Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal
Hugs are a regular feature at the Transgender Resource Center of New Mexico.
Normally, the center is filled with lots of talking, laughing and lots of hugs. For many, including Dante Olivas, it’s that familial feeling of the center that’s so special, a feeling that’s hard to recreate in a pandemic.
“It’s been really hard,” Olivas said. “That bit of human connection; a lot of our folks don’t have a family that supportive.”
The resource center is one of only a few like it in the nation – a place run for trans people by trans people – said Michael Trimm, director of operations.
But the COVID-19 pandemic has forced those at the center to rethink how they provide services for transgender people in the state. In the trans community, access to support groups and other services isn’t just helpful – it can be lifesaving.
Adrien Lawyer, the resource center’s co-founder and executive director, said the center is now open only three days a week instead of five. The center is now less about socializing and more focused on making sure people have what they need to survive.
“It’s much more now about having to come and tell us what you need, we give it to you and then you have to go,” Lawyer said. “It’s not the kind of home environment that we’ve spent all this time cultivating.”
The drop-in center has moved services such as free food, syringe exchanges and a clothing exchange to the parking lot when the weather allows.
Other services, such as on-site laundry and a computer lab, have become much more limited. A doctor used to periodically visit the center, but COVID-19 forced that program to stop, which Lawyer said has been a big hit to trans people with little access to health care.
“The drop-in center really exists mainly to serve the needs of transgender women of color who are out on the streets of Albuquerque,” he said. “The loss of that is profound.”
What has been able to continue are the center’s various support groups, which are all currently being conducted by Zoom to maintain social distancing.
These groups have long been a way for members of the LGBTQ community to meet others with similar experiences and provide a safe space to express themselves. A 2019 study in the journal Transgender Health found support groups were an important addition to clinical care for trans people.
For Jeri Cheney of Santa Fe, support groups became a vital part of accepting their trans identity. A longtime gay rights activist, Cheney, 64, was worried how others in the gay and straight communities would react when coming out as non-binary in 2015.
“I was really nervous,” Cheney said. “I wasn’t even sure that all transgender people would accept me.”
Soon, though, Cheney got involved with the Santa Fe Trans, Non-Binary and Gender Non-Conforming Support Group, where people of various gender identities would gather to discuss their experiences.
“Finding that immediate support and camaraderie was really great,” Cheney said.
The switch to virtual support groups has been a difficult adjustment for some, especially some members of the center’s youth group. Youth and Families Program Manager Wyatt Day said that for some trans youths, accessing support groups on Zoom isn’t safe, especially if their parents don’t accept their identity.
Day said some members of the group no longer attend meetings.
“It’s hard to know that there are young people out there that used to be part of our regular group attendance, who are no longer able to join us because of how their homes are,” Day said.
Even for those who can attend meetings, the lack of physical spaces for trans people does have an impact. Rhyannon Brightwater, a social worker in Santa Fe, said trans people already have anxiety existing in spaces dominated by cisgender people – not being able to see other trans people can make it worse.
“I think (anxiety) might be exacerbated in our community,” she said.
But there have been some unexpected positives of virtual meetings. Day and other staff said they regularly get participants from all over the country, including Taos, Los Angeles and Colorado. Many of them live in places where resources for trans people are minimal at best.
Lawyer said the center is mulling ways to keep virtual groups available after the pandemic, to ensure more people have that access.
The center’s staff, though, still eagerly awaits the day when the center can open fully, so that trans people in the Albuquerque area have a safe space.
“We can’t hug right now, but we look forward to the day we can,” Olivas said.