Advocate and Ally

Brian Watson shares the frustrations of challenging the status quo as he fights for homeless LGBT youth and the transgender community

Brian Watson has seen better days.

On this particular Saturday, stopping by the Wanda Alston House, D.C.’s only transitional residence for homeless LGBT youth, Watson is busy planning two funerals and a vigil.

The vigil and one of those funerals is for Lashai Mclean, gunned down July 20 in Northeast D.C. The 23-year-old transgender woman was a client of Transgender Health Empowerment (THE), which runs the Wanda Alston House, where Watson has worked as director of programs for the past five years.

Brian Watson
Brian Watson
(Photo by Todd Franson)

During his time at THE, Watson’s triumphs, which include working with others to launch the Wanda Alston House, earned him a 2009 Metro Weekly Next Generation Award. Opened in 2008, and named after the first permanent mayoral liaison to the LGBT community, the house remains the District’s only transitional home specifically for homeless LGBT youth, ages 16 to 24, and one of only a handful in the country.

And while Watson, an Oklahoma native, admits that conditions have improved for members of the transgender community in D.C. since he came onboard, it’s hard to talk about anything else but the recent homicide of Mclean and the impact on the community.

Watson’s main frustration is with the Metropolitan Police Department. Watson and others have criticized the MPD for the way in which it reported Mclean’s murder to the larger community, originally using Mclean’s male birth name, and for using a police mug shot of Mclean in the flier seeking information about her killers.

An hour or so before hundreds gathered at the site of the fatal shooting, at 61st and Dix Streets NE, Watson sat down with Metro Weekly to talk about THE’s latest loss, the impact it has had on the community, and why it’s important to return to the scene of the crime.

METRO WEEKLY: What are you hoping to accomplish today, gathering at the site of Lashai’s shooting?

BRIAN WATSON: We want to honor her life. That’s the biggest aspect. This was a young, 23-year-old girl – just turned 23 in April – who was shot down. She had a boyfriend, who wanted to marry her. She was living her life out and proud and you have to honor where she was. You have to honor her strength. And that’s by going to the place where someone took that from her. Somebody took away her light. Also it’s about taking a stand as a community to show that we’re not just going to take this type of thing happening.

MW: Since Lashai’s death, what contact have you had with the Metropolitan Police Department?

WATSON: They really haven’t been in touch with me. I think [THE's] Earline Budd has had some contact with them, but there definitely seems to be somewhat of a disconnect. The only person I’ve talked to since Wednesday has been [MPD Assistant Chief] Diane Groomes, who did call me on my cell phone, which shows me that they have access to my number and email and everything, but nobody reached out except for the assistant chief. At that time I expressed to her my concern with the fact that the only picture on the flier that the police had put out was basically Lashai’s mug shot picture, and was that a process that they had to do? Couldn’t they have used a regular picture for somebody who had been murdered? It wasn’t like it was a wanted poster.

MW: You say there appears to be a disconnect between the police and THE. Is that because there was a time when MPD worked with THE to solve crimes involving transgender victims?

WATSON: Exactly. Throughout the years and dealing with the [MPD Gay and Lesbian Liaison Unit], it usually had been that we would have been contacted when there was a crime. If they had information about the victim, they would tell us who it was. Or sometimes when they didn’t know who it was they would come to us and ask. In the case of Nana-boo [Mack], they asked us [if we knew] who it was, because they didn’t know. They would come to us in certain situations and ask, do we know who lives in this area, or describe this person to us, or give us their ID and ask if we know who they are. This time, the crime happened at 4 o’clock in the morning and the first time an email went out was about 11:30 a.m., 12 o’clock, on the next day. By that time, there was already word out on the street and a lot of THE clients were asking us, ”Do you know if somebody was shot?” There was a time where as soon as it would have happened, we would have known. Especially in a situation like this, because I not only live in this area, but I’m on the neighborhood listservs and everything else. But nobody reached out at all.

