TRANSCRIPT: TransLash Podcast Episode 48, ‘Trans Mutual Aid’

Imara Jones: Hey, TransLash Family. It’s me, Imara Jones. Welcome to the TransLash Podcast, a show who tells trans stories to save trans lives. One of the things that’s undeniable about the time in which we are living is that it’s one of severe economic crisis for many, driven by inflation levels that we haven’t seen in the United States since the 1980s. Which means that, for many people listening to this podcast, it’s an inflation rate that they haven’t seen at any point in their lives. And this cost of living crisis got me to thinking about another time in the economic crisis recently, in 2020, when the world stopped due to COVID-19 and the way in which our community rallied around each other to support those facing the harsh economic reality and prose by the pandemic.

Of course, mutual aid is not new to so many of the communities of which we are a part. Of course, for African Americans, it’s been true since the time of enslavement. And of course, for trans communities, it goes back to the icons that we all know like Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson for whom mutual aid was just a part of the way in which they lived. So I wanted to revisit mutual aid efforts in our community to see how they were doing right now and how they are continuing to move millions of dollars to those most in need. First, we’ll speak to artist and founder of For The Gworls, Asanni Armon, about their party-based mutual network for the Black trans community.

Asanni Armon: People who are trans know deep down who they are, and what they are, and what they need. Right? And a huge barrier to really self-actualizing is financial access. A huge barrage to self-actualizing is access to great affirmative care.

Imara: Then we’ll talk to journalist, educator, and podcast host Tuck Woodstock about the Gender Reveal mutual aid and grant program that they established.

Tuck Woodstock: Five hundred dollars is sometimes sneered at especially by non-trans people, and they’ll say like, “Oh, this is a micro grant.” And I’m like, “Look, $500 can like really change a lot of trans people’s lives. And so, if it’s not a lot to you, maybe you could give us $500 and we’ll give it to someone else for whom that means a lot of money.”

Imara: I’m now joined by artist, organizer, and party curator extraordinaire Asanni Armon. Asanni is the founder and head doll in charge — yep, you heard that right — at For The Gworls, our Brooklyn-based series of iconic mutual aid fundraising parties. Since their first rooftop party in 2019, Asanni has raised over $2.2 million to help Black trans people pay for gender affirming surgery, rent, and other medical care. Working in collaboration with artists and DJ mod, For The Gworls events also provide a safe community for the Black trans community to release, heal, and express themselves authentically.

Asanni has been featured on Them Magazine’s Now List of LGBTQ visionaries and on the 2022 Logo30. Their work at For The Gworls has even been recognized by celebs like Lady Gaga and Rihanna. Asanni is also an up-and-coming rapper, and release their debut song and music video Bucket Nekkid just last year. They founded THEM Records in 2020 to make space for black transgender artist in the music industry. Asanni, thank you so much for joining me. I’m so glad that you could be on.

Asanni: Thank you for having me. I’m super excited to be here. I’ve been a huge fan of your work for years, so I’m, I’m glad to have been asked to be a part of it.

Imara: Thank you. Thank you. You are primarily, in your kind of spirit and the way that you move through the world, an artist. And I’m wondering what led you to found For The Gworls and to devote so much of your energy to mutual aid, to fundraising in a direct way for our community.

Asanni: Yeah, really just the need. I come from a particular vantage point, having been someone who is exposed to a lot of privilege very early, right. I was one of the few low-income students at Princeton. So when I went to Princeton, I saw how much my world changed and how much money that I was seeing people had or seeing that the institution have floating around and seeing the different students had access to, and-and its really where my organizing part started. 

When I was at Princeton, me and a bunch of other Black students started the Black Justice League, which was an organization that was dedicated to fighting injustices on Princeton campus and also using our privilege as Princeton students to talk about things that were happening not just on campus, but in the world. That really started as a result of Michael Brown’s murder. And so, we were talking a lot about police brutality. We’re talking a lot about-about oppression that people are facing because they were Black, because they were trans, because they were queer, et cetera, et cetera. So, and that kind of carried that spirit of organizing and just really wanting to help people and show up for people, even post graduating.

And so, in 2019, I remember being in therapy, venting to my therapist about how I could possibly help two of my friends who were facing eviction, both of them were Black transfems. And I was like I don’t know what I’m going to do ’cause I-I live with two other people. We have no space in that apartment, so I can’t take in either one of them. I don’t know what to do. And the thought just kind of fell on me to host a party. This was right before the Fourth of July in 2019. And so, I left therapy and immediately hit one person up and asked them if they could help me with a flyer, hit up, hit up a [inaudible] the flyer. And we put out a flyer like the next day to advertise a Fourth of July rooftop party, where we will be fundraising the money for those two people. And really, the rest is history.

We probably made a little bit over half of the money we needed prior to the party even starting. And then, by the time, at the end of the party, it come around. We had fundraised well over what those two people need at least for that month, and so, I gave them the money. And while I was at the party, another good friend of mine, Demy, who’s also signed to the label now, she said that she thinks, she thought that we should try to do this party every month because it would just give space for Black trans people to meet. And also, it would give space for like people to kind of fundraise to help people in our community.

