“We give people a safe space, information, and answers to their questions. And along the way, we save lives.”

That about sums up the hard work TVals (Tennessee Vals) is doing in Middle Tennessee. “There are a lot of people who were ready to give up,” Marisa Richmond, co-founder of TVals, went on to say, “and we help those people find the road that they want to be on. We never steer anyone towards any road, but we give them the information they need so they can find the path that’s right for them.”

TVals, a non-political, educational, and social support group, was started in Nashville by Richmond and two others in 1992, when she moved back from Washington D.C. “When I moved back,” she said, “I looked around and saw that there was a need.” At the time, there were no laws that successfully protected the transgender community. Not only were non-discrimination ordinances, and the safe school policies non-existent, but even at the federal level, the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) had not yet been introduced (it would be later in 1994). The support structures that existed for the LGBTQ community were limited to a fairly small Pride celebration and a tiny community center in Berry Hill, located in an old house.”

Seeing the lack of support systems for transgender people, Richmond decided to act. Her own experience in D.C. with the Transgender Education Association (TGEA) and as a co-founder of Crossroads, a transgender support group, helped. The founders modeled their group using perspectives gleaned from organizations around the country. Bringing a support group to Nashville proved to have its own unique challenges, however, especially when the issue of how to support deeply religious, transgender people arose. “Many came from conservative fundamentalist backgrounds, and would ask, ‘What does God think of this?’” said Richmond.

TVals was the first, and for a long time only, transgender group raising visibility, organizing the first transgender mixer at Pride and the local Transgender Day of Remembrance event. The group has contributed to the cultural shift of Nashville, as TVals supported members joining boards of other queer-focused organizations around Nashville also proved helpful, “We’ve raised visibility and awareness through the transgender community, there’s been lots of education work, and we have been there for everybody,” said Richmond.

Along with external difficulties, TVals has dealt with internal challenges, such as retention of board members. “We try to organize people to get up, to stand up,” said current Chairperson Shaun Arroyo, “But it can be difficult when people get what they need and just move on.” This obstacle has proved tough, with the group currently only having half of its board positions filled.

Despite all obstacles, however, TVals operates on its strengths, and it prioritizes the accessibility of the group for all people. “The current meeting site is very close to a bus stop,” said Richmond, “So when we moved, we made certain that our location was along a bus line. We wanted to make sure that we were accessible to young people and others who may not have a car.”

Accessibility has been attended to in other ways as well. The group is willing to make accommodations to those who cannot afford its annual membership dues. The ultimate goal is to maximize diversity, which helps make the group welcoming. “We’re not just transmen, or transwomen, we’re not just white. We have people of color, we have young people, we have old people,” said Arroyo. The group’s members range in age from sixteen to seventy-one, representing a wide variety of experiences brought to the table, enabling truly intergenerational conversations within the space.

With newer identities emerging that fall outside of the gender binary, the group has worked to adapt and educate its members, in order to be supportive of all people who fall under the transgender umbrella. “When the first person came in that used ‘they, them, their’ pronouns, we were confused,” said Arroyo, “But we had them explain what that meant, in order to educate ourselves, and to make sure that all people feel comfortable in our meetings.”

TVals has always worked to create safe, supportive meeting spaces and programs for transpeople. The group is currently in the midst of introducing a “Big Sister” program that would match transgender mentors with other transgender people who have questions about anything from relationships, to familial support, to medical transitioning.

The organization is also working with OutCentral to organize the “Out in Transforce Work Fair,” to be held later this summer, which will focus on connecting transgender people with trans inclusive businesses. Without job protection policies in place in the state of Tennessee, the fair will be a way of supporting transgender people in the process of liberation. “It can be extremely difficult to find work and ultimately get hired as a trans person in Tennessee,” said transgender Nashville resident, Adrian Sorolis, “and I see this job fair as something that will be a game changer for many people.”

Besides OutCentral, TVals has collaborated with many groups within the community, including Vanderbilt LGBTQI Life, with whom they have worked to support programs that highlight the queer community in Nashville, from the annual Vanderbilt drag show to the recent event with New York Times bestselling author and transgender activist Janet Mock. TVals hopes that, in the future, more organizations and leaders will be intentional in including them in conversations and events.

Despite the challenges it still faces, the TVals board is excited for what’s to come in the future. After an astounding twenty-two years, TVals is still here, and they want you to know it. “We’re here,” says Arroyo, “And we’re not going anywhere.”

 

 

 

For more information about TVals and its programs, visit facebook.com/tennesseevals

 

Photo courtesy of Red Bull

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Photo courtesy of Rumble Boxing Gulch Nashville

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