South Carolina’s 2021 legislative session has been a harsh reminder that complacency is dangerous when dealing with harmful and discriminatory legislation. Just in the past few weeks, a near-total abortion ban passed both chambers of the legislature and was signed by the governor (before being temporarily blocked by a federal judge). And now, we are facing a bill that prohibits transgender student athletes from participating in middle school and high school sports. This bill has its first hearing this week. The Campaign for Southern Equality and 30+ other organizations are working to defeat the bill through the SC United for Justice & Equality coalition.
Being a trans young person in South Carolina is pretty scary and demoralizing these days, and developing and maintaining support systems can be very challenging for many LGBTQ+ young people. However, a grassroots nonprofit in Charleston called We Are Family is working hard to provide necessary resources for youth like me, and I am so thankful for their work in our community. I have been both a volunteer and a recipient of We Are Family’s services, and they have immeasurably improved my experience as a trans person, from helping me get my first binder to connecting me with lots of other incredible young people from our area.
We got to talk with Cora Webb, We Are Family’s program director, about the resources that they provide for LGBTQ+ youth, changes that have been made due to COVID, and how they are responding to the South Carolina legislature’s terrifying beginning to its session.
Eli Bundy: What does We Are Family do, and what is your role within it?
Cora Webb: We Are Family is a local Southern grassroots organization, and we provide affirming resources and spaces for LGBTQ+ and ally youth. I work as the program director, and I have been working at WAF since February 2019, so two years now. I brought a lot of organization to the structure of WAF, while helping to expand our programming. Now we have 5 staff members which is a big step forward in having the support we need to better serve youth in our area.
Eli: How has being an LGBTQ+ person of color in the South influenced your work?
Cora: At the intersection of being a Black person in the South and being a queer person in the South, I’m constantly confronting how difficult it is to dismantle and work against the systems that we are in. And also, at my job, I think we bring a lot of tenderness and compassion to what we do, because we understand that we lacked those things in our upbringings in terms of gender identity, sexuality, or the conversation about that in general. I think a lot of us share that experience – we live in a homophobic, transphobic, and racist society, and knowing that and having to integrate that into our programming can feel like a lot – it’s intellectually, emotionally, and physically taxing, but it’s what we choose to do and what we have to do. A lot of us see ourselves in servitude of creating a better society. I don’t know how much of a choice I had there, but that’s how the cookie crumbles for a lot of us.
Eli: How has We Are Family evolved during the COVID-19 pandemic, and what issues have you faced in interacting with youth?
Cora: In March, we were all thrown for a whirl. Across the United States, in terms of organizations that support queer and trans youth, we were trying to figure out how to provide support digitally. We lost touch with a lot of people in the early days of the pandemic – and I understand that. I want to honor that people need space and may not have the resources and support in their homes or communities. At the same time, I tried to think about how we could transform some of the things we were doing in-person to work online.
I’m a person who needs physical interaction to be able to develop friendships. It can be hard to make friends on Zoom when you meet them for the first time, and it can be hard to move to the next step with people and build deeper relationships there. Even so, we try to create a space for that online.
We had to digitize so much of our programming. One of our programs, the Peer Discussion Group, became a bi-weekly structure. We are on social media now a lot more now – it’s our primary way of getting in contact and being in touch with people.
“We should have more space in the world and be more open to people exploring, and then we should be able to connect folks with greater access to resources to help them understand. Our young people need more space and more compassion.” – Cora Webb
I love our team. I love Nijeeah, Gabby, Chandler, and Jonatan so much. We fuel each other’s ambitions, we calm each other down, we take the load off of each other’s shoulders. I am so appreciative of their support and I am proud of how we have bumped out and bumped up We Are Family together.
Our thrift store has also opened back up! Jonatan from our team just did a virtual market, which I thought was really nice.
We also have our Trans Love Fund service – it’s a microgrant program with AFFA, and we are currently reopening that. We had to raise more money for the fund because it goes so quickly, but we are about to reopen it now and we are giving out microgrants of $100 per person for whoever applies. We wanted to make the application a low-barrier process. Before the pandemic, we received so many requests of folks seeking support, and they would require committee meetings. But we wanted to remove that barrier and increase access to support right away. In general, we’re learning how we can make our programming more accessible and easy for folks.
Eli: Why did you start working more with local GSAs recently, and what do you offer to GSAs?
