Updated: Mar 23
by Jen Stevens
Dreya Catozzi, Thundermist Health Center’s Trans Health Empowerment Specialist and steering committee member of the much anticipated Open Door Health, is passionate about providing critical resources to the trans community, particularly to those “living in survival mode,” as she once had to. She created the Trans Women Resource Center as a platform through which to offer speaking engagements and resources to the trans women she meets through her activism.
Options: What led you to launch your website, the Urban Trans Women Resource Center (UTWRC) in late 2017?
Dreya: I was working as an insurance rep in a call center and was asked to be on their LGBTQ committee [and] to speak to employees about being a transgender woman of color. I told my story, and it seemed to help answer questions that a lot of my colleagues had about being transgender. My story seemed to have inspired those who heard me speak, and I learned that other employees either had a family member or knew someone who is transgender. As I made connections, I was asked to be on panels and speak at various events. I decided to go all in and created the UTWRC.
My vision has yet to be carried out, but I am getting closer. I have been working with other organizations to assist me in my mission. The challenge is finding sponsorship or assistance in getting my 501(c)(3) set up so that I can start applying for grants and hosting fundraisers. I know once I am over that barrier there is no stopping me.
On your website you say, "I am a survivor of addiction, abuse, and an ex-worker in the sex industry.... I could not obtain the resources needed." Do you see trans women today as being trapped in similar circumstances, or are there better resources today?
I worked in the sex industry while living in Colorado and Vegas. I was in survival mode. I escorted and worked in adult films as a way to keep my head above water. I feel if I had access to basic resources – a job, stable housing, and health care – it may have kept me it may have kept me from going in the direction I did just to survive. But I did what I had to. I held down regular jobs until the issue of me being transgender would come up and my employer would fire me. Sometimes I was able to keep my job if my supervisor was a guy, and I would basically be used on the side for his pleasure, which would buy me time on the job and put extra money in my pocket. I guess I knew how to play the game.
Today, there are [more] resources, but not enough to save the lives of my trans sisters of color, [who] have been lost within the LGBTQ community. [We] are at higher risk of experiencing homelessness, employment discrimination, and violence, and being infected by HIV. [Society] is not focusing enough on how to assist this community, to keep them from becoming a victim of circumstance.
Bottom line is [we need] proper access to the basic resources needed to live and thrive in this life. The barriers to employment, health care, and housing, if [left unaddressed], will continue to put this community at risk. [Trans lives are in danger when] they are in constant survival mode.
How did you leave sex work and eventually find stability?
My saving grace was when I went against all my instincts and took a bad call from a client. I was part of a prostitution ring and was arrested. I sat in my jail cell, knowing I could no longer live my life this way. When you get arrested as a sex worker you are required to get tested. I guess getting busted and finding out I was positive saved my life in some weird way. It was hard, but I created the resources I needed while being in survival mode. I had to advocate for myself, to life the life I knew I deserved. So, I say to people that I no longer have life and death problems, just your basic everyday stuff. I am living proof that when given a chance and resources, anything is possible.
If a trans woman living on the streets came to you for support today, where would you direct her?
It seems everyone is directed to Crossroads; unfortunately I have not heard good things about this shelter. You absolutely cannot place trans women in Today, there are [more] resources, but the same facility as men. This is a very vulnerable population and extra safety and security is needed. We need to look into grants [for] a shelter that is trans specific. It hurts my heart when I [meet a woman in "survival mode" knowing] that once she is out of my presence she is going back to a place that is not safe.
Since 1999, the annual Transgender Day of Remembrance has shone a light on transphobia by memorializing transgender murder victims, many of whom are women of color. Is the public getting the message?
If the message was getting across in the way it should, we would have more programs and resources in place to assist this community. As of Labor Day, 17 trans women of color [have been murdered in] 2019. And that is just here in the United States. Don't even get me started on the deaths of trans women of color who have been misgendered that we don't know about, or the thousands of trans women of color who are being murdered outside of the United States, [in places] such as Brazil.
You serve on the steering committee of Open Door Health, which will be Rhode Island's first LGBTQ-focused health center when it opens this autumn in Providence. How can Open Door Health best serve trans women, ad trans women of color in particular?
I believe Open Door will be a breath of fresh air, and I am very excited about what is to come. The location is perfect and accessible. I look forward to working with Open Door with the goal of UTWRC and Open Door addressing the needs of this population that I feel gets lost in translation. I have hope and faith that Dr. Phil Chan and his team will be open to implementing my ideas, and this organization will be the go-to for the LGBTQ community.
What are some simple ways members of RI's LGBTQ community can support the local trans community?
Recognize the needs of trans women, especially trans women of color, and really work together to put in place programs to assist this vulnerable community to live their best lives. [The tans community] is at the bottom of the food chain when it comes to getting funding for the obvious resources that are needed. At the the end of the day we are all working to crate change and opportunity. I am [hopeful] to see we are all open and willing to work together.
To connect with Dreya regarding her speaking engagements, or to get involved with UTWRC or her other projects, please write to email@example.com.