Imara: When did you realize that this was moving beyond something that you were doing for your friends and your immediate community to something that was much larger, to something that was going to raise millions of dollars and to be a nationwide effort? That this was no longer about you and your immediate community in Brooklyn, that it was much larger than that?

Asanni: Very early on. I want to say maybe in month two or month three. At first, it was just people who were, that I knew that were hitting me up for help. And then, it started being people that I didn’t know, like the word was traveling outside of New York. And I started to turn to crowdfunding as a way of helping people, too, because just hosting one party a month was not going to help as many people as we were getting. And so, that’s when I started to have to create a list of people, and this is how much this person needs, this is how much this person needs, et cetera, et cetera. That was probably around the third month.

And then, when the pandemic happened, at that time, we were kind of steadily growing. At that point, we probably had like 3,000-ish followers. March of 2020 is when I got fiscally sponsored by the first organization that I worked with. And I kind of in my head knew if this was going to be sustainable, I couldn’t really only rely on crowdfunding. I had to start trying to reach out to grant makers and figure out how I could get institutional funding to back this thing, which was its own separate beast and was really, really difficult. But then, June of 2020 is when everything took off simultaneously. Everything kind of kicked off in June with the murder of George Floyd and White Americans, in general, were starting to kind of get this idea that, “Oh, wow. Maybe the State is failing us, too. Not just these Black people, but it’s failing us, too, in the way that we’re not getting any real assistance,” et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

And so, simultaneously, the first week of Pride… I can’t remember. I think it might even been the first day. I put out an ads for Black transwoman who I was hoping to get paid for her affirmative surgery, and it just went viral everywhere. Even really within minutes, like within maybe the first hour, we just started seeing all these donations coming in very quickly. And then things have kind of just taken off ever since.

Imara: One of the things that I find really interesting is that sometimes there can be a resistance, in our community actually, towards institutionalization. And one of the things that you made a very conscious choice of was, in your own words as you just told us, that if this was going to be sustainable, it had to be something that was organized and had an infrastructure. And I want to just hear a little bit more about that choice that you made because one of the things that it’s allowed you to do is to raise so much more money and to help so many more people. So can you just talk a little bit about that?

Asanni: Yeah, of course. No, I thought it was super necessary. Again, within the third month is when we started really getting people outside of New York and I was like, “Okay. Well, this has kind of gotten bigger than me.” And I can either be like “You know what? No, I’m not doing this,” or I can be like, “Actually, someone has to step up and try to do something different.” But I chose to do the latter. But to that point, I understood very clearly like if we were making four digits from a party but people are asking me for $2,000 for rent or something like that, you know. Of course, I don’t have to meet every person’s need, but we should be trying as best as possible. And I know that there are these grant makers who were giving out 10,000, 50,000, 75,000, whatever, whatever dollars per grant, and it just made more sense to try to go the-the institutional route, to think bigger, to think grants, to think these larger grant makers who have all these millions of dollars just sitting here and pretending that they don’t know who to give it to and how to give it to anybody.

And so, what that meant for me was I didn’t necessarily want to be a nonprofit and go the nonprofit route because I know very clearly how the nonprofit industrial complex works and how it is unusually a front in order to give somebody a salary and to give somebody access to a lot of money without actually doing anything with it. So I didn’t want to go that route. I wanted to keep my organization in a place that was still trustworthy, but still be able to access this institutional funding. So what that meant for me was being fiscally sponsored by someone who was nonprofit, who I could trust to if we’re getting these donation coming in, if I’m getting these grants coming in, you take your small percentage and I still have access to the rest of this money. And I don’t have to deal with the governmental implications of it too much. You handle that part. Just give me the rest of the money and I know what to do with it as long as I could provide receipts and I could provide proof of deed, et cetera, et cetera. And so I just kind of knew early on it was important to think larger if I wanted to make something that was sustainable for people.

Imara: So if someone needs help, how do they get it from For The Gworls? 

Asanni: Yeah, at first, we were doing email, but then, it started too many emails. I couldn’t handle all that. So, um, now we have an application system. We actually just opened the application for July, and then we had to shut it down in 44 minutes because we received, I think it’s like 110 applications in 44 minutes. So we realistically cannot do more than 30 applications per cycle because 25 to 30 applications usually rounds out to a little bit over 50,000 and we try to do $50,000 a month. But that being said, we have an application on our website. We try to open it at the top of the month every month. And then depending on how quickly the applications come in, we shut it down, probably that same day usually within a few hours. But today, we had… Oh, this month, we had to do 44 minutes, so the need is growing. 

Imara: That’s wild when you think about that need. That-that’s almost more than an application a minute. And if you just think about that over time, it just underscores just how, how great the need is. How fast do you move out money? So a person applies in July and how quickly do they get it?

Asanni: Well, the answer is twofold. When we first got fiscally sponsor, when we first got this kind of institutional backing, we were doing waitlist. I thought that was the best route to go. So that would normally take about three to four months. So we probably do three application cycles a year, right? I kind of had a little bit of an epiphany that like if you hit me up three months ago about needing rent money, I can… You [inaudible]… You… The need is probably even greater than what it was three months down the line, four months down the line. So I was like, “Actually, let’s not do waitlist anymore. We’re going to open the application and we’re going to get however many applicants.”

