Kayla Gore, a Black Trans Woman on the Lead to End Homelessness and HIV Prevalence for Black Trans Women

By Serena Sonoma | May 19, 2021 GLAAD.org

A reported 41 percent of Black transgender people say they have experienced homelessness at some point in their lives, which is more than five times the rate of the general U.S. population, according to a report conducted by the National LGBTQ Task Force. 

That study goes on to reveal that Black transgender people lived in extreme poverty at a rate of 34 percent, with a reported household income of less than $10,000 per year — more than twice the rate for transgender people of all races (15 percent), four times the general Black population rate (9 percent), and eight times the general U.S. population rate (4 percent), 

Five years ago, two Black trans women living in Memphis, Tennessee sought to change the housing insecurity for a community that was too often restricted by the ropes of transphobia, and a government that didn’t care to aid them. It was the birth year of My Sistah’s House, a grassroots organization that provides emergency housing for transgender and gender-nonconforming people, particularly Black, Indigenous, and Trans People of Color. 

At the frontline of the organization are its co-founders, Kayla Gore, and Illyahnna C. Wattshall. Gore is a 33-year-old Black trans woman who like many Black trans people has experienced the brunt of homelessness and poverty. 

Gore’s organization also provides support, meals, and other resources —  including HIV testing and prevention.  An estimated 44% of Black Transgender women have HIV, more than 6x the percent of white transgender women. In 2017, transgender people were three times more likely to receive a new HIV diagnosis than the national average. 

In an interview with GLAAD Gore recalls it being one of the many reasons why she started My Sistah’s House. 

“It’s harder to overcome certain things, and it’s harder to access certain things because my transness stands out before my Blackness, and my queerness, and before all of my other intersectional identities, my transness is brought into awareness first,” Gore said.  “I always think about those experiences, when I was homeless and trying to access housing — and I didn’t have issues until I transitioned and then those issues came into place.”

The impact of Tennessee’s current anti-transgender legislation fueled by conservative lawmakers and Tennessee Governor Bill Lee makes the economic impact for Black and Brown trans people even more troubling. On Tuesday, Governor Lee signed a controversial bathroom bill into law that bars transgender students or employees from using bathrooms consistent with their gender identity. The bill is one of several anti-trans legislation that has been deemed a “slate of hate, signed into law. Governor Lee’s passing of these bills only serves as violence for a community that is already crushing under the weight of transmisogynoir and cissexism. 

Recently, Gilead’s COMPASS Initiative funding helped My Sistah’s House support and address the health and social needs of transgender women of color. The “Safe Street Team” helped provide housing, utility stipends, hot meals, and survival kits to community members. COVID testing was also made available to people that would otherwise not have had access. More info in the attached

Gore also noted: “Even after the rest of the country puts the COVID-19 pandemic behind, transgender women will continue to struggle with another epidemic: HIV.  I am so grateful to National Geographic for increasing visibility for the urgent challenges facing trans women across the South. The first step to ending the epidemic is to understand it, and this documentary describes how keeping trans women healthy requires stopping new transmissions of HIV from happening in the first place. We need greater investment in affordable housing options and job training opportunities, increased access to mental healthcare, and to finally end the stigma facing people living with HIV, and partiicularly transwomen with HIV. Organizations like GLAAD and Gilead’s COMPASS Initiative have empowered so many other ‘Women of Wonder’ in the South to reach higher, go where the need is greatest, and impact more lives. They understand the holistic approach needed to end HIV and are giving us the resources and skills to take action.”

Gore said one of the ideas behind My Sistah’s House was that she wanted to meet the Black trans community’s real-world needs and recognized that someone needed to step in to make an impact for things to change. 

Since its launch, My Sistah’s House has built houses to provide a safe place for Black trans women in the Memphis area through their Tiny House Project, an initiative to build 20 tiny homes for trans women of color. Through Gore and Watshall’s actions, the nonprofit raised almost $600,000 to purchase land to ensure Black trans women would never be impacted by housing insecurity again. 

“It can be hard to compartmentalize and hone in on the achievements you’ve made because it’s so rapid and it’s a continuous unending process. The work continues,” Gore said when asked how she feels about the impact of her work. 

“I try to bask a little bit when I get the opportunity to just look at everything, I ride past the tiny houses that are under construction, or one that’s already complete, and looking at the neighborhood, we’re building houses on the street that I grew up on. Just knowing that impact that it’s going to have not only on the trans community but a very historic Black community, where the houses are gone and the streets have been baren, is something I find to be endearing.” 

Kayla and My Sistah’s House are part of the National Geographic short-form documentary series, IMPACT with Gal Gadot. The episode premiered on May 17th, which coincided with International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia, and Biphobia. The documentary follows the stories of six women in power who are continuing to make global impacts in their communities, despite “living in areas marred by violence, poverty, trauma, discrimination, oppression, and natural disasters,” according to NatGeo’s website. 

“Now that I’m able to express myself and my gender expression and you can’t hide my transness, I feel like I’m a whole new person and I’m able to do things like the Tiny House Project, and be on a national level where I’m just all out there. There are no secrets,” Gore can be heard saying in the episode 

“You can show up how you want to show up and people are going to perceive you whatever they want to perceive you to be  — just be true to yourself.”