InspiHERed By spotlights phenomenal women in the Black queer community—everyone from artists to activists. Each week ELIXHER features someone whose personal journey and individual craft inspire us to dream bigger, laugh harder, and love deeper. This week we chat with Ja’briel Walthour, a 35-year-old trans advocate from Hinesville, Georgia.
ELIXHER: Tell us a little about yourself.
JABRIEL: I was born and raised in Hinesville, Georgia, a small military community just 40 miles southwest of Savannah. I’m currently a public school bus driver. I transport and assist students with special needs. While working for the school system, I furthered my education by obtaining both an Associates of Arts and Bachelors of Arts. I then decided to pursue a Master of Social Work degree from Savannah State University, where I earned my diploma in 2004. In 2009, I registered for and successfully passed the Association of Social Workers Board (ASWB) national Master Social Work Examination.
ELIXHER: When and how did you embrace your trans identity?
JABRIEL: Growing up, I always knew that I was “different.” Traditional boy behaviors seemed to elude me. I never felt comfortable in my own skin, and grew to detest the image I saw in the mirror each day. In the 80s and 90s, it simply wasn’t spoken of nor was there any support for individuals experiencing gender non-conformity.
Although I was young, I knew the labels society had placed on me never seemed to fit my true identity. I didn’t understand what I experienced, but I knew my issue wasn’t necessarily of a sexual nature as much as it concerned my gender. As the years progressed, I tried to saturate myself with religion and being a people pleaser in order to have a feeling of self-worth. It was still extremely difficult to navigate the years that followed sending me into a ten-year denial filled with severe bouts of loneliness, depression, and suicidal ideation.
It was not until I was in graduate school studying social work and issues of gender, that I could no longer suppress my true identity.
ELIXHER: What has your journey to womanhood been like?
JABRIEL: While attending grad school, I made the decision to transition into full womanhood. I’ve had to “fly below the radar” with my current occupation of public school bus driver, and forego moving into my profession of social work. I play it safe by not drawing too much attention within my neighborhood. I’ve maintained this level of secrecy all while visiting a gender specialist and, more recently, a hormone therapist within the greater Atlanta area. I have sustained this process by remaining slightly androgynous, and slowly “coming out” to family and friends since around 2008. It is a very meticulous process, which takes a lot of patience, courage, and perseverance. If it had not been for my own personal relationship with God, my higher power, there would absolutely be no way I could accomplish my dream of full transition.
ELIXHER: Tell us about the children’s book series you’re writing. What inspired it?
JABRIEL: Over the years, I’ve written quite a lot about the feelings, emotions, and isolation I faced growing up as a Black transgender faith believer from the South. In an effort to support and educate others on gender diversity, I wrote a children’s book series, which is loosely based on some of my own experiences.
Apple of My Eye is a groundbreaking look into the emotional development of children coping with gender identity issues. It follows the home and school life of Jacob, a 10-year-old African American boy being raised by his loving, elderly grandmother in South Georgia. Jacob has never felt comfortable in his own skin. He has hidden his “true identity” from everyone he knows.
In Jacob’s Journey, Jacob looks within himself and is confronted with an image that has become increasingly unfamiliar to him; consequently, he searches for answers and soon discovers a hidden identity destined to change the course of his life (and the way the world sees him), forever.
Fat Kids, Black Kids, Tomboys, and Cissies finds Jacob facing a major challenge as he overcomes constant harassment from schoolhouse bullies. Along with several of his classmates, he struggles to find acceptance within an academic war-zone.
And lastly, in Where’s My Rock? Jacob must now acquire strength to accept his unique identity.
ELIXHER: The series sounds incredible and so needed. What scares you?
JABRIEL: The discrimination directed towards the trans community. It underscores the need for legislation and provisions to ensure protection and equality for all. Trans people of color, in particular, are targeted for unfair practices in housing, education, employment, and are often victims of heinous hate crimes. Though advocacy efforts are underway to support our cause, we still have a long way to go. Opponents of equality are energized in their effort to keep the status quo, while oppressing those who stand for change.
ELIXHER: What makes you smile?
JABRIEL: Because I tend to see the “glass half full,” I am encouraged by the progress that is shaping the march toward equality. I applaud the Obama Administration for hearing the chorus of voices lifted in unison to stomp out bigotry and injustice directed toward LGBT citizens. Under the leadership of our President, we have seen measures enacted and bills introduced to support our cause. In recent years, there has been increased visibility and understanding of the trans community. I am elated to lend a voice to the movement, and to share a story of hope and inspiration for all.
ELIXHER: What advice do you have for other trans women?
JABRIEL: I implore trans women to embrace a healthy and whole spiritual life as they embark to live an authentic existence. Often times, our spirit is left malnourished, and starved for manna and sustenance. For some, the focus becomes our outward appearance and the ability for one to “pass” in public, while others tend to overwhelm themselves with superficial notions of societies’ expectations. Nevertheless, there are several ways trans women can stave off apathy of the deprived soul. Meditating, seeking purpose, actively praying, fostering faith, and receiving your blessings with thanksgiving are all ways to increase your peace, happiness, and wellbeing.
ELIXHER: What makes you proud to be a part of the black trans community?
JABRIEL: I take pride in knowing that I am woven into the fabric of fierce people, who stand strong in the midst of adversity and oppression. I am the image of my ancestors who led the fight for equality and justice. I am also the face of solidarity, uniting a diverse coalition of gender non-conforming patriots for a common cause. Courage coupled with resilience enables the black trans community to chart new waters, while inspiring the next generation of change agents.
ELIXHER: What changes would you like to see in the black trans community?
JABRIEL: In respect to the LGBT movement, I would like to see a more proactive approach to educating the community at large on black trans issues and other concerns for LGBT people of color. I believe a conversation must be started, and a plan of action created to support our youth coming to terms with their identity, both from a race and gender perspective. When members of the black trans community are victims of hate crimes, and other forms of discrimination, there should be a visible, organized and timely response to stand against such injustice. Furthermore, I feel an alliance should be built with local and national clergy to encourage mutual respect and understanding of our collective and individual truths.
ELIXHER: What’s next for Ja’briel?
JABRIEL: I am currently working on a memoir that details my own pain and perseverance during the turbulent decade that followed my self-discovery of gender identity. I am also awaiting the publication of my children’s book series, which I hope will be in print later this year. As I continue to advocate for LGBT rights, I eagerly await new opportunities to enlighten the world, create change and inspire others to live their best life.
Watch Ja’briel tell her story in Injustice at Every Turn, a documentary highlighting the discrimination transgender women of color face.