We can, we can do up to 30. That’s usually about how many we can do with $50,000 a month, but we’ll probably take more than that because some of them will be spam. Some of them will be people who are not Black and transgender but people who just need help with stuff. And even though we can’t help you, you know, they’re still going to apply anyway. And so we take more applicants. And then, now, we have a turnaround of about a week and a half. So if I opened it July 1st, you should have the money no later than July 11, theoretically. And in that way, then we’re probably off-cycle for two weeks. And then August 1st will come around. We’ll try to open it again August 1st, anywhere between August 1st and August 3rd. And then you should have it in the- about a week and a half after that and kind of wash, rinse, and repeat.

Imara: It’s so fascinating because you’re underscoring just how important speed is with this for people in crisis, right? If you were in crisis, you can’t wait a long time for money to be able to make the impact that it needs to in order to keep you from going deeper into crisis. And like the way that you’ve set up your structure to move money fast just kind of underscores that.

Asanni: And it underscores, really also, the myth of the-the nonprofit actual complex that says like… Actually, we can’t do this work any other way, right? A lot of nonprofits love to say, “Well, we have to, you know, do it this way, this way, this way because of governmental whatever.” And sure, I guess, but it’s not true. I know that to not be true now that I am working with a, fiscally sponsored by a nonprofit. And right now, this is sponsored by a foundation, which I think is just a tad different. It doesn’t have to be super slow. It’s the way you decide to look at the work and who you decide to work with, right?

Because my tax accountants, they know how to co-payments and know how to [inaudible]. This is the payment for somebody who’s receiving assistance versus this is the payment for somebody who’s working with us, et cetera, et cetera. And absolutely, everybody who actually works on my team is paid. Of course, they are paid very well. We cover health insurance for the entire team, et cetera, et cetera. So to lie that like, “Oh, we really can only pay for salaries, and we can only do these kind of like large gestures of like raising awareness without actually doing any material work and moving material resources to people” — that they cannot do that is-is all a lie.

Imara: Yeah. I mean, I think that, you know, Mackenzie sky on a totally different scale. Underscores that point where normally, you know, you have to go through this incredibly difficult process to try to get nonprofit support, but she literally just shows up with the check and is like, “Here’s a check for X amount,” and keeps it rolling, right. Doesn’t make you go through all of that. So I think that you’re right. Money can move like-like money if people let it. That is they can move fast and, and be impactful.

One of the things that is a focus of For The Gworls is support for medical transition, which is so underfunded for trans people, particularly trans people who don’t work and formalized kind of nine to five jobs, which covers a vast part of our community. So I’m just wondering if you can just talk about how important that is and why you decided to focus on that? Like why is that a pivotal area of support beyond just like needing the money? What does that do for people? And if there is an example of someone who’s told you what the money that you’d given them has met for their transition, you know, we’d be welcome to hear that, too.

Asanni: If you do not have a job or a job that pays good salary, you usually do not have access to really good, uh, health care that not only covers your basic needs like general checkups, but things that are like affirmative surgeries, right? Simultaneously, the way that the medical industrial complex is set up right now, affirmative surgeries are seen largely as cosmetic. They’re not seen as something that is important to someone’s mental health. I would argue that really even just the idea of like a surgery being cosmetic, in and of itself, is a little bit of a, um, they could… I think, in many cases, it could be seen as disrespectful to people understanding and knowing of themselves, right? That is on separate topic, but I-I think going in over to this next part, this larger part that I think that when we decide to do this work, I knew it to be super important that people who are trans know deep down who they are, and what they are, and what they need, right?

And a huge barrier to really self-actualizing is financial access. A huge barrier to self-actualizing is access to great affirmative care. And really truthfully, when we think about the fact that like a lot of Black trans people, we can talk about Black [inaudible], but really, Black trans people are usually the last hired and the first fired when anything happens. And on other axes of marginalization, such as being trans, this has doubled and tripled and quadrupled in various ways that people can’t really, really tangibly understand unless you are a Black transgender person. And so, I just knew it to be super, super, super important that when we were doing this work with rent, that we at least try to do this work when it comes to affirmative surgery. 

And I think even in ways I can improve, like I think that we still have such long waitlist for their affirmative surgery stuff because rent payments would do upwards of $6,000. But affirmative surgeries vary so greatly between where you’re getting it done, where you live, et cetera, et cetera. You have to include travel. You have to also include money for healing time, so money for rent, food, et cetera, et cetera. So those payments can go up for $60,000-70,000 up to that point we have to. That-that wait list is really long and we’re working on trying to get it down as quickly as possible, but I just knew that it was important. If I’m talking about protecting Black trans people, showing up at Black trans people that starts with bodily autonomy as well. It starts with a deep understanding that Black trans people know who they are and know what they need. It’s just that we don’t have access to it.

Imara: Last thing I just want to hear — what the vision for yourself is moving forward and how mutual aid fits into that. I can imagine that you had this experience and that it’s not changed you in fundamental ways at the same time that you have big dreams for yourself as an artist, as now, the organizer or a record label. And how do you see all of that fitting into the vision for yourself? What’s your hope for yourself moving forward?

