Oriana went through the usual moves to prepare for a two-hour shift on the hotline. They filled a large glass of water, wrapped their chair in a blanket, and placed a crochet hook and thread on the desk in case there was a break in the calls.
However, downtime was unlikely on that summer night.
The Trump administration had just passed a rule designed to reduce the protection of transgender patients from discrimination by doctors, hospitals and health insurance companies. And Trans Lifeline, which bills itself as the only trans-person crisis hotline operated solely by trans people, is flooded with calls every time the country's top bureau does something that threatens the LGBTQ community .
The calls come from help-seekers as well as prank callers asked by alt-right websites to scare and traumatize trans people at their most vulnerable moments, and tie the lines so those wavering from the news can't get through.
Oriana, a non-binary 28-year-old who uses the pronouns she, she, and hers wanted to be identified by just her first name for fear of being targeted, volunteered for this extra shift in mid-June make sure no calls went unanswered.
These interactions are bloody even for a seasoned operator like Oriana. But they only serve to confirm why Oriana is doing this job in the first place.
It is an act of perseverance – and resistance – that is more important than ever in this time of heightened hostility. In six years the hotline has answered more than 65,000 calls, and the operators are available around the clock.
The need for social distance during the COVID-19 pandemic creates new pressures and increases feelings of isolation and loneliness. Calls people describing thoughts of suicide to operators have increased 89% since March.
It was indeed a busy night that June night, as Oriana was preparing for additional calls, and the perpetrators hurled insults on their way. But Oriana also got a call from a woman who had just come out. She wanted to celebrate with someone who could truly understand the immensity of the milestone.
"Honestly," Oriana said, "it made it all worth it."
Trans Lifeline was founded in 2014 by San Francisco software engineers Nina Chaubal and her partner Greta Martela.
Chaubal had come out as a transsexual the year before, and Martela, also a transsexual, had struggled with depression and suicidal thoughts. During these dark times, Martela experienced ignorance and neglect from mental health professionals who sought help.
Throughout their lives, many transsexuals are rejected by family and friends, are victims of discrimination and harassment, and live in fear and isolation – factors that increase the risk of suicide. According to the National Center for Transgender Equality, four in ten transgender adults said they had tried suicide at some point.
Chaubal and Martela envisioned a support network that would face this epidemic directly.
"When it started," Oriana recalled, "it felt a lot like a result of some natural community phenomenon: trans people connecting other trans people to other community members in very basic but enthusiastic ways."
Today, Trans Lifeline is still the only hotline in the country that is exclusively manned by transgender operators. The 70 volunteers are trained online for 36 hours.
The organization has grown steadily. The first major spike in donations and calls came immediately after Donald Trump was elected president in 2016.
"People were scared," said Elena Rose Vera, managing director of Trans Lifeline.
Her fears were prescient. In 2018 alone, the Trump administration promised to exclude transgender people from military service and scrapped the Obama-era manual encouraging school officials to allow transgender students to have bathrooms that matched their gender identity.
An attempt was then made to establish a legal definition of gender under Title IX that did not recognize the existence of trans people. Trans Lifeline operators answered more than 20,000 calls this year.
There was increasing pain. In early 2018, Trans Lifeline's board of directors removed Chaubal and Martela after an internal review found they had diverted "significant funds" to an unapproved side project.
Vera, a longtime educator, activist, and pastor, has been hired to help Trans Lifeline recover.
Vera focused on social justice and welfare in the community in her master's degree at the seminary school. By the time she graduated in 2010, she found that most religious organizations – even those led by well-meaning progressives – were unwilling to ordain a trans woman of color.
Elena Rose Vera, executive director of Trans Lifeline, at her 2016 ordination ceremony at the Church for the Communion of All Nations in San Francisco.
(Elena Rose Vera)
"They felt good when they saw a woman like me as someone who needed help," said Vera, "not someone in the leadership."
She was ultimately ordained in 2016 by the Church for the Communion of All Nations in San Francisco, founded by civil rights leader Howard Thurman.
Vera noted that many of her employees are people like her who have been denied job opportunities elsewhere because they are transgender.
"If you give people the chance to do a good job," said Vera, "they blossom."
They call to check for support groups or information about starting HRT.
They are calling for a tragedy such as mass shootings or events that directly affect them when the Trump administration banned transgender people from serving in the military in 2019.
They call from detention centers in the deep south and rural New England from their children's rooms.
Some ask for no other reason than to talk to another transgender person.
A common, pressing fear among callers is that society will turn them on completely – a fear that has intensified during the pandemic and hit the trans community particularly hard.
As Oriana put it, "People who may have been fine are fighting now, and people who have had problems barely get through now."
