‘I am my sister’s keeper’: Trans femmes in Central Iowa share home and resources through the Trans Housing Project

Britt Fowler/Little Village

Zoie Taylor has owned two houses, across the street from one another in her Des Moines neighborhood, for a while now. They’re hers outright, mortgages paid off. And for a while, she rented them out in the typical fashion. Until she met Em Cariglino.

When Cariglino moved into the three-bedroom house across the street from the rambling four-unit home that’s now the heart of their community, they started out holding down the fort during renovations. As time went on, they and Taylor began to rethink the arrangement, and decided to embark on an experiment of, Taylor said, “doing housing in the right way.”

Now, the spaces house several other trans femmes, as well as Cariglino, Taylor and Taylor’s children. Some of them work, some manage disabilities. None of them pay rent. Each home has space reserved to help someone through a short-term crisis, if necessary. And the big house has a unit reserved as a communal space, where they can meet, work out issues and socialize. It boasts a large flag on the wall: a take-off on the flag of the German Democratic Republic (1959-1990), redone in the light blue, pink and white of the transgender pride flag.

They laugh about the tongue-in-cheek communism, but point out that the compass that East Germany included, as opposed to the sickle prevalent elsewhere, indicates a nod toward knowledge work as opposed to industrialization.

Although they “gesture toward the iconography” of socialist movements, Cariglino said, where they differ from some modern ideologies is that they acknowledge and embrace differences that set them apart, rather than a sort of one-size-fits-all approach to equality that results in significant gaps. Social and “culture war” issues, identity issues, are truly important.

At the core of what Taylor and her “tenants” are trying to establish is a shared sense of community. They’ve created a living situation where housing can be a non-issue for trans people trying to find their footing in a precarious world. The long-term goal, she said, is helping people get stable so that they can then help others.

According to the National Center for Transgender Equality, at least one in five trans people in the U.S. has experienced houselessness at some point in their lives. The National Alliance to End Homelessness notes that trans and gender-nonconforming houseless individuals live completely unsheltered at higher rates than their cisgendered peers. In some locations, the reluctance of women’s shelters to provide access to trans women can greatly exacerbate that issue. Organizations like House of Tulip in New Orleans, Louisiana and PDX Trans Housing Coalition in Portland, Oregon have set some examples in larger cities of how to build the kind of mutual aid safety net necessary for trans communities to thrive.

Mutual aid forms the core of this Des Moines effort as well. This past fall, Taylor launched a GoFundMe to help the group meet the hefty costs of property taxes and insurance as they continue to get things off the ground. Donations continue to come in on a regular basis, from $5 solidarity bumps to larger offerings (the biggest so far has been $750). They met their goal for September property taxes and are now pushing to be able to cover March.

“I’m not going to put somebody out on the street who reasonably can’t survive without help and say it’s not my problem,” Taylor said of her commitment to the people living in the homes. It comes down to an ethical precept for her: “I am my sister’s keeper.”

“If I have the resources, the privilege, the ability to keep people from suffering, and I choose not to do that, I’d argue that makes me culpable for the harm that happens to them, even if I didn’t directly do it,” Taylor said. “That’s what sets us apart from the people who look at this in a more traditional way, like, ‘If I have a resource, I should get a fair market rate for it.’”

“We’ve gone out of our way to make sure that everybody around here is comfortable. … I went to the store today and got groceries for me and my roommates,” Cariglino said. “We sort of have this set up where my roommates just tell me what they need, and then I make sure we have it. I know I can afford it. Groceries are groceries — I can’t always afford everything … but this food is for all of us.”

Although this project is still in its early stages, the group is making itself known in the Des Moines area.

“You’re a known figure around town,” Cariglino teased Taylor. “You’re Zoie from online!”

One thing that’s important to Taylor is that people know they can get help accessing the sometimes prohibitively expensive transition medications through her and her network.

“We have the ability to say that no one has to go without hormones” in the trans femme community in Des Moines, Taylor said. “That one specific thing is something that I’ve been saying to people for a while … Someone will always be able to help you. People can reach out to me personally, and I can connect them with resources. That’s one thing that was always very important to me.”

They’re also looking toward becoming more engaged in local politics and broader community justice.

“We’re not just coming in here and putting in houses that people can’t afford; we’re not coming in here and driving up property values so that the people that historically have lived here can’t afford it,” Cariglino said, referencing some of the development initiatives currently pushing forward in Des Moines.

They worry that as homes nearby are demolished, the character of the neighborhood will change for the worse, with residents getting priced out by new construction, despite the city’s stated goals (see sidebar). The ethos that they operate under cherishes, rather than ignores, the differences they see reflected in the community around them.

“We’ve all just internalized that we all have to take care of each other,” Cariglino said. “Because it’s understood that without that, we’re all worse off.”

Britt Fowler/Little Village

Genevieve Trainor is imperfect, but believes deeply in mutual aid. This article was originally published in Little Village Central Iowa issue 008.

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