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How a Black Trans-Led Org Plans to Use City Funding

Destination Tomorrow was one of three organizations to receive part of a $55,000 grant to support the transgender community.

Destination Tomorrow South recently received $25,000 in funding from the city of Atlanta for a pilot mentorship program. (John MacDougall/AFP via Getty Images)

Despite its claim to being the “LGBTQ Capital of the South,” Octavia Lewis remembers a time when Atlanta was far from being a safe haven for Black transgender people.

Access to basic health care needs was more underground. Lewis remembers transgender women going to the black market for hormone therapy. Some were being defrauded, not getting estrogen — instead, a needle full of saline. She also recalls transgender people having to do sex work to keep a roof over their heads because local employers often wouldn’t hire them.

“As a woman of transgender experience, I wanted to live my authentic truth unapologetically. And at that time, Atlanta was just not there,” she said. 

In 2006, Lewis fled to New York City, where she met Sean Coleman, the founder of Destination Tomorrow, an LGBTQ resource center in the Bronx. In New York, the organization provides academic enrichment, HIV testing, referrals for preventative medication — PrEP — and career guidance. As an activist living in New York, Lewis admired the mission behind Destination Tomorrow.

She moved back to the Atlanta area, working for Destination Tomorrow South as the chief advocacy officer. The organization opened its doors in May 2022 in East Point. The center provides HIV testing, support groups for transgender women and men, housing referrals, and diversity and inclusion training. 

Destination Tomorrow South recently received $25,000 in funding from the city of Atlanta for its pilot mentorship program. The funding came from legislation introduced by Post 2 At-Large Atlanta City Council member Matt Westmoreland. The Destination Tomorrow funds are part of a $55,000 grant, the city’s most significant investment in the local transgender community. Atlanta Legal Aid Society will receive $10,000 to help with the legal process of supporting transgender people to get their names changed. Another $20,000 will go to the Black Emotional and Mental Health Collective (BEAM) to sponsor up to 25 scholarships for Atlanta’s transgender and gender-expansive youth.

“Across the nation, we are seeing a push against the transgender community to eliminate the fundamental right to simply be who they are,” Mayor Andre Dickens said in a statement. “Everyone has the right to live their life with dignity and freedom from fear, and our Administration wants the transgender community to know we stand with them.”

The funding comes as Atlanta’s LGBTQ community has a heightened sense of anxiety and need for safe spaces following the killing of two Black transgender women and the passage of legislation that affects transgender youth. That legislation — SB 140 — which takes effect July 1, blocks doctors from performing gender reassignment surgery for children under age 18 and would prevent them from prescribing hormone replacement therapy — commonly known as HRT.

Organizations included in this latest round of funding from the city told Capital B Atlanta the money will help them address challenges facing transgender residents in Atlanta. They also hope to see these types of grants happen more often.

Addressing local challenges

The pilot mentorship program from Destination Tomorrow will center on youth and last a year. Destination Tomorrow has been recruiting mentors across career spectrums, like health care, legal affairs, and the service industry, hoping to pair youth with people interested in the same things. Career readiness is critical, Lewis said, for a marginalized population whose income is lower nationally than that of cisgender people. 

“When we saw that [Destination Tomorrow] was opening its doors in Atlanta, we were really excited and eager to partner with them,” said Malik Brown, the city of Atlanta’s director of LGBTQ Affairs. “We knew when we wanted to start up this LGBTQ youth mentoring pilot, they were, frankly, the first organization that we thought of, because of the work that they’ve done.” 

In March 2021, Atlanta counted 194,000 LGBTQ-identifying people living in the area. Last year, the Human Rights Campaign gave Atlanta a score of 100% on its Municipal Equality Index, which measures LGBTQ+ inclusivity of municipal laws, policies, and services. However, Lewis says those numbers don’t tell the whole story of the transgender experience in Atlanta.

“What we saw was that there was a lack of access to gender-affirming care, and a lack of access to HIV affirming care in the South,” Lewis said. “Many people that were relocating to New York were coming from the South, and so we knew that not having access to stable housing was an issue. Our ultimate goal is to mirror the services that we have in New York.”

A 2019 Georgia Department of Public Health survey of transgender residents in metro Atlanta found that 45% of respondents said they made less than $10,000 annually, putting them far below the federal poverty line. A little more than half of transgender people who responded to the survey, 61% of whom were Black, had also experienced homelessness in the past 12 months.

Lewis says the money given feels like a good start but expects and hopes the city will do more to make Atlanta an open safe space for Black transgender people. 

“Signing an executive order … you have to make sure that you have accommodating [and] affirming bathroom facilities for people of transgender experience, that your frontline staff knows how to address all people, particularly those that are of transgender experience, make sure that insurance covers necessities for transgender people, like hormonal therapy, gender-affirming surgery, things of that nature,” she said.

‘The potential to change the world’

A lack of income for transgender people, along with other life hurdles, makes a seemingly simple name change more complicated, said Lori Anderson, a senior staff attorney at the Atlanta Legal Aid Society.

“Folks are looking at $215, maybe $220 for the court filing fee, and then once the case has been filed, they have to publish a required notice, and that’s for everybody, not just transgender folks,” Anderson said. The required notice has to go in a newspaper of record specified by the Superior Court, which can cost an additional $100. 

“I have heard folks saying that this is a relatively small amount of money in the grand scheme of the city budget. … For the size of my project, $10,000 is a really huge amount of money,” Anderson said.

Lewis agrees that consistent funding, especially focused on transgender youth, could go a long way in the future.

“There are young transgender people who have been expelled from their homes as early as 12 years of age,” she said. “They don’t have someone holding their hand making sure they’re going to school, but these are youth that have the potential to change the world.” 

Destination Tomorrow, alongside the LGBTQ+ Affairs office, will hold an informational session about the LGBTQ youth mentorship program on Wednesday, June 28, at Atlanta City Hall. You can register for the event here.

Correction: Octavia Lewis left Atlanta for New York in 2006. An earlier version of this story misidentified the year.