© 2024 Peoria Public Radio
A joint service of Bradley University and Illinois State University
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

In Florida, an activist provides a safe space for transgender people


After the Florida legislature passed several laws last year restricting rights for transgender people, many members of that community said they'd no longer felt safe. Some even left the state. But as Regan McCarthy of member station WFSU reports in Tallahassee, one transgender woman is working to build a system of support.


JANEL DIAZ: (As Vashai Avionce) How y'all doing this evening?


REGAN MCCARTHY, BYLINE: It's a Saturday night at The Rose Room in Tallahassee, and drag queen Vashai Avionce is about to get the evening's entertainment started. But first...

DIAZ: (As Vashai Avionce) I need a drink and a burger.

MCCARTHY: Vashai Avionce is the alter ego of Janel Diaz, an LGBTQ+ advocate and the founder of Capital Tea, an organization that provides services for transgender people, including a safe house, job search assistance and referrals to legal aid. It's one of the few places in North Florida offering help specifically for transgender people. Diaz started it after she couldn't find the support she needed during her own transition.

DIAZ: It should not make you angry how I'm living my life. I think that's what makes me want to fight so much more for the cause, for my organization - you know, like Capital Tea being here in the Bible Belt.

MCCARTHY: Last year, the Florida legislature passed several laws restricting transgender rights, banning gender affirming care for most minors and reducing access to care for adults. Another law requires people to use bathrooms that match their sex assigned at birth in some government buildings. And another measure barred children from adult live performances such as drag shows. Republican Governor Ron DeSantis said the measures were about letting, quote, "kids be kids."


RON DESANTIS: There's a lot of nonsense that gets floated around. And what we've said in Florida is we are going to remain a refuge of sanity and a citadel of normalcy, and kids should have an upbringing that reflects that.

MCCARTHY: Opponents called the laws a slate of hate endangering an already vulnerable group. Several of the measures have been temporarily blocked by the courts, but Diaz says the damage has already been done.

DIAZ: Even before the legislation and even before the laws, it was already still tough. But now it just makes it even worse, you know?

MCCARTHY: Diaz says she's proud to be the transgender woman she is today, but she wasn't always comfortable with herself.

DIAZ: So for me, being able to do drag was just like - at first, it actually was an outlet for me to kind of, like, express my true self, 'cause I wasn't yet transitioned yet.

MCCARTHY: Diaz remembers seeing celebrity drag performer RuPaul on TV back in the '90s, the first time she'd ever seen a drag queen.

DIAZ: I was like, oh my God. Like, wow, can I do that? Can I do this?

MCCARTHY: Earlier this year, Diaz had a full-circle moment when an organization called the Rainbow Book Bus, backed by RuPaul, partnered with Capital Tea to bring a traveling book fair to Tallahassee, offering books that had been targeted for bans in some Florida schools. Adam Powell is the executive director of the Rainbow Book Bus. He heard Diaz speak last year when her organization received a grant from Way Out, an organization supporting LGBTQ+ youth. And he was excited to meet her.

ADAM POWELL: To support, work and spotlight the work that Janel's doing, 'cause I think it's really, really important, and I think they're absolutely amazing.

MCCARTHY: Diaz hopes to expand Capital Tea to open more safe houses throughout the region.

DIAZ: I'm actually really hopeful and excited for what tomorrow is going to bring. I am. I really, really am.

MCCARTHY: Diaz hopes it will be her legacy.

For NPR News, I'm Regan McCarthy in Tallahassee.

(SOUNDBITE OF CEU SONG, "PERFUME DO INVISIVEL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.