Kayla Gore, one of the co-founders of My Sistah’s House, stands for a portrait at the organization’s headquarters in May. Photo by Andrea Morales for MLK50.

To Kayla Gore, home is not only a place but a feeling — within your body and from your community — that tells you that you are safe.

The transgender woman who once lived without shelter co-founded My Sistah’s House in 2016 to be that safe place for trans, lesbian, gay and queer people of color experiencing homelessness. 

In the last year, MSH has been a strong advocate for the community, Gore said. The organization set up a bail fund, provided emergency housing for 35 people and transitioned them into permanent housing. It gave other assistance to around 100, including “survival kits” of emergency supplies for those living without shelter.

But it is not enough, said Gore, 35. The non-profit is now building tiny houses in Memphis, with a goal of 20 homes. With an outpouring of financial support, even in a pandemic year, MSH has raised just over $600,000 to acquire land and build the first small homes.

One is complete and occupied; two others are in progress; more land is being acquired. The smallest house will be about 280 square feet; the largest about 480 square feet. 

“We want to build a community that will prioritize keeping everybody safe — space for people to be able to plan and map out their futures,” Gore said.

Fundraising continues. The pandemic and the concurrent Black Lives Matter uprisings were not obstacles but a driving force, Gore said. “It ignited a flame in me to help folks who might not have the resources.”

“We want to build a community that will prioritize keeping everybody safe — space for people to be able to plan and map out their futures.”

Her work has garnered national attention. Still, Gore admits she is impatient. “It will be a greater feeling when we have more (houses) completed. … Because people are waiting.”

The MSH house can shelter five. But each day, Gore sees many more people behind them who are in need. She knows firsthand that the lives of transgender and gender-nonconforming people without shelter can be dismal.

Between 2016 and 2019, 8% of transgender adults experienced homelessness compared to 1% of cisgender adults, a study by the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law shows. And in 2020, 63 percent of transgender people without permanent homes were unsheltered, compared to 49 percent of cisgender people, according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness.

Shelters serving the general unhoused population often fail to take special needs into account, which exacerbates issues of victimization and discrimination.

Gore puts the ‘T’ first in the abbreviation LGBTQ, making it TLGBQ. Her goal is to prioritize providing a sense of community and security for people who have been abused, misunderstood, discriminated against and even murdered. Last year was the deadliest year ever for violent deaths of transgender people in the U.S., according to the Human Rights Campaign. HRC counted 44 murders, including Angel Haynes, 25, who was shot at a Memphis hotel in October. 

“There are a lot of occurrences of violence we don’t hear about because trans people really don’t report it,” said Gore, who herself has been attacked and stabbed in the past. “When I have called the police and I am the victim, I often feel like I have become the criminal. That is not an isolated experience.”

Gore’s activism has made her a public figure. She was recently featured on the National Geographic series “IMPACT,” highlighting the work of women making a difference in their communities. The episode was called “Coming Home” and premiered on May 17, which coincided with International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia, and Biphobia.

Gore’s activism has made her a public figure. She was recently featured on the National Geographic series “IMPACT,” highlighting the work of women making a difference in their communities. Photo by Andrea Morales for MLK50.

A chaotic but fulfilling journey

Gore hasn’t always been this outspoken. “I was a very quiet, shy child,” she said. The 2004 Melrose High School graduate said school was a source of stress while she questioned her sexual identity.

“You hear so many things growing up in the community about LGBT people and the disdain for that community and how it hinders the Black agenda or weakens the Black family unit in so many ways. That goes through your mind: ‘How will society see me?’”

But Gore had dreams. Her journey has been winding and sometimes chaotic, but ultimately, fulfilling.

From high school, Gore went on to earn associate degrees in business administration and sociology at Southwest Community College. She worked at a call center in Memphis, then moved to Phoenix, Arizona for a job in 2006 — one that was rescinded when she got there.

Life changed overnight. “Suddenly, I had no job. So I ended up sleeping in a public park. I used the bathrooms in the park, and some others showed me, ‘This is where you can store your stuff… This place is safer…’”

Gore navigated that city’s unhoused subculture for about eight miserable months, all the while taking mental note of the services that worked and didn’t work. Her family didn’t know what was going on; she was living outside, and she was sexually transitioning.

But the experience would pay off later. “It informed everything we do at MSH,” she said.

Gore came back to Memphis that same year, deeply depressed, and moved in with family. “I came back feeling like I hadn’t succeeded. I was trying to figure out what my next steps were going to be.”

Then she learned to be an activist as a volunteer with the Mid-South Peace and Justice Center. “That was one of the first places I got trained in organizing,” Gore said. She admitted that she initially came around because of the free meals. “I just kept coming back. It got to the point where I was giving input on things.”

