Steve July 29, 2020
from-survival-to-trans-activism-in-baltimore
Ruby Corado (left) and Iya Dammons at an event in Baltimore. (Washington Blade photo by Philip Van Slooten)

On a humid Friday afternoon on Charles Street earlier this month, Baltimore Safe Haven founder Iya Dammons sweated alongside local artist Jaime Grace-Alexander and scores of volunteers to paint the words “Black Trans Lives Matter.”

For a Black trans woman who once worked in this area
to survive, and who has seen too many others die here, it was a labor of love.

“We’re in a state
of emergency,” said Dammons,
whose organization provides food, shelter and other services to the transgender
community. “We marked in stone that our lives matter along with
the Black Lives Matter movement.”

Dammons’s group
previously held a Black Trans Lives Matter rally and march in Baltimore on June
2, during the early wave of protests following George Floyd’s death. The group’s protest was featured on the June cover of Time
magazine.

“I am human,”
Dammons said
after mentioning a trans girl who was shot in the face last week but survived. “This is where
I was born. This is where I live. Am I an equal in the city I was born in?”

D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser on June 5 commissioned
artists to paint Black Lives Matter a few blocks north of the White House on
16th Street, and more than a dozen other cities have installed their own murals
to support anti-racism protests across the country.

For Dammons, Baltimore’s Black Trans Lives Matter mural is a memorial in an
area of Charles Village where trans women gather.

“Hot spots for trans women of color are Eastern Avenue
and Charles Street,”
she explained.
“They come from
one stroll to the next and do survival sex work. Both areas have had girls
killed.”

Dammons’
leadership on
this issue comes from experience performing sex work in both Baltimore and D.C.
to survive. In a recent interview, she said the mural and the protests are
personal for her as a Black trans woman who has lost too many friends like Ashanti
Carmon, who was murdered in Fairmount Heights last year.

“I stopped tricking and hung up my boots when she was
killed,” Dammons said. “I had to
understand where I was going and what I wanted to do. Around that time I
created Baltimore Safe Haven, right there along Eastern Avenue. I didn’t have a choice.”

Dammons used money saved from her work as well as
lessons from her mentor, Ruby Corado of D.C.’s Casa Ruby, to found Baltimore Safe Haven, which
provides many of the services she wished she had when she was surviving on the
streets.

“Name change, legal advice, AIDS testing, pharmacy —
those kinds of things that can give people a sustainable future,” she said. “A shower, clothes … things that get you out of
survival mode.”

She is particularly worried about trans youth who are
put out of their homes once they start expressing their authentic selves.

The mural is located in an area where Bailey Reeves, a
Black trans woman and rising high school senior, was murdered last year. The
tragedy of losses such as Reeves is why Dammons spends most of her time working
for her nonprofit with little free time of her own.

“A typical work day for me starts at 5 a.m.,” she said in an email. “Where I immediately start checking the news, emails and reports received from our transitional housing staff.”

Dammons said the height of the coronavirus pandemic in March and April were especially hard because while others were under lockdown orders, she was out helping trans people who were still living on the streets, partially due to less than affirming shelter situations.

“We were in the streets masked up trying to help our
people who didn’t have a place
to stay,” she said. “We were boots
on the ground when there was no one out there and it was still deadly. We gave
money support, we gave out hotel rooms along with other organizations. We gave
out hair and hair cuts. We served our population because who was going to be
there for us? Everyone closed their doors when it was either them or us.”

Dammons said the work is important and saves lives,
but too often Black trans voices are lost in the current Black Lives Matters
discussion. Others in the community agree.

“If you want to say that all lives matter, that is an
ideal that we have not reached yet,”
said Diamond
Stylz, executive director of Black Trans Women, Inc., a Dallas-based
organization. “What we are screaming for from the top of our lungs
when these things happen, what we are saying is that the ideal has not happened
yet. When the police break the community trust and their expectations — when
you breach that contract that all lives matter, you breach that trust. And that
is what is happening now.”

But there has been some backlash. Forbes reported many
Black Lives Matter murals have been defaced and repaired in many cities and
Tweety McTreason on July 1 said that a mural painted on a Manhattan street would
be “a symbol of
hate.”

The mural was completed anyway.

“Nothing that comes out of his mouth surprises me and
he has blood on his hands,”
Charley
Burton, a founding member and Virginia chapter leader of Black Trans Men
Incorporated, said of the president’s comments. “He has blood
from George Floyd and Tony McDade.”

Tony McDade was a 38-year-old Black trans man killed
by a Florida police officer on May 27.

Still, the recent anti-racism protests have shed light
on Dammons’ and others’
efforts for the trans community, and more organizations are supporting their
work.

“FreeState Justice stands in strong support and is
grateful for the work of Baltimore Safe Haven to boldly state and display for
all to see that Black Trans Lives Matter,” said FreeState Justice Development Director Eli
Washington. “Recent racial violence has once again brought to light
the harsh reality of how far we are from equity and justice for the Black community.”

“In recognition of this plight, it is important to lift
up the voices of all those within the Black community and this mural does just
that,” he said.

Trans Maryland Finance Director Andy Ross identifies
as a Black trans man and he stated his organization’s support of and solidarity
with Baltimore Safe Haven.

“The Black Trans Lives Matter mural is important for
our community because it is a visual representation of our voices,” he said. “Oftentimes our voices go unheard during times of
injustice. To me, the mural reflects our resilience and strength. It reflects
that we are here, proud and we aren’t going
anywhere.”

Dammons sees her journey from survival sex work to
executive director as an example of that resiliency, but emphasizes her
organization needs financial support to continue its work and save lives.

“We need support for the work that we do,” she said. “Partner with us; don’t overlook us.”

Activists painted ‘Black Trans Lives Matter’ on Charles Street. (Photo courtesy Baltimore Safe Haven)

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