Grand Rapids Trans Foundation launches, works to support low-income students

Just several months old, the Grand Rapids Trans Foundation already has big dreams: Provide scholarships for students and make the city a better, more inclusive place for the transgender community.
Members of a new Grand Rapids-based nonprofit are standing up to say: It is not OK that transgender residents experience unemployment at twice the rate of the general population. It is not OK that transgender individuals are four times more likely than the general population to have an annual income of $10,000 or less. It is not OK that someone who is transgender often faces homelessness, violence, harassment, depression, and more.

Members of the Grand Rapids Trans Foundation, which officially launched this past December, are hoping to address these statistics here in West Michigan by offering scholarships to low-income transgender students -- and by generally creating a region and city that are understanding and supportive of the trans community.

“We want to create a scholarship to take away one barrier to being successful, to finding a good job, to being financially stable,” says Simon Kittok, the executive director and treasurer of the new organization.

The foundation will soon give out its first scholarship worth $2,500, the funding for which is coming from the nonprofit’s fundraising efforts and donors. GRTF members are still accepting donations for the scholarship, which you can find out more about here. Through this scholarship, transgender students (including individuals who are agender, bigender, genderqueer, transsexual, and/or any other non-cis gender identity) can apply for the the award to pay for education-related expenses to pursue a degree or certificate from an accredited college, university or technical/vocational program in Kent County. The deadline to apply for the scholarship is July 8, and the award criteria will be based on a personal essay, financial need and academic goals. To find out more about applying, visit the foundation’s website here, or email Kittok at [email protected].

The group’s emergence in West Michigan comes at a crucial time for the public to support transgender residents, particularly in the wake of the mass shooting that killed 49 people at Pulse, a nightclub in Orlando, Fla. Many of those who died were gay, lesbian or transgender. Violence against the trans community has risen nationally in recent years, with the most recent statistics from the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Program reporting that attacks against transgender individuals rose 13 percent in 2014, an increase that coincides with more than 100 anti-LGBT bills being proposed in states across the country -- including Michigan legislation that would ban transgender individuals from using the bathroom that matches their gender identity.

In 2015, there were more transgender homicide victims than any other year recorded, and, faced with extreme discrimination, people who are transgender battle high rates of depression. Forty-one percent of individuals who are transgender have attempted suicide at some point in their life -- nine times the national average. Sexual assault was the biggest cause of the attempted suicide, followed by physical assault, harassment in school, and job loss due to bias.

“Transgender and gender non-conforming people face injustice at every turn: in childhood homes, in school systems that promise to shelter and education, in harsh and exclusionary workplaces, at the grocery store, the hotel front desk, in doctors’ offices and emergency rooms, before judges and at the hands of landlords, police officers, health care workers, and other service providers,” write the authors of “Injustice at Every Turn: A Report of the National Transgender Discrimination Survey."

People who are transgender often live in extreme poverty, with the same survey reporting that a trans individual is, compared to the general population, nearly four times more likely to have an annual household income of less than $10,000 -- something which Kittok and Felicia Staring, president of the Grand Rapids Trans Foundation, say they, along with GRTF Secretary  Misha VanVaerenbergh, aim to change with their scholarship. In 32 states across the U.S., transgender individuals can still legally be fired, or denied employment, because of their identity, leaving individuals far more financially insecure than those in the general population. (Michigan has no state legislation protecting trans residents in the workplace, but Grand Rapids and East Grand Rapids have passed non-discrimination ordinances that covers sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression in both housing and employment.)

The nonprofit’s members recognize there’s much work that needs to be done to ensure that trans residents are, finally, given the respect they deserve -- and that work entails operating at numerous levels, from encouraging people to take a look at their own biases to changing deep-rooted, structural injustice, from the workplace to schools and religious institutions.

“I feel a big thing is vocal support, for people to be a good, visible ally for trans folks -- shutting down transphobic comments, transphobic joking,” Kittok says. “Until people start verbally standing up for folks, nothing’s going to change.”

Staring emphasizes this as well.

“Be vocally supportive of the trans community,” she says. “Say we respect and support you.”

Because of the lack of resources trans residents often face, Kittok and Staring note it’s particularly important for people to not only verbally stand up for their trans peers, but to lend a hand.

“You can give people rides, help them get better employment, help them find good healthcare,” Kittok says.

“It’s important to donate or volunteer time with groups that help trans folks,” Staring adds. “There are many established organizations where you can volunteer.”

Plus, trainings to help businesses become more trans-friendly are crucial, the nonprofit members say.

“We in Grand Rapids can collectively support the trans community through trainings in businesses,” Kittok says. “Businesses are finding out the hard way that they need to be prepared to have a trans employee, and that has to change.”

Despite the significant challenges facing the trans community, in Grand Rapid and across the country, Kittok and Staring say there’s plenty of reason to believe change is happening -- it just means taking action into your own hands.

“Our society is being called out more on these harmful views, such as with the bathroom bill,” Staring says. “The backlash against the bills has been big.”

Kittok also notes that the LGBT community is also being far more supportive of their trans peers.

“There has been a lot more visibility and a lot more organizational and structural support [for trans residents] that I’ve seen in the last few years,” Kittok says. “Historically, the LGBT community has often been more the LGB community, and the T has been kind of left behind and not as embraced. Organizations are starting to realize that’s not the way it should be.”

And it’s not just LGBT groups that are embracing individuals who are transgender -- change is happening across the area, with Kittok noting that Grand Rapids Community College, for example, passed a transgender policy allowing students and staff to use the bathroom or locker room of the gender with which they identify. Grand Valley State University too has landed praise for being inclusive and was recently named one of the top 50 colleges or universities in the country when it comes to being LGBT-friendly.

To learn more about resources for transgender residents, and ways to support our trans community, you can check out the following local organizations:

Milton Ford LGBT Resource Center at GVSU
Our LGBT Fund
The Grand Rapids Trans Foundation
The Grand Rapids Pride Center
Transgender Education Collaboration
Transgender Michigan
Transgender Resource, Education, and Enrichment Services
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