Gore volunteered with Homeless Organizing for Power and Equality, an advocacy group made up of people who have experienced or are currently experiencing homelessness. She also worked for three years as a paid employee with OUTMemphis, an LGBTQ community center, where her talents for organizing made a mark.

Gore was encouraged to apply to work at the Transgender Law Center, the largest national trans-led organization advocating for justice for transgender and gender-nonconforming people. She worked at TLC remotely from Memphis and then for the Transgender Strategy Center for more than a year, traveling the country, seeing how other cities tackled similar issues and problems, including homelessness.

Gore had noticed fewer resources available for unhoused trans people in Memphis than in Phoenix, and she wanted to do something about it. “Something told me, ‘You could really excel and elevate your community,’” she said. “I wanted to be a bigger part of the change.”

Gore and friend Ellyahnna Wattshall conceived of My Sistah’s House. And made it happen. 

Changing her name was a pivotal moment for Gore. “I felt whole; I felt complete, not like I was hiding behind a veil anymore.” Photo by Andrea Morales for MLK50.

No longer hiding 

Gore does not dwell on her decade-long experience with transitioning and even kept details from her family for a year. She informed her mother by sending a selfie of the new girl in her life — who had been there all along. 

Changing her name six years ago was a pivotal moment, one that illustrates the needs that drive her activism.

“I felt whole; I felt complete, not like I was hiding behind a veil anymore,” she said. 

Gore is lead plaintiff in a lawsuit against the State of Tennessee, which argues that denying transgender people the ability to correct the “gender marker” on birth certificates is unconstitutional.

Gore also has spoken out against a new state law that targets transgender people, calling it tantamount to a “scarlet letter” for them. The law, which goes into effect July 1, requires businesses and other entities with multi-stall, public restrooms to display signs if they allow transgender people to use facilities aligning with their gender.

“The tiny House project just came from people saying, ‘You can do this.’ So I started a GoFundMe. I figured if something happens, it happens.”

Even legalized targeting won’t stop Gore. She has a restless mind — always thinking of the next thing, she said. She thrives when others affirm and encourage her. “The tiny House project just came from people saying, ‘You can do this.’ So I started a GoFundMe. I figured if something happens, it happens.”

It did happen. “People showed up in a major way.” Then we were like, ‘What do we do now?’”

Gore built the first tiny house with the assistance of local builder Dewayne Jones, who had experience designing and building tiny homes.

More help came when Gore wasn’t looking for it. An architecture firm located in Indianapolis, Indiana, saw her story on Instagram and offered to work on more homes, including design, site location and approval — without compensation.

Anson Keller, a partner in DKGR Architects in Indianapolis, said events during 2020 caused the 10-year-old firm’s owners to look for opportunities to “give back.” One of their architects in training, Jasmine Wright, saw Gore’s GoFundMe request online.

“We reached out, and they responded,” Keller said. He said it was important for the planning to be so precise that local authorities would “have no excuses to say no to the project. This is something we are very passionate about. It has been a great team effort.”

It’s been a long learning curve from dreamer to construction manager for Gore, and the DKGR assistance proved invaluable. “There is so much that goes into building a house — the selection of the land, the architects, the general contractor, planning board deadlines …”

MSH was recently able to turn over the keys to the first tiny house in Glenview to a Memphis transgender woman who needed help getting out of a dangerous situation. The homes will be “a mixture of free and affordable.” Gore said. “We will have wraparound services for those who can’t afford them.”

There has been little to no opposition from the neighborhoods. Gore said she thinks it is because MSH is revitalizing spaces, putting well-built houses on formerly vacant, blighted lots. The next houses will be handicapped accessible, in compliance with the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA). Gore also envisions a cluster of homes with shared community space.

 “I have a desire for change and liberation in my lifetime that drives me to be extroverted.”

The formerly quiet, introverted child has found her voice.

 “I have a desire for change and liberation in my lifetime that drives me to be extroverted,” she said. “It comes out when I feel like people believe in my vision and the work I am doing. (Knowing) they respect me as a person helps me go that extra mile.”

Gore grew up on Ethlyn Avenue in South Memphis, where the first tiny houses are being built. She is still astonished at the full-circle moment.

“I never envisioned this would be my life. I am maybe 200 yards from where I grew up.” She sighed. “And here I am.”

Celeste Williams is a writer and playwright living in Indianapolis. She was a journalist for more than 25 years, having worked at daily newspapers in Alabama, Tennessee, Wisconsin and Indiana. She has won national awards, including recognition for reporting on extreme poverty in Tunica, Mississippi. Her play, “More Light: Douglass Returns,” about abolitionist and orator Frederick Douglass, was produced in 2017 and 2018 in Indiana.

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