Trans Lifeline offers protection for the community — without the police

The first-of-its-kind organization started with a hotline. Then it became so much more.

Trans Lifeline's interim director, Taegan Meyer.
Trans Lifeline's interim director, Taegan Meyer. Photo by Angel Labarthe
Our Streets

Our Streets is a column by writer and reporter Ray Levy Uyeda that highlights activists, artists, and organizers who are doing the work and reclaiming power for the people.

Trans Lifeline started with a phone number. It was shortly after Trans Day of Remembrance 2014. A growing number of people had hit the streets to protest the deaths of transgender people, which often go untracked and unremembered by government organizations, and organizers recognized the need for a support network built by and for trans people. Importantly, they also wanted to create a resource that didn’t involve the police. So, organizers in San Francisco started a hotline, called the Trans Lifeline. No such effort had existed before on a national scale.

Since 2014, over 600 trained hotline operators have fielded well over 100,000 calls to Trans Lifeline from trans people across the country seeking support. Those who call the hotline are experiencing some form of crisis, explains Trans Lifeline’s interim director, Taegan Meyer, whether that be a housing crisis, family crisis, or suicidal ideation. “There are things that arise only out of the conflicts between being trans and vulnerable in America,” Meyer says. “We still live in a country and a world which does not respect the rights of trans people to even exist most of the time.”

In 2017, Trans Lifeline expanded to offer programs that support the whole life of a trans person, not just the moments of crisis. The organization, now entering its eighth year, runs a number of financial programs to help with name change processes and hormone acquisition. It also has a fund to support survivors of domestic violence, offering microgrants to give people in need the financial freedom to leave an abusive relationship.

Trans people are exposed to many forms of violence because of systems in the United States that historically have at best neglected — and at worst, actively antagonized — trans people. The legacy of these historical traumas can be seen and felt today. Legislation across the country seeks to prevent trans people from using bathrooms and to ban trans people from playing sports. The number of Black trans women who are killed increases every year, yet state and federal governments fail to substantively investigate these tragedies; coroners may neglect to record that a deceased individual was trans, for example, and an estimated four out of five trans deaths go unreported. Local newspapers deadname victims, further disrespecting their lives.

“It’s imperative that we find ways to continue to not just survive, but to thrive.”

Central to Trans Lifeline’s ethos is radical scholarship, and abolition in particular. The organization is committed to imagining and enacting systems of care to replace the ones that currently exist, which generally are reliant on police, prisons, and surveillance. That’s what makes Trans Lifeline’s hotline unique — no call operator will ever call the police on someone in crisis without their consent.

Equity, the redistribution of money, and the dismantling of white supremacy, are also crucial principles that guide how Trans Lifeline navigates providing care to trans people, Meyer says. Some of the thinkers who have shaped Meyer’s own politics and understanding of the work include poet, artist, and theorist Fred Moten and radical Black scholar Saidiya Hartman.

“We are working towards our survival pending revolution,” Meyer tells Mic. “This is something that we learned from some of the Black Panthers. ... We don’t know when that moment will open itself up, and we sure do hope it will. So until that moment ... it’s imperative that we find ways to continue to not just survive, but to thrive.”

In order to help trans people across the country thrive, Trans Lifeline provides microgrants for complex and expensive tasks like changing one’s name on a government-issued ID. Changing one’s name — a critical component of affirming a trans person’s existence — can be extraordinarily difficult. The process can vary from state to state, or even county to county; Meyer even says that in some jurisdictions, one needs to publish an announcement in the local paper alerting the public of the name change. Some jurisdictions charge a fee for access to the specific documents required to change one’s name on a birth certificate, social security card, or credit card.

The process is expensive, lengthy, and confusing. That’s why Trans Lifeline offers $500 microgrants, which aren’t a loan and don’t have to be repaid, to help trans people navigate those processes. Not only is a $500 expense out of reach for many trans people, Meyer notes, but the fact that Trans Lifeline’s aid is a grant instead of a loan means a person is not simply trading a societal burden for a financial one.

This is important, because the unemployment rate of trans people is 11% higher than the rate of joblessness for cisgender people, per a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. At least 25% of trans people also reported that they’ve been fired due to an employer’s prejudice. For Black trans people, the unemployment rate is even higher, at 26%. Meanwhile, trans people of color experience a poverty rate of nearly 43%. Trans people also experience increased housing insecurity compared to the general population, with 41% of Black trans people experiencing houselessness at some point in their lives.

Courtesy of Trans Lifeline

In 2019, two years after the name change microgrant was launched, the Trans Lifeline team started what they call their Inside Advocacy program, which offers financial support directly to incarcerated trans people. According to the Vera Institute of Justice, 16% of trans adults have been incarcerated — nearly eight times the incarceration rate of cisgender adults.

Incarceration has a variety of fees baked into it, from paying for phone calls to buying tampons to receiving deliveries or letters. Meyer says that many prisons use private distribution companies that charge fees of 20-30% for delivery items sent to someone who’s incarcerated. Trans Lifeline’s microgrants help absorb some of those costs. The organization also runs a commissary campaign to allocate funds into individual commissary accounts so that incarcerated trans people can afford basic goods, and offers financial support to transgender individuals after they’re released. “This country finds so many different ways to capitalize off of trans suffering, but offers very little room for us to thrive,” Meyer says.

There are many ways to build a lifeline. For Meyer, one of the most crucial ways has nothing to do with money or crisis support. Instead, it’s community building — the knowledge that you’re cared for, that people are in your corner. That’s what she hopes her organization can offer. “Trans Lifeline,” she says, “is a process of discovering different ways that we can build community as trans people.”