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"Black Trans Lives Matter," Says New Mural In Neighborhood Known For Sex Work

Trans activists and allies took over several blocks of N. Charles Street Friday to paint a new street mural reading “BLACK TRANS LIVES MATTER,” as reckonings over race and health continue to play out across the country. 

The mural, stretching from 21st to 23rd St., is on the same set of streets that many Black trans women perform survival sex work -- that is, the practice of trading sex for basic needs. Some of them have been killed or died from overdoses.


“It’s very uncomfortable for Black trans women here in Baltimore to just have a normal job, to have a normal life,” said Iya Dammons, the executive director of Baltimore Safe Haven, an organization that serves trans people with food, shelter, opportunity and everything in between. 

Trans women of color face a barrage of societal hurdles, including elevated rates of murder, substance addiction and health problems. Dammons founded her group because she knows the depth and urgency of services that trans people in Baltimore need.

“It was started and created by someone that's just like them,” she said. “The support system is around everything that I knew I needed when I was out there living in survival mode.”

That includes a transitional housing program, which Coryn Davis participates in. The organization has given her the chance to thrive, she said.

“They’re actually paying for beauty school for me, they’re paying for my driving school,” Davis said. “They’re just giving the girls the opportunity to do what they need to do.”

The mural and outreach of community support for the mural is a cause for celebration during the coronavirus pandemic, which forced many Pride Month activities to be cancelled in June.  

“We might not have had Pride this year,” Davis said. “But we’re gonna make it happen. This is what we do.” 

Jabari Lyles is the Director of LGBTQ Affairs in the Mayor’s Office at City Hall. The  mural may be a visibility victory, he said, but more work remains.

“We can’t hang our hats on painting a mural on the street saying Black trans lives matter, but then not augmenting that with things that really show us that Black trans lives matter,” Lyles said. 

Those things include access to gender-affirminghealth care, schools without victimization and bullying, safe and accessible housing and jobs, he said.

“What I'd like to see the government start to do is put some of their dollars behind the supportive programs that we know we need,” Lyles said. “What does a leadership pipeline program look like for Black trans people, one where we have funding to make sure that all of these folks have a jobs placement and housing?”

Mayor Jack Young had planned on attending the event, Lyles said, but was forced to miss it for a funeral. 

Taking the mic at a rally after the stenciling was finished, Councilman Zeke Cohen decried Young’s choice not to divert recently cut funds from the Baltimore City Police Department to groups that provide crucial LGBTQ support, like Baltimore Safe Haven. 

“We need to fund lifesaving services,” the South Baltimore Democrat said.

As sun retreated, volunteers donned plastic shoe covers and got to work painting the stenciled letters blue, pink and white: the colors of the transgender flag.

Jamie Grace, the artist behind the mural’s planning, said the location and message of the artwork hits home.

“It’s really heartwarming to see these words on the street because I have walked down the street without feeling them,” she said.   

The best things allies can do to support her work, she said, are action items -- like empathising with, humanizing, befriending and aiding Black trans women.

“There’s a really large idea that the way to be an ally to Black trans people is to remember or notice when we die,” the artist said. “I think that’s a very low bar for allies to follow. It’s much more meaningful for that support to be here for Black trans people while we are still alive.”

Dammons said she hopes her volunteers that showed up on Friday or expressed digital support from afar continue to show up for Black trans people and advocate for funding their badly needed services. 

“Don’t just like us today because we're trending right now,” Dammons said. “Like us when there is nothing trending, because Black trans lives matter even when it's not for show.” 


Emily Sullivan is a city hall reporter at WYPR, where she covers all things Baltimore politics. She joined WYPR after reporting for NPR’s national airwaves. There, she was a reporter for NPR’s news desk, business desk and presidential conflicts of interest team. Sullivan won a national Edward R. Murrow Award for an investigation into a Trump golf course's finances alongside members of the Embedded team. She has also won awards from the Chesapeake Associated Press Broadcasters Association for her use of sound and feature stories. She has provided news analysis on 1A, The Takeaway, Here & Now and All Things Considered.