All posts by blythec0llins

Transgender Homelessness: A Bigger Issue Than Realized

By: Blythe Collins

Washington, D.C. — One in three transgender people have experienced homelessness at some point in their lives, whether the cause was family rejection, unemployment, or housing discrimination. According to the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey, done by the National Center for Transgender Equality, of the 30% of respondents that had experienced homelessness during their lifetime, 12% reported experiencing homelessness in the year prior to completing the survey specifically because they were transgender.

new-piktochart_26801414

Charmaine Eccles, a 36 year-old transgender woman living in Washington, D.C. has been dealing with intermittent homelessness for more than the last ten years. After her bouts with homelessness, Eccles has dealt with substance abuse, addiction, unemployment, and eviction. 

“At one point in time, on Christmas Day,” Eccles said, “I woke up and it was a blizzard outside and I was under a blanket, waking up to a pile of snow. It really wasn’t forced on me, it was choice and it was more of my addiction that had taken over at that time.”

A person is considered homeless if their name is not on a lease. At the moment, there is no explicit legal protection from gender identity discrimination neither at the state nor local levels.

“You cannot get a job if you don’t have a stable home,” Director of D.C. Mayor’s Office of LGBTQ Affairs, Sheila Alexander-Reid said. “Chances are you can’t keep a job if you don’t have a stable home and you may not be able to get a job if you don’t have appropriate clothes or if you don’t have a place to rest your head. All these things are connected. So really, homelessness is sort of the root and everything comes off of that. If you can get them in a stable home, then perhaps you can get them to a place where they can get some help and get their lives on track and get employment and education opportunities.”

Reid has been the Director of the Office of LGBTQ Affairs for almost three years. Since starting at D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser’s office, Reid has been a liaison who ensures that the LGBTQ community understands what the mayor’s vision for them is and also to make sure that the LGBTQ community understands her vision. A former advocate, Reid is ensconced in the community she works every day to help.

IMG_8491
Sheila Alexander-Reid, Mayor Bowser’s Director of LGBTQ Affairs, stands outside her office. Photo by Blythe Collins

“I will say that homelessness, employment, and public safety are the top three issues that the transgender community faces,” Reid said. “Not just in D.C., but around the country and probably around the world.”

The findings of the U.S. Transgender Survey showed large economic disparities between transgender people and the U.S. population as a whole. Nearly one-third (29%) of respondents were living in poverty, compared to 14% in the whole U.S. population. This high poverty rate is directly linked to respondents’ 15% unemployment rate—three times higher than the unemployment rate in the U.S. population at the time of the survey (5%).

“Homelessness made me realize the things we don’t appreciate in our lives,” Eccles said. “Even like sleeping on someone’s couch, or just having any bed to stay in, or just to be in somewhere warm, on a floor. It makes me think that compared to other countries, we have it really good over here. Even with the homelessness, some people live in worse conditions, horrible conditions, in their homelessness.”

According to the 2016 State Equality Index (a comprehensive state-by-state report by the Human Rights Campaign that provides a review of statewide laws and policies that affect LGBTQ people and their families), D.C. has passed 25 ‘good laws’ between 2004 and 2016 (among non-discrimination, youth, parenting, hate crime, and health and safety laws). Another state, such as Alabama, has only passed three of these ‘good laws.’

“D.C. is rated as one of the top jurisdictions to live in if you’re a member of the LGBTQ community and we’re really proud of that,” Reid said. “You can see how progressive we are, and in a way I feel like it is a privilege to be in D.C., where we are protected. Right now, we focus on D.C. but I also talk with a lot of national organizations who look at our policies to see how we are able to accomplish what we’ve accomplished, because their job is to make sure that the country is progressive and that the country is focused on equity as far as treatment of LGBTQ residents. I think we’ve done a lot because HRC and National LGBT Task Force are located in the District. This is the heart where a lot of the fight has taken place.”

