Long Time Equality Activist Stays Vigilant in COVID-19 Era

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When thousands of people filled Nashville’s streets in support of the Black Lives Matter movement in late March, Marisa Richmond watched from home with guarded optimism.

She is black. She is a transgender woman. She is a senior citizen.  Therefore, she is in several “high-risk categories” for contracting COVID-19. Weighing the health risks, she felt the socially responsible thing to do during the pandemic was to stay “safer at home.”

The irony and unfairness of the situation deserves to be spelled out. Because for many black and transgender people in the US, “safer at home” isn’t just a catchphrase born of a pandemic—it’s a long-understood reality that, once you’re out your front door, you are not safe.

“It’s unfortunate that the necessity of expressing our ongoing outrage over police brutality and systemic racism runs counter to the need to remain apart because racial disparities in health care have been highlighted by the pandemic,” Richmond said in a Facebook post. “If you are participating, please be careful. I hope to rejoin you on the front lines soon.”

Then, as millions of people around the globe took to the streets in protest of hundreds of years racism and police violence against black people, a black transgender man, Tony McDade, was murdered by police in Florida. Then, a black transgender woman, Iyanna Dior, was attacked by 30 black men in Minneapolis.

Where was the outrage for them? The silence, Richmond said, was disturbing.

“Obviously the issue of police brutality against black people goes back many, many years. It was certainly something I was aware of growing up in the late 60s and early 70s, so it’s not new to me.” Richmond said. “I think there’s finally an awareness that something bigger is happening and that we as a nation have to address that. But if we say black lives matter, we have to mean black lives matter. We can’t turn around and beat up our own people.”

From murder, to unfair access to housing, to lack of healthcare and discrimination in the workplace—black transgender people are in every high-risk category imaginable. That’s why Richmond has been fighting for equality for the LGBTQ community for years.

A college professor, Richmond teaches U.S. Political History and Women’s and Gender Studies. She was the first openly transgender political appointee in Tennessee. Currently, she is the only transgender person serving on the Democratic National Committee and is helping organize a transgender caucus for this summer’s convention in Milwaukee.

She also tackles discrimination head on as Vice Chair of the Nashville Metro Human Relations Commission including involvement in training for new cadets coming out of the Police Academy. She said the Commission has been discussing expanding that training to the whole police department.

“Our primary responsibility is racial discrimination but I’m trying to make sure it does include any issues related to the LGBT community,” Richmond said. “Lately we’ve been looking at the issue of COVID-19 response, particularly at a homeless shelter set up by the city where we heard transgender people taking shelter there were being misgendered… they can’t get away with mistreating people thinking nobody is paying attention. Somebody is paying attention and now they know it.”

Even as global protests continued midway into June, President Trump continued to fan the flames of prejudice.

On June 12, the Trump administration delivered a hateful (and spiteful) blow when it announced it was eliminating an Obama-era regulation prohibiting discrimination in health care against patients who are transgender. The announcement came on the anniversary of the tragic Pulse Nightclub shooting in Orlando and during June’s LGBT Pride celebrations.

Then, just three days later, to the surprise of LGBT rights advocates, the Supreme Court delivered a sweeping 6-3 decision to protects gay, lesbian and transgender employees from being disciplined, fired or turned down for a job based on their sexual orientation.

The polarity of those outcomes highlights changing attitudes in the US as more Americans than ever recognize and speak out against discrimination.

“The sustaining energy of this movement is surprising,” she said. “I’m old enough to remember the Martin Luther King riots. But they kind of fizzled out after about five days, and here we are going on for weeks and I don’t see any fizzling out yet – so yeah, this feels very different.”

Richmond shows that even through restrictions imposed by the coronavirus, she’s made and kept herself a powerful voice around women’s issues, transgender issues, and issues of racial injustice.

In fact, at the time of this interview Richmond was planning to speak at a Black Trans Lives Matter rally in Nashville on Saturday, June 20, in spite of COVID-19.

“I feel it is necessary to be visible at this critical time,” Richmond said. “My siblings are being murdered and demonized, but at the same time, we are making progress as the SCOTUS ruling symbolizes. I want to be there in person. It feels both exciting and sad.”

This article has been supported by a grant from the Facebook Journalism Project for COVID-19 coverage.

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