Justice and joy: Black, trans-led nonprofit uses joy to fight hate in Alabama

In the same city where state lawmakers passed the strictest trans healthcare ban in the nation, members of a Black, trans and queer-led organization cracked jokes, blew bubbles, played cards, found compassion and community during a recent sunny Sunday afternoon at Shakespeare Park in Montgomery, Ala.

The festivities were a part of The Knights and Orchids Society’s Park Day event. Quentin Bell, a Black trans man raised in the civil rights hotbed of Selma, Ala., founded the grassroots nonprofit commonly known as TKO in 2012 to empower and support Black trans and nonbinary people who were lacking resources in rural Alabama.

TKO tackles homelessness, food insecurity, non-affirming healthcare services and other issues by connecting Black LGBTQ+ people to resources such as support groups, a community garden and housing assistance. In 2017, TKO became the first Black and trans-led AIDS Service Organization and STD/STI clinic in the state. TKO clients don’t pay a dime to tap into the nonprofit’s network of gender-affirming doctors. Therapy services are also free.

Events like TKO’s Park Day amplify Black trans joy at a time when politicians are pushing a tsunami of bills restricting the access trans youth have to healthcare, athletic teams and bathrooms. Park Day took place two days after a federal judge blocked a portion of the Alabama law that would make it a felony for providers to prescribe puberty blockers and hormones to minors.

DaQuon showed up to the event in a shirt with the phrase “use your rights” in colorful letters. Accessorized in gold hoop earrings and dark shades, DaQuon fashioned a Pride Flag into a cape. With the colors of the rainbow flowing behind, they talked about TKO’s empowering and nurturing environments giving them space to express themselves freely as a gender-nonconforming teen who is pronoun indifferent, meaning DaQuon accepts all pronouns. They joined TKO after attending the nonprofit’s Historic Selma Black Pride event in June. Ever since, TKO has consistently shown them the possibility of Black trans joy even in state where their existence is being debated.

“There is strength, there is power and there is joy within Alabama. You just have to find your community. And you’ll know when you find your community,” DaQuon said. “When I went to Pride, I literally walked inside the room and I could feel the energy. It was just love.”

TKO is intentional in creating that energy. Smoke swirled through the air as TC Caldwell, TKO’s community engagement director, saged the area as Park Day began. They wanted to ensure no negative energies got in the way of TKO’s second Park Day. Last year’s event was disrupted by people who harassed the gathering, accusing TKO of forcing LGBTQ+ life and culture onto children. During a work retreat at a Montgomery hotel in December, a hotel guest misgendered, shouted transphobic slurs and threatened the life of a TKO employee. TKO’s Youth Ambassadors, the nonprofit’s support group for LGBTQ+ youth, also attended the work retreat and saw the harassment. One of the teens expressed to Caldwell their interest in transitioning, but they feared coming out as Black and trans would lead to violent moments similar to what they witnessed at the hotel.

The work to create resources and supportive spaces for Black trans and nonbinary people can be mentally taxing and spiritually heavy. But Black trans joy helps fuel liberation work.

“So this year, we wanted to be intentional,” Caldwell said during Park Day. “We wanted to make sure we reached out to as many of our folks who need this as possible because joy – as a discipline – has honestly been my saving grace. Despite what it looks like, and how ugly it gets, we still need joy and hope.”

This year’s Park Day was free from demonstrators and full of laughing, smiling young people playing volleyball and Cards Against Humanity. Children frolicked in the sun as they competed in foot races, played with bowling pins and gave out hugs. Caldwell said the goal of Park Day is to make space for Black and brown LGBTQ+ folks to find whatever they need to sustain themselves – be it receiving a warm welcome, partaking in the abundance of snacks and food, or just having a place where trans youth can just be kids and have fun.

Park Day isn’t TKO’s only example of Black trans joy. TKO’s Youth Ambassadors find poetic healing through their open mic events. The nonprofit’s cultural trips help broaden the youth’s horizons as they attend art crawls and art exhibits in other cities.

Caldwell stressed how Black trans joy can shift the narrative of what is in store for Black trans life. Transphobia and death dominate media coverage. While the epidemic of violence against Black trans women should be addressed, it’s not the only trajectory of Black trans and nonbinary life. Bell was Caldwell’s first example of a Black trans person thriving, and they want trans youth to know their futures are bright.

“We create what we want to see. So we’re changing that narrative so kids can see that there’s something beyond Black trans trauma,” Caldwell said. “Black joy saved my life. I didn’t know I could have this on the other side. Seeing somebody live and have joy and to know that there are more and more kids coming out because they can see themselves and see other people – that’s power. It’s enough.”

DaQuon said TKO has helped them gain more financial stability. After joining Youth Ambassadors, they were hired as a peer navigator in February. Now, DaQuon has more funds rolling in to support themselves and their dreams. Their clothing brand, Black Culture Luxe, is already selling jewelry, scrunchies and handmade velvet and satin bonnets. The purpose of DaQuon’s business is an extension of TKO’s values, but in fashion: to empower others by creating a space to be unapologetically Black and gender non-conforming.

“I really wanted to create something that’s for us and by us because a lot of the time in mainstream culture, we are the blueprint, but the people who get showcased are the copiers,” he said. “So I want to create something where it’s just like, you know, this is made by us to empower us.”

This is just the foundation of DaQuon’s legacy. The 19-year-old wants to be an entrepreneur and mogul who owns multiple homes in cities like Atlanta, New York and Los Angeles. DaQuon doesn’t see a future for themselves in Alabama, but not because of the anti-trans laws, they said. It’s just part of a typical teenager’s dream to build a life for themselves outside their home state.

