Aimée-Josiane Twagirumukiza is many things: Black, Rwandan, queer, an immigrant. They are an advocate, organizer and trainer currently serving as board president of the National LGBTQ Workers Center. We met when we were both working at the National Domestic Workers Alliance.
This Pride month, we sat down to reflect on the experience of queer and trans people in workplaces and how we continue fight for justice and equality. Our discussion spanned substance use and housing discrimination, Title VII, the shortcomings of the labor rights movement, the meaning of Juneteenth as a federal holiday and how straight allies get to enjoy Pride as party while the most marginalized queer folks are left shouldering the work. The interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Umme Hoque: What forms of discrimination do you regularly see queer and trans people facing in workplaces and other contexts?
Aimée-Josiane Twagirumukiza: It’s hard to suss out what that is. It’s not as simple as saying, “We’re seeing LGBTQ [discrimination] looking like this,” because we don’t want to misrepresent and say trans folks are experiencing the same thing cis gay men are experiencing, as lesbian Black women are experiencing.
What we do know is that discrimination—not being hired or being promoted—it’s something more trans and queer folks experience in comparison to their straight and cis counterparts.
Another issue is access and retention. It’s one thing to be able to apply for the job and be denied, but how do we actually ensure that people can apply? That’s when we get into issues around ID, housing and other factors that impact people even having access to work, like training and professional development. When we talk about job readiness programs—that looks different if you are a Black trans woman. How competent is the [hiring] person at the nonprofit at understanding the experience of Black trans women?
Every once in a while, organizations will reach out to us for help with updating policies at work so they’re more accountable to trans and queer folks. But where some projects can be short-sighted is thinking that delivering the training and the opportunity to work is enough. And what we’re finding out is that it’s just not true.
“You have all this training, but you can’t use it because you’re met with violence no matter where you work.”
That’s been a tactic that organized labor have used to create externships, teaching skills from underrepresented communities to help lift them up and create good union jobs for people who haven’t had access to them. But what they’re not doing is [engaging with how those workplaces] are being racist, homophobic and transphobic—and so our folks don’t last there. So then you have all this training in an industry you maybe never thought of working in before, but you can’t use those skills because you’re being met with violence at work no matter where you go.
Decriminalizing sex work is also a big issue that we’re dealing. To have it be criminalized facilitates violence because it says, “What you’re doing is illegal, no one is checking for you or coming for you, and it’s okay if you get hurt.” And if you leave sex work for more formal sectors, when people find out about your past in sex work—or assume you have a past in sex work—that also gets leveraged against you.
A big priority for us in thinking about queer and trans labor is thinking about how we don’t just decriminalize, but also put some protections behind sectors like sex work that are extremely gray and not being included in the formal labor movement.
That’s another way that we can play a role in really understanding the language of unions and explaining to folks why it’s important that, no matter what kind of work you’re doing, you have access to the tools that unions have developed to help workers—like an enforceable contract.
How can substance use discrimination intersect with employment and housing discrimination for LGBTQ people?
The queer community is more likely to have substance use issues, and it stems from the same things that make us more likely to be poor and homeless. There’s a lot at stake for people who live their truth, and for those who are closeted from their truth. The internal struggle that people have, in addition to messages that folks are getting about the extreme devaluing of our lives, all of that compounds and leads to queer and trans folks using more substances.
There is something to be said about having to use substances in order to show up when the work is hard. Because sometimes the work is hard. Imagine being visibly queer in street-based sex work, or working in construction trades—what can be incredibly hard, incredibly toxic work environments. People need a way to cope.
Substance use and housing are both economic justice issues. Our society puts a stigma on not having housing, and you can’t get an ID or certain services without an address. And if I can’t sleep somewhere safe, and if I don’t have a space to put my things, then it’s easy for there to be dysfunction in other places—in my relationships, work. There’s a part of [depending on] substances that’s very functional—this is how many people are able to create some stability in a dysfunctional realm.
There’s something that feels really unfair about the relationship between shelter and drug use as well. Substance use becomes a barrier to getting shelter. Black and Brown trans women and queer folks have a culture of creating houses that are chosen family and literal places of shelter. That’s where this comes in as low-barrier access to shelter. It shouldn’t be commodified and high-barrier in the way that it is. Try going to the Salvation Army as a queer person. And then as a queer person using substances!
If the homophobia and transphobia doesn’t keep you out, the substance use [discrimination] probably would. It feels like an impossible situation right now.
What actions have you been taking to fight these forms of discrimination?
In 2019, we had an Economic Justice Summit in Chicago. It was an accessible place for queer and trans workers to come together—physical, language and healing justice to support folks, cause stuff comes up when you talk economics and labor. Out of that came an idea to start a Chicago worker’s rights hotline.
The Ilinois attorney general has something like a reporting line, but we wanted to create a community-based one. Someone on the other side saying, “You’re justified. Here are your rights. How we can support you?” We launched it last fall, bilingual in English and Spanish.
We want to utilize it as a community resource and a bridge into organizing. Not everyone is in a union. Laws don’t enforce themselves, and enforcing labor rights is hard in a small workplace that’s exempt from that—which tends to be the case for our folks. We’re testing this out to see if it’s something that can be used as a community resource and help us to cut issues in the Chicago area and help shift power for workers.