Cora: Before I came to WAF, there was a GSA program – people from We Are Family visited schools in the Tri-County Area to establish a connection. Logistically, a lot of our youth are in schools, and that’s where a lot of our youth encounter their greatest hardships. So naturally, with our mission, we wanted to create a bridge between the environments that our youth are in, and one of those hubs was GSAs.
In 2020, I visited a lot of schools and came in contact with a lot of students, and I liked hearing issues and concerns among young people about their resources and future plans as a GSA.
I want people in schools to be in contact with people in other schools in their community, and I want them to build things together and be in touch and in community. I want to recognize patterns of homophobia, transphobia, etc. that need to change in one school and unify them with similar patterns in other schools.
Honestly, for anyone who reaches out to me, I’ll do what I can to put them in contact with folks that they want to be in contact with. Sometimes I go to GSAs, and they say, “We don’t have a structure or a core mission or planning committees,” and I’ll see if they want to do planning or goal mapping for events or anything like that.
We Are Family is also a representative of the National GSA Network, and they prioritize gender justice and trans justice and racial justice, and that’s something we want to take into schools this year for sure.
Eli: What have you learned from working with LGBTQ+ youth in the South?
Cora: That’s a great question, because it’s endless. I have learned that everybody, especially the young people I work with, deserve to have the space to explore and be themselves and be uncertain and be safe.
I think there’s a lot of stress – especially with parents and young people who email me – who have concerns. We should have more space in the world and be more open to people exploring, and then we should be able to connect folks with greater access to resources to help them understand. Our young people need more space and more compassion.
Eli What advice do you have for other leaders in your field?
Cora: Definitely do not act as though you’re the expert on everything. In general, we’re pressured to think that we know everything about that position, but that’s not true.
I also would say folks should be open to feedback and criticism so we can be sure we’re serving people appropriately and providing people with the help they actually want to be receiving. That continuous feedback loop is so important to making us better advocates.
I also think folks need to learn how to apologize and take accountability. Learning how to be open and transparent and not being perfect is very important. We think that because someone’s in community with us, they can’t harm us, but that’s not true. If you misgender someone, you need to learn that you’re not perfect and you need to apologize. It comes up a lot in terms of power dynamics: The person in charge thinks that they’re an exemption to a rule, but that’s not true. We are all on the same level, we all have things to learn and teach.
I also can’t say enough about the need to constantly push and fight. It can be very draining. I feel a pressure to educate and reflect on respectability politics and other things.
Eli: Can you tell us a bit about how you and We Are Family have been involved in the fight to push back against South Carolina’s extreme legislation prohibiting most abortions in the state? And can you tell us a bit about your testimony?
Cora: Like many other organizations and individuals we have been speaking out and joining actions in protest of this dangerous bill. At WAF we have protested in many ways. I have testified in the Senate and House subcommittee meetings, gone down to the state house to protest, contacted representatives, posted on social media, shared what is happening with our community, etc.
We are trying everything that can be done to make it known that this is happening and needs to be stopped. Of all of these actions, the most tedious has been testifying at the subcommittee meetings. You have to rush to sign up, receive a link, and wait for hours to give your testimony, while listening to people state outrageous lies about abortion and its impact.
I realized early on that constituents giving testimonies in support of abortion access filled with logic, studies, and scientific facts did not sway the sponsors and supporters of these bills to change their opinion. It is obvious that our representatives do not care about their constituents needs and desires – because if they did, we would be trying to figure out how to enhance COVID relief, not ban abortions.
So my purpose in testifying was to simply tell them what they are: sexist, transphobic, homophobic, white supremacists, who deserve to be voted out and forgotten. They do not represent us and will not give us what we need.
Eli: Transgender youth are also being attacked at the Statehouse by a bill seeking to exclude trans youth from school athletics. Do you have a message of support for trans young people who may feel threatened or let down by lawmakers?
Cora: I will always have loving messages for my people! My message mirrors the famous Fred Hampton quote – “Power anywhere where there’s people.” The power lies with them, with us. Nothing is forever. These oppressive systems will fall and we are gaining ground each moment.
As much as our elected officials want it to seem as though they have final say over our lives, they do not. And we will always fight. Trans people everywhere, please know that you deserve more than what they could ever offer you. Keep living, and we will be right here, too.