Asanni: That’s a great question. I mean, I’m an artist and I think that… I’ve always been wri-writing music. I think that that is so integral to who I am and my being, that it will always be a part of it. But I also understand that as a person who will be successful, if I was able to garner the success that I’ve been able to garner with wha-wha– that Rihanna and Lady Gaga, getting all these other celebrities can find out about me because of the work that I’m doing with this, the art will go just as far, if not farther. And I need to have, uh, a very strong politic about what redistribution looks like, you know, what redistribution means.

So as all this success comes in, how am I using that platform to make sure that I’m opening doors and uplifting other Black trans people and pouring into the Black trans people? How am I tangibly redistributing a lot of what I get to make sure that Black trans people are taken care of, their needs are met as best I can? Again, I’m one person. I have a team with Black trans people who are helping me do this, but we cannot help everybody. We realistically would not be able to help every person in the world, every Black trans person in the world. But with what we got and already we’ve been able to do a lot and I know with what we will get, we’ll be able to do even more and I’m just know that that’s going to always be a part of the vision. Just as being an artist is so integral to my being, who I am as a person, being someone who understands and cares deeply about my community will always be just as integral to me.

Imara: Um, I know that we can’t wait to see what all of that looks like. And I know that I speak on behalf of countless people, when I just say thank you for everything that you’ve been able to do and for your vision and for bringing your creativity to finding ways to help our community. And that’s going to also apply, of course, to everything that you’re doing artistically. And it’s going to be exciting to see. So thank you so much for joining us and for taking the time literally out of your studio recording to talk to us today about For The Gworls.

Asanni: Thank you fo-for having me. I’m so, so, so appreciative. And so, thank you for the work that you do and giving people like me and other people a-amazing, amazing, amazing platform, and just proud of you and all the amazing things that you’ve built, right. And with everything I’ve been able to see happening from afar, it’s just really beautiful to see us out here doing the things that you have been able to do. It is beautiful to witness. And I’m so proud of you and so thankful for you as well.

Imara: That was Asanni Armon, the founder and head doll in charge at For The Gworls.

I now want to welcome Tuck Woodstock to this conversation about mutual aid and our community. There’s a good chance you know Tuck from their award-winning weekly podcast, Gender Reveal, where they explore the vast diversity of trans experiences through interviews with trans, non-binary, and two-spirit people. But through the podcast, Tuck has also created the Gender Reveal grant and mutual aid programs. Together, they have distributed more than $223,000 to trans activists and artists. In addition his work on Gender Reveal, Tuck is also the co-founder of Sylveon Consulting, a trans-led organization that provides trainings and consulting services with an emphasis on trans and queer equity. They’ve been featured as a gender educator by the New York Times, The Washington Post, NYU, and Northwestern University. Tuck is also a prolific writer publishing over 500 articles for a variety of outlets, including NPR and Bon Appétit. Tuck, thank you so much for joining me.

Tuck: Thank you so much for having me. What an incredible introduction. I was like, “Really, I’ve done all of those things? When? How?”

Imara: I can relate. I can relate. I’m like who? Yeah, well, of all these things, I think the thing that I am particularly intrigued by is the Bon Appétit piece. It– Does this reveal that you might know how to cook?

Tuck: I absolutely do not know how to cook, but I was a food writer for a long time because I don’t know how to cook. And when you’re doing food writing, you get to go out and eat a lot of food, and thus, not ever have to learn how to cook. So that’s my pro tip for folks out there. [laughter]

Imara: Hmm. Hmm. Good, good tip. Good tip. This is maybe a topic that you don’t get to talk about very much given everything else that you do engage on, so I’m thrilled to connect with you specifically on this. And I’m wondering for you when, as a trans person, you came into contact with mutual aid, either as something that showed up for you as a need or something that you contributed to or even as an idea?

Tuck: I think the first time that I came into contact with the term mutual aid was during the 2020 protests. Actually, I would be a little bit before. It was during the beginning of the COVID pandemic because all of a sudden there was all of these questions about how people were going to be able to afford really basic things, like housing, medication, food, utilities. And so, Gender Reveal first spring into action around mutual aid in April of 2020. And then, when the protest came a couple months later, I learned so much more about mutual aid because here in Portland, Oregon, all of these different blocs showed up, B-L-O-C-S, that were all different ways that community were supporting each other. And most of those blocs were all organized by trans and queer people. And so, whether people needed food, medical supplies, respirators, even things like weed or computer IT help, these were all things that were being supported by community, and so I learned a lot more from those folks in the following months that was really inspiring to me.

Imara: Of course, the weed was for medicinal purposes only.

[laughter]

Tuck:  I mean, I’m in Portland, so it can really be for anything.

Imara: For-for anything. Sky is the limit. Same in New York, actually. Yeah, honestly, that’s also the same amount of time that we begin to focus on mutual aid at TransLash as well, in terms of really letting people know the ways in which they can help through these programs. And that’s something that I think a lot of people did at that time. All those mutual aid efforts actually bridged the gap between when the pandemic started and when, if you were eligible, you could get government help. It really was important.

Tuck: Mm-hmm.

Imara: So you learn about mutual aid and really were focusing on it during that period a couple of years ago. When did you decide that it would go from “This is something that’s interesting and that I personally am into saying, ‘You know what? I want to create these funds and then begin to use my platform as a way to raise money for them.'”