I had kind of stepped away from dealing with the issues of the GLLU. People had their issues with how it should be restructured – should it be taken back to the same [format it was before]? – and I just kind of stepped away from it and tried to focus on other things, because you have people like [Gays and Lesbians Opposing Violence] and the DC Trans Coalition who are working on issues like that. But when something comes out like this, it’s like, ”Okay, I need to get back involved because there’s a disconnect.” You’re not reaching out to us as a transgender organization in D.C. and you’re also not being sensitive to the needs of the community because you’re putting mug shots on a poster announcing that someone was murdered.

After all of this sensitivity training, it doesn’t make any sense. I mean, the DC Trans Coalition is going in and doing trainings with every MPD recruit class that comes through, but obviously there’s still a lot that we need to do. This is not about the officers who are on the street level. This must be more upper management and the communications department of the Police Department. I’m definitely looking forward to talking with the chief and the GLLU about how we move forward from here.

Lashai Mclean's vigil
Lashai Mclean’s vigil
(Photo by Dylan Comstock)

MW: Police have said Lashai was with another transgender individual who fled the scene on foot. Has THE had any success in determining who that is?

WATSON: We’ve been trying to find out, but nobody knows. Lashai had a lot of friends, she kicked it with a lot of different girls and guys, so we’re not clear exactly who it was that she was hanging out with. I do want to know who the other transgender was and if there’s any support that we can provide from THE.

And I do want to know what’s going on. Again, it’s not just because I work at THE, or I’m a member of the LGBT community. I live maybe 10 blocks from where this happened, so I’m in this neighborhood. I want to know as a resident, what’s going on, have you found this person, am I safe? Are my kids safe? Because they have to walk to the Metro every day. They have to get on the bus every day. I want to know, is anybody in the community safe? As an advocate for the community, I want to know what the police are doing. How can they assure us that they are investigating this? How can they assure us that when something happens, that the person will be arrested? What if this happens again? How will it be addressed? If another transgender is attacked, are you going to put out his or her mug shot just because they happened to be arrested for writing checks, or got arrested for a speeding ticket and they went to jail? I mean, what’s the process? What’s going on, not just here, but in the long term? I think Earline and a lot of other activists, like Ruby [Corado] and all of them, thought a lot of this stuff was taken care of when they did the sensitivity trainings, when the Tyra Hunter incident happened. But there’s still things going on that are just not sensitive and we don’t understand why.

MW: What suggestions would you have to rectify this disconnect?

WATSON: I think [MPD Chief Cathy Lanier] is sure about what she wants to do. I don’t know if what she wants to do is what’s best for the community. I say that as someone who is the director of several programs. I surely don’t supervise as many people as the chief does, but when you’re not a member of the community, you make decisions that are more strategic or that are more practical in your mind. I think the chief’s decision to do everything she has done with the GLLU is probably practical in her mind, but at the end of the day, when you have a community such as the LGBT community, when you have issues that are so unique to our population, there are certain things that you can do and you cannot do. A big part of that is you have to keep the public engaged in the process so you don’t have issues like right now.

Very easily a call could have been made to us, where we could have given [the police] a picture of Lashai. There’s a critical-incidents team that’s comprised of GLOV, THE, the DC Trans Coalition, SMYAL and The D.C. Center, all of these different groups, where in these meetings we could talk about issues like this, where someone is attacked or murdered. Or in the case where we put out a bulletin, how should we word the bulletin? If the GLLU could have more dialogue with the critical incidents team around the protocols, a lot of stuff could be prevented.

This is not the first time that we’ve sat at this table where there’s been a murder. I’ve been at THE just five years – actually last week – and several times we sat at the table with Chief Lanier, and we’ve talked about these issues. Don’t just have the meetings to have the meetings and to say that you’re keeping us engaged. Have the meetings and actually put protocols in place so that you don’t have issues like this, where people are upset. When you put up a male name [for a transgender woman], when you put up someone’s mug shot, you’re stigmatizing that population, that community, that person. Me, being a young black man, you put up a mug shot of me and people will look at that as a stigma. There are certain populations of certain communities that you have to ask, ”How’s this going to look?” I don’t think the people who are under the chief are necessarily thinking about the outcome.

