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Transgender leader drives LGBTQ acceptance in the Bronx

Pride flourishes at Destination Tomorrow
Transgender leader drives LGBTQ services and acceptance in the Bronx 04:34

On an overcast Saturday, an enthusiastic crowd waved Pride flags, cheered on drag performers, and clapped and danced along to the music blaring from large speakers next to the stage. The Bronx Pride Fest, thrown by the only LGBTQ center in the Bronx, New York, on June 18, took up only one block of the borough's Westchester Avenue, but its impact was much larger.

"The Bronx has a thriving LGBT community, and we deserve a space as well," said Sean Ebony Coleman, who identifies as transgender and serves as founder and executive director of Destination Tomorrow, which hosted the Pride Fest. The grassroots organization offers gender- and sexuality-affirming services, and Coleman stresses they welcome anyone who walks through their door. Their clients reflect the predominantly Black and Brown and low-income community outside the center's doors.

"I see myself a lot in all of the young people that come in here, because they're all looking for something, right? And just some guidance, a kind word, somebody to act like they care," Coleman said.

Sean Ebony Coleman, Founder & CEO of Destination Tomorrow LGBTQ center, watches a performance at Bronx Pride Fest in New York City. CBS News

He started Destination Tomorrow in 2009 to provide the kind of support he wished he'd had growing up in Brooklyn. The group offers emergency housing and a food pantry, financial literacy and GED educational resources, job skills, medical and mental health care referrals, group counseling, and, Coleman says, perhaps most importantly, community.

"We want to make sure when they walk through the door that they know that they're speaking to successful adults, and we're going show you the pathway: 'This is what I did. This is how [I] did it,'" Coleman explained. "I wanted to create a space where there were LGBTQ adults that could help those young people navigate spaces and navigate life and navigate some of those questions that they would ultimately have about their sexual orientation or gender identity." 

A Destination Tomorrow employee attends Bronx Pride Fest. CBS News

Jaisen Garcia-Castillo works for Destination Tomorrow as a youth and health outreach coordinator and HIV tester. He identifies as transgender and first came to the center as a client in 2017, as he was struggling with drug use and beginning his transition. At Destination Tomorrow, he found support and acceptance. 

"When I came in here, I didn't feel like I had to dress a certain way. I didn't have to act a certain way. But facing society, I had to be more masculine. I had to fit in more, which, it was very, very hard. I want to try and show [the youth], letting them know that I was able to do it, and they can do it, too," Garcia Castillo recounted. 

Research from the National Institutes of Health show loneliness and lack of support among transgender individuals can have devastating consequences. Eight-two percent of transgender adults have considered suicide, and the numbers are even higher among transgender youth, with 86% having experienced suicidal thoughts. 

"It's the loneliest thing in the world to have questions that there's in your mind. There's no one that can answer these questions," Coleman said. "So it's almost like you hide so much of who you are for protection, but at the same time, you're just dying to get it out, and you can't. And it's, like, yeah, it's incredibly lonely."

Bronx Pride Fest attendees watch a stage performance.  CBS News

Coleman says many clients from the community need to overcome the taboo of seeking counseling before joining support groups or being connected with gender and sexuality-affirming mental health and medical providers. 

Mimi Shelton, who identifies as transgender, is the director of trans initiatives and services and oversees grants that Destination Tomorrow awards to smaller LGBTQ organizations. A former English teacher, she first came through the doors as a client, attending a support group for transgender women and even makeup tutorial classes. She now leads her own group sessions. 

"I know that for clients who don't have the kind of advocacy skills that I do and who don't have the same kind of [education] I do, who need that space, and who need a space to thrive, to feel confident, to feel seen, then they are able to come here," Shelton said. "The only thing separating me, as a Black trans woman, from any of the Black trans women who come in here, was opportunity."

Mimi Shelton, Director of Transgender Initiatives at Destination Tomorrow. CBS News

Many Black transgender and gender nonconforming people report experiencing poverty and homelessness. According to the National LGBTQ Task Force, 34% said they had incomes of less than $10,000 yearly, and 41% disclosed they'd experienced homelessness, which is more than five times the national average. Destination Tomorrow has adapted their services to meet the needs of their community and celebrates every milestone with clients.

"We have a lot of those success stories, right? Whether it's their first job, and they want to come in, and they want to brag 'cause they got their first job and they're going to buy us something for lunch, or they got their first apartment and they bring in the keys to show us the keys," Coleman said. "That's what we do it for, to make sure that those first moment they have — can you imagine having a first moment and not having anybody to share it with?"

Coleman says he and the team are always pushing clients to go farther and helping them see and pursue a future beyond what they've imagined for themselves, whether that's returning to school or getting on track with a job.

Many transgender and gender nonconforming individuals experiencing homelessness report feeling unsafe or unwelcome in shelters. For instance, only 30% of shelters are willing to house trans women, according to the Center for American Progress. Destination Tomorrow offers emergency 90-day apartment-style housing and teaches participants life skills during their three months in the program.  

"During the time that we have them, we're programming so we can get the job that they need, so they can earn a living wage. We're teaching them life skills so that they can do independent living, they're managing money better, because it makes no sense to give someone housing if we don't teach them how to sustain that housing."

Last year was the deadliest year on record for transgender and nonbinary people, with at least 57 murders reported. The Human Rights Campaign, which has compiled this data since 2013, says many incidents go unreported. 

At the same time, anti-transgender legislation has made headlines in states around the country, with 17 bills passed or signed by governors and 60 still on the table, according to the American Civil Liberties Union

Coleman emphasized the need for connection, support, and chosen family. 

"If you can't go home and tell your mom about taking your first hormone shot, you can come here, and we can celebrate that," he said. 

The organization has already opened an outlet in Atlanta, Georgia. Coleman is also heavily involved in granting money to underfunded LGBTQ organizations across the U.S., partnering with Gilead Sciences and Unilever to help get funding to where it can do the most good. 

"There are some gays in Alabama too, and South Carolina, and New Orleans, and all those other spaces. So the goal is to identify programs, those grassroots programs, that are doing really, really solid work," Coleman said. 

Coleman and the staff hope to see the LGBTQ, and especially the transgender and gender nonconforming community, thrive and flourish in the Bronx. 

"Because that's what it's all about is opening up doors, opening up windows. I'm not here to gate-keep, right? I'm not here to say I'm the only trans person here, 'cause I don't want to be. Like, I want us to be, you know, everywhere, proliferate in all fields," Shelton explained. "We need doctors, we need lawyers, we need pastors. We need, you know, all kinds of — a host of community members and political and social leaders. So, that's, for me, what I see drives my passion here and how my identity really plays a role in that."

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