On a humid Friday afternoon on Charles Street earlier this month, Baltimore Safe Haven founder Iya Dammons sweated alongside local artist Jaime Grace-Alexander and scores of volunteers to paint the words “Black Trans Lives Matter.”
For a Black trans woman who once worked in this area to survive, and who has seen too many others die here, it was a labor of love.
“We’re in a state of emergency,” said Dammons, whose organization provides food, shelter and other services to the transgender community. “We marked in stone that our lives matter along with the Black Lives Matter movement.”
Dammons’s group previously held a Black Trans Lives Matter rally and march in Baltimore on June 2, during the early wave of protests following George Floyd’s death. The group’s protest was featured on the June cover of Time magazine.
“I am human,” Dammons said after mentioning a trans girl who was shot in the face last week but survived. “This is where I was born. This is where I live. Am I an equal in the city I was born in?”
D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser on June 5 commissioned artists to paint Black Lives Matter a few blocks north of the White House on 16th Street, and more than a dozen other cities have installed their own murals to support anti-racism protests across the country.
For Dammons, Baltimore’s Black Trans Lives Matter mural is a memorial in an area of Charles Village where trans women gather.
“Hot spots for trans women of color are Eastern Avenue and Charles Street,” she explained. “They come from one stroll to the next and do survival sex work. Both areas have had girls killed.”
Dammons’ leadership on this issue comes from experience performing sex work in both Baltimore and D.C. to survive. In a recent interview, she said the mural and the protests are personal for her as a Black trans woman who has lost too many friends like Ashanti Carmon, who was murdered in Fairmount Heights last year.
“I stopped tricking and hung up my boots when she was killed,” Dammons said. “I had to understand where I was going and what I wanted to do. Around that time I created Baltimore Safe Haven, right there along Eastern Avenue. I didn’t have a choice.”
Dammons used money saved from her work as well as lessons from her mentor, Ruby Corado of D.C.’s Casa Ruby, to found Baltimore Safe Haven, which provides many of the services she wished she had when she was surviving on the streets.
“Name change, legal advice, AIDS testing, pharmacy — those kinds of things that can give people a sustainable future,” she said. “A shower, clothes … things that get you out of survival mode.”
She is particularly worried about trans youth who are put out of their homes once they start expressing their authentic selves.
The mural is located in an area where Bailey Reeves, a Black trans woman and rising high school senior, was murdered last year. The tragedy of losses such as Reeves is why Dammons spends most of her time working for her nonprofit with little free time of her own.
“A typical work day for me starts at 5 a.m.,” she said in an email. “Where I immediately start checking the news, emails and reports received from our transitional housing staff.”
Dammons said the height of the coronavirus pandemic in March and April were especially hard because while others were under lockdown orders, she was out helping trans people who were still living on the streets, partially due to less than affirming shelter situations.
“We were in the streets masked up trying to help our people who didn’t have a place to stay,” she said. “We were boots on the ground when there was no one out there and it was still deadly. We gave money support, we gave out hotel rooms along with other organizations. We gave out hair and hair cuts. We served our population because who was going to be there for us? Everyone closed their doors when it was either them or us.”
Dammons said the work is important and saves lives, but too often Black trans voices are lost in the current Black Lives Matters discussion. Others in the community agree.
“If you want to say that all lives matter, that is an ideal that we have not reached yet,” said Diamond Stylz, executive director of Black Trans Women, Inc., a Dallas-based organization. “What we are screaming for from the top of our lungs when these things happen, what we are saying is that the ideal has not happened yet. When the police break the community trust and their expectations — when you breach that contract that all lives matter, you breach that trust. And that is what is happening now.”
But there has been some backlash. Forbes reported many Black Lives Matter murals have been defaced and repaired in many cities and President Trump on July 1 said that a mural painted on a Manhattan street would be “a symbol of hate.”
The mural was completed anyway.
“Nothing that comes out of his mouth surprises me and he has blood on his hands,” Charley Burton, a founding member and Virginia chapter leader of Black Trans Men Incorporated, said of the president’s comments. “He has blood from George Floyd and Tony McDade.”
Tony McDade was a 38-year-old Black trans man killed by a Florida police officer on May 27.
Still, the recent anti-racism protests have shed light on Dammons’ and others’ efforts for the trans community, and more organizations are supporting their work.
“FreeState Justice stands in strong support and is grateful for the work of Baltimore Safe Haven to boldly state and display for all to see that Black Trans Lives Matter,” said FreeState Justice Development Director Eli Washington. “Recent racial violence has once again brought to light the harsh reality of how far we are from equity and justice for the Black community.”
“In recognition of this plight, it is important to lift up the voices of all those within the Black community and this mural does just that,” he said.
Trans Maryland Finance Director Andy Ross, who identifies as a Black man of trans experience, stated his organization’s support of and solidarity with Baltimore Safe Haven.
“The Black Trans Lives Matter mural is important for our community because it is a visual representation of our voices,” he said. “Oftentimes our voices go unheard during times of injustice. To me, the mural reflects our resilience and strength. It reflects that we are here, proud and we aren’t going anywhere.”
Dammons sees her journey from survival sex work to executive director as an example of that resiliency, but emphasizes her organization needs financial support to continue its work and save lives.
“We need support for the work that we do,” she said. “Partner with us; don’t overlook us.”