If you’re in the Charlotte area and interested in supporting the trans community Rev. Debra Hopkins is a name that’s almost guaranteed to be mentioned or come to mind. Rev. Hopkins is originally from the neighborhood of Jamaica in Queens, New York, but she’s made her home in Charlotte for over a decade. She’s a proud parent of three successful adult children, elated grandparent to eight beacons of the future and a formidable trans advocate.
Bringing her own lived experience as a Black trans woman, a passion to empower and a religious faith that keeps her tethered to hope and resiliency, Hopkins has selflessly offered her compassion and services to the Trans community and others in need. During this interview, she candidly shares her thoughts, disappointments and joys on what advocacy has been like single-handedly operating a nonprofit organization aimed at uplifting a community forced to live on the margins.
L’Monique King: So, we know you’re originally from New York, but how did you end up in Charlotte?
Rev. Debra Hopkins: Oh wow. Well, my journey from New York City took me to Atlanta Georgia, then to Huntsville Alabama and then to Charlotte. I’ve been in Charlotte for 12 years now.
LMK: What drove you to ministry?
RDH: My late Junior High School years were very tumultuous years for me. I had little sense of belonging, along with trying to discover who I was inwardly and how that would be expressed outwardly.
During the death of Martin Luther King Jr. and the Stonewall Uprising, a teacher of mine discovered that I had a wonderful musical voice and thought I would do well in public speaking. It was these vehicles that led me on a spiritual path to begin singing with a choir, “The Voices of Spirt.” The experience of performing off-Broadway was wonderful. I was an older member of the group. I had finished high school at the time but was still involved in some school activities. It was through my engagement with the “Voices of Spirit” that I felt like I was being called to ministry and it took off from there.
LMK: Are there any particular challenges for you as a trans clergy member?
RDH: That’s a difficult question, simply because everything in life – from my perspective, is a challenge. A challenge to offer hope to those who have no hope. To help provide an opening where doors have been closed. A challenge to show that God’s love resonates through all of us, when we aren’t about hate. It’s challenging to find the proper words when someone has lost a loved one or someone is chronically ill.
For me it’s not about gender. It’s not about one’s sexuality. It’s about one’s belonging and being accepted as we are. There is a creator that accepts us just as we are and I try to help those who struggle with that with a message of love, strength, peace and hope. But more importantly, that they belong, in spite of.
LMK: Most folks would agree that a sense of belonging is integral to a person’s sense of wellbeing. And as you stated, having that sense of belonging nurtured, particularly in religious circles, can be quite challenging for the LGBTQ+ community. What does the bible say about being trans?
RDH: <Laughter> The bible speaks very openly about those in the trans community. People seem to miss this. It’s often why I tell many of our biblical scholars who are teaching and preaching surface scripture – get the shovel out and dig deeper. When we (not just the trans community but the LGBTQIA community) look at Paul’s writing in the book of Romans; Chapter 8, we are reminded that the creator loves us in spite of our struggles. We’ve given assurance that none of us are perfect, we all have struggles.
In the Book of Mathew; Chapter 19 Jesus is talking to his disciples about divorces, and uses examples of eunuchs to explain acceptance of the trans community. Some will argue that Jesus is talking about marriage, I’m not arguing that. However, the text – in parables – is also talking about how hardness of the heart and how everyone will not necessarily receive or understand difference. He’s speaking of a community that is being treated poorly and vilified – eunuchs. The text mentions these people who were born this way in their mother’s womb, made by man or made by self.
LMK: Sounds like you’re able to use the bible to show people that they can have a religious connection without being ostracized. Have you ever had any difficulties reconciling your faith with your gender identity?
RDH: I did actually. Those struggles took place in the 1980s. I was new to ministry, got my degree, was teaching youth ministry, directing a youth choir and teaching elementary school children. I was [also] still coming to terms with who I was.
I struggled with passages of scripture that made me look at my identity and wrestle with it. I was depressed, lost sleep and became violent at times. I struggled with what I was seeing, hearing and had been taught to me for almost a decade.