Tuck: You know, what’s so funny is that the grant program specifically predates the concept of mutual aid. And you know, you could argue that it’s not quite mutual aid because there is more of an application process where you’re proposing a specific project. And so the grant program goes back to the very early days of Gender Reveal in 2018, where I, at the time, was still working a job at a local magazine and then I had a Patreon set up for Gender Reveal. And once it hit five hundred dollars, which I think we can agree is not that much money, but at my mind, was the most money anyone had ever made to make a podcast, I was like, “Wow! This is so incredible that I’m getting paid to make this podcast.” And I feel a little bit guilty because at the time, again, I was making I think 34,000 a year at a magazine which again we can agree is not that much money, but to me was the most money of all time that anyone had made, and is also, I will say, the average income of the average trans person.

And so, because I had all of my basic needs met like, you know, food, medical care, the housing, I was like, “What can I do with this extra money to help people that could use it maybe more than me?”  And that’s how the grant program was started. And then once the pandemic hit, we shifted temporarily from this project-based application process to a need-based. Anyone anywhere in the world, if you need something, we’ll try to help you get it. And so after that, mutual aid project, going forward, instead of deciding between the grant program that was more project-focused and community support-focused and the mutual aid that was just, “Do you need something? We’ll try to get it to you,” we decided to do both every six months. And I would say that’s maybe not sustainable, but we’re doing it anyway because I just feel so lucky that my job is making podcast for trans people, and working with trans people, and talking about gender all of the time.

Even though I’m not making like that much money doing this, in trans world, I am an intensely, intensely privileged person. I think my like levels of privilege and like the world at large versus trans world are very different. And in trans world, I still consider myself to be like just so fine at all times. And so, because all of my basic needs are being met, I am really just trying to make sure that all of my community’s needs are being met because who cares about a podcast when you can’t afford to live, right? So just trying to make sure that everyone is being looked out for in like ways big and small. 

Imara: So can you talk to us about when you started the mutual aid piece of this? Actually, take us through both programs. What does the giving look like? What are some of the types of organizations that you’ve given the grants to? And mutual aid, how have you set up that process to work for our community?

Tuck: Sure. So in some ways, they’re very different processes, and in some ways, they’re very similar. And the ways that they’re similar is that both of them are funded entirely through donations in a variety of ways. The majority are just people PayPaling us, or Venmoing us, or Cash Apping us during one of our donation drives, which typically happen twice a year. The biggest one is during Trans Day of Visibility. We try to capitalize on that as much as possible. It’s the one day a year where people can see us, and so we try to make it the one day a year where people are also giving us money. And so, we take that money plus about 20% of our Patreon that we receive annually and put that in the grant fund and mutual aid fund as well.

But as far as how we choose recipients and give out money, it’s pretty different. So for the grant, it’s a much more elaborate process. The grant is specifically for trans people of color. And so, we have a panel of judges and the size fluctuates a little bit based on how many applications we receive. But lately, we’ve been receiving between 300 and 500 applications.

Imara: Wow.

Tuck: And so, we’ll have anywhere from seven to 11 judges. And those judges will all be paid, and those judges will all be trans people of color as well. And so, we have two rounds of judging. And the first round is larger, and we’re narrowing it down to a pool of finalists. And then the second round is picking as many finalists as we can to send typically $500 to. And again, $500 is sometimes sneered at, especially by non-trans people and they’ll say like, “Oh, this is a micro grant.” And I’m like, “Look, $500 can like really change a lot of trans people’s lives. And so, if it’s not a lot to you, maybe you could give us $500, and we’ll give it to someone else for whom that means a lot of money.”

And so these are all people who are either doing some sort of organizing work within black and brown queer and trans communities or trans communities as a whole, or these are people who are doing some sort of art that we feel like uplifts queer and trans black and brown communities. And so, we have given to organizations before but typically if their organizations they’re very, very small. They’re only a couple of people. And most often, it’s just individuals that we think are doing good work.

A lot of places are, you know, concerned with sort of 501(c)(3) status and giving and taking in ways that are going to be good for their tax benefits, and we don’t worry about that. We just pay all of the taxes on all of the money we give out, and we don’t worry about making sure that the people who are giving money to pass any sort of like official litmus test. We’ve actually been able to partner with A.B.O. Comix in the past to give grants directly to people who are currently incarcerated, and I think that’s one of like the coolest things that we’ve ever done. Just being able to get to people that really need it as opposed to people who have been able to like navigate this sort of like official nonprofit status.

And similarly for mutual aid really quickly, we’re really just setting up a really basic Google Form where people tell us just a tiny bit about who they are and what they need. And we’re just trying to… Normally, it’s like $100 and we’ll just trying to Venmo as many people $100 as we can. And I am aware that by doing that, the probability that somewhere someone has scammed us is about a hundred percent, but for me, as a person who is running all the mutual aid myself, I’m in charge of doing all of the Venmos and all of the Google Sheets, I really am trying to make the bar to receiving aid as low as humanly possible.

And I think it’s worth maybe getting scammed a couple of times to make sure that our barrier to entry is low. Because again, I want people who are homeless. I want people whose English isn’t their first language or who don’t even live in the United States. I want them to be able to get help, too. And so, if I make those barriers higher, then people who are good at navigating systems are going to be the ones that get money and those are also people that are most likely to be able to access other resources as well.

