Visible Connect #TeamTuesday: Meet Trans Lifeline

In 2021, Visible proudly announced the third cohort of its annual Visible Connect Accelerator Program, which supports nonprofit organizations changing their communities using mobile technology. In partnership with Uncharted, Visible Connect awards each nonprofit in the accelerator a $15,000 financial grant and free mobile devices with one year of Visible service. Visible and Uncharted will work alongside these game-changing entrepreneurs to help them elevate their organizations and connect them with the resources, services, expertise and relationships they need to accelerate their impact. Over the next few weeks, Visible will continue to introduce all six of the inspiring nonprofit within our cohort, honing in on how they’re using mobile technology to create meaningful change in our community.

Bri Barnett is the communications director of Trans Lifeline, a trans-led nonprofit that connects trans people to the community, support, and resources they need to survive and thrive.

What sets Trans Lifeline apart from other organizations in the LGBTQIA community?
A few things set Trans Lifeline apart from other LGBTQIA organizations, most notably our reach and approach to the work. Currently, we are the only organization that serves the entire trans community across the U.S. and Canada. For us, scale isn't only about serving more trans people, it's also about accessibility. Many trans resources are disproportionately centralized in major urban areas, they limit themselves to serving youth, or they have binary gender policies that make their services inaccessible to trans people. Our services are based on the idea that all trans people are worthy of quality care and connection. No matter where you are, you deserve community and resources. We're filling vital service gaps for trans people who either don't live near other support organizations, or aren't eligible to receive services due to their age or gender.

Our framework around mental health also sets us apart. We know mental health is connected to the material conditions of people's lives -- the discrimination they experience, the opportunities they have, whether or not they have community. This informs everything we do. It's why our organization has a Hotline to offer peer-support and a Microgrant program to give trans people money to legally change their name and gender, access to Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT), and specialized support for trans people who are detained or imprisoned. Mental health is the filter the organization uses in providing these services.

Our Hotline is one of the only peer-support lines with a policy against non-consensual active rescue, that means we don't call the police on our callers unless they ask us to. Many people who experience suicidal ideation are afraid to be honest about where they actually are emotionally, because they're afraid doing so will result in police showing up at their door or being placed on an involuntary psychiatric hold in a misgendered facility. People reaching out for help deserve understanding, not another traumatic experience. Our policy against active rescue allows us to have deeper conversations because our callers know that nothing unexpected is going to happen without their consent. Since we launched our Spanish Extension last year, the Hotline is also unique in being the only peer-support Hotline that's accessible for monolingual trans Spanish speakers. We're also always looking to improve the depth of care we offer on the Hotline. This year, we've added Domestic and Intimate Partner Violence to the line, because of how our communities are underserved by traditional DIPV services and as a way to address the number of DIPV related murders of Black and Brown trans women.

Meanwhile, our Microgrants program is also rooted in understanding we need to change people's material conditions. We believe everyone should be able to legally change their gender, access medical care, and be able to afford edible food and necessities in prisons. Accordingly, all of our grants are low barrier and awarded on a first-come first served basis. Our job is to move resources, not determine who is and isn't worthy of help in a society that's not meeting trans people's basic needs. We also guarantee that 75% of our grants go to BIPOC trans people as a way of acknowledging how systemic racism has made resources even less available to our communities of color. This is part of reparations and working to undo centuries of stealing resources from BIPOC trans communities.

Why is it critical the organization be run for and by the trans community?
Trans Lifeline is trans-led and run because trans leadership is essential to trans liberation. These issues aren't hypothetical to us, we know what trans people need to form safe and health communities. For example, look at our policy against non-consensual active rescue. This policy emerged out of the lived experiences of our staff and operators who had the experience of reaching out to other services to talk to another person anonymously and having that set off a series of events that included misgendering by the person on the other line, being physically detained by police, and being held with people of the wrong gender in a mental health hospital they never wanted to be at. How we provide care is rooted in who we are.