LMK: How’d you overcome that struggle?
RDH: How I was able to overcome those struggles is still very present with me today. I indulged myself in deep study of scripture, prayer, fasting and meditation with the comfort of spirituals and hymns. It got to a point where through all these elements I was better able to find direction and make decisions and choices that continue to allow me to reach a spirit of peace or the spirit of letting something go.
LMK: Many of our readers know you for your connection to There’s Still Hope. Can you share a little on what There’s Still Hope does and offers?
RDH: There’s Still Hope was created because of the failure of the community, the city, and state to address the ever-growing problem of trans-identified adult homelessness. Being one who actually experienced homelessness, and experienced the lack of avenues to “get you up out of the mud” I felt that it was important for me to give back to the community if I ever found a way to get out of the situation [of homelessness] I was in.
For six years I did this primarily by myself – providing emergency housing and then developed into transitional housing. The program worked with over 80 trans-identified individuals providing housing, counseling, food, and transportation assistance. But you can’t run a program for a sustained period of time by yourself. Other nonprofit organizations that offer group and individual counseling talked a good game but never stepped up to the plate. When you couple that with [trying to assist and engage] many [program participants] who want to be given a fish and not be taught how to, honestly the work was becoming exhausting. So I’ve come to a point where, because of my health and my age, I’ve decided it’s time to contribute to my community in a different way. Today, There’s Still Hope exists through me with the provision of educational aspects.
I’m in transition right now. I’m working on a book and am doing speaking engagements on establishing nonprofit organizations and Diversity, Equity and Inclusion.
LMK: With your transition of no longer providing housing through There’s Still Hope and Charlotte’s affordable housing crisis – what’s your advice on how the void can be handled?
RDH: It was never my intent to continue to run the program. Where the hurt comes in, is the LGBT community really did not seem to see the value of the program and what it was designed to accomplish. I was always hoping that someone with more energy and fresh ideas would step up and then carry the program further. Ideally, I would have found investors to purchase a hotel or other expansive space for housing. I hope that the seed of There’s Still Hope flourishes within hearts in a way that would prompt them to want them to really come together, using our blueprint to address the needs of trans clients who need safe affordable housing, mental health, employment, and education.
LMK: With a change in direction, it sounds like you might have more time for a personal life. Are you partnered or dating?
RDH: Dating for me frightens me, because of my age and the way I’ve been treated in the past. I’ve never really dated for any long period of time, especially since my partner of 22 years passed away in 2016. She was with me throughout my entire transition.
LMK: I’m sorry for your loss and noticed you said she. Does that mean you identify as lesbian?
RDH: Love is Love, whatever rests on my heart in the way of love is probably where I’ll end up being. If you start attaching the baggage of what love is, you box yourself in a corner. I will admit to this however, men scare me. I’ve seen how trans individuals have been treated over the years and tried to date a guy but have also dated women.
LMK: Have you made any accomplishments this past year that you’re particularly proud of?
RDH: On a personal level I’m proud of the fact that I was finally able to take ownership of self-care.
LMK: Who or what is your go-to when life gets rough?
RDH: This is interesting because for me, I live such a lonely life outside of the realm of what people see. I find my greatest solace is through prayer, meditation, music and writing. If you want to know my happy place, give me a piece of fried chicken, an umbrella and the beach….we good. It’s the most relaxed state I’m ever in – it’s calming and allows me to let things go.
LMK: In closing, what words of advice would you like to share with readers?
RDH: Galvanize. Create programs that are truly designed to address needs and create positive differences in the lives of those that suffer. It’s also important that our trans community understands that these programs are not for a handout but help up and it’s important that you do your part. And lastly, stop allowing the misuse of a pronoun or a gender identity to push you to turn into a volcano of anger, hurt, and frustration. That doesn’t make any dog-gone sense. It is incumbent upon you to defuse it and look beyond ignorance, lack of knowledge, and stupidity. Don’t make it your own. You are here for a particular reason; you are here for a bigger purpose.