Imara: What are some of the mutual aid amounts and what typically do you give mutual aid for?

Tuck: Sure. So our first big mutual aid project in April of 2020 was a fluctuating amount where people just told us how much they needed and we tried to meet that. And I think the most recent was like $800 to a few people. But these days, we try to just keep it a set amount to make it a lot easier on me, again, the person doing all of the Venmoing. And so, we’ll try to make it just like a flat $100. And what I’ll do is I’ll set up a Google Form and I’ll keep it open until we have a few more applicants than we have amount of money raised. So if we raised $20,000, then I’ll keep it open until we have 200 and something applicants, and then I’ll close it down. And normally, there will be a few that we can obviously delete for whatever reason, and everyone else, I’ll just send money, even if it ends up being more than the money that we raised. I’ll just figure it out.

We also have a small project we did last year at called Trans Day of Staying In and having a Nice Snack, which was our way of rebranding Trans Day of Visibility to emphasize that trans people are, in fact, hyper visible in this moment. And perhaps, instead of being extra visible, we should stay in and take care of ourselves. And that was, I want to say, like a 10-dollar mutual aid payment and was just anyone who wanted that regardless of need, let us buy you a snack. And that was so fun, but it was not sustainable to send out that many 10-dollar mutual aid payments. So we move back to these 100-dollar a little bit more need-based.

And so we do have a space for people to tell us what they need the money for, and typically, the most common things are rent, medication, utility bills, car payments, gas, tuition, or other school costs. Just really, really basic things that a lot of people maybe wouldn’t think about. Some people also apply asking for money to go into their surgery funds as trans people. And at first, we weren’t paying those out and now we are. And so, if someone asks for $100 to throw in their top surgery fund, we’ll give them that during the mutual aid drives as well. But really, again, like I trust people when they say they need money, especially trans people of color. I believe that everyone deserves the money regardless of whether they’re in acute need or not. And so if you apply, as long as you’re not writing like, “I’m going to use it to buy myself a third yacht,” you know, I’m going to send it to you.

Imara: Mm-hmm. I mean, I think that the really key point here is the starting point of trust, right? That there’s a lot of trust that’s involved not only in the way that you’re raising the money, but in the way that you’re distributing the money. And a lot of people who have money off times, even if they’re inclined to give it, don’t start from the idea of trust. And I think that the trust is so important because it means that you can move money quickly. It means that you can raise money quickly. And it means that that money could have a lot of impact. And I think that for people who don’t have any experience with intense marginalization in their own life or people that they know don’t understand the way in which one small thing, if you don’t have a lot of money, can cause a series of cascading other problems that escalate quickly.

So for example, someone keeping their cellphone on for another month and $100 to do that means that they can get the call back for a job that they would have missed if that cell phone had been turned off that month. It means that they can find out and connect on housing resources and other things. And if those phone calls are missed for some reason, then that creates other problems that escalate quickly. And so understanding that the rapidity here is what’s so important and that that rapidity is driven by trust is one of the things that makes mutual aid in the way that you’re running mutual aid really different than other types of funding.

Tuck: Yeah, absolutely. And speaking of trust, when we started our Trans Day of Staying In and Having a Nice Snack project, I launched it by just going on Twitter a day or two before Trans Day of Visibility and saying, “Hey, cis people. I want to do something fun for trans people. I’m not going to say what it is yet. If you trust me, Venmo me whatever amount you want. If you don’t trust me, I totally understand.” And we got thousands and thousands and thousands, like tens of thousands of dollars. And so, you know, that was literally just people looking at my track record as a mutual aid organizer, and saying like, “I trust Tuck to give out this money.” And we’ve also had people send us thousands of dollars and be like, “I want this to go to a good cause and I don’t know what to do with it, but I trust you to be able to do it.”

Just making sure that we are in that trust, and we maintain that trust, and we’re doing good work is really, really important to me because so many people are trusting us. And I just want to make sure that we’re like, you know, trustworthy people. So every single transaction we’ve ever done is in a Google Sheet somewhere. If someone came and asked me for receipts, I would be able to give it. And people have done this for articles like go on Twitter and say, “Hey, if Gender Reveal has ever helped you, get in touch,” and people will get in touch. And that means a lot to me because, like no tea, no shade to other organizations, but there are some organizations that have raised so, so, so, so, so much money, and I’ve never seen evidence of people being supported.

And I’m sure that they are supporting people, but I like to give money to places where I can tell that people are being helped with that money. And so being an organization that is seen as trustworthy and is, you know, as transparent as we can be is really important to me because I want people to be able to feel like we’re doing right by them. And I also want the people we’re giving money to feel like we’re being transparent with the process. And so, that has been really huge emphasis for me for day one. It’s just like being really transparent about what we’re doing.

Imara: All forms of money moving will involve some amount of lack of accountability or “scamming.” So whether or not you’re moving money on Wall Street, or whether or not you’re moving money through foundations, or whether or not you’re in a corporation… Honestly, when I had my corporate job, that was one of the most wasteful places I’ve ever been a part of, but, you know, no one ever sees that as such. But then, when there are people who don’t have money, don’t have access to resources, and are poor, there’s a total different standard when it comes to holding those people accountable for relatively small amounts of money.