But there’s one Southern lesson DaQuon said they will always take with them no matter where they live: Family isn’t always blood. It’s chosen. It’s a lesson TKO has taught DaQuon as the nonprofit makes sure they have enough groceries, gas money and nurturing Black love every day.

“Black LGBTQ joy is just being yourself freely and not giving a fuck about what other people have to say about you living your own life,” DaQuon said. “We deal with so much emotional abuse from our families, ‘church hurt’ and things like that. But when you actually have representation of somebody living their life freely, being successful and just having, you know, a normal life for themselves, that’s empowering.”

Trans activist Zuriel Hooks’ future in Alabama looks like empowering her platform of more than 13,600 Tik Tok followers. When it comes to social media, it’s about more than just fun and Hooks’ love of all things pink. It’s also a space to share her experience as a trans woman and her content shows she isn’t scared of cyberbullies.

“Dear transphobes: trans people are here to stay. So get over yourself,” Hooks said in this TikTok.

In another TikTok, Hooks posted an uplifting message: “The features of trans women are just sooooo beautiful. We are really art pieces.”

Hooks didn’t have any huge plans for Park Day. She just wanted to spend family time with a group of people who showed her what genuine love looks like. She wishes all LGBTQ+ youth could experience a love that allows them to be themselves without limits.

“I really want people who are queer in Alabama to know that you’re OK. You are heard and you’re most definitely valid,” she told Reckon. “I’m really just keen on hearing someone’s story, because you deserve to be heard.”

Hooks was referred to TKO while searching for services for herself when she was 17. Unlike in other spaces, Hooks said she didn’t need to visit a therapist for TKO to acknowledge that she had gender dysphoria, which is the emotional distress that occurs when one’s gender identity doesn’t match their body. TKO rushed to connect Hooks with services like gender-affirming medical care, transportation, housing and most importantly an affirming community.

Now 19, her journey is coming full circle. As a peer navigator, Hooks connects other Black LGBTQ+ people to the same TKO services that saved her as a teen.

“I really enjoy the love TKO gives me. It’s authentic and it’s something I haven’t experienced before,” Hooks said. “They just affirmed my identity that really just helped me find a lot of joy in my life.”

Caldwell smiles at DaQuon and Hooks’ confidence and growth. They said they love watching Black youth stand in their power.

“These kids know who they are and what they want,” Caldwell said. “We want to create a better world for our youth, right? Allowing them to lead and have a say in what that looks like is showing them that they matter and have power.”

Black trans joy doesn’t mean keeping Black LGBTQ youth in the dark about the harm orbiting them. They are aware of Black trauma, but they are also taught not to feel powerless. Caldwell knows there are other Black queer and trans youth who want to join the fight for trans liberation. TKO wants to raise up the next generation of political warriors by creating a cohort of youth activists by the fall. The cohort will receive the language and tools to fight for trans rights in the political arena, but rest, self-care and mental health days will be prioritized, Caldwell stressed.

“We’re always like, ‘Rah, rah, rah! Let’s go protest!’ And a lot of these kids are exhausted before they even hit 30,” Caldwell said. “So teaching them to prioritize rest. Yes, be angry. Yes, protest. Yes, fight back, but make sure that you don’t lose yourself in this.”

Hooks juggled sadness and anger when lawmakers passed the trans healthcare ban for minors. She soothed those emotions by doing facials, playing with makeup and trying out different hairstyles. There was a bonus to this ritual: by engaging in self-care, Hooks was also deepening her journey of exploring her identity as a trans woman.

“I feel like that’s another part of my womanhood,” she said. “It’s like this theme of beauty and self-care and just really nurturing myself because I love to be replenished.”

Caldwell felt a little bit of relief when they heard about the injunction on Alabama’s trans healthcare ban for minors. Yes, the judge’s decision to pause Alabama’s criminalization of gender-affirming care is good. But Caldwell has to remain focused because the need for services is so great. TKO’s work wasn’t going to stop whether or not the health care ban was in place.

“The judge stopping (the ban), you know, I don’t depend on that for my peace. Because I feel like the opposition has a game plan that’s so strong that until we get our shit together, they’re going to keep coming back and coming back and coming back,” Caldwell said. “These are temporary wins. These are temporary holds. We still have lives to save. We still have children to protect. We still have people to go out to get.”

Trans health care bans – or even the court’s decision to block those bans – don’t stop the violence of racism and transphobia affecting Black trans and queer people. It makes the community more vulnerable to poverty, homelessness and discrimination and the like, making access to services and support more dire and strengthening TKO’s resolve.

“A lot of people love to say ‘Y’all means all,’ but to who?” Caldwell said. “Because when you say that, it erases the fact that Black trans women make less than $10,000 a year – if they can find a job. It erases the fact that Black queer and trans children are more than likely to stay ‘in’ and not come out because of safety issues and housing. It does not stop the obstacles and hurdles we have. If anything, it just means another layer.”

Caldwell has heard the calls for LGBTQ people to pack up and leave Alabama. That will never be an option for TKO. The saying, “We keep us safe,” is a constant affirmation for the organization. They need to stay here for those who can’t afford to leave. They deserve hope, too, Caldwell said.

“Leave and go where?” Caldwell said. “This is my home. I’m not finna keep letting white conservatives feel like they can put fear in our spirits. It’s not going to keep happening that way. Me standing here and pushing back on them is an act of resistance. The South got something to say. And we’re saying it.”

Jonece Starr Dunigan

Jonece Starr Dunigan | jdunigan@reckonmedia.com

Jonece Starr Dunigan (She/her/hers) is a journalist who gives the microphone to communities that are often ignored by mainstream media. Guided by empathy, her reporting centers the stories, movement work and voices of Black, brown and queer people. Her writing strives to amplify and empower readers instead of exploiting them of their traumas.

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