INDIANAPOLIS — As a trans woman of color living with HIV, Marissa Miller has been using her voice to advocate for the well-being of her communities for nearly three decades.
Miller says this path of advocacy is not one that she necessarily would have chosen, but she is using her gift to provide access to resources, happiness and healing for the local transgender and gender-nonconforming (TGNC) community.
"This would not have been my choice," Miller said of when she was growing up. "I wanted to be a dancer. But boys don't dance."
Miller said she was raised in a rigid Christian household where certain actions were condemned. Now, she uses her platform and the newly opened Trans Solutions Research and Resource Center to provide services to the TGNC community and hand people like her the keys to success.
"I'm a builder and I was born a builder," Miller said. "I don't think that I can forfeit the gift that is inside of me and still be at peace."
Miller has worked for organizations such as AIDS United, NMAC, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration and the National Institute of Health in Washington D.C.
But the Midwest has always been home, leading her back to Indianapolis, where she's built a first-of-its-kind social services agency.
"We are one of the first social service agencies that are guided by research first," Miller told WRTV. "The entire leadership team is trans or non-binary identified, and they are also Black and Brown. My entire board of directors are Black and Brown."
She founded the for-profit side of Trans Solutions in 2018. Come 2021, she knew it was time to build a non-profit that could foster interpersonal relationships for TGNC people. So she staked her claim on a north side home and was open by September.
The Black trans-led research and resource center is already filling a gap for the local and global TGNC community, Miller says. With the help of her non-profit's academic partnerships — such as Johns Hopkins, North Carolina Chapel Hill, Duke University, and others — the Trans Solutions staff can provide workforce development, skill-building, education assistance, safety referrals, prison reform navigation, medical care, social and spiritual support, and gender-appropriate substance usage assistance.
"We're not trying to duplicate anything that anybody is doing," Miller said. "The resources that we are able to provide, and the data that suggests where we provide those resources, are guided by research."
Not only does Miller want to provide her community with more access to an otherwise closed-off world, but she also wants to hand over the keys.
"Many trans people won't have the opportunities that I have had to sit at the tables I have or create the tables I have created," Miller said.
"It is my job to make sure that if they don't have exactly that access, that they have this (the resource center's) access," she continued, "because this doesn't belong to me. This is the 501c3 discipline of the community. I am just the trusted servant in place at this place, founder and all, still a trusted servant guided by a board of directors that insists that we take care of the people."
In an interview with WRTV following the official opening of Trans Solutions Research and Resource Center, Miller discusses why an agency of this kind is needed, the decision to locate at 38th and Pennsylvania, why allies need to stop asking "what can I do?" and more.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
I read that you've been a leading voice in the transgender community — particularly in the Midwest, in cities like Chicago and Indy — for almost 30 years now. Looking back, did you see trans advocacy being your career?
I think proxy decided assignment. And that assignment was guided by gift. And then I was left without a choice when assignment was guided by gift. This would not have been my choice. I wanted to be a dancer. But boys don't dance. Boys don't have the opportunity to do those things. And I was raised in a rigid Christianity household. My father was a policeman, my mother was a judge. And little boys don't do certain things; little boys don't sit on the toilet, little boys don't walk around in robes all-day. So I was groomed in a world of condemnation. A lot of people that are trans and non-binary, and even Black cis women and Black cis men, we are raised in a spirit of condemnation, that if we don't do the very best we can in school — 'you'll be a bum,' 'you'll be homeless,' 'she'll be that' — and that's not always true. We create the mind frames that people operate in. And we don't even realize that we've caused the trauma that they are now existing in.
I am always going to be a builder in any capacity that I work in, whether it's the public health field or not. I'm a builder and I was born a builder. I don't think that I can forfeit the gift that is inside of me and still be at peace.
What made you want to start Trans Solutions Consulting LLC?
I have to give contribution to BU Wellness, where I got all of my formal training. I started my work here in Indiana as a client. I tested positive for HIV a little over 31 years ago. So HIV work was the work that was essential because I was now living with HIV. And at that time, trans and non-binary people weren't really involved in the work. And if they were involved in the work, they took a backseat, they weren't really at the table and recognized. So, I had the opportunity to work within Indiana and Indianapolis with many other people that knew we needed trans leadership in the community and groomed me for that particular leadership. Then I had the opportunity to travel to Chicago to help build Howard Brown Health's trans and non-binary programming and then the national organizations in Washington D.C.
When I did the first National Trans Visibility March, we did a survey, and I realized that we had actually failed trans people because we have failed to recognize what safety meant to people. We only related safety as it related to being in a violent attack. But safety meant the location of bathrooms. Safety meant making sure that people had training in TSA so that if their identification didn't match their name, that there was no interruption in their process of traveling. Safety also meant ensuring that trans people had a tutorial to explain what to expect when traveling. That was where Trans Solutions was really born.
Our consulting agency works directly with corporate America, human resources, and diversity and inclusion departments to train agencies how to efficiently, proficiently and comprehensively take care of trans and non-binary people.
Three years later, you've branched out from consulting and introduced Trans Solutions Research and Resource Center, a non-profit, to the local and global TGNC community. What prompted this?
