TAMPA — Charles Thomas and Mimi Redd knew that many of their LGBT friends were at-risk. They were the young African-Americans without supportive families, the sex workers on Nebraska Avenue. They were the ones who weren't getting the help and support they needed from social service programs.
"It doesn't reach us," Thomas said. "It doesn't go where we go."
So, last summer, they started Special for You and Me Inc., a group to help lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender African-Americans.
India Clarke, a transgender woman, was one of the first to join.
She was a longtime friend of Thomas and Redd and joined their Wednesday night social group for transgender people. Special for You and Me also passed out condoms and information about HIV and STDs at nightclubs. And they offered condoms, toiletries, food and shelter to sex workers — and help if they wanted to get out of that work.
Clarke was one of the people they wanted to help. Her friends said she was outspoken about her day-to-day challenges, trying to find a job, the discrimination she faced as a transgender woman — obstacles that she thought made sex work her only option.
"She actually started to get it," said Ki'ala Emmons, a nightclub performer who works with Special for You and Me's transgender group. "She wanted to go to school. She wanted to leave the street life."
Clarke, 25, was found dead in a Tampa park July 21, shot in the head. Authorities arrested a suspect in her murder but have not revealed a motive for the crime.
However, her death — and the fact that authorities and the media identified the transgender woman using her male birth name — drew national attention and criticism.
Now, her friends are more determined than ever to help those like Clarke.
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Transgender women turn to sex work because they don't have access to job opportunities or social services, said Aryah Lester, a board member of the advocacy group TransAction Florida. That, in turn, leaves them vulnerable to violence and further discrimination.
"People take these risks in order to survive," she said.
Thomas said many of his transgender friends have found themselves in those kinds of situations.
"Sometimes, life forces us out there," Thomas, 27, said. "Now, you're out on the streets, and then you see this girl getting her hair and nails done, and she's out on Nebraska being a prostitute, and you feel like that's the only way."
Emmons, 29, said that's why it's important to support transgender women and show them there are other ways to make a living. She was involved with transgender advocacy groups in Orlando before she moved to Tampa three years ago.
"What we want to show is equality," Emmons said. "You can go to a job. You can go to a school. There are different alternatives. You don't have to make money illegally. You don't have to put yourself in danger. … You can live a regular lifestyle."
Redd, 26, said the idea for Special for You and Me started with a gay pride event in Detroit in June, where they learned about programs that connect poor and at-risk transgender people with counseling and hormone treatment.
They wanted to bring that kind of effort to Tampa. They wanted to provide a place where transgender people can talk to each other and share information. It also would be a safe space for LGBT people who need one.
"It's best that people say their opinions and hear other people's opinions," Thomas said. "People may think it's wrong to think this way, but if other people think this way, then maybe there's nothing wrong with us."
The organizers said they've filed paperwork to register Special for You and Me as a tax-exempt nonprofit under federal tax law, but so far, the group does not appear in official records. They recently launched a website: specialforyouandme.org. They've also handed out condoms and fact sheets that they got from the Hillsborough County Health Department.
Tampa Bay's minority AIDS coordinator, Andrew Maldonado, said small groups like Special for You and Me are a crucial link between the department and the communities they want to reach.
"We're not covering as much as we should," Maldonado said. "It falls on these small agencies and groups. We tell them, 'There's a lot of work to be done, are you down to do this?'"
Special for You and Me spends several nights a week at clubs and on the streets. Thomas and Redd said their outreach efforts bring mixed reactions. Some people don't want to talk about HIV in a group setting. Others do. Some of the sex workers along Nebraska Avenue bristle when they're offered help. Others are thankful.
In the coming months, they want to work out a more consistent outreach schedule and, maybe one day, try to establish a halfway house for sex workers.
"The more effort we put in, the more that other trans women will see that we care — just to get them in society," Redd said, "to let them know that they can get in society; they can do other things.
"They don't have to just come out at night."
Contact Emily McConville at [email protected]