Performances and Ball categories bring together participants and community members
By: Lauren Walleser/TRT Reporter—
LifeSkills—an empowerment-focused research study for young transgender women ages 16-29, offered through The Fenway Institute at Fenway Health—held their first Anniversary Ball at Villa Victoria in Boston Friday, June 21 to celebrate the accomplishments of the project thus far and allow participants and community members to perform and compete in the categories throughout the night.
“This year’s ball is a celebration of the first year of LifeSkills,” said Rashal Nel*, research assistant on the LifeSkills project and part of the Epidemiology Team at The Fenway Institute at Fenway Health. “We want to thank our community allies and partners for supporting us and collaborating to empower young trans women in the greater Boston area.”
The evening included an overview of what the project offers and how it has been successful over the past year, performances, and several Ball categories including “OTA (Open to All) Beginner’s Runway: The Shades Have It,” “OTA Beginner’s Performance,” “OTA Realness: Fenway Healthcare Realness,” “OTA Best Dressed: A Day at the Thrift Store,” “OTA Runway: Summer Fashion Look,” “Old Way: Paris is Burning,” and “OTA Sex Siren: Sexy and Safe.” Princess Athena Kahn hosted the Ball. BAGLY (Boston Alliance for Gay Lesbian Bisexual Transgender Youth) was also on site to offer free HIV testing and counseling all night long.
“LifeSkills works with the House and Ball community, and this event supports, gives back, and celebrates this community,” said Nel. “The ball is also a celebration of LGBTQ gender diversity and a safe space that respects people’s diverse gender expressions and identities. One challenge with outreach is that there aren’t as many spaces for young trans women to hang out, so we decided to create a space for our community to not just raise awareness about the study, but also to give back to the community. We want people to have a fun time. This event is a good way for us to connect with people we know, like our participants and friends and other community-based organizations and partners. It is also a good way to meet new people. Through this event, we hope people will have a better understanding of the LGBTQ community, especially trans women. Most importantly, we hope people come together and feel supported in their community and in who they are.”
According to Nel, the purpose of LifeSkills is to explore whether a group-based prevention program delivered by trans women will decrease risk for HIV and STI transmission within the trans community.
“Transgender women are disproportionately affected by HIV infection—more than 1 in 4 of our trans sisters have HIV,” said Nel. “By teaching sexual safety tips and sharing experiences of our lives throughout our LifeSkills sessions, the curriculum focuses on a lot of great topics like sexual safety, how to be assertive during sexual activities, communication skills, obtaining housing, healthcare and employment, and pride in our communities. We help the girls gain more knowledge about HIV and build the life skills needed to reduce HIV risk behaviors and stop the spread of HIV.”
Sasha Sashay Fierce, a LifeSkills participant and performer at the event, explained why she joined the project and what she has learned from facilitators and fellow trans women.
“I recently just came out to myself as trans, so I figured it would be a good way to get into the community, learn from people that have been identifying as trans their whole life and know where I’m coming from so they can give me help, and meet people that are just starting in the process as well,” Sashay Fierce said. “No matter how I look, I can still be comfortable being how I feel comfortable identifying.”
Bella, another Life Skills participant and performer, also shared how the project has helped her.
“I’ve definitely learned and experienced a lot throughout the terms in LifeSkills, so I’m definitely broadening my references to not just LifeSkills but other trans communities and activities,” Bella said.
Rash discussed some of the other feedback and success stories she has heard from LifeSkills participants.
“[Some participants] were finally were able to change their name after we did our name change workshop,” said Nel. “Many have got on hormones and are now connected to healthcare. More employers are hiring trans girls and using their preferred names in the workplace and also families are becoming more accepting of their gender identity. It’s truly an amazing feeling to advocate for these young trans girls–they really bring me joy. It’s nice to see a big change and help build hope within the trans community!”
Nel explained that trans women have unique prevention needs when it comes to HIV, and that although there are many programs that have been developed to prevent HIV infection among young people, none have been developed or proven to work for young trans women.
“Trans girls are often categorized as being MSM [men who have sex with men], and not even categorized as women,” Nel said. “There are not a lot of options or programs in the Massachusetts area that are specific for trans women. We believe it is important for trans girls to reach out and help other trans girls in HIV prevention programming.”
The LifeSkills Project is funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and is recruiting participants in Boston and Chicago. For more information on LifeSkills, visit www.projectlifeskills.org.
NOTE: *Nel is a pseudonym used to protect the identity of the interviewee, something that was requested via a phone call to TRT on April, 13, 2016.