Philly Trans March fights for harm reduction in all forms

(Photo: Kelly Burkhardt)

In response to Philadelphia City Council’s recent vote to ban overdose prevention sites in most city districts, the 2023 Philly Trans March (PTM) encompassed themes of “health, healing and harm reduction.” Approximately 50-100 people gathered for the march at South Philly’s Mifflin Square Park in the afternoon of Saturday, Oct. 7. 

“What harm reduction means to me is that it’s non-carceral,” PTM organizer Breighton Golphin told PGN. “Harm reduction is supporting folks who are substance users who do in fact need help and services. This whole issue with substance abuse is a decades-wide issue. We saw how the crack epidemic really destroyed a lot of BIPOC lives, a lot of families. It’s still an issue even to this day.”

Golphin said that the need for harm reduction impacts trans communities because “trans people are not being hired, we’re not getting the services that we need.”

Ava Campbell, a certified peer specialist and part of PTM’s planning committee, said at the march, “this decision not to implement safe injection sites makes no sense to me. There are so many examples in Philadelphia of how different harm reduction options have helped the city overall. Have you heard of Narcan? The Crisis Intervention Team? How about fentanyl test strips? How about PrEP? Since HIV can be transmitted by blood, If you have cleaner needles [that’s] yet another way to prevent HIV.” 

They pointed out that criminalizing drugs has led to increased rates of drug-related deaths. 

“Clearly getting rid of drugs has failed,” Campbell said. “Give people who need these sites their dignity. Make it so that less deaths happen around this city. Make it so that people have a pathway out by meeting them where they’re at. All of you forgot that substance abuse on this wide of a scale is a result of systemic neglect.” 

Jazmyn Henderson, organizer and activist with ACT UP Philadelphia and Black and Latinx Community Control, told the crowd that harm reduction and support should go hand in hand.

“Whether we’re talking about opioid addiction, we’re talking about people who are homeless, we’re talking about alcoholics, trans folks –– regardless of what it is, we need to support these folks,” she said at the march.

Henderson, who used to work at Prevention Point, called out Philadelphia lawmakers for what she believes to be a failure to take a compassionate approach to harm reduction services in the city. 

“I’ve worked with people who were opioid-addicted,” Henderson said. “I’ve never had a problem, never had a substance abuse issue. But we shouldn’t have to have the issue to have compassion for the people who do. This is something that’s always lost when we’re talking to city leaders and legislators, because most of them ain’t been there and most of them don’t know what it’s like. Most of them for a second couldn’t think to get out of their million dollar homes and come down here and actually be on the ground and do the work.” 

She also pointed out the ways that overdose prevention sites benefit the surrounding community. 

“Every place where there is [an overdose prevention site], there has not been one single overdose death,” she told the crowd. “You don’t see a lot of open air drug use; you don’t see a lot of needles in the street.”

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, zero people have died of a drug overdose while at an overdose prevention center from over two decades of operation in other countries. However, it is unclear whether they curtail overall death rates. Other research shows that overdose prevention centers reduce public drug use, cut down demands on local health care and emergency response services, and boost access to treatment for substance use disorder.

The idea that harm reduction manifests in many more ways than in the context of drug overdose came up multiple times at the march. Representatives from the organizations South Philly Food Not Bombs, Food Not Bombs Solidarity and Project Safe were at the march providing food and water. 

Céshia Elmore from New Voices for Reproductive Justice was also in attendance. New Voices is an organization with a mission of “transforming society for the holistic health and well-being of Black women, girls and gender-expansive people.” They operate nationally and in Pennsylvania and Ohio. 

“It’s really important when we talk about reproductive justice that we understand that reproductive justice is also a trans rights issue,” Golphin said at the march. “We are also affected by the overturning of Roe v. Wade; we are also affected by lack of access to abortion.”

Also at the march were members of Stop the Crisis Philly, a West Philly-based grassroots organization “dedicated to increasing access to harm reduction supplies and resources,” according to the organization’s Instagram page.

“Harm reduction to me means supporting people who use substances or engage in risky behaviors without shaming or stigmatizing them in any sort of way,” Michelle An of Stop the Crisis Philly told PGN. “Just trying to minimize the negative consequences that might be associated with some of these behaviors, just trying to keep everybody safe no matter what they do or who they are. 

“It’s definitely a uniquely trans issue because it lies at the intersection of a lot of the issues that trans people face, including homelessness, substance use and a lot of other issues, especially [for] Black trans women.”

For Phoenix Garcia-Ramos, another member of Stop the Crisis Philly, harm reduction has to do with mental health and taking care of the community. 

“I personally have a lot of family members who have been affected by the opioid crisis,” Garcia-Ramos said. “This issue really relates to Black and Brown people, since I am Hispanic, I’m Afro-Latin. This is an issue that can affect anyone, especially queer and trans people because these are the people that aren’t supported in society today, and they are most likely to fall [into] these risky behaviors. We want to promote social justice and mental health with [all] harm reduction work that we do.”

Activist and hip-hop artist Blak Rapp M.A.D.U.S.A. talked to march-goers about their work helping women, trans and gender nonconforming people who are incarcerated. They said that there are more than 5,000 trans women and trans people who are incarcerated in the U.S., but only 15 of them are placed in prisons that align with their gender identity.

“Those numbers are stark,” Blak Rapp said at the march. “Not only that, those folks behind those walls are getting disappeared and you don’t even hear about it. You don’t even get to know about it.”

Blak Rapp added that trans people in prisons are raped and beaten by corrections officers, “and they’re getting away with it.”

“As we talk about these issues of harm reduction, we also have to talk about what’s keeping us out of prison, who’s hiring our folks, who’s empowering our folks to lead on their own issues,” Blak Rapp said. “We don’t just need some well-meaning folks to show up, we need you to empower those people to fight for themselves.”

Janis Stacy, a trans activist since the 1970s, said that harm reduction is important to trans communities because many trans people are leaving states where their rights are under attack, and subsequently their families and everything they have. 

“A lot of them wind up resorting to sex work on the street and drugs,” Stacy told PGN. “We need to be able to reduce the harm, make sure they can get them the medical care they need and get them places to live.”

Rufus Farmer, one of the founding members of Philly Coalition for REAL (Racial, Economic and Legal) Justice, member of Food Not Bombs Solidarity and former social worker, spoke at the march as a cis ally. 

“We need more radical social workers, not social workers who want to get out of here and try to do everything the legal way and try to follow everything by the law in the book, and only get incremental change at best,” Farmer said at the march. “We need radical social workers trying to create systemic change. And that does include not just defunding them, abolishing them.”

He suggested to cis allies that when they’re in the presence of someone who’s being transphobic, “step in there and make a comment about it. And if you have some privilege, as I think most cis people do to some degree or another, step out there and take a risk. Put something on the line. Make a sacrifice of some sort, even if it’s just giving your time to be at events like this.” 

Golphin said that PTM plans to hold a second installment of their fight for harm reduction tools in Philly at their Trans Day of Remembrance event happening in late November. 

“These issues that we highlighted are the issues that are unfortunately killing us,” Golphin said.  “This conversation does need to continue, it shouldn’t really stop here. The fact of the matter is — especially because our rights are literally gone in other states — our existence is completely illegitimized. There are going to be more folks that are going to die. We’re going to need more resources.”