MW: How would you describe the collaborative relationship between MPD and THE?

WATSON: It got better, but then it got worse.

I know everybody is sounding like a broken record, because everybody from GLAA to the Stein Democratic Club has been like, ”Brett, Brett, Brett.” ”When former GLLU supervisor Brett Parson was here it was better.”

I’m very aware that Brett is not there, but they need to do whatever they can do to clone someone to be that engaging. Really, that’s all it is. It’s attending all the community events, the meetings, getting to know who people are, getting to know who the stakeholders are in the community and keeping them engaged. If a crime happens at 5 o’clock, we’re not asking them to call us at 5:05 and tell us what happened. We’re asking that in the appropriate amount of time, that we know what’s going on. This is a very small community and we don’t want there to be hysteria. That’s what happened in this instance. Someone was shot. Someone was killed, walking down the street. That could make anybody scared. Especially a community, a population, that’s already at a higher risk of being attacked.

MW: How did Lashai’s homicide impact THE clients and residents at the Wanda Alston House?

WATSON: There isn’t too much of a change here in this house. Our kids have to move forward with getting jobs, going to work, going to school and things like that.

Lashai was never a resident in the house, but she did come to THE’s drop-in center a lot. There was a time when she came to our drop-in center every day or every other day. So it affected our younger clients, like 24 and under, really uniquely. Because a lot of those girls do still engage in sex work, they may still be addicted to drugs, or maybe they haven’t talked to their family, they’re just disconnected from their family, and so we had a lot of people come to the drop-in center on the day she was killed saying, ”I don’t want to work ‘the stroll’ anymore. I don’t want to go out and prostitute. I don’t want to use drugs anymore.” You know we had things like that. Whether they stay on that right path, I don’t know. But as for today it has changed the drop-in center a lot. We had about 25 people who came to the drop-in center on the day that she was killed. Many of those people knew her and they gathered there to talk about it.

One thing that I’ve learned since I’ve been at THE is that of everybody on that LGBT spectrum, I’ve gained so much more respect for transgender individuals. It takes a whole lot to get on a bus if you’re not as feminine or as masculine as you would hope to be. You get on that bus and someone can tell that you’re dressing a way in which you were not born. That takes a lot of nerve. That takes a lot of heart. Because depending on where you live in this city, you are playing with your life. I give a lot of respect to the transgender community who embrace their lives and who they are at whatever age, and decide, ”I’m going to walk out of this house and I’m going to live my life, and I’m going to live in my identity.”

MW: In addition to Lashai, THE is also mourning the loss of another client?

WATSON: We had another one of our clients, Rene Wyatt, who passed away. It’s just another aspect of our agency. It’s funny because Lashai was so young, and I think Rene was probably in her late 40s or 50, and she had been sick for a while, in and out of the hospital. She died the day before Lashai. We knew she was going to go at any time. So we’ve been running around trying to get her funeral arrangements taken care of, and getting everything paid for, because a lot of times with our clients they don’t have insurance or things like that. When I talked to Earline yesterday, we probably got everything paid for but about $600. So it’s like, okay, we’re trying to brainstorm around what else to do to get the $600 to pay for this. Of course, we’ll be attending Lashai’s funeral and then right after Lashai’s funeral, Earline and all the staff at THE, we’re all working on Rene’s funeral. All of that and then you have the day-to-day operations of the agency: keeping the house open, keeping the drop-in center open, keeping all the programs going. That’s what my job is in the middle of this economic time. I don’t think we’re going to get a lot of the funding next year. It’s a battle.

MW: What makes you think Transgender Health Empowerment and the Wanda Alston House won’t get funding?

WATSON: As things are changing, the CDC’s guidelines are different now around HIV. It’s more about people living longer and things like that, so I think some of our programs are going to be cut, because we have a such a unique population. Transgender is a smaller population, so I don’t know if the drop-in center will continue to be funded. That was money that we got through the city for years. I don’t think we’re going to get our counseling and testing program next year at THE.