Having a strong support system is critical to those who are transitioning, have transitioned, or are simply questioning their gender identity. Those who reported that their immediate families were supportive were less likely to report a variety of negative experiences related to economic stability and health, such as experiencing homelessness, attempting suicide, or experiencing serious psychological distress. Experiences varied widely between those with family support and those with unsupportive families, with family support being associated with a reduced likelihood of negative experiences. Less likely to have experienced homelessness (27%) than those with unsupportive families (45%).

“Unfortunately, in many cases, a lot of families are not accepting and loving of their family members who are of trans experience,” Adriana Scott, Housing Navigation Coordinator at HIPS said. “When you’re young and in your 20’s or even in your 30’s, the network of support that you have are family-based and when that really critical network of support dissolves because you’ve been kicked out of your house because of your identity, it can predispose you to living at or below the poverty level.”

Scott is the Housing Navigation Coordinator and Case Management Supervisor at HIPS, an organization that promotes the health, rights, and dignity of individuals and communities impacted by sexual exchange and/or drug use due to choice, coercion, or circumstance. Scott performs housing assessments that seek to match applicants with appropriate homes.

“I was in a hotel for like a year back and forth between the streets, hotels, and finding somewhere to stay at,” Eccles said. “I stayed with my sister, who didn’t approve of my genderm, so that was pretty hard for her. There were many of my family members who did not approve. They were accepting because they loved me, but they really don’t approve of it.”

Family support was associated with positive outcomes while family rejection was associated with negative outcomes. Respondents who were rejected were nearly twice as likely to have experienced homelessness (40%) as those who were not rejected (22%).

“There is a pretty significant community when you have people who are dropped by their families they find family elsewhere,” Scott said. “They become a child of an older trans person they become a sister or a brother of a bunch of other folks who are trans. Even though they may not be housed or may have unstable housing, I can definitely say there’s a very strong sense of family here. Even though family members argue and there’s drama and all that but it is definitely a place of overwhelming love among that community.”

Almost one-quarter (23%) of respondents experienced some form of housing discrimination in the past year, such as being evicted from their home or denied a home or apartment because of being transgender.

“D.C.’s shelter system is unfortunately not the best thing in the world,” Scott said. “I think that a lot of people have misconceptions that everything’s fine because we have a system where people can go to shelters, but that does not necessarily mean safety.”

More than one-quarter (26%) of those who experienced homelessness in the past year avoided staying in a shelter because they feared being mistreated as a transgender person. Those who did stay in a shelter reported high levels of mistreatment. Seven out of ten (70%) respondents who stayed in a shelter in the past year reported some form of mistreatment, including being harassed, sexually or physically assaulted, or kicked out because of being transgender.

“A huge issue that HIPS deals with is that a lot of shelters in DC or the surrounding area aren’t all that inclusive,” Mary Pavia, HIPS volunteer said. “For instance, many have coercive policies that require that anyone using that organization’s services must be sober, or even sober for a certain amount of time. Also, some battered women’s shelters, for instance, pose an issue for many trans folks as these shelters may not accept them due to their trans identity.”

Pavia, 22, is a volunteer at HIPS who completed 40 hours of direct service volunteer training about topics such as service provider privilege, crisis intervention, and harm reductionist tools for counseling clients about safer sex and safer drug use. As a volunteer, she carried out street-based outreach, needle exchange, condom distribution, and harm reduction micro-counseling around D.C. twice per month from an overnight outreach van.

According to Scott, the majority of the transgender homeless people HIPS sees have been involved in sex work. On the U.S. Transgender Survey, respondents who had done sex work (72%) and those who have experienced homelessness (65%) were more likely to have been sexually assaulted in their lifetime.

“We had a transgender public safety townhall here in the community room,” Reid recalls. “One person spoke and I didn’t know her and she spoke about having a shotgun held to her head and she was not doing survival sex work, but she was meeting some friends who had just finished doing some survival sex work. She was robbed and beaten and had a shotgun put in her mouth – it was horrific. She had asked the police to look into it, so the police looked into it, they arrested the guys who did it and I walk up to her after the event and said ‘here’s my card, I’d like to stay in touch with you. Is there anything I can do to help you?’ She said ‘well you can help me get a job, I’m trying to find a job.’ She applied for a job with Unified Communications Center, which is a D.C. government agency and she was hired as part-time and she went on to become full time. This enabled her to then go back and be a success story to other transgender women of color who were still struggling.”

