Mutual aid organizations nationwide are providing an essential frontline response to the twin crises of COVID-19 and police brutality. Prime among them is For the Gworls, a platform connecting and raising money for the Black trans community. In the past year, FTG has grown amid pandemic and protest from a monthly party raising money for friends to a major operation with more than 44,000 followers on Instagram that, at the time of writing, has redistributed more than $263,000 to Black trans people in need of support, no questions asked.
July 4 marked FTG’s first anniversary. Asanni Armon founded FTG in July of 2019, when two of their close friends were threatened with eviction. When Armon heard about their friends’ situation, they initially felt helpless. “I didn’t know what I could do, but I know that there’s something that can be done. I can’t let anything happen to them,” said Armon. That’s when the idea of a party came to them.
As an undergraduate at Princeton, Armon had read about the Harlem Renaissance tradition of rent parties, when the Black community in Harlem would throw events with live bands and charge entrance fees at the door to raise money in response to discriminatory rental rates. Why not do the same for their friends, Armon thought? It was the end of June, and Armon hadn’t heard of any Fourth of July parties, so they seized the opportunity. In under three days, they pulled together a Fourth of July party fundraiser to crowdfund the money that their friends needed. The party was hosted on the rooftop of a friend’s apartment, and as soon as it was announced, donations started rolling in. Armon wasn’t sure if they could pull it off given the tight time frame, but before the end of the night, they had exceeded their goal. As the festivities wound down, a friend of Armon’s turned to them and said, “You pulled this together in three days. Imagine if you could do this every month, and you could pay someone’s rent.” That moment stuck with Armon. “I woke up the next morning, and was like, OK. I’ll do this every month.” FTG was born.
Mutual aid organizations have proliferated all over the country since the start of the pandemic and to support protests nationwide, but mutual aid has deeps roots in American society, particularly within marginalized communities. Langston Hughes even kept a collection of rent party advertisements from the Harlem Renaissance period. Pre-COVID, FTG followed a similar model: Guests gave a voluntary donation at the door, which goes to an emergency fund that is distributed to individuals in the community as they make emergency requests. For Armon, the approach made perfect sense as a means to serve Black trans and gender nonconforming people. “The community I serve, we party all the time,” Armon said. “There [were] lots of party collectives throwing parties every month, every few months. If all this money is coming in, why not redistribute some of that? We need these spaces as a source of redistributive power.”
Since the onset of COVID-19, FTG has transitioned to an online-only model, sharing requests through its Instagram platform. FTG covers asks for rental assistance and funds for gender-affirming surgery, and in light of the pandemic, has developed a medical fund designated to help recipients with treatment copays and travel assistance to avoid exposure via public transit.
The overwhelming demand for this kind of mutual aid system is due to the particular kinds of discrimination faced by the Black trans and gender nonconforming community. According to the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey, the unemployment rate among the Black trans community is 20 percent; 38 percent of Black transgender people live at or below the poverty line, and 42 percent have been homeless. Housing and employment discrimination are rampant: Nearly one-quarter of Black transgender individuals report being fired at some point because of their gender identity, and one-fifth report experiencing homelessness because of their gender identity.
The intersection of systemic racism and transphobia puts the Black trans community in a particularly precarious position with regard to both COVID-19 and police violence. According to Ahmad Saeed, the resident DJ of FTG, the ability to support people directly and on short notice is part of why FTG is filling a necessary gap: “The fact that we’re able to help people without having to send them through loops and hoops is really powerful. I haven’t seen direct action in the ways that we’ve been able to create before, and it takes stress and pressure off the people we have been able to help.”
But FTG is more than just a crowdfunding platform—it has also grown as a space for community-building. “It has been a place of refuge for me,” said Armon. “When life gets difficult, that’s one place I know that I can always turn to, and be around other Black, queer, trans people, who I know that I can be safe with. There’s nothing like being around people who see you for who you are, who affirm you.”
These days, DJ sets have had to move online, and FTG has adapted its model accordingly, partnering with DJs to redistribute funds from online streams. Party collectives online and off have long functioned as healing spaces for the trans and gender nonconforming Black community at large, and party music is a central part of Black LGBTQ cultural history. Contemporary dance and electronic music has its roots in New York’s 1970s disco tradition, Detroit’s 1980s techno, and Chicago’s 1980s house—musical subcultures built for and pioneered by queer communities of color. These musical lineages inform FTG’s sound. Saeed, who hails from the South Side of Chicago, focuses on playing contemporary Black diaspora dance, house, and electronic artists at FTG’s parties.
“For a lot of Black queer people, [the] disco,” or the club, “is a kind of church,” said Armon. “While Black cis-het people have been able to turn to church, actual church, in order to seek some sort of refuge, Black queer people were kicked out of the church. So instead we turned to disco, we turned to party, we turned to dance, we turned to each other to make some sort of sense of the world, in the same way the Black people found that community in church itself.” Pre-COVID, FTG’s in-person parties were spaces of healing, of redistribution, and of resistance all at once. For Armon, “[FTG’s work] is a serious topic, but that’s what Black, queer, and trans life is. It is a series of serious topics. We are already coping. We are already using the disco, the club, the bar as a means of finding an answer. In that way, our parties are no different.”
FTG’s in-person parties may be on hold for now, but amid the national protests, some in which the group has taken a lead role, FTG has attained a higher profile than ever. “It’s great for the organization. I’m thankful that people are paying attention and that the money is going to the people that need it the most, that’s what I care about the most,” said Armon. But the influx of money and followers is bittersweet. “Police brutality is not new; systemic violence against Black people, Black queer people, Black trans people is not new. We’ve been talking about this for years, people have been talking about this before I was even born. It’s disheartening that it took a pandemic and police brutality happening at the same time for people to really start buckling down and listen.”