It's also vital that the people who are seeking our services know that we're trans run. It allows them to assume that the person they're talking to understands what they're going through. For many of our callers, reaching out to us is the first time they've ever talked to another trans person. It's impossible to overstate how significant that can be to someone. Similarly, for people navigating the legal name and gender process, knowing that the person helping them is trans means that person has also had to navigate this process and understands how aggravating it is.

The reality is that our staff are experts at providing innovative care and programming. Our organization is proof of the remarkable knowledge and talents of our community and we're just getting started.

Can you talk about the microgrants the organization offers and what type of support or resources it provides?
We offer microgrants for a few areas: to cover the fees associated with legally changing your name and gender, to help people access Hormone Replacement Therapy, and commissary support for trans people who are imprisoned or detained. This program emerged as a way to acknowledge that some problems can't just be solved by talking and that we need to be materially providing people with resources. We focus on these three areas because gender self-determination, access to health care, and supporting trans people on the inside are vital parts of creating the world we want to live in. Of course, we acknowledge that we won't be able to move all the resources to make that world possible, currently our grant applications fill-up within 10 minutes of going live. However, we firmly believe in mobilizing as many resources as possible and putting that money directly in the hands of trans people whenever possible.

If we're talking about money in the U.S., we're also always talking about race. We used to not factor race into our monthly disbursements and we found as a result our resources were primarily going to white trans masculine individuals. We aren't proud of that past, but it's important to acknowledge how we arrived at our equity policy of holding 75% of our grants for BIPOC trans people. The simple reality is if you aren't intentionally addressing racism, you're going to reinforce it. Today, our Microgrants program operates with a lens of reparations. We are explicitly prioritizing groups that have had wealth and labor stolen from them.

While the grants are the main focus of our Microgrants department, we also maintain a database on how to navigate legal name and gender changes for every county in the nation. That includes hidden fees like publication fees for states that require you to publish the change in a newspaper and local resources where people can go for support with the process. Our Inside Advocacy program also answers letters and provides other support to trans people who are imprisoned or detained. In addition to the trauma everyone in prison faces, trans people are often uniquely targeted for harassment by prison staff. The services we provide help people survive unbelievably cruel and inhumane conditions on the inside.

How can mobile technology help you reach more individuals in need of help?
Mobile technology is key to how we operate. We use a dispersed network of staff and volunteer operators throughout the U.S. and Canada to staff our line. That's only possible with technology that allows us to not have a centralized call center. As a result, we're able to draw on local expertise from across the continent. This helps us better refer people to resources and understand the multitude of issues facing trans communities in different regions. Mobile technology also helps our callers reach us. It is important that people be able to make calls from places where they feel secure. Often that means getting outside of the house to avoid outing yourself to parents, intimate partners, or roommates.

Where do you see the organization and the services it offers in 5 years?
We always want to be providing higher quality care to more people. In 5 years we will do that by expanding our voice Hotline to also offer text and chat support -- this will help callers who suffer from vocal dysphoria and help us reach people who are uncomfortable calling on the phone. Now that we have a Spanish Extension, we're also looking at potentially adding a number for Puerto Rico and Mexico. We don't have a firm timeline for that expansion, but it's something we're currently scoping.

For Microgrants, we'd like to pivot to supporting local granting efforts in the next 5 years. We have a plan to build out a network of regional funds to help mobilize more resources and also make people less dependent on us as a stop-gap for a lack of local resources. We're currently in year one of piloting that program and if it goes well, we'll build out our first regional fund in 2022. Beyond expanding our programs, we also want to make sure we're sharing what we're learning through trans affirming advocacy. We have a lot of expertise to share with other hotlines and service provides about how to make their organizations trans inclusive. By answering thousands of calls and distributing hundreds of grants annually, we've also learned why it's important to end practices like non-consensual active rescue and what policies make legal name and gender changes accessible to people. Through dedicated advocacy efforts we can reduce the need for our services, which is always our goal. At Trans Lifeline, we dream of a world where everyone can access the care and resources they need to survive and thrive, a world where Trans Lifeline doesn't need to exist. Together, we can make that world possible. Until we get there we're going to be doing everything in our power to care for and empower our community.