by Mary Reeves | Photos by H.N. James
“It’s going to be a very rough ride over the next three and a half years.” That’s the word from Dr. Marisa Richmond about the fight for LGBT rights, both on the local and the national levels.
Richmond, a black transgender woman who teaches history and women’s studies at MTSU, also lobbies tirelessly for the Tennessee Transgender Political Coalition (TTPC).
She was the coalition’s first president and continues to educate senators and representatives on state and federal levels about the need to protect members of the LGBT+ community from discrimination, bullying and hate crimes.
She recently visited Washington, going to the offices of Tennessee’s elected officials, Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Memphis, and Rep. Jim Cooper, D-Nashville, as well as Republican senators Bob Corker and Lamar Alexander, to talk about equality legislation that would ban discrimination against LGBT people.
“We’ve been going up there for years,” she said with a laugh. “I think they all have a file on me! I have been a regular visitor for years, but not just me. They are seeing different faces and hearing different voices each time.”
If they are keeping a file on her, it’s an impressive one.
Richmond’s credentials are many and memorable. A native of Nashville’s Bordeaux neighborhood, she received degrees from both Harvard and Berkeley, studying history and political science. She worked for the Smithsonian for a decade, centered in the Air and Space Museum.
“I came back to Nashville in 1992,” said Richmond. “I taught at TSU for a while, then took a break.”
After her sabbatical, Richmond took a position as an adjunct professor at MTSU, where she shares her love of history with her students.
Working for others
She was the first president of the TTPC and was named last year to Nashville Mayor Megan Barry’s Metro Human Relations Commission. She was the first transgender person to be named to a local government position in the state.
“There are 17 of us,” said Richmond. “Our mission is to investigate discrimination in Metro government.”
The commission originally organized to investigate discrimination against blacks by Nashville police, but grew to include any accusations of discrimination toward any group, such as Hispanics, Muslims, LGBT people, or women, reported within any Metro department, she explained.
“Ironically,” said Richmond, “the biggest focus again today is investigating discrimination against black people by police.”
Richmond said she has been luckier than most people in her situation when it comes to discrimination.
“As a black trans woman, I know I’m in a high-risk category,” she said. “In my case, I benefit from my education and my academic credentials. My academic standing has provided insulation.”
“Most of my coworkers have told me they admire the work I do,” Richmond continued, “especially the historians. In history, we talk about discriminating, about the difficulties different groups have had in integrating into our society. We’re just the newest group.”
Richmond said she knew her true gender identity when she was only 7 years old, but waited until her parents had passed away before making the change.
“They were a different generation, a different mind set,” she said.
Growing up, Richmond said the only visible examples and “role models” for the transgendered were “sex workers and entertainers.”
“I didn’t want to do any of that,” she said. “After I grew up, I started to meet other people, but before, I was isolated. I remember thinking there were 5 billion people on the planet and there had to be other people out there like me.”
She pointed out that in those times, there was no internet, no social networking, no way of contacting the community she needed.
That ability to network and the availability of support are advantages the transgendered youth of today have, but they still face the discrimination, mistrust, misinformation and abuse that the trans people of Richmond’s generation did.
The social and physical perils than run concomitant with self-realization and acknowledgment as a trans person are still there, such as mental distress and illness, and substance abuse, she said.
This is why Richmond does not confine herself to dropping in on senators or teaching about transgender in the women’s studies program at MTSU. She also works to educate public officials and to establish better and more available health care.
In one case, they were discussing the need to create satellite offices to provide medical and mental health assistance to the trans community in underserved areas.
“One official in West Tennessee said it wasn’t a problem. ‘We don’t have any here,’ he said,” Richmond noted. “There are trans people everywhere.”
She is also working to help Planned Parenthood.
“Planned Parenthood is the single biggest provider of healthcare for trans people,” said Richmond. “Everywhere. Including Tennessee.”
And like the LGBT+ community, Planned Parenthood faces uncertain times with the new administration.
For a better future
Policies, said Richmond, whether on a corporate or government level, are based on interpretations of the federal laws, and she sees the current administration backing away from previous interpretations that granted rights to the LGBT community.
One example is the Knoxville City School system, which was the first to write policy protecting transgender students from bullying.
“Bullying in our eyes includes the denial of gender appropriate facilities — that includes bathrooms,” said Richmond.
But then, the Knoxville system reversed its stand and removed the policy. This backpedaling is what Richmond fears will happen on a large scale everywhere.
“What I hope will happen is they will stop this reversal, and that we can also move forward on full health care,” she said. “I don’t expect this administration to do that. I’m hopeful the Supreme Court would rule positively on trans issues.”
“Realistically?” she continued. “We’re not going to see that over the next three and a half years. This administration is downright hostile. If he (Trump) is replaced by Mike Pence — we all know he is very homophobic and transphobic. It’s going to be a very rough ride.”
In the meantime, Richmond isn’t going to just grit her teeth as life hits the bumps in the road and ignore the problem. She continues to work on a local level, approaching school boards and working on Barry’s commission; and at the national level, lobbying elected officials.
Everyone, she said, can do the same thing.
“We (TTPC) will be endorsing state candidates. We generally don’t endorse federal candidates, but we do provide information on the candidates and the issues,” said Richmond.
“Get involved,” she advised. “Get engaged. Be aware of the issues. Run for office yourself.”