Each time a piece of legislation regarding non-discrimination is passed, it tells a story — sometimes good, sometimes not. While it is thrilling to celebrate victory, we must also remember that in the movement to secure full non-discrimination protections for all, defeats and setbacks are inevitable. In 2016, this was never so clear as in Mississippi.
On April 5, 2016 Governor Phil Bryant signed one of the most anti-LGBTQ pieces of legislation ever to take effect — HB 1523, also known as the Religious Liberty Accommodations Act. This law permits organizations to discriminate against LGBTQ people in housing, employment, and public accommodations by claiming a religious exemption. These exemptions extend to medicine, as it allows practices such as conversion therapy to continue and procedures including gender confirmation surgery to be denied. After a lengthy court battle that is still underway, the anti-LGBTQ law took effect on October 10, 2017.
While this has been a devastating blow to LGBTQ people throughout Mississippi, not all hope is lost. Throughout the state, there are committed activists, organizers, and coalitions working every day to combat the bill by working with local and state communities. One of these people is Malaysia Walker, who states unequivocally, “I am Mississippi, and I belong here.”
Getting Involved as a “Walking Advocate”
A transgender woman of color, Malaysia works with the ACLU of Mississippi as the coordinator of the Transgender Education and Awareness Program (TEAP). Every day, Malaysia works to defend the rights of Mississippi’s transgender and gender non-conforming communities.
“One of my main focus areas is education. There is no way that people can help us in our fight for equality unless they are first educated on our existence,” she says. “We teach communities how to be better advocates, and we build coalitions to push for community change and equality.”
“My name is Malaysia Walker. I have a husband and a family. I attend church, and I love God. I am a tax-paying citizen. I consider myself talented. I enjoy enhancing the beauty of things. I am a beautiful black woman, and I am transgender. I am Mississippi, and I belong here.” – Malaysia Walker
Malaysia also advocates for her community as a public speaker. “I teach a course called Trans 101, which helps inform people about the basics of transgender identity and how trans people want to be treated.” Malaysia also allows room for people to ask questions, which provides the opportunity to clarify misunderstandings and dispel myths.
While her job gives her an amazing sense of satisfaction, to hear Malaysia tell it, she never thought she would end up where she is now.
“I was speaking at a Transgender Day of Remembrance vigil,” she said. “I had no idea the ACLU was there, and they approached me after I spoke. They said they were developing a program on transgender people and identity and encouraged me to apply. Two months later I had an interview, and 24 hours after that, I got the job.”
While the outcome was what she’d hoped for, in the two month period between applying and interviewing, Malaysia suffered terrible personal tragedy. On January 4 of this year, one of her closest friends, Mesha Caldwell, also a transgender woman of color, was murdered. Malaysia spoke fondly of her dear friend and about how the incident changed her.
“She and I grew up with each other over 20 years of friendship — it was devastating,” Malaysia said. “We enjoyed a lot of the same things, sort of kindred spirits in a way. Growing up, we didn’t know what transgender was, but we were able to help each other in figuring out who we were becoming. It’s coming up on the one year anniversary, and it’s hard.” She paused for a moment, then continued. “If there was one life-altering moment that caused me to say, ‘It’s time to wake up,’ this was it. This was the ignition to my advocacy.”
Until that moment, Malaysia said, she never realized that she was indeed a ‘walking advocate.’
Facing Discrimination in the Workplace
“My transition was public — I was in retail, where everyone sees you and they sort of share the experience with you.” In the retail environment, Malaysia shared that she, like many other transgender people, was often the target of discrimination.
“My history is in makeup artistry and cosmetics. In one job alone, I would say nine times out of ten, I was told I needed to ‘de-feminize’ myself before I would come in to work, I imagine because I was at the very beginning of my transition.”
Malaysia says that when a particularly exciting promotion came her way, she was told to apply and that she was essentially a lock for the position, but after a series of interviews, they passed her over, even though she was the most qualified person and had been with the company the longest.
“Once you gain self-acceptance, you won’t be focused on anyone else accepting you for who you are.”
“It was a slap in the face. I realized then that [the company] didn’t appreciate me for who I was. Shortly after that, I got a new job, where people were more accepting and comfortable, and not long after that, I got the ACLU job.”
Even though she has experienced discrimination and harassment, Malaysia says it has made her a stronger person and advocate and has inspired her to stand up for others who may find themselves in similar situations.
“I firmly believe you don’t go through anything you’re not supposed to,” she said. “I believe when you’re ordained to do something, you have to do it and do it well. It’s my job to make sure people, businesses, everyone has the information they need to make sure they have a sense of understanding us.
Malaysia also believes that self-awareness and self education is a powerful tool in LGBTQ advoacy.
“One thing I’ve found is that as a community, once we gain an understanding of who we are, what we have become, and what we see in the future, we have no problem making sure other people understand that as well. We need to make sure the younger generations have this knowledge, that it’s OK to be who you are — they’re the ones we leave the world to.”
The Work Ahead in Mississippi
As far as what her immediate goals are as part of the ACLU, Malaysia says she has a busy year ahead of her.
“My main focus is working to amend our existing state protections to include sexual orientation and gender identity. We don’t know if we’re going to be successful this year, but it’s important to raise awareness and let people know that these issues do exist. HB 1523 is unfair, detrimental, and extremely harmful.”
Malaysia also wants there to be attention paid to the economic case for non-discrimination.
“I have a lot of friends who have packed up and left Mississippi because they don’t feel safe or protected. When people leave, their money leaves. It’s an issue we need to publicize much more.”
Although her work can be difficult, Malaysia is confident in herself, and wants other transgender people to work towards gaining their own confidence and being proud of who they are.
“Be comfortable in your own skin. Gain acceptance from yourself first. Once you gain self-acceptance, you won’t be focused on anyone else accepting you for who you are. My name is Malaysia Walker. I have a husband and a family. I attend church, and I love God. I am a tax-paying citizen. I consider myself talented. I enjoy enhancing the beauty of things. I am a beautiful black woman, and I am transgender.”