Joy Hightower Morristhe celebrated Chicago transgender and HIV activist, founder of TransActions, and organizing force behind the Legends Lunch All Stars Awards honoring the lives and resilience of trans* individuals and those living with HIV/AIDSpassed away Dec. 6 after a long battle with cancer.
Windy City Times interviewed Morris on two occasions over the past two years. During bothand even in the midst of organizing the 2013 Legends LunchMorris spoke from her hospital bed, maintaining her determination that her illness should not get in the way of the work that powered her life, utilizing the lessons she learned from it to help others.
Windy City Times reached out to those who knew Morris in each of her many struggles and victories.
Kenis Williams (who was described by Morris in a Windy City Times November 2013 interview as her "mentor mother"), Trisha Holloway, Hannah Anderson and Sheila Cooper-Webb responded with the following memorial to Morris' life and accomplishments:
"The community has lost an outspoken activist whose voice can't be silenced. Morris' 30-year life with HIV was her inspiration for a different kind of battle. She powerfully and tirelessly fought for recognition, inclusion, and equality and her resounding cry, 'What about the transgenders?' was singularly recognizable in the HIV community," they stated.
Morris' own diagnosis enabled HIV to become the venue for her fight, but her innate spirit and early life circumstances provided its foundation.
Her friends stated: "Morris demanded the right to be herself. She often spoke of knowing that she was transgender as young as five years old, and of her lifelong fight to be respected as the woman she knew she was. Refusing to allow herself to be locked out of her religious upbringing, Morris explored the Bible and self-taught an argument for inclusion of transgender and gay believers.
"While not giving up on the church, she found herself more accepted among others who turned to addiction and survival sex work. However, true to her spirit, Morris used her circumstances of prostitution and homelessness to do more than survive. She began an in-your-face activist approach when she became involved with Neon Street youth programs. During this time, she formed a lasting surrogate family in the club and drag performance community. The stage fit Morris' passion to shine as herself."
Morris' demand for awareness and inclusion defined her HIV activism. Beginning in the 1990s, she became a regular at community meetings and events. She fought to become involved in community groups such as the HIV Prevention Planning Group and Ryan White Planning Council (now combined as CAHISC), the Northside Health and HIV Coalition, EASE, and WHARP.
As a member of Haymarket Center's inaugural Consumer Advisory Group, Morris demanded changes for transgender clients in addiction treatment settings.
She found an outlet for similar concerns for incarcerated people by working with CarePoint, and Men and Women in Prison Ministries. Morris participated in multiple Illinois HIV Lobby Days events in order to educate state legislators on the reality of living with HIV, and traveled to Washington, D.C. with the Coalition to End AIDS (C2EA) to rally at a national level. Regardless of the setting, not an event would end without Morris' demanding query: "What about the transgenders?"
Her question did not fall on deaf ears. Morris' relentless battle impacted a policy change: the Illinois Department of Public Health's data collection forms now include transgender information. This will directly impact the identified need for prevention and support services for transgender individuals. In recent years, applications for funding have also become more inclusive, with new attention being paid to transgender services.
This achievement summed up Morris' dual response to transgender rightsshe was humbled and angry. "It is time, and it's about time!," she said.
While fighting for inclusion in traditional HIV service groups, Morris also made her own way. In 2002 she founded TransActions, dedicated to transgender strengths and needs. Speaking as the founder of TransActions, she worked with staff politicians to see the Red Ribbon Lottery campaign come to fruition.
TransActions has another lasting legacy in the Legends Lunch, an annual recognition celebration that highlights the continued need to fight for awareness and rights, as well as the love within the community. Morris' goal for the future of TransActions was focused on a large collaborative World AIDS Day telethon. Using TransAction's slogan: The world is waiting, where is the cure? Morris' vision of the event grew as she had. No longer just focused on HIV, her blueprint for the telethon included international efforts to combat disparities at multiple levels.
She hoped the event would grow to raise awareness and funding for diseases such as hepatitis and cancer, and support for social issues such as housing and education.
Fighting alongside Morris often meant fighting with Morris, her friends said, because her passion for her beliefs was matched by her fiery temper. "Overriding any disagreement, however, was Morris' capacity to love," they said. "With a quick wit, sharp tongue, and generous heart, Morris Morris' presentation may not always have been politically correct or even diplomatic, but her voice could not be ignored. That voice cannot be silenced. Her legacy will be honored."
Morris is survived by her mother, Dr. Mary Reed of Las Vegas; brother Kevin Morris of Chula Vista, California; sister Ramona Sinklea of Hendersonville, Tennessee; uncles Charlie Byas and Joe Morris of Chicago; local cousins; and multiple "daughters."
The funeral was held at Mountain of Hope, 8043 S. Racine Ave., on Dec. 13.
The family has suggested donations to the American Cancer Society in lieu of flowers. Legacy donations in her honor may also be made to a local 12-step group or any of Morris' favorite agencies, including: TPAN, HBHC, Lurie Hospital gender support program, and Chicago House.