Reid’s story happened to be about Eccles. The two women stay in touch and Reid calls to check in with Eccles, even after she got the job.

“After some months, I was able to gain employment with a non-profit organization, the DC Center,” Eccles said. “So, it changed my life. From that, I started getting more involved with the community and I’m actually employed now with hopes of transferring over to being a 911 operator and moving up in the company.”

 

 

Transgender homelessness is a dire issue that could eventually put lives on the line. Unfortunately, lifetime suicide attempts were higher for respondents who have ever experienced homelessness (59%).

“Right now I have a lot going on and I’m trying to save up for my own place whenever that happens,” Eccles said. “Eventually I’ll move, I’m just waiting for that opportunity… for that one phone call to help me get in a place more smooth versus me doing it myself with my terrible credit. Even though i’m comfortable where i’m at now, I’m really not complacent where I’m at. I want to have my own place. I’m doing everything I can to try to improve my credit but I can’t do much. Its like travel, eating, rent here, it’s not really like I can save much money. So, its hard but I try to make the best of it.”

UPDATED: Mixed Martial Arts Regulations Come Under Fire

As one of the fastest-growing sports in the country, mixed martial arts regulations were discussed through testimonies by a range of experts before The Subcommittee on Digital Commerce and Consumer Protection during a hearing last Thursday.

Notable concerns throughout the hearing were how the sport is regulated, how competitors and promoters are compensated, and what it takes to compete at a high level. Issues were also brought up such as what state regulators are doing to ensure fighters safety and how MMA could become one of America’s most popular sports.

Although each state has legalized MMA, regulations related to athlete safety, contracts, and merchandising vary between states. “Perspectives on Mixed Martial Arts” discussed the Muhammad Ali Expansion Act and how it affects the regulatory and competitive framework of the MMA industry.

The Muhammad Ali Expansion Act was introduced by Rep. Markwayne Mullin (R-OK) in January 2017. It amends the Professional Boxing Safety Act of 1996 to establish definitions for “fighter,” “combat sport competition,” and “mixed martial arts.” The bill also includes individuals who fight in a professional mixed martial arts competition or other professional combat sport competitions, and the professional combat sports industry. The bill requires guidelines for mixed martial arts and other combat sport contracts, and for objective and consistent written criteria for the ratings of mixed martial arts and other combat sports, as well as applying conflict of interest provisions. This Act was cited numerous times over the hearing by various witnesses – one witness (Greg Sirb) even claimed that “every aspect of the Ali Act is implemented for the MMA fighter.”

Rep. Bob Latta (R-OH), chairman of the subcommittee opened the hearing by providing brief background on the sport, which began in the 1990s, with roots dating back to much earlier.

“The history of mixed martial arts goes back to Ancient Greece, when the first Olympians in the 7th Century B.C. fought,” Latta said. “Today’s MMA is far more regulated. All 50 states permit the sport, subject to rules governing issues like banned substances, equipment requirements, round length, weight classes, and allowing referees and physicians to halt a fight to protect the competitors. In some ways, MMA is regulated in a manner similar to boxing, however; there are differences.”

Mullin was the first to speak, explaining why MMA is being discussed by Congress and reminding everyone that the sport has become interstate commerce. The issue that he spent the most time expressing was the lack of merit-based ranking in MMA. He explained that using a merit-based ranking system is necessary because MMA has become an inter-state commerce that Congress has the responsibility to ensure that the ranking systems are not based on marketing value and fighter popularity.

“Right now we have ranking systems based more on market and marketing value than it is merit-based,” Mullin said. “In the UFC [Ultimate Fighting Championship] history, we see more and more fights being not taught for title fights, but simply a trophy.”

Mullin cited recent fights in which the MMA fighters such as Henderson vs. Bisping and Mayweather vs. McGregor were not ranked by merit.

