Karleigh Answers The Call
This blog post is part of a series of interviews in which we invite you to learn more about our Hotline work from the perspective of our operators. In order to meet increased need for our services around the holidays we’re trying to raise $75,000 by 11/26/2019. Thanks to a matching gift, every dollar you give between now and then will be doubled! Donate now or read on to be inspired by our operator Karleigh.
Karleigh has worked as a staff operator on the hotline since December 2017. She brings the identities of being trans, African-American, athlete, journalist to the table, and believes fervently that trans people deserve to be recognized for the things we do instead of the labels of the things we are.
Tell us a little about your backstory.
The first Trans Day of Remembrance I attended in New Haven in 2016 was a defining moment for me. By that time, I had decided that I was going to go forward with my transition no matter what — including coming out at work, my social transition, and getting on HRT. At the New Haven Pride Center, I heard someone talking about the intersection of worker rights and trans rights. That person turned out to be IV, Trans Lifeline’s Hotline Program Director. Learning from them led me to becoming a volunteer a year later.
My evolution was a long process. A lot of people gave me a lot of advice and worked with me, and the best way I could pay them back was to pay it forward by volunteering as an operator. I’ve done a lot of great things in my life and this is at the top. I’m helping the next person that is awkward and unsure like me, and that means a lot.
What identities do you bring to this work that impact how you do it?
The first identity is as someone who found their truth later in life, but still remembers what it was like to bump into that truth as a young person without having the vocabulary or the support to dive into it. I get to be a bridge. I am also a sponge — I’ve taken a lot of wisdom from all types of people, which isn’t always connected to age. Kids coming up today have a lot of wisdom because they’ve had access. They’ve gotten to be open and deal with a level of resistance that older folks don’t understand. We dealt with different resistance and choices.
I am also an athlete, which involves spirit. I relate to callers as a human being — I want to go beyond the nuts and bolts to find out what drives you, what do you like to do, what do you enjoy. A friend says “our lives are transitions and our stories have to go beyond the medical portion of them.” We have to define our lives beyond HRT and surgeries, we have to keep our passions and our focus as whole human beings.
I also bring my racial identity. Being African-American and trans are not mutually exclusive. I bring Blackness, transness, arts, crafts, being an athlete, working as a journalist for 25 years. I’ve gotten to to talk shop with a few callers in my field trying to get in the newsroom. It’s a force multiplier to have someone understand your workplace and speak your language, your craft, your art. I strive to bring my whole person to this because being trans is just one component of who we are. I want callers to see their whole person no matter what state they’re in. We deserve to be recognized for the things we do instead of the labels of the things we are.
What does your day-to-day look like at Trans Lifeline?
Every day is different. A caller could be a kid who is just starting school, or someone my age. You get people from all walks of life. What perks me up is getting a first time caller and getting to tell them everyone that you’re talking to is trans and that brings their energy up. I had a caller a few months ago who wanted to end their life. They said, “This is a trans line but you’re probably cis,” and I said, “Whoa there, you’re wrong.” They broke down in tears about finally getting to talk to another trans person. We brought them back from the brink. I get at least one of those callers a day.
What has moved you most in this work?
Getting to share my experiences with the people who want to start transitioning but are feeling unsure because they’ve heard a lot of hearsay. Also, the people who don’t realize they have resources in their own backyard. I had a caller in Wyoming saying how there’s no one there to support them. I looked online and found a support group in their town. As I was talking to them I saw there was an event that week and I told them and they exclaimed, “What? They meet two blocks away from where I live!”
I can relate to that. I was thinking, there’s probably no one else like me, then I found a support group 25 minutes away where I saw a roomful of people like me. That floored me. In that group I made friends I still have to this day. You build a structure and along the way you find where you are and where you are supposed to be. That’s where a lot of people are at the beginning. Where can I learn more? Where can I find support for people like me? To be able to give someone that is what it’s all about.
How has doing this work changed you?
It’s given me a new sense of urgency and purpose. It’s made me want to learn more about what our community deals with, what our community goes through. I am looking at things from a more credible perspective. I’m getting deeper into psychology and mental health, substance abuse, autism, all the different things our community deals with. I continue to learn about the gaps in my knowledge to be better at my job. Now I’m this person away from the Hotline. I used to be pretty closed off. Now I step outside my comfort zone and am more open in meeting people. Hearing about how other people cope with their social anxiety helps with my own. As you help people, they’re learning your survival strategies and you’re learning theirs. I get as much out as I give. The Hotline is an opportunity for trans people to connect and create community.
How can we better serve our callers?
If you are trans, consider volunteering as an operator. The need is great and our numbers are relatively small. We need more of us and need to continue to spread the word among allies. We also have a line for our cis allies — significant others and parents who have questions — and we need cis volunteers for that. We’re expanding the reach of the Hotline — we need to let people in medical spaces, mental health spaces, and social service spaces know that we’re there.
What does your dream department/future of the organization look like?
My dream for Trans LIfeline is that we’ll be at a point where we don’t need to exist. My dream is that we take the next step and see us as not just a crisis hotline, but also a bridge for community and resources — a virtual trans pride center. Another dream is a Trans Lifeline road show going across the country to visit the organizations that refer people to us. I want to see us as a first event, I want to see us at Comic-Cons, GamerX. We are getting more overseas callers — I’d love to see our organization help build a global network of support.
What world do you want to live in?
I want to live in a world where trans kids are not afraid to go to school or play sports without risking getting misgendered by hate groups. Where trans kids can go to college and trans people can walk into a bank and get a loan. I want to live in a world where trans families aren’t scorned, but celebrated. I want to live in a world where trans people are judged by the content of their character. I want to live in a world where our elders can retire and live in dignity. As an African-American trans woman I want to live in a world where I don’t have a target on my back. Please help us build it.