Almost exactly one year ago, Theo Hendrie thought he might have to drop out of school. His partner had lost his job, and they were struggling to pay bills and make ends meet. He worried that X Marks The Spot, his newly released anthology, might be the only creative project that he’d ever be able to complete. And then, at just the right time, Tuck Woodstock’s Gender Reveal mutual aid program came through.
“Up until then it was always, you know, when we’ve got a tenner we’ll put it into so-and-so’s top surgery fund, and they’ll probably put something into mine later on, and it all gets swapped around,” Hendrie says. “Whereas I think Tuck’s thing was the first time I saw something that was helping the community as a whole, and helping us to do something creative rather than just paying for medical bills.”
Hendrie received £75, and credits the money with allowing him to stay in school. Admittedly, that doesn’t sound like a lot. But since then, he has graduated from university and returned, for a master’s degree in media and communications. Like the thousands of other folks who have benefited in some form or fashion from mutual aid, monetary assistance empowered him to pursue his goals and stabilize his life, sans disruption.
Hendrie’s experience is not unique — all across the internet, people are accessing assistance and care through digital networks that, inevitably, spill into the offline, everyday lives of queer folks. When people in the LGBTQ community feel excluded from, unwelcome in, or underserved by mainstream health networks, groups like QueerCare, For The Gworls (FTG), and transanta step in, offering aid in the form of care and, often, cash.
Woodstock launched their mutual aid fund via Gender Reveal at the beginning of the pandemic, when it became obvious that people urgently needed help. The fund replaced what was originally the Gender Reveal Grant, which required folks to present their work to a panel of judges. It wasn’t appropriate for the moment, Woodstock says. “It became just, ‘Do you need money to live? Do you need money in order to pay rent, to feed yourself, to pay for your medications?’”
Woodstock’s pivot to mutual aid and away from the Gender Reveal Grant is emblematic of a larger shift that happened in 2020, courtesy of COVID-19. It’s been well documented that the pandemic exacerbated inequality across the board; in some marginalized communities, doubling down on care independent of mainstream systems was the recipe for survival.
But this building of DIY care networks has been decades in the making. Queer people and other marginalized groups have been doing this grassroots work for generations, and the modern ubiquity of GoFundMe pages and Instagram accounts is merely the latest chapter in a long history of alternative care.
Asanni Armon, founder of FTG, credits Langston Hughes and the rent parties of the Harlem Renaissance with the idea to raise money for Black trans people’s rent and gender-affirming surgery costs. “We are just following in those footsteps,” Armon says. “As long as we’ve been affected by the ills of capitalism, especially Black people, we’ve had to do this kind of work.”
Mutual aid can look like a lot of different things, depending on what you need — while Woodstock has sent money in amounts as big as $800 (and as small as Hendrie’s £75) via PayPal and Venmo, FTG just helped raise $50,000 for 23 young people to receive a year’s worth of hormone replacement therapy, through Point of Pride’s new HRT Access Fund. Historically, mutual aid has been a way for folks on the fringes of mainstream economies to collectively access resources and provide care; look at the Black Panther Party’s breakfast program, or the AIDS activism of ACT UP, and you’ll see the same network formation, sans internet.
It’s no coincidence that these networks typically form alongside activism work, says Kirsty Clark, a postdoctoral research fellow at the Yale School of Public Health whose research focuses on LGBTQ mental health.
“When folks are pushed to the margins, they create social networks through formal or informal channels where people can give each other information and support,” she says. “It’s this coming together to push back against persecution and to forge a feeling of belongingness within the group. And these networks not only produce peer support, but then can also lead to resources for medical care.”
While the pandemic has put a stop to FTG’s rent parties, and forced organizations like Trans Defense Fund LA (TDFLA) to host their self-defense courses online, it has not slowed the proliferation of mutual aid programs within the queer community — quite the opposite. TDFLA just shipped out another 200 self-defense kits for trans folks in LA; FTG announced on February 8th that, since its inception in July 2019, $1.1 million has been redistributed to Black trans folks around the world; Woodstock, of Gender Reveal, raised $100,000 in one month alone. Clearly, the practical implications of mutual aid are real, and, often, life-saving.
“The biggest success is that we are supplying people with the necessary tools they need and it’s going in their hands,” says Nikki Nguyen, the organizer behind TDFLA. “That’s the biggest part — just being able to provide this for the trans community.”