“When you go back and you say that boxers are treated like MMA fighters, clarify that statement,” Mullin said. “You’re talking about the health of the fighter, but not the professional ranking system and not about the financial disclosures. There is distinct differences and the Ali Act is the backstop to boxers. There is no backstop for MMA fighters – it’s take it or leave it.”

Witnesses during the hearing included the president of an MMA training center, a director of brain injury research at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York, the UFC’s Senior Vice President of Government and Regulatory Affairs, and the Executive Director of Pennsylvania State’s Athletic Commission.

Randy Couture, President of Xtreme Couture MMA, spoke about the industry and competitive differences between MMA and professional boxing. His perspective aligned with Mullin’s in that both witnesses felt that the ranking systems in MMA were not truly merit-based as they should be.

“MMA athletes do not have an organized and respected amateur system to establish merit,” Couture said. “Unlike in boxing and kick-boxing, MMA promoters do not, and have not been required by the athletic commissions to utilize independent or objective rankings. In addition to the lack of independent rankings, MMA promoters also issue their own championship titles – and in fact, can take them away just as quickly as they award them.”

Dr. Kristen Dams-O’Connor, Director of the Brain Injury Research Center at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai Hospital, spoke to her research on traumatic brain injuries (TBI). She said that most of the research pertaining to TBI has been done on male football players, which may not be able to be generalized to other contact sports such as MMA or to women.

“An important thing that distinguishes MMA from football is that many football players never sustain a true concussion,” Dams-O’Connor said. “Whereas, inflicting a TBI with loss of consciousness is essentially the goal of MMA. MMA also involves repeated exposure to subconcussive head trauma throughout practice and competition, which essentially means that MMA fighters are at risk for both the long term [effects] associated with TBI and also the long-term risks associated with subconcussive head trauma exposure.”

Marc Ratner, the UFC Senior Vice President of Government and Regulatory Affairs, shared his perspective on the role of regulations of MMA, making it clear that he was the first to disagree with the others in favor of the bill. He opposed the previous witnesses opinions in claiming that applying the Muhammad Ali Act to MMA does not make sense.

“We are proud to report that MMA is regulated by every state, with an athletic commission, and in many countries around the world,” Ratner said. “This subcommittee should understand that state regulation is real and effective.”

Greg Sirb, Executive Director of the Pennsylvania State Athletic Commission, described his state’s current framework for the sport. He noted that he was one of the “architects” for getting both the Professional Boxing Safety Act (1996) and the Ali Act (2000) passed.

“Currently in Pennsylvania, we treat the boxer exactly the same as the MMA fighter,” Sirb said. “Every aspect of the Boxing Act, of the Ali Act, is implemented for the MMA fighter.”

HIPS Eases Trans Lives In Washington

13934947_10154259296125853_4713119925256458941_n

 

Located in the center of Washington D.C.’s H Street Corridor resides HIPS, a storefront placed in between a Boost Mobile and a building under construction. The HIPS building may be inconspicuous, the work that is being done there is doing is anything but unseen.

HIPS is a non-profit organization focusing on harm reduction that works to promote the health, rights, and dignity of individuals and communities impacted by sexual exchange and/or drug use due to choice, coercion, or circumstance. The services at HIPS seek to provide compassionate harm reduction, advocacy, and community engagement that is respectful, non-judgmental, and affirms and honors individual power and agency.

“Previously, HIPS was an acronym for ‘Helping Individual Prostitutes Survive,’” Sharese Mone, HIPS Peer Advocacy Fellow said. “But now, the term ‘prostitute’ is considered problematic and we’ve expanded our mission much beyond solely focusing on sex workers.”

At HIPS, Mone focuses on providing opportunities to the LGBTQ community – specifically to transgender women in D.C. She loves sharing her passion and working to cultivate understanding within the D.C. community. She is also a peer educator who enjoys empowering her community with information about housing, employment, HIV/AIDS care, hormone therapy, and transitions.

HIPS began as a resource for female sex workers in D.C. However, as the District evolved, HIPS did along with it and expanded widely into the LGBTQ community. HIPS relies heavily on their population of interns and volunteers to contribute to the many different services being offered.

