For Celeste Fiore, one of the founders of Trans Affirming Alliance, one word stands out most in the group’s name: “Affirming.”

Fiore said TAA — a trans-centered LGBTQIA group that formed in December 2020 and based in Montclair — is there to listen to people. It aims to make sure they feel heard and validated.

“When you’re in a community that feels a lot of shame, you feel like on some level, your existence and your struggle isn’t real, like you’re being gaslit by an entire community and you often accept a lot of (expletive),” Fiore, whose pronouns are they and them, said. “I think that people know that something’s not right, but they’ve been conditioned to feel like their experiences aren’t valid. And I think that’s something that the Trans Affirming Alliance just does by virtue of listening to trans people.”

The nonprofit group — started by attorneys from Argentino Fiore Law & Advocacy LLC, where Fiore is a partner — describes its mission as partnering with LGBTQIA centers and projects to deliver services including legal guidance, mental health counseling, career counseling and specialized health and wellness care such as for vocal coaching.

Once someone feels validated, Fiore said, then that person can start attacking logistical and practical problems.

“We know that there there’s good data out there on the discrimination that transgender people face when their ID documents don’t match who they’re presenting as, because it makes people short-circuit in the brain,” they said. 

“Frankly, that’s perfectly normal. Everybody’s always making an excuse for how they look in their photo. When you do take a look at it and it doesn’t match, it’s jarring and it’s confusing, and what that turns into for trans people is danger.”

That could mean being turned away from services, being harassed by law enforcement or not being given adequate access to health care, they said. 

According to a National Transgender Discrimination Survey from the National Center for Transgender Equality, only 21% of transgender people who have transitioned have been able to update all of their IDs and records to reflect their genders, and 33% had updated none of their IDs or records. The survey results also showed that “gender incongruent identification exposes people to a range of negative outcomes, from denial of employment, housing and public benefits to harassment and physical violence.”

The process around name changes can be overwhelming for anyone, and comes with some extra hurdles for trans, non-binary and gender-fluid individuals. That is another area where TAA comes in, approaching assistance in several ways.

One is to work with state and local communities to improve the process of changing a name or gender marker. Fiore said that it’s clear within the New Jersey court system that there is a will to improve.

New Jersey first began allowing individuals to change the gender designations on their state licenses or identification cards without doctors’ notes early last year. It began allowing individuals born in the state to change their birth certificates to reflect gender identity by self-attestation — removing a decades-old requirement that required documentation of gender reassignment surgery — under a law Gov. Phil Murphy signed in 2018.

“We’re at a very interesting place,” Fiore said. “I think with the New Jersey courts in that there is a lot of internal will within the Administrative Office of the Courts to listen when diverse groups are coming and saying, ‘Hey, you know, this process isn’t working’ or ‘We have community members who say they’re being turned away because of X, Y and Z.’”

TAA aims to work with the state – whether it’s the court system or on the legislative end – to overcome those hurdles.

“What can we do to make it easier? Can we change the self-help packets that you’re putting online? Because it’s hard to navigate. Or what is the purpose of [a] particular component of the rules?” Fiore said.

The TAA can work with individuals in navigating that process, but Fiore said the group is going to be connecting people with other people and organizations as well. 

Too often, they said, those connections are not made.

“There are all of these law firms who were talking about doing pro bono work, but yet there’s no connection between those organizations and the people who are literally down the street,” Fiore said. “I don't know the reason why. There is the desire to give back to vulnerable communities.”

When Fiore noticed that, they immediately looked at their Rolodex.

“Half of the ‘alliance’ part, to start off with, is going through my own privilege Rolodex and connecting people to one another,” they said. “I didn’t realize that I was a bottleneck of resources and information, and it’s mind-blowing to me.”

Fiore said those connections should simplify processes, but the opposite often happens when transgender people seek assistance.

“I have this theory that when a transgender person is involved in something, people panic, like somewhere in their reptilian brain, they panic,” they said. “They’re like, ‘Oh my God, we have to reinvent the wheel.’ And you’re like, ‘No, no, you don’t. Don’t reinvent the wheel. Just take a minute, breathe and just think about it.’”

In that way, TAA has been careful to build on, not try and replace or replicate, what other organizations like Garden State Equality do well.

“We can either add on the stuff that trans people need, or we’ll give you a nice package of how to train your folks to spot the issues for trans people and try to just make it a better environment,” Fiore said. “You already got great stuff going on.”

It’s the early stages for the group. Fiore said TAA will continue to evolve and change as needed, and will learn by listening to the community it serves.

“Wherever somebody is, you meet them where they are, and then you ask them where they want to go,” they said. “Like, ‘What do you need? What do you want? Oh, there are resources here and there.’”

Councilman Peter Yacobellis, the first openly LGBTQ person to ever serve in Montclair, lauded the launch of TAA: "I'm so delighted that Celeste and their colleagues are embarking on this journey to support this most vulnerable population in Montclair. It's formation comes at exactly the right time as we're assessing, as a Township, the kinds of changes we can make to law and policy to improve the experience for the transgender and broader LGBTQIA+ community at large in Montclair."

Yacobellis also shared that he and a group of local leaders are working to launch a new LGBTQIA+ community organization, "Out Montclair" in the coming weeks for the purpose of building community through educational and social events in town.

"I'm really excited about the composition of our advisory board and the kind of work we're going to do in town to help foster a social culture for our community in the years ahead. Stay tuned," he said.