As part of an older generation of transgender women in Chicago (including icon Gloria Allen), advocate Channyn Lynne Parker knows the work will outlast her. That's why she thinks of advocacy like a marathon, not a sprintand believes that in order to win, trans leaders must continuously pass the torch.
"Oftentimes, we say things like 'I am lighting the path for the generations to come,'" Parker said. "But I think what's more appropriate to say is 'I am giving this generation to come the fire to light their own path.'"
Reaching across generations, trans women of color continue to light the way toward liberation. But the fight is not as easy as the metaphor might paint it.
As Parker first began her advocacy more than a decade ago, she had no model to turn toward. Trans visibility was low, and trans women were excluded from leadership in many service organizations. To Parker's knowledge, she was one of the first to hold a title. In that tenuous atmosphere, she knew what needed to be said and donebut had to walk a balance.
"It's not that my generation is complicit, but we were more afraid," she said. "Repercussions were great. Who can honestly blame a person for choosing survival amid oppression?"
They did what they could, she saidand now, she is thankful to see younger generations building on that work. The goal has shifted from surviving to thriving.
However, many of the systemic issues that faced Parker's generation persist today, with trans women of color continuing to experience housing insecurity, employment discrimination and high levels of violence.
To address these issues, there needs to be community-based and community-centered solutions, said activist LaSaia Wade. In 2017, she founded Brave Space Alliance, the first Black- and trans-led center on the South Side.
While she holds a lot of respect for older generations, Wade also said she's learned what not to do from them. If the world is changing, she said she wants to change with itand to push the boundaries herself.
Now in her early 30s, she began activism in her college years, but her work has taken on new meaning after her son was born in 2020. She fights for herself and other trans women in Chicago and beyond, but she also fights for the generation to come, wanting a better world for her child.
"As of right now, the world sees him as a Black boy, so what are all the steps that I could possibly do to make sure when he hits 12 years old, he won't be seen as an enemy to the city or the state?" she said. "What am I doing to make sure that not only my LGBTQ youth are not going to be targeted…but also make sure I'm including their voices?"
As Wade looks to the generations below her, Parker is now looking to the generations above. She said many services are youth-focused, and as trans people begin to get older, they may not have the privilege of family networks to support them or access to retirement money. When they enter into senior care, they may detransition in order to avoid harassment by their caretakers.
"What does retirement look like for a 60-year-old trans woman?" Parker said. "We're headed for a crisis. We are living a lot longer than we once did, and that's a beautiful thing, but it also begs the question of what to do for the seniors to live a comfortable life."
The needs of one generation of trans women may not be the same as the nextand their definitions of transness and language they use to describe their experiences also differ. Because of that, Wade said it can sometimes be painful to engage in intergenerational conversations. She lacks the energy to debate some beliefs held by older trans women, even if she understands their perspectives were shaped by another time.
Meanwhile, older trans women may be accused of being "has-beens" or harboring jealousy toward younger women, said Lia Stokes, also known as the performer Amailia Black. She said the community could benefit from some mutual respect between generations.
"I hope that [younger women] will never forget to remember that there were some very powerful women that came before them, and to never lose sight of that journey that we traveled," she said. "Oftentimes, when someone older tries to give someone younger some advice, especially in the trans community, it's very quickly pushed aside."
Rather than listen to simply respond to one another, people need to listen to hear each other, Parker added. Though younger generations shouldn't forsake the lessons of their elders, they should mold those lessons to their own purposes, she said. It's great to push forward with progress, but she hopes youth will take some time to remind older trans women that they're still needed and they still matter.
This intergenerational solidarity is important, said activist Zahara Bassett. For years, she had felt alone. When she realized that other people shared her experiences, and there was a gap in resources and services for trans individuals on the West Side, she founded Life Is Work.
But without the support of older trans women to guide and encourage her, Bassett would have had a much harder time navigating the world of activism.
"I'm surrounded by generations of trans leaders that poured into me, that pushed me and helped me thrive as a Black trans woman in this work," Bassett said. "To have that circle of women who call me their own…I've learned a great deal of knowing how to lead with love."
Bassett hopes to continue the trend and give support to younger generations. But regardless of age, these women each hold a voice and perspective to contribute. As they shared the best advice they'd given or received, a steady theme arose across generations: Don't doubt yourself. Don't lose hope. Instead, when it's time, pass the torch.
"As much pain, as much hurt, as many deaths, just don't stop," Wade said. "We have proven as trans people, we do not stop. Regardless of what it looks like, we continue to grow."