Mary Pavia, a 21 year-old volunteer at HIPS, is originally from Minnesota. In order to be a volunteer at HIPS she had to complete 40 hours of direct service volunteer training about topics such as service provider privilege, crisis intervention, and harm reductionist tools for counseling clients about safer sex and safer drug use.

“In studying various diseases, health problems, and barriers to healthcare as a public health major, it is clear the burden of many of these issues disproportionately and unfairly affect low income, disenfranchised, and underserved populations,” Pavia said. “So, I reached out to volunteer at HIPS to engage with people impacted and involved with sexual exchange and/or drug use.”

HIPS began in 1993 as a cooperative extension service of the Center for Disease Control (CDC) solely focusing on young women on the streets. In 1996, they opened their doors in collaboration with an AIDS organization.

“It became clear that many of the ‘women’ that we were helping were not biological women,” Mone said. “So, it was kind of necessary to expand our services to incorporate the necessary care for transgender individuals.”

In 2009, HIPS adapted Safety Counts for transgender women and men to help increase self efficacy and reach risk reduction goals in their lives. During this time, HIPS also launched a pretrial Diversion Program for transgender women arrested for solicitation related offenses aimed to reduce incarceration and recidivism.

“Many people I work with are transgender-women of color, often sex workers or drug users,” Priva said. “Due to stigma and discrimination, these folks struggle to find non-judgmental health services, hindering their ability to live healthier lives.”

Volunteer likes Pavia are able to carry out street-based outreach, needle exchange, condom distribution, and harm reduction micro-counseling around D.C. twice per month from an overnight outreach van. Although the HIPS clients vary, all are impacted by some systemic oppression that may include sex, race, class, and ability.

“I believe the stigma and discrimination of trans-folks that leads to structural violence and police brutality of this community is a major problem,” Pavia says. “And the felt and enacted stigma that trans individuals face in the health sector has justifiably caused many transgender people to not feel comfortable to seek care.”

According to Mone, HIPS had 84 transgender support groups in 2014 and though she does not know the exact current number, it has largely increased over the last two and a half years.

“This is why transgender care is so necessary,” Pavia said. “This community needs to have affordable and accessible care without fear of judgment or discrimination.”

Jeffrey Guzman: Here & Queer

By: Blythe Collins

Jeffrey Guzman is an accomplished transgender activist at only 20 years old. An American University student studying public relations and sociology, Guzman is from a small town in White Plains, NY.

Guzman is the executive director of the AU organization Queers And Allies, formerly known as Pride. The Queers and Allies organization at AU focuses on four areas: advocacy, community building, education, and networking. Guzman’s job as executive director includes organizing initiatives such as drives for toiletries, clothing, and food for underprivileged members of the LGBTQ community and putting tampons in gender-neutral bathrooms. His other work includes efforts to get tampons into men’s bathrooms – for those who are female but identify as men, gender neutral housing, and training for allies (both in and out of the LGBTQ community). He is also a peer advisor in the Center for Diversity and Inclusion, where he serves as a resource to LGBTQ community members on AU’s campus.

In Guzman’s opinion, transgender activism is especially important on AU’s campus due to the large LGBTQ population that calls AU home.

“We’re even known as ‘Gay U’ by other schools,” Guzman said. “I think it’s really important to have students who are out there pushing the issues that affect our community and that have a good relationship with the school, so that that way the school does pay attention to things that are affecting us.”

Guzman explains that not only is transgender activism important in his university, but also on a larger scale in D.C. and in the world. He stresses the importance of getting involved off-campus and the difficulty that transgender activists face because they are perceived as new by society.  

“It feels new because perhaps they aren’t exposed to LGBTQ people that often,” Guzman said. “It’s difficult, still, to understand what our issues are – what the life of a queer person is like. So it’s important to advocate and to storytell so that people can feel that connection to our issues.”

According to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Washington, D.C. leads the nation in the rate of HIV infection. In Washington, the chance of a person ever being infected with HIV in their lifetime at 1-in-1, compared to Maryland, where 1-in-49 residents have a chance of being diagnosed HIV-positive.

