PEOPLE’s Voices from the Fight Against Racism will amplify Black perspectives on the push for equality and justice

By People Staff
July 03, 2020 10:50 AM
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Chris Tuttle

Beverly Tillery is the executive director of the New York City Anti-Violence Project, an organization that empowers lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer (LGBTQ) and HIV-affected communities and allies to end all forms of violence through organizing, education and supporting survivors with counseling and advocacy. Tillery, 54, is a thought leader, advocate and national organizer with three decades of experience working in social justice movements. She lives in Harlem, New York City, with her partner and their 14-year-old daughter. This is her story, as told to PEOPLE.

There’s always been something in my bones that made me see injustices and want to do something about it.

I grew up in Maryland with four sisters, and were one of the very few Black families in the neighborhood. In high school, one of my older sister’s teachers held up his Ku Klux Klan membership card in front of the class. He mentioned inviting the students to a KKK meeting — "except for the two Black kids here."

We’re still experiencing a crisis of hate in the United States.

As the federal government tries to take away rights from members of the LGBTQ community, we’re seeing spikes in hate crimes and violence on these folks.

During last year’s Pride, there were a number of coordinated actions against the LGBTQ community carried out by known white supremacist and anti-LGBTQ hate groups: protests at Pride activities, an incident where a white supremacist group targeted and assaulted a gay man and so many other examples.

Right now, Black trans women, in particular, are under attack.

Several studies point to a steady rise in recorded homicides of transgender women of color. According to the Human Rights Campaign, at least 22 transgender and gender non-conforming people were killed in the United States last year. Out of the 22 trans and gender non-conforming people killed in 2019, all but two were Black trans women.

The American Medical Association has called violence against the transgender community “an epidemic.” It is.

There are many stories from survivors and victims of hate. Sometimes just hearing about the deaths over and over again can get really demoralizing.

At the AVP, we’ve been doing a lot of work surrounding the death of a young Black Latinx trans woman named Layleen Polanco, who died in the jail on Rikers Island.

Layleen, 27, was loved and supported by her family. It was really our systems that failed her. She was arrested after getting into an altercation with a taxi driver [and had an outstanding warrant for a separate incident]. She was jailed last April because she could not pay $500 in bail.

Layleen, like many trans women in prison, ended up in solitary confinement even though the prison employees knew she was epileptic and should not have been there. Someone was supposed to check on her every 15 minutes. We’ve now learned that when she died, over 40 minutes went by where nobody checked to make sure she was okay.

That should not have been her story. Layleen would be out of prison living her life had it not been for a system that criminalized her in the first place and then left her in an unsafe condition in prison, which is always unsafe for anybody, but particularly unsafe for trans women.

It is so clear that Layleen should not have died. There are many ways intervention could have helped her.

When our team at the AVP speaks to members of the LGBTQ community, people say they fear for their lives. There’s fear that we will return to a time where it becomes less and less safe to be openly LGBTQ.

We talk a lot about how Donald Trump being elected president in the United States has brought many of these issues to the forefront and where he has given permission for a lot of the bigotry, homophobia, transphobia and racism that we're seeing play out in a lot of different ways.

But isn’t America supposed to be a safe haven for all people?

Being the first Black woman to lead the AVP — especially during the moment we’re living in now — feels really powerful. There are challenges, but there are also really great strengths that come with it. Being a Black leader when we’re finally, really talking about anti-Black racism in this country means that I can have a voice in this dialogue in a way others can’t.

These issues of racism and violence are my issues. I can bring my experiences to the forefront and I can also recognize the ways in which I have privilege and I need to highlight others’ experiences, like those of Black trans women and trans men, immigrant folks and indigenous folks. I can be my authentic self and also make space for other people whose voices aren’t always heard.

We need to rethink how we define justice for violent crimes. Right now, in our society, we don’t have very many choices for justice besides locking people up.

If we’re going to really make change in our society, more of us need to be a community. Find a way to build a community with people who are really struggling with these issues. Don't be afraid to talk about it. You don't have to know everything. You can certainly educate yourself along the way.

We need more people from all walks of life who are willing to say, “I know that there is a problem with violence against Black trans women. We have to do something about it, right?” If more people say that, out loud, to those they interact with, that would be huge. Trans people should also be celebrated. We need to acknowledge all of the amazing ways they enrich society. When we make Black trans women safe, we are helping so many others.

So talk about the issues, educate yourself, support organizations that are doing this work and find organizations in your communities that you can engage with.

There is a beautiful way in which we are seeing people come together, fight together and demand to be seen and heard. We're seeing the trans community gain strength, build organizations and really stand up, because they must. We're also seeing more diversity within the trans activist community. People are finding their voices.

  • As told to Morgan Smith

To help combat systemic racism, consider learning from or donating to these organizations:

• Campaign Zero (joincampaignzero.org), which works to end police brutality in America through research-proven strategies.

• ColorofChange.org works to make the government more responsive to racial disparities.

• National Cares Mentoring Movement (caresmentoring.org) provides social and academic support to help Black youth succeed in college and beyond.