on the Board of Directors of the William Way LGBT Community Center, among other LGBTQ-centered community roles. 

“If there is anybody who still needs to be seen, we are setting up now where we will be able to do telehealth through [WHCI’s] provider, Nurse Practitioner David Agosto,” Alvarez said. 

The organization is also providing mental health counseling, holding sessions via telephone, to reduce the number of people who need to come into the facility in person. WHCI has also cut back its staff to a “skeleton crew,” Alvarez said.  

“Many of our clients are immunocompromised or have some sort of other issue, so we have to make sure we’re here for them,” she said emphatically.

According to the NCTE, “LGBTQ people have higher rates of HIV and cancer, and therefore may have a compromised immune system.” The NCTE’s 2015 U.S. Trans Survey reported that, compared to the overall population, trans individuals are five times more likely to be living with HIV.

WHCI staff members are taking every precautionary measure possible to keep the facility clean; they’re sterilizing everything, including bathrooms, doorknobs and phones, Alvarez said.  

“[The pandemic] is going to hit the LGBTQ, particularly the trans community, the hardest because we are so housing insecure, which leads to less access to medical services, less access to mental health, less access to medications,” Alvarez said. “That’s what we’ve really developed here is a way for [any] of the most marginalized communities to have more access to the things that they actually need.”

Ask questions, get answers about COVID-19