While we, as a society, have made great progress toward equality for LGBT people, we still have a ways to go. This is particularly evident when engaging with young LGBT people who have been rejected by their families, peers or communities as a result of their sexual orientation or gender identity.
Casidy Henderson, 23, is a transgender District resident who immigrated to the United States from Sierra Leone when she was seven years old. She has been living as a woman for two and a half years and has been on hormones for 10 months. In her young life, she has been repeatedly ostracized and tormented as a result of her sexual orientation and gender identity.
Casidy is a promising young woman who could have easily fallen through the cracks, if not for the support from several nonprofit organizations that work tirelessly to improve lives and ensure that the individuals that they work with leave their programs with the skills to thrive.
The Wanda Alston Foundation, which operates the Wanda Alston House, is one of those programs. (Full disclosure: I serve on the board of the Wanda Alston Foundation.) The Wanda Alston House provides transitional housing to homeless LGBTQ youth. Casidy became homeless after being put out of her Southwest Virginia Christian boarding school due to her sexual orientation. At the time, Casidy was still living as a young man. Due to her mannerisms, she was perceived to be gay and was harassed by the other students.
“Kids would pee on my pillowcase. They would beat me up in the back of the school. People would put bleach in my drinks and call me derogatory names,” Cassidy said. “This happened every day because I ate, slept, went to school and went to church with them. I couldn’t reach out to staff at school because I was gay. They would turn a blind eye when the boys beat me up or dragged me down the staircase.” Cassidy says she was eventually asked to leave the school because her Facebook status said that she was gay.
“I had to explain the situation to my family of why I was kicked out and that I was gay. It was obvious because I was effeminate, but it was the first time I said it,” she said. Her family had never been supportive of her sexual orientation and, throughout her childhood, some of her relatives were verbally and physically abusive. The boarding school gave Casidy a one-way bus ticket to D.C., where she stayed with her uncle for four months. After he put her out, she stayed with friends for a few more months. She found out about the Wanda Alston House from a Transgender Health Empowerment employee who was handing out fliers and condoms outside of the Safeway on Benning Road, N.E.
“I found out about the Wanda Alston House, filled out an application, and moved in three days later,” Casidy said. She stayed at the Wanda Alston House for 18 months. The house operates as a home with a curfew, rules and chores. “I was free to be myself. I had other peers who were trans. The whole LGBT community was in the house. It’s really not a shelter. It’s a three-story house with a deck. We had a therapist who came in once a week. We would discuss issues and problems. We were a team. That really helped me. It nurtured me spiritually, mentally, physically and emotionally. Being in the house was a place for me to heal myself. Being in that safe place was everything for me. I never before had issues that could be addressed and had a whole team work on it.”
While in the house, Cassidy received her GED and scored 200 points shy of a perfect score. After leaving the house, she found an apartment and, simultaneously, worked as a housekeeper in a hotel and as an intern with the Children and Youth Investment Trust Corporation (CYITC) summer initiative.
Her work with CYITC gave her experience in advocacy and social justice, which is why she jumped at the opportunity to become a fellow with Code for Progress, whose goal is to “train and support new coders who can bring historically under-represented perspectives to the tech industry.”
In April, Casidy was one of 12 people who began the one-year program. According to program descriptions, the “curriculum will focus on contemporary coding techniques, human-centered database programming and application development” for 40 hours a week during the 16-week training residency. The program includes mentorship, a stipend, and post graduation career support.
“When I heard about Code for Progress, I was like, I know how to advocate for justice, but I was lacking the technical skills. Now I can program computers, develop apps, create websites, create databases and set them up. I’m empowered now and it’s only been a month that I’ve learned these things. We have an awesome professor. She simplifies things and brings so much to the table.”
As part of the fellowship, Casidy wants to create an app that will aggregate all available LGBT resources within a community. “I’m well informed about different issues and Code for Progress is giving me a vital piece of the puzzle to make me a resource for my community,” she said. “If all these agencies are speaking as one huge body and sharing info, change is going to happen. If this app is successful, I want to expand it to different cities.”
Lateefah Williams’ biweekly column, ‘Life in the Intersection,’ focuses on the intersection of race, gender and sexual orientation. She is a former president of the Gertrude Stein Democratic Club. Reach her at email@example.com or follow her @lateefahwms.