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As Transgender-rights Organization Expands Into Rural Maine, Its Members Are Priced Out Of Portland

Carolyn Kaster
The National Center for Transgender Equality and the Human Rights Campaign gather in front of the White House on Oct. 22, 2018

MaineTransNet has hosted an annual Trans Day of Remembrance vigil in Monument Square for 10 years for those who have been victims of anti-transgender violence. But this year is different.

As the nationally recognized observance — slated for Wednesday — approached, the LGBTQ rights organization announced last week that it didn’t have the resources to host an event.

“We’ve seen a more than two-thirds decline in attendance … coupled with a decline in volunteer sign-ups to help plan and put on the event,” directors Ambureen Rana and Winona Christnot-Peters said in a statement.

To Portland’s LGBTQ community, the statement registered as a call for help. The management of Blackstones, a local LGBTQ bar, quickly bumped its scheduled trivia night to host an observance in its West End location.

The scenario could be a canary in the coal mine for MaineTransNet, which is in a precarious position. The group reports more stability and donor support than ever and is meeting its goal of expanding support networks into rural Maine. But at the same time, it is seeing its membership getting priced out of Maine’s largest city.

“Just five years ago, our programming included just three support groups in Portland and Bangor total,” Executive Director Quinn Gormley said. “Now, we have more than 30 support groups monthly that stretch from Kittery to Presque Isle, and Farmington to Machias.”

This year, the organization launched support groups in Aroostook, Franklin and Washington counties.

Gormley said that less participation could be a sign of greater mainstream acceptance of the trans community in urban settings. But greater socio-economic hardship make the visibility gains difficult to sustain there.

“Stagnating wages in the service industry, high rents and lost housing stock puts substantial financial strain on our community,” Gormley said. “Many of our membership and leadership have been priced out of the city. Many who remain are too busy making ends meet to have time to sign up to volunteer.”

Gormley said that she continues to see elevated rates of anti-transgender violence, systemic discrimination and transphobia, making the need for a Day of Remembrance a necessity.

Among Maine-based respondents to a recent survey, 36 percent of transgender or gender nonconforming people reported experiencing homelessness at some point in their lives, and 25 percent said they are living in poverty. The survey was conducted in 2015 by the National Center for Transgender Equality.

The Human Rights Campaign has tracked at least 22 nationwide transgender or gender nonconforming people who were killed by violent means in 2019.

“Transphobia, sexism, racism and sex worker stigma combine in a way that leaves, in the U.S., primarily black and indigenous transgender women at risk for violence,” Gormley said.

Portland’s vigil has typically taken place in Monument Square, though occasionally it has been held on the steps of City Hall. Currie said that Wednesday’s event at Blackstones, scheduled for 7 p.m., is an observance, but shouldn’t be considered a substitute for a public vigil, which he hopes will return.

“The trans community doesn’t feel very supported by city officials,” said Carl Currie, manager of Blackstones, who approached MaineTransNet about collaboration more than a month ago.

“The event is not for trans people only, it’s to show solidarity for the entire community,” Currie said.

MaineTransNet is a nonprofit advocacy organization formed in 2005 to support Maine’s transgender community and its allies.

Gormley said the group will still host a community dinner and remembrance ceremony in Bangor, and is offering support to groups holding observances in Augusta, Ellsworth, Lewiston and Waterville. The group hopes to establish programs in Maine’s 16 counties by the end of 2020.

Transgender Day of Remembrance is an annual observance that honors the memory of transgender people, or people whose gender identity does not match the sex they were assigned at birth, who have been victims of anti-transgender violence. It was first observed in 1999 by activist Gwendolyn Ann Smith.

This story appears through a media sharing agreement with Bangor Daily News.