BERKSHIRE, Mass. — When Ray Garnett went to his first peer support group for people who are transgender, it was located in “a little anarchist bookstore” in his town of Chapel Hill, North Carolina, the Internationalist Books & Community Center to be exact.
There “were just a few people sitting there,” Garnett recalled of his first time attending the group, which was co-sponsored by the North Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition. But eventually, through word of mouth and interest, it grew, from three people to about 20. The Trans Discussion Group, as it was known, allowed people a safe space to talk about everything, in a non-therapy, non-clinical setting.
“We were super informal. The meeting would start with an ice breaker, like how our week had been, and then we’d just talk. Sometimes it would be in-depth about trans issues and politics, but we would also just hang out and talk about TV shows and stuff.”
Garnett, since becoming a Berkshire County resident, has been working to build that same sort of community for himself and others through the Berkshire Trans Group. Its Facebook page currently has 94 followers, but Garnett is now expanding the group’s outreach by offering a new peer group in Pittsfield.
The group aims to support and empower adults who are “trans, genderqueer or gender-questioning.” The first meeting of the Pittsfield-based Berkshire Trans Group, will be held this and every third Monday, at 7 p.m., at the Berkshire Athenaeum, 1 Wendell Ave., in Pittsfield. Though free and open to anyone, including supporters of trans people, its focus will be on being a confidential gathering steered by the people who want and need to be there.
“It needs to be defined by who shows up. My approach is let’s make it their group,” Garnett said.
Garnett, who co-owns Yellow House Books in Great Barrington with his aunt, started a South County meeting group just over a year ago to open the door for anyone looking for social support. The group first met in Housatonic at the Unitarian Universalist Meeting of South Berkshire, Garnett’s church; the group since moved to the bookstore to be more accessible. A couple of people meet on a regular basis, with students from Bard College at Simon’s Rock also dropping by on various occasions.
After establishing a Berkshire Trans Group Facebook page, Garnett said he began hearing from other people in the Berkshires about their interest in having meetings held in Pittsfield. Garnett said the Pittsfield library was a welcoming partner in offering space and support for the group, and so the Monday date was set.
In addition to a people-driven model, Garnett says the only other hope he has for the group is that it attracts a wide range of people. His previous group in North Carolina, for example, included people between the ages of 16 and 60. “It was one of the things I loved about that group,” he said. “It’s nice to see folks who knew something, and had experience with some of the issues we discussed.”
The issues for transgender people vary, said Garnett, but over the years, he’s heard from people who struggle with going through a gender transition and maintaining an identity socially and in the work place; how there’s a lack of physicians and other medical staff trained in transgender health; and how social opportunities can be fragmented, especially in smaller communities where it’s harder to connect with other trans, genderqueer and gender-questioning people due to population distribution.
The biggest thing Berkshire Trans Group needs to be successful is “just people showing up,” said Garnett.
“If you don’t have something happening on a regular basis, it can’t happen. You’ve got to just show up,” he said, noting that his first South County meetings consisted of just himself.
But eventually, people began to join him.
And that’s the ultimate hope, is for people to take co-ownership in the movement to make the Berkshires a more trans-friendly place to live and work.
Said Garnett, “I don’t want to be a leader, I want to be a part of a group.”
Information from: The Berkshire (Mass.) Eagle, http://www.berkshireeagle.com