James River Transgender Society celebrates 10 years as one of RVA’s most visible transgender groups
Ten years ago, the state of Virginia was on the verge of passing a ban on same-sex marriage. Only three years before, the Supreme Court had nullified sodomy laws nation-wide, though the Commonwealth would keep theirs on the books for another decade. Needless to say there was a debatably friendly atmosphere for LGBTQ folks in the area. And all the while transgender folks like Melissa Paige were just looking for a group to call their own.
“We would get together once a month on the first Friday and go down to Fielding’s where they’d open the club an hour early so we could have our own thing going on,” said Paige who, by 2006, had only just starting living full time as a woman. “It was more of a club atmosphere, people hanging out and drinking, so there really wasn’t much for support.”
Even though she was living a few hours away in Southwest Virginia, she’d make the trip to meet about 10 other girls every first Friday of the month at the dark club and unite around their gender identity.
This was the norm for sometime, but eventually the group realized there was more to their identity then a night out with drinks.
“This is great, us coming together and hanging out once a month, but there’s not much here to support each other about transitions,” Paige remembered thinking along with two other girls, Kaitlyn Rioridan, Michelle-Marie McKay, who had called the monthly event home for sometime by that point.
That sent the group searching for a new home which they found in the halls of the Fan Free Clinic. The first meeting was supposed to be more of a brain storming event, but sure enough almost 20 people showed up, about double the turn out of their usual Fielding’s events.
“It was strange, that very first meeting,” Paige said of what would soon become known as the James River Transgender Society. “We were supposed to get a room downstairs but they double booked. We ended up getting a small room upstairs and we had people standing in the hallway because there wasn’t enough room for people to sit… but everybody stayed.”
And stayed they have. Attendance at the monthly event, still held every first Friday but now at Diversity Richmond, can get as high as 30 people.
“We have people that attend the meeting as their assigned birth gender for three to six months until they come as they want to be… we want everybody to come,” Paige said. “We want them to bring their family, their coworkers, their friends. We’re open to everybody under the gender spectrum.”
The meetings consist of a number of possible events from guest speakers from the medical community to lighter topics like guides on makeup and hair removal; “Anything that you needed to do for transition,” Paige said. “We spread it out, we’ll have a guest speaker or none at all.”
Those “none at all” meetings consist of opportunities for folks to share their experiences. It was those open meetings that really spoke to new members like Keri Abrams.
Abrams has since become one of the most visible members of RVA’s trans community, but six years ago she was just another newbie to transitioning looking for people she could relate to.
“I was real terrified and scared,” Abrams said of her first meeting. But as she sat listening to other people’s stories she realized her concerns and issues were the same as everyone else’s.
“Everyone’s story sounded like my story,” she said. “I felt like I was someplace where I belonged and it helped me open up real quick.”
Abrams said she promised herself she would never be invisible after coming out as trans, and the support system offered by JRTS helped her achieve that goal.
“As I became more comfortable I began speaking out, and because of my experience at JRTS, I started finding my path of helping other people as they came in,” she said.
Sure enough she now leads meetings as one of the group’s facilitators.
“The role of a good facilitator is to shut up after [getting people talking],” she said. Abrams is never one to shy away from a joke, but she thinks that can help break the tension that often comes with talking about being trans in front of a group of people for the first time.
“I like to pick on people because it gets them to open up,” she said.
The human interaction offered by Abrams, Paige and the rest of JRTS is something the group prides itself on. Trans folks, especially those who live in rural areas like Central Virginia, often find themselves first looking for support online. But it’s that real world interaction that can make all the difference according to Abrams.
“When you’re online, you’re just see letters and numbers,” she said. “When you sit across from somebody they can see you, they can see the inflections on your face as they talk about what they went through or what you’re going through. It adds more depth and meaning to it all.”
The in-person meeting can be the difference between life and death for someone like Donna Neu of King William County. The 22-year-military veteran and retired master (mistress) electrician only came out in January of this year but she’s already found a new level of acceptance at JRTS.
Between military service, motorcycle clubs and work as an electrician, you’d figure she would have plenty of chances to find camaraderie with a group, but she said she’s never felt as at home as she does with the girls at JRTS.
“I was there, but I never fit in,” she said. “Now that I’ve found JRTS I know I found something I fit in with. I’m sure of it.”
Neu said she always knew she was different, but growing up in the suburbs outside of Philadelphia, she never even had a word for how she felt. This related all too well to the early years of JRTS when it was getting off the ground, with that lack of understanding and concern for safety and privacy being paramount.
“We would pre-screen all members before the could come to a meeting,” Paige said about the first few years of the group. The location of the meetings wasn’t publicized, and the only way you could join was if you met with a member in person first. “We were a very close group when we first started. We were scared to be out in the public,” she said. “We didn’t even do Pride [events]. They were afraid they were gonna get hurt, someone was going to be waiting in the parking lot.”
But those fears turned out to be moot. In 10 years of meeting the group has never had an incident.
“It’s a big deal, we take pride in that,” Paige said. “That we are very safe and secure and we look out for each other.”
The environment the group has created has yielded powerful results. Not only are they as public as ever, they’ve taken steps to improve relationships in the community and internally where they can. This led to one of Paige’s proudest moments for the group; the meetings they’ve had with members of Chesterfield, Henrico and Richmond’s police departments.
3/16: JRTS members along side RBA members, former RPD LGBTQ Liaison Greene and Diversity Richmond’s Bill Harrison (via GayRVA)
This has led to some descent within the group. Transfolks, especially those who have found themselves forced into sex work or remember times when raids were a realistic fear, have long been at odds with the police force. But Paige and Abrams think the relationships they’ve developed since will help to change that.
“We’ve had members who flat out said they don’t want anything to do with the police and they’ve had bad experience,” Paige said. “That’s why we felt the need to reach out and ask [local police] to be involved and educate themselves. We are normal everyday people, we just go through this one little situation that most people don’t go through.”
Whether its speakers talking about makeup, therapists talking about hormone options, the local police chief offering his ear, or just a place to share, JRTS has worked hard to make themselves more than just a support group for some of Central Virginia’s most vulnerable.
“It’s a big family,” Paige said. “We look out for each other. We do things together every single Sunday, we do things on the weekend, sometimes we get together in the middle of the week and go out for dinner. It’s not just a once-a-month group.”
Neu agreed saying she’s opened her house to a fellow JRTS member when they needed someone to look over her as she recovered from an invasive surgery.
“She had nobody to take her and watch her, so she stayed here for a week,” she said. Neu and her wife took care of the girl for a week while she recovered. “That is something I asked her… and there are very few people I would have asked that.”
JRTS aims to be as open and inclusive as possible. They’ve got a bit of a rep as being mostly male-to-female trans, but all members of the LGBTQ and gender spectrum, as well as family, coworkers and anyone else interested, are welcome to attend their meetings.
You can find out more about the group on their website here, or head on over to a meeting on the first Friday of every month at 7 PM at Diversity Richmond.
“Erin was there whenever I needed.”July 27, 2016
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