And so, I think that a part of what’s at work here is the vision that we have about who gets to have resources and who doesn’t. And those who don’t get held to a higher standard, which is one of the other reasons why mutual aid like this is really important. Because if you need a certain amount of money just to get through the month so that your lights aren’t turned off, so that you can do your at-home business of selling food and that’s going to get you through, like those types of things I think are really, really key.

Tuck: Right. And we’re also trying to not emotionally tone police people as well because sometimes when we’re trying to give people money, they will also express frustration at the system. And they will point that at us while we are giving the money and we are still going to give them money even if they were rude, right? Because of course, it makes sense to be exhausted and frustrated with the system when you’re not being given enough to live. And so, I think that’s another thing that we think about about, as well as just making sure we’re not like only helping like the nice trans people, you know. 

Imara: Right, right, right. If you don’t have resources and you’re trying to get them, especially when it’s about your life, it’s anxiety-provoking. And anxiety… 

Tuck: Of course.

Imara: …can manifest in a lot of different ways. And one of them is aggression, but it actually is masking anxiety and fear. And that’s because this amount of money that you’re asking for is really key to your life, you know.

Tuck: Absolutely.

Imara: I’m wondering what you were saying are the change in mutual aid and its importance in the future of our community. I’m wondering what trends have you noticed over the past two years. Have the request shifted in nature? Has the needs increased or decreased? And I’m specifically thinking about this in light of the fact that as trans people are targeted and come under more and more pressure in places where they live, I’ve seen more and more reports and people online talking about the need to actually try to leave the state that they’re in because they can’t live there anymore, because it’s literally becoming too oppressive. One, in my mind, you know, I call creating political refugees in the United States. So I’m wondering how you’ve seen the need shift over the past two years and what you think the future of mutual aid is given the backdrop of where the country is for trans people.

Tuck: Right. It’s so interesting to reflect on that question because I am seeing the same messages and fundraising articles that you are. But just from the perspective of the Gender Reveal mutual aid and grant program, the ask that we’re getting are not changing. And I’m wondering if it’s just the demographic that were working with, like poor trans people of color who were already struggling. It’s not like the Texas bills really radically change things.

A lot of the GoFundMes that I have personally seen for people moving out of a state that’s hostile to them are actually more middle-class White families with like White trans kids that they’re trying to get away from. And I’m not saying those are the only people being affected. Those are just the fundraisers that I’m actually seeing like come across and for whatever reason that is, you know, like those also get boosted more than the other ones. But our ask are mostly staying the same. There have been a couple of people that mentioned something about being in a state that, you know, is hostile to them. But like I said, the state has always been hostile as yo all know…

Imara: That’s right.

Tuck: …uh, to, for trans people of color. And so, that actually hasn’t changed for us that much, but I do think that it’s inarguable that a lot of folks in the community do get this sort of GoFundMe fatigue, because the state is letting us down, and absolutely all trans. And so, when you’re a trans, you’re already making an average of, you know, 50, 40, 60% less than cis workers, and you’re also trying to fund everyone you know’s housing, all of their essentials surgeries, hormones, basic health care, making sure everyone gets fed, So many trans people are disabled and you’re trying to make sure that all of those needs are being met. You know, there’s so much cost.

Jules Gill-Peterson was just on Gender Reveal talking about how expensive it is to be trans and how we all deserve a lot more money just to get those basic needs met that the state isn’t covering for us. And so, as a community, I think we are all that we have and that’s increasingly evident as the state continues to let us down over and over again. So we will continue to be doing mutual aid work to show up for each other. But I think also people are getting tired and overwhelmed being like, “How long can we do this” I know, for me, a story I think about all the time is back in April 2020 when I was first doing mutual aid work. I had a transwoman reach out. I believe she was from Arizona, and she was telling me that, you know, she was homeless and she needed money. And she did not need to do this, but she was like, “If you want to, you can reach out and talk to this social worker I’m working with.” He’s the one that recommended that I reach out to you.

Imara: Hmm.

Tuck: And it just really hit me that there was a social worker whose job was to help this transwoman and the best resource he could come up with was like someone with a podcast in a closet might be able to Venmo you. [laughter] It’s like that’s a failure. That’s a failure on a national level. And so, like yes, we are gonna continue to look out for each other, but we have to be able to eventually move out of this like constant passing the same $20 in a circle. And for me, my goal is to, at least, get it up to like passing $50 around in a circle, but that’s not sustainable either. And I’m just, you know… We just have to hope that we can continue to build better systems, so that were not constantly operating from this place of like scarcity and, and fear.

Imara: That’s right. I mean, I think that one of the key things is that mutual aid has always been a hallmark of our community, technology, and other things are allowing it to move faster and be more visible. But I think that what you just said nailed it, which is that, ultimately, what we need is structural change. We need a society where trans people can have work. We need a society where trans people can go to school and not be harassed, so they can finish school and get jobs that don’t harass them in turn and keep them so that they can earn over time. We need a lack of discrimination in housing. We need access to government resources  that are designed to help the most marginalized, which are already terrible, but on top of that work even less well, to put it charitably, for trans people. So, for example, in certain states right now, as you know, there are laws that are literally blocking state help for trans people more and more. So even the limited things that people have access to are coming under pressure because as you say, it’s state failures. And let’s be clear, those failures are intentional. 