The overwhelming amount of isolation and poverty right now is really crazy-making for trans and queer workers. We want to do something right now, and that is testing out the hotline.
We are also mobilizing all of our members and supporters to an economic justice summit in September, which we are using as a launching point for regional convenings to bring folks doing work around economic justice and anti-poverty—specifically with an eye on trans and queer people.
One thing we were really excited about last year was the recent Supreme Court ruling in favor of gender identity and sexual orientation being included under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. It was especially powerful for me because the subject of that case was a trans woman who worked in a funeral home in Clayton County, south of where I live in the Atlanta area; she didn’t live to see that ruling.
Some folks come to us because they’re part of a union that won’t protect them when they’re experiencing violence that’s now under that Title VII category. Or they come to us because they’re working in an industry that will never be unionized or not in the near future. That made us wonder: What is the importance of this ruling?
The outcome of Title VII won’t mean anything unless we find ways to make it real on the ground.
We realized the outcome won’t mean anything down here, unless we find ways to make it real on the ground. We gotta test it. What does it mean for us to have this federal protection, when I might be living somewhere where people like me are being murdered? I might not have any Department of Labor workers in my state who understand the nuances of being a trans person, an LGB person, to even give me the competency that I need to navigate the claims.
My highest vision is workers setting the agenda and then bringing labor groups, workers centers, unions, advocacy groups and insiders together to put power and accelerate what it is that folks need to fight.
After this ruling, if we can’t start making on the ground wins for folks in places like South Georgia, Michigan, Texas, Wisconsin, then—and I don’t say this to take away from the importance—it’s not going to mean anything for long. The next two years are an opportunity to make good on the momentum of that case for our movement, but to do that we have to build our capacity to do the work on the ground.
We recently celebrated Juneteenth. You’ve organized and lived in Texas, where it originated. What do you think about Juneteenth becoming a federal holiday?
I went to Galveston, Texas, in 2019. It was really exciting to be there and think about Juneteenth, but I still felt some type of way. I’m from the same Africa as people who are descendants of slaves here in the US. I was dealing with those feelings. I didn’t even realize until the last minute that there was this federal recognition on the table.
I love Texas, and I love that it’s a story for Texas. So I default to Black Texans. Two Black Texans who influence my thoughts said, “This is ours, and this is weird.” So I feel two ways: Juneteenth is ours, and this is weird.
We don’t want to see Pelosi in a dashiki. It’s so symbolic; it’s like getting a mud cake from a child. You respond with “this is so nice, and you worked so hard for it.” But, you didn’t really. You didn’t measure any eggs or butter. You just put water and dirt together. It’s hard to get excited about symbolism right now.
This is happening after the Supreme Court has upheld that religious orgs don’t have to care about being inclusive of queer and trans folks. It’s coming on the heels of voting rights being attacked in Georgia, Texas and other states, and white people having no clue what critical race theory is—but still legislating against it. All these concrete things are happening. Sometimes the issue is that we get excited about symbolic things, while the right gets excited about concrete things.
While Black people—Black women in particular, and Black queer and trans folks—are on the bottom of every indicator of economic success from wages to home ownership, it doesn’t matter that there’s a holiday. It could be Juneteenth every day.
There’s so many other things that we really could be addressing. So I’m confused as to how this rose to the level of importance that it did, particularly during a time when people are being murdered and evicted. They bypassed all the concrete things and gave us a cake. It’s disconnected to me. We got something symbolic, and the right got something concrete.
What are your reflections on Pride this year? If we envision it as living true joy, how can we get there?
I want to feel joyful. It’s a joyful time of year. I have had joyful experiences, like going home to the deep South and seeing people celebrating out there. I don’t subscribe to mainstream pride. There’s a Southern Friend Queer Pride that’s a smaller, queerer version of Pride that I’m excited for. I want to feel joyful for all those things, but I also feel mourning.
Maybe it’s because I’m with other people who are thinking about hardships all the time. It makes me sad. Since last Pride, we’ve lost ground on religious exemption, lost at least hundreds of trans Black people who have been murdered. In Georgia, we still have people campaigning to be removed from mens’ prisons. There’s all these things that are wrong, but it’s important to still make room for joy.
What bothers me about Pride, if I try to name it, is that I feel like the trans and queer Black and Brown folks understand the mourning, and the allies get to see the celebration. I think we should get to celebrate, and others should get to reckon with the hardship and the mourning. But, when I look online at Black trans and queer folks that ideate things that I believe, they do a lot of labor this month reminding people about this reality.
We have to do the work of reminding them, because otherwise Pride will become something completely removed from us—it’ll become Valentine’s Day. It’ll become an entirely commercialized reason to go to TJ Maxx and buy rainbow pillows. That’s great—and I wish there was an understanding of Pride about how this is your time to go and learn about why this is here.
Seeing non-queer people celebrate Pride makes me angry because of that reason. Why should I be mourning in reality, while you’re happy in this fantasy?
Photograph courtesy of Aimée-Josiane Twagirumukiza (right) and the National LGBTQ Workers Center