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A Florida activist creates safe spaces as laws and rhetoric turn against trans rights

Advocates outside Florida's historic Capitol wave drag pride flags during the Drag Queens March in 2023.
Erich Martin
Advocates outside Florida's historic Capitol wave drag pride flags during the Drag Queens March in 2023.

On International Transgender Visibility Day, we take a look someone offering safety and services for trans people.

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – After a serious health scare landed Janel Diaz in the hospital more than 15 years ago, she made herself a promise.

"I decided I was going to be an advocate and I decided I was going to make a difference in this life," Diaz says.

Diaz had been diagnosed with HIV a few years earlier, but says she was "ignoring the status because [she] was scared of what people might think." She was hospitalized with two collapsed lungs and put on a ventilator. When she recovered, she realized she needed to take better care of herself, and that meant doing something she saw as "selfish" — transitioning.

"I figured out after that low point that I have to live my life for me," Diaz says. "Because how else am I going to be good to this earth, or this world, if I'm not good to myself?"

Today, Diaz is a proud Black transgender woman. She founded the organization Capital Tea in Tallahassee in 2018. Through it she provides services for transgender people including a safe house, opened in January of 2022, where transgender people fleeing abusive or dangerous situations can get help with everything from job searches to legal aid. She herself faced brief homelessness decades ago.

Janel Diaz founded Capital Tea after she struggled during her own transition to find transgender support organizations in Florida's capital city.
/ Regan McCarthy
Regan McCarthy
Janel Diaz founded Capital Tea after she struggled during her own transition to find transgender support organizations in Florida's capital city.

Last year, the Florida legislature passed several lawsrestricting rights for transgender people. One measure banned gender-affirming care for new patients under the age of 18. It also put rules in place making access harder for adults. Another measure barred children from "adult live performances" such as drag shows. And the state passed a law that creates punishments forusing a bathroom in certain government buildings such as schools, colleges and detention centers, if the bathroom doesn't align with a person's sex assigned at birth.

Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis signed several of the bills last May at Cambridge Christian School in Tampa. He said the measures were about letting "kids be kids."

"There's a lot of nonsense that gets floated around and what we have said in Florida is we are going to remain a refuge of sanity and a citadel of normalcy." DeSantis said. "Kids should have an upbringing that reflects that. I think there's a lot of emphasis in other parts of the country and our society as a whole to take that away from them. We're not going to let that happen in Florida and today is proof of that."

Opponents called the measures a "slate of hate." They say the legislation further marginalizes and endangers an already vulnerable group.

In the past year, several of the measures lawmakers passed restricting LGBTQ+ rights have been temporarily blocked by the courts. Recent news reports have suggested"Governor Ron DeSantis' war on woke may be waning." But Diaz says the damage has already been done.

"It would be nice for the community to just love on us and just accept us," Diaz says. "But even before the legislation it was still tough — now it's even worse."

Some transgender people have left the state saying they no longer feel safe, or are worried about being ableto get the care they need. In Tallahassee, the local chapter of an LGBTQ+ advocacy organization called PFLAG shut down. Capital Tea is one of the few transgender service organizations in rural North Florida.

"It feels weird to live in a place that's so beautiful, but yet you have to look behind your back and you have to question your safety," Diaz says.

"I can't run away from what I love, who I love," she says, adding she's determined to stay and keep fighting — for her community and for herself.

"It should not matter to you how I dress, what I choose to wear, how I choose to express myself. It should not make you angry how I'm living my life," Diaz says. "That's what makes me want to fight so much more for the cause, for my organization Capital Tea being here in the Bible Belt."

Advocates worry that anti-trans rhetoric fuels hate

Last year, during a legislative committee meeting, a state Republicanlawmaker referred to transgender people as "demons and imps." That lawmaker later apologized, but a colleague, Democratic State Sen. Shevrin Jones, pointed to the incident as an example of "the type of climate that we are creating in this state to where we are basically giving people a hall pass."

Diaz's alter ego, Vashai Avionce. Diaz remembers seeing RuPaul perform on the<a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A-9JeFW1KK4"> Arsenio Hall show</a> when she was younger "and I just thought to myself, 'Wow! Can I do this?'"
/ Erich Martin
Erich Martin
Diaz's alter ego, Vashai Avionce. Diaz remembers seeing RuPaul perform on theArsenio Hall show when she was younger "and I just thought to myself, 'Wow! Can I do this?'"

LGBTQ+ rights organizations have raised concerns that rhetoric from state leaders against transgender people will encourage the targeting of transgender people themselves and could contribute to what they say is already an "epidemic" of anti-transgender violence. Astudy published by the LGBTQ+ advocacy group, the Human Rights Campaign in November of last year found that at least 335 gender-nonconforming individuals had been killed since 2013 through violent acts. Nearly three-quarters of those victims were transgender women of color.

"Do you know how dangerous it is for a Black trans woman to walk through a neighborhood?" Diaz asks.

Diaz says she is regularly recognized as a transgender person. When she's at a restaurant, "people are staring at me — looking to see if I'm getting up to go to the bathroom, or if I'm walking by the bathroom, they're looking to see what bathroom I'm going in," Diaz says.

Gender-affirming treatment is sometimes seen as one way people who have transitioned can feel safer. Diaz says it can help them "blend in."

Gender dysphoria — the extreme discomfort a person can feel when their gender identity does not match their sex assigned at birth — is linked with suicide. A 2023 report published by the National Institutes of Health found in the majority of cases it looked at, suicidality reduced following gender-affirming treatment. But the authors point out more research is needed to get a more thorough understanding of the link.

Diaz also says it's also important to allow young people a chance to experience drag. It was important for her. She remembers watching celebrity drag performer RuPaul perform on theArsenio Hall Show, a late-night talk show that premiered in 1989. "And I just thought to myself, 'Wow! Can I do this?'" The answer was yes.

"For me being able to do drag was actually an outlet for me to express my true self, " Diaz says. "Because I wasn't transitioned yet."

Today, Diaz still performs, and she's considered a drag mother, a mentor, for other drag performers in Tallahassee.

Turning dreams into reality

Earlier this year, Diaz had a full-circle moment. An organization called the Rainbow Book Busbacked by RuPaul partnered with Capital Tea to bring a traveling book fair to Tallahassee. The group was traveling in a rainbow-painted bus to give away books that have been subject to bans.

In Florida, laws have been changed to make it easier for people to challenge books in public schools, leading to a flood of challenges and a few hundred books removed. This year, lawmakers put new rules in place in an attempt to curb some of the challenges.

Because of engine trouble, the bus didn't make it to its Tallahassee stop. But Adam Powell, executive director of the Rainbow Book Bus, says he was determined to meet Diaz. So, he left the bus and brought the books.

"Because I believe in what they are doing," Powell says. "Their work is so crucial and essential, especially in Tallahassee, Florida."

Powell heard Diaz speak last year when Capital Tea received agrant from Way Out, an organization focused on supporting LGBTQ+ youth.

Diaz hopes to expand Capital Tea to open more safe houses throughout north Florida and eventually throughout the south, with plans to create a legacy that she hopes will outlast her.

"I'm actually really hopeful and excited for what tomorrow is going to bring," Diaz says. "I really, really am."

If you or someone you know may be considering suicide, contact the988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline by dialing 9-8-8, or theCrisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Regan McCarthy
Phone: (850) 487-3086 x374