Tuck: Mm-hmm.

Imara: They’re not accidental failures, right? These are intentional failures of the government and of the places and people that are supposed to help and what mutual aid is trying to backstop against those failures. And I think that that’s a really important point that you’re making — is that, ultimately, what we need is things to work for our community, so that people can have lives which allow them to live in dignity and to thrive.

Tuck: Absolutely. And I just really appreciate you taking the time to talk about this with me and with other people because something that I like to bring up is that we keep our mutual aid and grant programs separate from our budget. And so, it’s not like a lot of organizations that are like, “We’re going to pay our volunteers or our staff members first, and then if we have extra time and extra money, then we’ll take our little extra pool of money and give that away.” We’re really intentionally building that into the way that our system works, so that regardless of how much money I make, the grant fund and the mutual aid fund are going to continue to exist.

And it’s the same with Sylveon, the other organization that I have. We give at least 5% of all of our income to the mutual aid as well, and we’ve actually been able to get a lot of our clients to match that amount, so that we can get up to 10%. And it’s the same thing, where it’s just like we built that into the fabric of our company. And so that regardless of how much money we’re making, we were still going to be able to do mutual aid. And I just feels like such an important thing that other people with, uh, bigger organizations and bigger companies could also be doing, and I really feel like it is a choice for them to not be doing that. And I know that it is in some ways, more complicated than that, but in other ways, it’s not. And so, I just really want to encourage that if like I can do that with like my little tiny businesses, places with like actual resources and actual income should be able to do this as well. And we actually can demand that of them, and, and expect that from them.

Imara: Yeah, I think that’s exactly right. And can also expect that they can figure out ways to do even more, so not only to give small amounts of money for them to mutual aid, but also figure out how do you hire trans people.

Tuck: Mm-hmm.

Imara: You know, put trans people in jobs, you know. Assure that you’re keeping them in those… 

Tuck: Mm-hmm.

Imara: …jobs. Just really basic things. You know, making sure that cities develop housing plans for trans people. It’s just a whole host of things that are needed, so that, you know, mutual aid like this can become a thing of the past or be solely for things like self-care mutual aid for vacations for trans people or pedicures, and not so that I can have enough food this month. So hopefully, that’s the world that we can help build.

Tuck: I hope so. I would love to go back to just doing Trans Day of Having a Nice Snack, where just everyone gets $10 to like buy Boba. That would be perfect. I would love that.

Imara: Listen, if that’s your thing, and people are so addicted to that stuff. [laughter] But yes, if that’s what you like, that’s gonna be your snack on trans day.

Tuck: You know, it was so cute because when we were doing the Trans Day of Staying In and Having Nice Snack, we did have a spot on the form where everyone could list their favorite snack. And that was my favorite part of the whole thing — was seeing what everyone loves. And I don’t remember the trends anymore, but it was a lot of really creative snacks and that was so much joy and I know it brought all of the volunteers that were helping with us joy as well. And so, I think that’s also important to remember. It’s like mutual aid can also be like this really fun, joyous thing that we do, too.

Imara: That’s right. That’s right. And also like the collective act of helping each other in a way that is responsive and affirming actually is a feel-good thing.

Tuck: Absolutely

Imara: or me, it would have been Japanese KitKat Matcha… Tuck: Ooh.

Imara: …but that’s that. Tuck, thank you so much for taking the time to talk specifically about mutual aid, why you do it, why it’s important for our community, and the things that need to change, both in terms of giving even more resources to our community through mutual aid but also some of the structural things to make it even less urgent for us. And ultimately, the way that mutual aid can be an expression of trans joy. So, thank you so much for taking the time.

Tuck: Yeah, thank you so much for having me. I really appreciate it.

Imara: Of course, of course.

Imara: Thank you so much for joining me on the TransLash Podcast. Now, listen all the way through to the end of the show for something extra. If you like what you heard, please go to Apple podcast to rate and review us. You can listen to TransLash wherever you get your podcast. Check us out on the web at translash.org to sign up for our weekly newsletter. Follow us on Twitter and Instagram at translashmedia. Like us on Facebook and tell your friends.

The translation podcast is produced by TranLash Media. The TransLash team includes Oliver Ash-Kleine and Aubrey Callaway. Our intern is Mirana Munson-Burke. Xander Adams is a contributing producer to the show and our sound engineer. Digital strategy is handled by Daniela Capistrano. The music you heard was composed by Ben Draghi and also courtesy of ZZK Records. The TransLash Podcast is made possible by the support of foundations and listeners like you.

Imara: So, what am I looking forward to in the upcoming weeks? Well, I am looking forward, of course, to returning to the United States after being on vacation. That hasn’t happened yet, but will happen in a couple of days. I’m also thrilled about the fact that very shortly after I come back in early August, I get to go to yet another film festival where the Trans Bodies, Trans Choices short films that we produced will be recognized this time at Out South, which is the premier queer film festival in the South. And so, I’m just thrilled to be able to go there with members of my team, to be able to celebrate the response to that film series, which, of course, tells the extremely important story of the way in which the issues of bodily autonomy, reproductive justice, and abortion rights are central for trans people. Yay.

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