It can be difficult for transsexuals to find work and housing at the best of times. According to a survey by the National Center for Transgender Equality, three out of four transsexuals experienced discrimination in the workplace, and 20% said they experienced prejudice when looking for a home. These hurdles are even higher for trans-colored people who are doubly excluded.
Hotline data shows that calls to Trans Lifeline regarding job search and maintenance and workplace discrimination have quadrupled since March.
"They're really worried about finding new jobs," Oriana said. "But it's not just" Am I even hired? "It's" how will you treat me when I'm there? "
Oriana has spoken to many young adults who had no choice but to return to the homes of the family they left to live authentically. After the colleges closed, some were forced back into the closet.
Oriana helps callers find creative ways to express themselves in these circumstances and coaches them on how to find supportive communities online. In worse cases, Oriana helps callers with security plans, some of which involve escape.
Escaping domestic violence can be extremely difficult for transsexuals, however. Almost a third of homeless transgender people say they have been turned away from an animal shelter because they are transgender. In July, Vox announced that a proposed housing and urban development scheme would allow government-funded homeless shelters to assess a person's physical characteristics, such as height and facial hair, to determine whether they belong in a women's or men's shelter – a step they are taking Advocates advocating could force trans women into male accommodation.
Fearing discrimination, many have called the line fearing that if they contract COVID-19, they may not receive adequate medical treatment.
Vera remembered the reception she received from doctors after being hit by a van in Oregon a few years ago.
"They didn't want to touch or look at me. Their desire not to help me as a trans person resulted in a lifelong disability," said Vera, who uses a stick to help her walk.
Veronica Esposito, a 41-year-old operator in Oakland, says one of the most important parts of her job is acknowledging the pain and confusion of her callers. "Yeah, I was there. That really sucks," she will say when a caller tells her that she is being stared at in public.
People will stare "like you're not human," Esposito said. "As if you are a story someone will tell when they get home."
Veronica Esposito poses near her Oakland home. In 2019 she worked more than 30 hours a week as an operator for Trans Lifeline.
(David Butow / For the time)
Esposito understands the heartache of being rejected by family members. She knows the dysphoria that occurs when someone calls you with the wrong pronoun or the name you used before the transition.
Oriana sometimes shares with callers that there were long periods of time when they too felt hopeless; They thought of suicide, self-harmed.
But life is good now, says Oriana. Now they have a loving partner, a full-time job as a technology researcher. Her psychological problems were alleviated through therapy and time.
"I can't promise when you are fine," Oriana tells the callers. "But I can promise you that this is possible."
Vera added: "We can show that we are not just victims."
Trans Lifeline is part of a long legacy of transgender people struggling to survive in a world that is by and large hostile to their very existence.
The first known transgender advocacy group, Cercle Hermaphroditos, was founded in New York City in 1895 to "unite in defense against the bitter persecution of the world," said Susan Stryker, a renowned chronicler of transgender history.
These trans- and gender-maleficent townspeople quietly gathered in an upstairs room of the gay bar and brothel Columbia Hall paved the way for future generations of trans people to create intentional support networks.
Groundbreaking transgender activists Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson founded Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR) in 1970 to help young transgender people fall through the rifts of the burgeoning gay rights movement.
The movement matriarchs are Vera's guiding stars. She wants to follow her model of sharing and mutual support and expand Trans Lifeline on a large scale.
She says an endeavor like this has never been more important.
At least 26 transgender or gender-specific people were violently killed in the United States in 2018, according to the human rights campaign. This year, the white supremacist's website, the Daily Stormer, reveled in state and federal efforts to restrict the rights of transgender people.
"We really do it, folks," read a Stormer blog post. "We kill trannies – only with voices and with mean words."
And the FBI reported a 34% increase in hate attacks against transgender people between 2017 and 2018.
"In a time of historical uncertainty, being able to provide everything that is stable and reliable in order to be able to say:" When you get in touch, someone can come to pick you up "- that's very important to me," said Vera.
For Oriana, whose friends love her not in spite of her gender identity but because of it, being operators is a way of passing on the support so many transsexuals have not been given. There are transsexuals in rural communities who have never spoken to another transsexual until they called the helpline.
"The truth is we're out there. And there are a lot of us," Oriana said. "I think it can be very difficult to feel this reality when you're isolated and the prevailing culture is antagonistic towards you."
So Oriana will continue to take calls from trans people in the small town of Arkansas, suburban Ohio, New York. They advise young and old how to do make-up and how to hold on until their next therapy appointment.
On a Wednesday when the muggy Boston day gave way to the night breeze, Oriana got up from her chair and stretched her legs. They enjoyed a piece of milk chocolate, a treat that marks the end of a shift.
Oriana took off her headset and set it aside when they would use it next week. Same time, same place.
If you or someone you know shows signs of suicide, contact a professional by calling the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at (800) 273-TALK (8255).
You can reach Trans Lifeline at (877) 565-8860.