“It’s really important for me to be active and to be involved in this community,” Guzman said. “It allows me to use my privilege as a student to help them, because even though I am queer, I have the privilege of being a student and of living a fairly comfortable lifestyle that a lot of them don’t have.”

Guzman has been involved in transgender activism since he was in high school. Community service was his niche and he felt drawn to transgender and queer rights because they were issues that he could directly relate to.

“I went to a predominantly white, upper class private school,” Guzman said. “So many of the kids who I was in class with on a daily basis were oblivious to what was going on in my life and outside the high school bubble.”

During his high school activism, Guzman worked on getting his school to partner with a community-based health center that often held food and clothing drives. He also went to multiple diversity conferences that were specifically focused on training high school students to organize community-based service.

Transgender and queer activism, for him, started his junior year of high school when he came out as gay and non-binary, and felt comfortable with his identity as part of the LGBTQ community.

“For me, it’s important to be as intersectional as possible,” Guzman said. “Even though a lot of my activism does focus on queer and trans people, I try to weave in other identities because I think it’s important to recognize that being queer are not the only identities that people hold.”

Guzman notes that he strives to work with all sorts of identities: sexual, economic, social, and ethnic.

“I think I’m able to be more inclusive, and also be more self aware,” Guzman said. “I think that’s often something people forget when they’re activists. A lot of people are well intentioned, but in their efforts to enact change or be involved they often get too in their heads and just think about what they want to do and not what might benefit the community they’re trying to be an activist within.”

REVISED 1930s Georgia In A 2017 Novel

IMG_7910
Photo by Blythe Collins

WASHINGTON — Eleanor Henderson, recognized author by The New York Times, greeted the crowd that had gathered to hear her speak at the Politics and Prose bookstore on Sunday – only days after her newest novel had been published.

Before she took questions pertaining to her book, writing process, and personal life, she read the first chapter aloud of her recently-published novel, “The Twelve-Mile Straight.”

In just the opening chapter, not only is a field hand is accused of raping the daughter of a white sharecropper, he is then mobbed, lynched, and dragged behind a truck down a long road popularly known in the town as the ‘Twelve-Mile Straight’ (hence the title of the book).

After this event that left a man dead and a family broken, people living on the farm were left with the everything that the aftermath entailed.

The story of Henderson’s second novel follows Elma Jesup who is engaged to a white man – the grandson of the man who owns the cotton land that the Jesup’s family works on. Jesup became pregnant by her fiance and later gave birth to twins – one black and one white. They become a sensation and were nicknamed the Gemini twins by the press.

This mystery, two twins of different races, is thanks to the peculiar medical phenomenon known as “heteropaternal superfecundation.” Beyond the intriguing science of the seemingly impossible birth, Henderson saw rich narrative possibilities in the South at the time.

“It felt very important for me to tell a story that had a rich cast of characters,” Henderson said. “It was clear that the cast of the time had to be represented, but the technical craft question was ‘can I go inside and why would I want to evaluate a character through her point of view?’”

Henderson’s novel tackles issues of race, social division, and financial struggle in Cotton County, Georgia in the 1930s. Questions were raised as to why a white woman from Florida felt the urge to write about something so far from her direct experience.

“My father was born in Georgia in 1932, so I spent a good amount of time seeing family,” Henderson said. “Much of the material from the book was from stories I heard growing up, visits to the land family farmed. They were share croppers and had 200 acres of cotton plants, corn and tobacco so the landscape is inspired by that Georgia. The stories derive from imagination and research.”

“The Twelve-Mile Straight” has been deemed ‘timely’ by many critics in regard to the current political environment in the United States.

Most of Henderson’s fans were made from her debut novel Ten Thousand Saints, which was named one of the ‘10 Best Books of 2011’ by The New York Times and a finalist for the Award for First Fiction from The Los Angeles Times.

“In both books [it] was really terrifying for me [to] say: ‘Who am I to tell this story?’” said Henderson. “That can be really frightening but a necessary question for any fiction writer, so my fear of getting those worlds wrong prompted me to keep diving deeper into research and doing my best to create a place that would be recognizable to people who lived there.”