We had some very successful years in 2018 and 2019, so I left nationals in D.C. after realizing the gift I had needed a little bit more space to grow.
Then the pandemic came, and when the pandemic hit there were so many trans and non-binary people that were displaced because they did not have a choice about income. They weren't receiving the PPP loans, they weren't receiving stimulus checks. And most of them that were engaged in sex work were without work because the entire country was shut down for a period of time. There were no opportunities for people to have equitable housing opportunities. So those are some of the things that we were facing when we decided to start our programming.
So I moved back here. And I'll tell you, when I first came home, I wanted a break. I didn't know how much energy I had, and how much of me I had to give to the community. Turns out, I thought I needed a break.
Then the story was very different. I got the opportunity to get two PPP loans, both of them $13,862. And as a result of those PPP loans, this was born.
You've put a lot of work into this space. It looks great. What do you look forward to the most about the resource center?
I want to train as many trans and non-binary people as I can in the next three years so that this can be the last house on the corner for those displaced individuals.
I have three years to groom the next leader. Leadership is not about me staying put forever. It's about me opening doors and handing over the keys — not just giving you access, but giving you the actual key that unlocks the door. We're good at giving access to people, but we're not really good at giving them the secret to how we got the access.
You don't do what we say because we're grown, you do what you say because this is the plan that you have created for a successful life for yourselves.
What are the gaps you're hoping to fill for the trans and gender-nonconforming community with Trans Solutions?
We want to put people back in places of happiness, of healing. How can you enjoy life and you're worried about your rent, you're worried about your light bill, you're worried about where you're gonna lay your head, you're worried about how you're gonna get somewhere? Then put trans and non-binary on top of that, and then put Black and Brown on top of that. And then you understand how we are forced to navigate through.
We don't need people to speak for us anymore. There are still people coming to the table talking about trans people, but you don't know anybody trans that you could have invited to talk about themselves? Don't talk about trans people if we're not there.
Agencies go through all of these particular things about people not being successful in programming, well, whose programming said? Who was it designed by and who was it designed for?
We have to hear the community and what they are thinking. What they are not saying is even more important. How do we get to sustainability? How did you get there? How did I get there? Our program that runs our agency is called VISION. It's a program that was built by Jasmine Deskins, who was an AmeriCorps worker about six years ago, and it really identifies those particularly intricate areas of people's lives that need to be programmed.
VISION starts out with an individual success plan that we don't create — we record. Imagine that. I have no input in how you get to where you go. You tell me that you're going this way, and I record it. Then I help you get you there. Once you get there, and you realize that one part might not be successful, we figure out what you might put in place that you think would make it successful. If you allow people to design the success plans, and they are telling you what they are capable of doing, there are no unrealistic expectations that we have placed on them or ourselves.
What we try to do is not decide what's best for you. But to help you achieve getting what you have decided is best for you. If McDonald's is your decision, then who am I to tell you that you can't work at McDonald's as long as you can take care of your needs?
And so that's what we will try our best to do — take care of the people and build relationships to give back. Because it takes a village. I mean that's sort of a cliche, but it actually takes a lot of different components in order for people to be successful. We want to give people a toolbox of things that they can rely on. It might not be something I can utilize now but we'll put it on the shelf. Two years from now, you probably will be able to utilize that.
Why 38th Street?
This is an area that is frequented by those who are displaced, whether their trans or non-binary. It is a highly-populated area. 38th Street is one of the main streets in the city. It's transportation accessible. You can't miss us if you need us.
We wanted to be among people that had been cultured around trans and LGBT people, and this neighborhood has certainly been that. BU Wellness is right around the corner, who's one of our partners. IYG is right around the corner who's one of our partners. Trinity House, which just opened, is one of our partners and they're down the street. If you go straight up any of these streets, you run into life care and you run into all of the places that trans and non-binary people access.
When it comes to the trans and non-binary communities, is there anything you wish more people were aware of in an effort to be allies?
I don't want to leave people in a place of ignorance. I believe everybody knows. I believe that there have been conversations about trans and non-binary people for decades now. And if people really want to get engaged with trans and non-binary people, they will learn. Allies, they ask me this question often, 'what can allies do?' Stop asking me that d- - - question, and do the work. Create a guide. You sit on panel after panel after panel and ask what can you do to help — create a guide so other allies know what to do, so they don't have to keep asking trans people.
You know, one of the most essential things is it is not my job to educate you as a trans person. It is my job as an executive director of an agency to make sure that you're educated. And that means that you have to come get what you need. People know us, they see us. You can't end crime without us. You can't end HIV without us. You can't end poverty without us. You can't end inequality without us. You can't end any of those things without us and we are at the bottom of the barrel.
So, if we ever want to talk about liberation and what it looks like, then you have to make sure that the bottom of the barrel is liberated. And I feel like until we're liberated. No one is liberated. And it takes money. Invest in trans-led agencies, Black trans-led agencies, and stop policing the funds. Keep your money if you're going to police them because we don't need them over here. We're doing restorative work over here and restorative work don't always fit into a budget.