Caring during crisis

In late August, Thomas received a call from a client and had to cancel an interview. Stephanie Alona was experiencing a crisis, so Thomas rushed to her aid.

“I was very deep into it a few days ago,” Alona later says. “I was very depressed, and Ciora talked me through it and made sure I was okay. She came and stayed with me and helped me push through that.”

Alona’s story is unfortunately typical of what happens to many transgender people. Originally from Pittsburgh, she was living in Kentucky with family members when she started to transition. Alona began wearing makeup at work and problems started with her coworkers and boss. The situation became “toxic,” she says.

“There was discrimination at work,” Alona says. “There was discrimination when I walked out the door. I had it very, very rough.”

She eventually lost her job and was asked to leave the home she was sharing with her family. Alona returned to Pittsburgh and sought help from SisTers PGH and Thomas. The organization provided a place to live, but the emotional support was equally important.

“There were some very dark days,” Alona says. “Ciora kept telling me it was going to be okay. She basically helped me through something that was very bad.”

Working in Harrisburg

Thomas admits she often feels like transgender people are not on equal footing with much of the LGBTQ community. She aims to use her position with the Pennsylvania Commission on LGBTQ Affairs to combat misperceptions about her peers.

Asked to respond to Republican gubernatorial candidate Scott Wagner’s recent statement that trans people should use the bathroom of the gender they’re assigned at birth, Thomas replied that the candidate’s position is typical of the way many people try to make decisions for the community.

She plans to use her role on the state’s LBGTQ Affairs Commission to discuss the importance of making sure trans voices are part of the discussion on legal matters like restroom use.

“We are the only people who should speak for us,” Thomas says. “We’ve been pushed and marginalized so much that people feel like they have to take care of us out of guilt, rather than letting us take care of ourselves.”

Her role on the commission is a step toward changing that, as is the grant. Since the grant was announced, Thomas has noticed that other LGBTQ organizations have been more accepting of SisTers PGH. In the past, she insists, conversations in Pittsburgh have been dominated by “the white queer lens” and that leadership by people of color wasn’t always taken seriously.

Finally, there is acceptance.

“I’ve noticed a shift in community interactions,” Thomas says. “I’ve noticed more e-mails from people who we’ve been asking for support from for years. I’ve noticed people calling us and asking us to be a part of this or that panel, folks who we’ve reached out to for years and not supported us in the capacity that we’ve needed. I’ve definitely noticed the validity of our organization increasing.”