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Pride 2017: Woods changes East Bay trans lives

by Seth Hemmelgarn

Tiffany Woods helps instruct recruits at the Oakland<br>Police Academy in 2013. Photo: Terry Washington
Tiffany Woods helps instruct recruits at the Oakland
Police Academy in 2013. Photo: Terry Washington  

For almost 15 years, transgender activist Tiffany Woods has been working to strengthen the trans community in the East Bay.

Even as trans visibility has grown in other parts of the Bay Area and across the country, no one working on trans issues in cities like Oakland and Fremont has been as visible as Woods.

Woods, who's program coordinator and co-creator of TransVision at Tri-City Health Center in Fremont, has done everything from reaching out to sex workers on Oakland's streets to helping train police officers so that they treat trans people fairly.

It hasn't been easy. Woods, 53, who lives in San Leandro, has had to face challenges including an employee's brutal murder and community members criticizing her for working with law enforcement agencies.

"You build community trust by building relationships," she said. "... If you're not open to those relationships, you're not going to change anything."

Woods began developing her relationship with the Oakland Police Department in 2012 after Brandy Martell, 37, who had worked at TransVision, was shot and killed that April as she sat with friends in her parked car at 13th and Franklin streets in downtown Oakland.

Malique Parrott, who police said murdered Martell, was himself killed about two months later. (Police finally identified Parrott as Martell's killer in 2015.)

Photos of Martell show up on many of the walls in the offices and exam rooms of the small clinic space that TransVision occupies in Fremont.

"Brandy's death changed a lot of officers' perspective on trans people," said Woods, stating that many officers had known trans women only as sex workers.

She recalled a client who was sexually assaulted last year and said she was "glad" the police officer she talked to "knew what questions to ask."

Woods called it a "clear benefit of working internally" with the department. She added that Oakland Police Chief Anne Kirkpatrick, who was sworn in this spring, is "very knowledgeable" about trans issues.

Officer Johnna Watson, an Oakland police spokeswoman, said, "Tiffany Woods has been a key partner with the Oakland Police Department and the transgender and gay community. She has assisted with awareness, education, and outreach during very challenging times with several critical incidents," including Martell's murder and the Ghost Ship fire, among other events.

The department continues to work with Woods, "who also has co-taught in the academy the diversity class and often provides valuable advice and guidance for the department," including the agency's professional staff. "The city of Oakland is a diverse community and we are constantly learning ... as we serve our community," Watson, who's a lesbian, added.

But some people have criticized Woods for her work.

"There are many community members that don't want that interaction," she said. Some people have even skipped Transgender Day of Remembrance events that Woods organized "because I've had police involvement."

Woods added, "I'm not on anybody's payroll" when it comes to her efforts with law enforcement. "... It's just because it needs to get done."

Another tragedy that included the trans community and got Woods more involved in working with law enforcement was Oakland's Ghost Ship warehouse fire in December that killed 36 people, including at least three trans people.

Officials asked Woods to help ensure that victims' names and gender identities were respected as information was shared publicly.

In the days immediately after the blaze, the Alameda County Sheriff's Office, which includes the Coroner's Bureau, "didn't know where to start," said Woods. "They were grateful I was on the scene with them."

"That was huge," she said. "... They listened to my guidance and they implemented it."

Some have overlooked Woods' efforts, though.

On December 7, just days after the fire, after Woods had already been working with the sheriff's department and other agencies, the LGBT groups Equality California, National Center for Lesbian Rights, Transgender Law Center, and others issued a news release criticizing local efforts.

"Local authorities and media have continued to disrespect transgender victims by not honoring their correct names and gender identities," the groups stated.

Woods referred to the groups' move as "a media stunt" and said, "I was so angry. She added that EQCA and NCLR officials later apologized.

Woods said that among other benefits, her work after the Ghost Ship fire gave her an opportunity to do training with the sheriff's department, an agency that Woods said had been the source of many clients' complaints because of their encounters with deputies.

 

'Clients ... from all over'

TransVision, which works to cut HIV infection rates among trans women in Alameda County, has 450 to 500 active clients. In recent years, the agency has started hearing from more homeless people, as well as younger people.

"Our clients come from all over," said Woods. That includes cities as close as Berkeley and Oakland to locales out in the Central Valley like Fresno and Modesto.

Tamia Reed, 34, a transgender Oakland woman, has worked with TransVision since 2007.

Woods is "a big inspiration and a big help to the trans community," said Reed.

Among other assistance, Woods and others at TransVision have helped expunge her criminal record, which includes petty theft and "fighting," so that Reed could gain employment. They also helped her with getting her name changed, as well as access to food and hormones.

Reed said that Woods has shown her and others "there's more out there than just being prostitutes and things like that. She opens up doors. ... She does a very good job at trying to help and be there for everybody."

Like many others, Woods worries that the progress that's been made is at risk.

With the bigotry that President Donald Trump's administration has encouraged, "Visibility now is dangerous," she said, and the biggest challenge "is not to be pushed backward."

Trans people are "on the menu" with people like Vice President Mike Pence and Attorney General Jeff Sessions, "everywhere they think they can get a win targeting trans people," she said.

The community always comes together "when we're responding to tragedy," said Woods. "... I'd love us to come together not because we're being attacked and not because there's a tragedy. I don't know how that happens," but there needs to be more "visibility and political leadership and seats at the political table across the country."

Politics may be the next stage for Woods.

She was one of Congresswoman Barbara Lee's (D-Oakland) appointed delegates to the California Democratic Party and she graduated this spring from Emerge California, which trains and encourages women to run for office. She is the new secretary of the state Democratic Party's LGBT Caucus.

Woods, who lives in San Leandro with her wife, Bridgette Bodine, and their children, said that she's "planning to run for something," but she didn't want to go into details.

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