Henderson had just published “The Twelve-Mile Straight” after six years of trying to finish writing it- a feat considering that her first novel took her nine years.

“My high school English teacher said ‘it’s done when it’s due,’” Henderson said. “Luckily I had a deadline waiting for me or we wouldn’t be here.”

1930’s Georgia in a 2017 Novel

IMG_7910
Eleanor Henderson at Politics and Prose; by Blythe Collins

 

WASHINGTON — Eleanor Henderson greets her crowd at the Politics and Prose bookstore on Sunday, taking her thick, black rimmed glasses off to clean them and one last sip of her to-go coffee before she begins reading a chapter of her newest novel, The Twelve-Mile Straight.

Henderson’s novel, was just published on September 12 and tackles the issue of race, social division, and financial struggle in Cotton County, Georgia in the 1930’s.

In the small audience, many of the people were fans of her first book, Ten Thousand Saints, which led them into the bookstore to hear her speak about her newest novel.

Henderson’s second novel follows a mother who gave birth to twins – one black and one white. She read a chapter aloud to the Politics and Prose audience, giving everyone a look into both her writing and the and after a round of applause for Henderson’s reading, she took questions from the audience.

As a white woman, Henderson addressed the question of how she felt about writing about the issue of race in the south in the 1930’s.

“It felt very important for me to tell a story that had a rich cast of characters,” Henderson said. “It was clear to me that the cast of the time had to be represented, but for me, the technical craft question was ‘can I go inside and why would I want to evaluate a character through her point of view?’”

Henderson is an associate professor at Ithaca College, but got a year off in order to finish her novel and write full time. She is from Ithaca, New York, but has always been fascinated with the visits she took to Georgia and the stories she heard there.

“I’m not from Georgia myself. My father was born in Benhill County, Georgia in 1932, so I spent a good amount of time in Georgia as a kid, seeing family,” Henderson said, when asked if she was from Georgia. “We had a large family with seven siblings and lots of cousins and so I spent a lot of time there as a kid. But much of the material from the book, at the least the world of the book the story takes place in, was derived in large part from stories that I heard growing up with my father, visits to the land that his family farmed. They too were share croppers and had 200 acres of cotton plants and corn and tobacco so the landscape is very much inspired by that Georgia that I know, but then the stories themselves, the central stories  derive from imagination and research.”

Because Henderson never directly grew up in Georgia in the 1930’s, she explained that her motivation for writing a novel with such an unfamiliar setting was her husband and father.

“I think because both my husband and my father spoke about those times with nostalgia and love, I loved those people and so, I also was not inclined to write about myself or the places I grew up in very directly, at least not very much and not yet,” Henderson shared. “I think that enthusiasm that they had – and they’re storytellers too – but they have this really high level of detail that they could capture and I was just stealing it even though they maybe didn’t know it just writing down notes in notebooks. But then it wasn’t really my intention to tell their stories.”

She also added the importance of doing accurate research and ensuring that the world being written about is a believable one, even if the novel is fiction.

“I’m not speaking from direct experience and in both books that was a really terrifying experience for me, on every page I would say to myself ‘who am I to tell this story?’ That can be really frightening but is also a really necessary question for any fiction writer, so I hope that my fear of getting those worlds wrong prompted me to keep diving deeper into research and doing my best to create a place that would be recognizable to people who lived there, but of course as fiction.”

As an author of a previous novel, Henderson explained her need to maintain distance from the setting that she is writing about.

“Setting and character kind of grows out of the earth and I can’t just set a story on a blank page and so I kind of in a secondhand way, in an almost journalistic way, I’ve come to the stories,” Henderson said. “I think that kind of distance, for me, has been helpful in that I really want to get to know a place really well. I get to know a place better than I could know my own reality with more authority than I can at my own which is sort of ironic and impossible.”

Henderson shared that The Twelve-Mile Straight took her six years to finish – a feat considering that her first novel took her nine years.

“My high school English teacher said ‘it’s done when it’s due,’” Henderson laughed. “Luckily I had a deadline waiting for me or we wouldn’t be here.”