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Still standing: Trans women in Kansas City share their story of survival, empowerment

Transformations KC
Posted at 4:50 PM, Jun 30, 2022
and last updated 2022-06-30 17:50:19-04

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (KSHB) — As KSHB 41 News wraps up the month of June, we want to leave you with real stories of women who are often pushed to the side during Pride month and throughout the year - transgender women of color.

Statistically, they experience more violence than other members of the LGBTQ+ community, and too often their lives are cut short because of who they are.

With help from local organization Transformations KC, we spoke with three trans women who have endured hard times but transcended society's stereotypes to become leaders in the community.

Kelly Nou says she's gone through a lot in her life to be where she is today, living her truth and setting an example for young women like her.

"I'm still standing and you're still watching," Nou said.

Nou is a survivor, and she says this with a confidence and grit that comes with years of fighting.

"It's a lot of things we had to endure, like being bashed or being bullied and stuff and I'm just grateful to even be here just sitting here sharing my story, because a lot of my sisters in the past have not made it this far," Nou said.

Nou lives her life as visible advocate for her sisters in the trans community and a leader with Transformations KC, a group that works to uplift young trans people, specifically trans women of color.

"It's important because we're getting murdered every day, so it's best to allow us to have that voice," Nou said.

We met with Nou to shine light on her story, parts of which she says people would prefer to stay hidden. It's a story she shares with Treshawn Roberts and Monica DeJesus Anaya.

That story takes us to Troost Avenue and Manheim Road.

"It brings a lot of memories," Nou said

Nou and Roberts used to work Troost back in the day as sex workers. DeJesus Anaya worked in Chicago.

"Things have changed a lot, but the cars haven't," Nou said. "They're still coming."

As a car drove slowly past the intersection, DeJesus Anaya added, "As you can see right now!"

The girls laughed.

They were young, out trying to navigate a world that rejected them.

"My parents didn't understand trans," Nou said. "I knew I was a different kind of girl and my parents did not understand that."

So, Nou and many other young trans women found safety in each other.

Nou left her parents' house in her teens, seeking guidance from an older trans woman. Nou said there were multiple girls "shacked up" in a one or two bedroom apartment, just trying to get food, pay the rent, and keep the lights on.

At night, when "traffic would come swarming," they would come out to what's called the Hoe Stroll, Nou said.

"It would be 15 girls. It would be a few on each corner," Nou said. "It ranges from 34th & Armour and Troost & 43rd, which was a nail shop. We would work at night and, on the weekends, would go to the nail shop, and the nail shop people knew us."

The work did not come without dangers.

Roberts said they'd come out with crowbars and sledgehammers.

"Yes, baby, we had them hidden in the bushes," Roberts said. "'Because we used to drive and park our cars. So, we always had access because we knew what this was."

Nou said they had to protect themselves and their sisters.

"We'd look out for each other, try to make sure we get the description of the vehicle that our sister would go into," Nou said.

Survival sex work is often a part of the trans experience, rooted in discrimination.

"Jobs were not hiring us," Nou said. "Jobs were discriminating against us."

The National Center for Transgender Equality's most recent survey shows that one in eight trans people have done sex work. When you learn that trans people of color are three times more likely to be living in poverty than anyone else in the country and the unemployment rate for trans people of color is four times higher than the U.S. population - you see that sex work is something many resort to.

"And then when we did get employment, it was minimum wage. Not the minimum wage that we have in 2022, but the minimum wage we had in '98, '99, 2000. So, if you google the minimum wage, you will see why sex work was the next best thing," Roberts said. "I'm not ashamed of it, I'm proud of it."

Nou said one of the milestones in her life was when she decided to go to work in "full geish," which means dressed up in full wardrobe and makeup. Despite feeling liberated and fully herself, Nou said she ended up being fired from her job that day.

Walking the walk fiercely and unapologetically every day, these women say, will help pave the way for the next girl.

"Sharing our stories and our journeys literally keeps us trans women alive," DeJesus Anaya said.

Trans people, especially trans women of color, face violence more than anyone else. The survey shows many folks endured it at school and from their own family.

While the data isn't complete, we know at least 9 trans women and femme men have been murdered in Kansas City over the last 10 years.

Dee Dee Pearson was shot in killed in KCMO in 2011.
Dionte Greene was shot and killed in KCMO in 2014.
Jasmine Collins was stabbed to death in KCMO in 2015.
Tamara Dominguez was killed after a man ran her over multiple times in KCMO in 2015.
Ta'Ron "Rio" Carson was shot and killed in KCMO in 2018.
Brooklyn Lindsey was shot and killed in KCMO in 2019.
Ja’Leyah Berryman was shot and killed in KCK in 2019.
Brianna Hill was shot and killed in KCMO in 2019.
Aerrion Burnett was shot and killed in KCMO in 2020.

All of these victims are people of color, who see the highest rates of violence.

More trans women of color have been murdered in areas around Kansas City, including Reesey Walker, killed in Wichita in 2016; Nina Pop, killed in Sikeston, Missouri, in 2020; Dominique Lucious, killed in Springfield, Missouri, in 2021.

According to a study by Transgender Europe, which monitors violence against trans people worldwide, more than 3,600 murders of transgender and gender-expansive people have been reported since 2008. Most of the murders happen in the victim's own home or in the street.

It's very personal for Nou because one of those women, Aerrion Burnett, was her friend.

Burnett had a "heart of gold" and the news of her murder devastated her friends and family. She was shot and found dumped on the side of the road at 13th Street South and South Brookside Avenue.

Nou had the honor of doing Burnett's makeup for her funeral.

"I just felt so empowered to even be in that position because her parents respect her enough to allow me to be in the position to do her makeup to send their daughter off the correct way," Nou said.

Yes, these women have seen hard times. But they're still standing.

"I'm a vet," Roberts said. "I'm a icon, I'm a legend, baby. I have lived to see all the days. The good days, the bad days."

Their work today is to make sure their sisters experience a better Kansas City than the one they were given years ago.

Nou is the vice president of the board at Transformations KC. She's nurtured many young trans women over the years, helping them come into their own.

Roberts has always lived her life boldly, breaking out as a performer when she was 14.

"I would wear my show stuff to school and the kids would be like, 'Okay, who's this b——? Now what is she doing?'" Roberts said. "Thigh-high boots, leather catsuits, fur coats. Yeah, and I wanted to be the glamorous girl at all costs."

Roberts, who also goes by Treshawn Seymour, is a seamstress, hairstylist and makeup artist. She's been heavily involved in Kansas City's ballroom scene and holds a title of Queen Mother, which takes on many roles in the trans community, including being a mentor and mother figure.

DeJesus Anaya is a reality star, whose stage persona is Monica Beverly Hillz. She starred in season five of RuPaul's Drag Race and was the first queen to come out on the show as a trans woman.

It's not all trauma. These women have joy, love, sisterhood, and a chosen family in their lives.

"You know, we're not just sex workers," Nou said. "We're human beings and we still can be successful and beautiful at the same time."