Clad in false eyelashes and letting out her inviting laugh, Brianna Balenciaga’s care-free nature hides a history of pain and hardship.
“You wanna be a woman, but nobody wants to help us feel like a woman,” said who? Womanhood, evidently, is not something Balenciaga takes for granted. It’s something that she has to work for.
Balenciaga is the Chief Financial Officer of No Justice No Pride (NJNP), a Washington, D.C. based organization advocating for transgender women of color and LGBTQ+ youth. NJNP’s mission is to end LGBTQ+ movements’ “complicity with systems of oppression that further marginalize Trans and Queer individuals.”
To combat complicity in leaving out transgender women of color, including those who are sex workers, NJNP helps provide housing, job assistance and more to its clients since its establishment in 2017.
Before Balenciaga was No Justice No Pride’s CFO, she was a client herself. Balenciaga moved from Brooklyn to the Washington after coming out as transgender, where she found herself houseless.
“I realized that trans women are the low part of the food chain in D.C. People don’t really care about them and they don’t really see us improving. They just see us doing what they see in the movies,” said Balenciaga, referring to sex work.
Balenciaga was provided with housing through NJNP and started working in the organization’s office administration, helping out with small tasks. Eventually, she worked her way up to CFO.
Balenciaga is a success story. Many other transgender women of color, particularly Black transgender women, are not as fortunate.
Last year, 2021, was the deadliest year for transgender and gender non-conforming people in the United States. According to the Human Rights Campaign, over 50 people were killed. The report states that the death tolls are likely much higher, as many bodies are misgendered by law enforcement.
Since 2013, at least 84% of those killed were people of color, 85% were trans women and 66% were Black trans women.
“Walking in a low income community you could be potentially killed or kidnapped because of who you are and that terrifies me. If anything happens to them, I can still be their voice,” said Balenciaga.
Violence against transgender women of color also includes sexual assault, physical assault and more. Unfortunately, many trans women experience this type of violence while working as sex workers.
According to the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey, 19% of all trans people, and 47% of Black trans women, have engaged in sex work, which can often be dangerous, not only with the risk of violence, but with the risk of medical conditions as well, such as sexually transmitted diseases like HIV/AIDS.
“We shouldn’t have to do sex work to survive,” said Balenciaga.
Sex work as a means of survival is something NJNP tries to mitigate by helping clients attain jobs through connections, housing and assistance with the job process.
Still, transgender people and LGBTQ+ people often face issues with discrimination in obtaining a job, and with treatment at a job they are given.
“We make sure that we advocate for them, because most of these jobs are harder on trans women and any LGBTQ+ person that’s having problems with their jobs,” said Balenciaga.
Fifty percent of transgender indivudals in a survey by McKinsey disagreed that they were able to be their full selves during the application process compared to only 33% of cisgender people who disagreed.
NJNP tries to change the employment industry through their advocacy.
“It’s about trying to make them realize that they have a purpose. It’s not just about sex work anymore. If we can’t get jobs, that’s called a hate crime, that’s called discriminating,” said who?
Financial insecurity and violence are not the only hardships that transgender individuals face.
“Trans people or LGBTQ+ people go through traumatic experiences and it often gets pushed on us, and we often have to be therapists and mitigate what they’re going through,” said Balenciaga of her role.
These types of concerns stretching from employment to mental health are known as “minority stressors.” According to the Lavender Lab, which researches this in LGBTQ+ groups, these stressors consist of “real or perceived discrimination, harassment, violence, microaggressions, and internalized stigma.”
Carolyn Chen, a research assistant for the lab stated that this research is important because “a lot of LGBT research goes toward HIV research, which I’m not saying isn’t important, but the LGBT community has higher rates of depression and suicidality.”
In a study that Dr. Mehrish, the founder of the Lavender Lab did, the researchers found that “queer youth experienced a lot of minority and identity based stressors in their day to day. We found that these stressors were pervasive and negatively impacted their mental health from day to day.”
Balenciaga also attributes her own experience with trauma to part of why she is so passionate about NJNP.
“I had to realize that I got raped and I had to realize that no one’s gonna help me the way that I helped myself,” said Balenciaga.
Balenciaga’s own isolating experience with sexual assault contributed to her passion for helping other transgender women, so others would not have to experience the loneliness that she endured.
This type of trauma often goes overlooked, but work like the Lavender Lab does can “help bring legitimacy to people’s experiences. The research that we can do can make an impact in showing queer youth and adults that they are not alone in what they experience,” according to Dr. Ethan Mereish, Founder of the Lavender Lab.
“Coming together to approach different audiences in different ways with more research and more findings behind it is important,” said Zoe Smith, another research assistant for the Lavender Lab, solidifying the importance of helping community organizations through research.
In her work in NJNP, Balenciaga is part of creating a community. “We talk about the most intimate things about what we went through. We try within ourselves to find an answer or a why.”
According to Balenciaga, the community that NJNP and the LGBTQ+ community has is unmatched.
“We’re different because our people know each other from other spaces, they become brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers. That’s what trans women and LGBTQ+ youth do. We’re all a big family at the end of the day.”