SistersPGH founder Ciora Thomas. Photo courtesy of SistersPGH.

Ciora Thomas became homeless when she was 14. Until then, she had lived with her parents in Homewood, Lincoln-Lemington, Wilkinsburg and a few other East End neighborhoods. When she expressed a desire to change gender, Thomas’ family couldn’t accept her decision. That’s when she moved out.

“I was living on the streets and doing sex work for five years,” she remembers.

That was nearly a dozen years ago. The journey she’s made since then, and the work she’s fought to accomplish, probably would have seemed impossible to the homeless teenager she once was.

In 2013, Thomas founded SisTers PGH — a transgender/nonbinary centered shelter transitioning program — to help transgender people find shelter and affordable housing. She was recently appointed by Gov. Tom Wolf as a commissioner on the Pennsylvania Commission on LGBTQ Affairs, the first statewide organization of its kind in the country.

More than anything, Thomas is determined that no one who is transitioning experiences the same hellish existence that she did.

“I was hustling these streets and navigating with my sisters in Pittsburgh in my era,” she says. “It spoke to me. Yeah, I could have walked away and moved. I could have not been doing this work. But it’s me. It’s who I am. Seeing my sisters and brothers and gender non-conforming folk have a place of their own, where they can make the rules, where they can cook their own food and have own responsibilities, that’s where it’s at for me.”

Flyer image courtesy of SisTers PGH via Facebook.

SisTers PGH recently received a Small and Mighty grant from The Pittsburgh Foundation. While the $15,000 is important, the recognition provided by the grant — the organization’s first — will be useful long after the funds are spent.

When Thomas was informed of the grant by Michelle McMurray, The Pittsburgh Foundation’s senior program officer for health and human services, she started to cry.

“That was not only a wake-up call for me, that the work we’re doing is important, but it’s affirming,” Thomas says. “There are many days I wake up and I think this community is beating me down. Sometimes I don’t know what I’m going to do to keep navigating the risky atmosphere of being a trans woman, and a radical advocate at that.”

The grant, she says, “gave me the hope to keep going.”

McMurray says its important for foundations to support smaller nonprofits like SisTers PGH that are often under-resourced and understaffed, but provide important services to their communities.

“Many of these organizations are run by people who live, work, worship and play in those communities,” McMurray says. “The reason why we try to demonstrate trust in them is because their community trusts them.”

After receiving the grant, Thomas told her clients and friends at SisTers PGH that there was money available to pay for the programs the organization provides. But there’s still work to be done, and Thomas insists the path to integration within the Pittsburgh community starts with housing.

SisTers PGH has developed a program to identify landlords who discriminate against transgender people. Calls are made to landlords asking if they can rent apartments. Thomas says when callers identify themselves as transgender to some landlords, excuses ensue.

“What we hear are a lot of stereotypical responses,” Thomas says. “Transgender people are loud or they’re not safe. They’ll mess up my home or the neighbors will be worried, or the neighbor’s kids will be worried. These are the things we hear. … You can’t get your life together until you have a place to live. Until I had my first little efficiency in Garfield, I didn’t even think about a job. I didn’t think about school, because I was homeless. But when I got my place, I started to put the puzzle together.”

According to a survey conducted by the National Center for Transgender Equality, discrimination is pervasive in the transgender community. The survey found that 26 percent of trans people lost a job because of their sexual preference, 50 percent were harassed at work, 78 percent of trans students were harassed and 20 percent were denied or evicted from housing.

“When I was growing up, I couldn’t even find an efficiency, let alone an apartment with a landlord that would be okay with me being trans,” Thomas says. “And it’s still happening to this day.”

Thomas was invited to speak at a YWCA event in May. Photo courtesy of SisTers PGH via Facebook.

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.”

Rege Behe is an award-winning journalist, writer, and editor. A native of Trafford, Pa., he's covered school board meetings, reviewed concerts, and interviewed Pulitzer Prize-winners including Michael Chabon, Ron Chernow, and David McCullough. He never goes anywhere without a book, likes to hike, and is fond of animals.