The last HIV/AIDS Administration grant was three grants that went out for all of the community-based organizations in the city, and we probably have about 10 to 15 agencies that test for HIV. This is – I hate to say competing – but this is THE now going up against organizations like Us Helping Us, the Women’s Collective and Helping Individual Prostitutes Survive, who have much longer relationships in the community. And they test populations that are a little bit bigger.

We’re fighting for every dollar and we’re looking at new initiatives. We’re trying to do more with LGBT youth who are in foster care, and doing trainings and trying to recruit foster parents for that population. And then we have the other housing program, which is just for adults. And we have a good history when it comes to serving the LGBT population.

MW: What will happen to the Alston House and THE if you don’t get funding?

WATSON: The funding for the house I’m hoping – because we’re the only ones working with LGBTQ youths specifically – I would hope that would stick around. I think that it would. But it’s the other programs that I’m more worried about. Like I said, the focus around HIV is changing. Nothing is set in stone. We don’t have a grant right now that says you will be here for another year. We basically have been going month to month for the last year. Every day it’s been about looking for an email or a call to say that you’re not going to get funded next year.

MW: How does THE work with the DC Trans Coalition in improving conditions for the trans community in D.C.?

WATSON: DCTC is more of an advocacy group. They can get out there and do a lot of the testifying. They’re volunteers, so they can say and do a lot more of the things that THE can’t. But that’s not really our role anyway. THE is about providing services, providing housing, providing HIV services, providing meals, getting people off the street, getting people into care, getting people to substance abuse and recovery programs. We go into the jails once a week and try to provide services. We provide sensitivity training to organizations. We did that with the Department of Corrections and homeless shelters. That’s what we do.

DCTC is about structural change. How can we change this policy? Or move this agenda forward? And we work with them a lot. A couple of DCTC members are staff members at THE. They see a lot of things that our clients go through. That actually helps us in what we’re trying to do, because we can focus on the clients, we can focus on individual health and well-being and DCTC focuses more on going to the City Council and trying to change laws and things like that. ‘

MW: How does the recent DCTC transgender needs-assessment survey help THE?

Brian Watson
Brian Watson
(Photo by Todd Franson)

WATSON: It helps because we’re able to get an idea of the population. That’s something that we can use when we go to write grants. It’s actually good that they’re finishing it around this time, because like I said with funding looking the way it is, we can say this is a reason that we shouldn’t be cut. We have all these needs in this population and we’re the only transgender organization in this city providing for these needs. We have the only housing program for homeless gay youth. We have the only housing program for individuals who are HIV-positive who are LGBT. We have the only drop-in center that’s open five days a week for the LGBT population that provides showers and provides food. We have kids who are in school and go to Howard University and places like that, they have to come to us for a meal. We have people who are 60, 70-year-old transgenders who come to our support groups, our ”Diva Chat” group on Friday nights. So we are providing very unique services. That’s why I’ve always loved THE. We provide very unique things and that’s what keeps us going.

MW: What keeps you going?

WATSON: I turned 30 this month. I also celebrated five years at THE this month. I’m just really trying to decide what more I can do at THE, or maybe it’s time for me to go.

I want to do more advocacy. I want to do more trainings. I love doing trainings on LGBT sensitivity and trans sensitivity and talking to people about the Wanda Alston House. I see myself doing something in the future around advocacy and training organizations to work with the LGBT population. I’m just playing it by ear. When it’s time for me to go, it’s time for me to go. I don’t want to be here so long that the program can’t move forward.

MW: Does the current climate at THE make you more inclined to want to leave, or stay and continue the fight?

WATSON: A little bit of both. It makes me want to stay because there’s so much still to do. It makes me want to go because you get tired of hearing it. You get tired of planning funerals. You get tired of planning vigils. I was thinking today, I get tired of pulling out my Transgender Day of Remembrance candles. I hate pulling that stuff out in the middle of the summer. I’m pulling out candles that I shouldn’t have to pull out until November. Which goes back to why I love to do the trainings and things that I do. Because there’s still so many people who don’t understand transgender, they don’t understand LGBT, they don’t understand that we’re just people who want to live our lives like anybody else and that nobody has the right to take someone’s life.

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