Tens of thousands of metro Atlanta drivers a day can’t miss the simple yet powerful message – stop the violence against transgender people.
And that’s the goal of Alex Santiago. The transgender activist and non-profit leader, motivated by social justice protests and the recent deaths of Black trans women in Atlanta, wanted to call attention to the violence and make motorists a little uncomfortable. So he launched a billboard campaign that’s put the transgender flag and a call to action along some of the region’s most heavily traveled roads.
“I wanted something that would be in your face,” Santiago, the executive director of the I Am Human Foundation, told Project Q Atlanta. “I picked billboards because we pass these things every day. I thought that would be a good way to get the message to people who might not necessarily receive it.”
Santiago and a crowd of supporters rallied at the foot of one of the billboards on Friday, helping to raise awareness of the outdoor media campaign and celebrate the success he said it’s achieved since the effort was launched in January.
“It starts a conversation with people who wouldn’t necessarily even think to ask – and it makes people uncomfortable. I wanted to make people a little uncomfortable, and it did that,” Santiago said.
The early evening rally took place along University Avenue at its intersection with the Downtown Connector. “Trans Lives Cannot Be Erased” is the message southbound motorists see on the billboard. The campaign includes two others – “Stop Killing Black Trans Women” on a billboard along Interstate 75 near Cleveland Avenue and “Trans People Should Be Loved Not Killed” on one seen from Interstate 20 near its intersection with the Connector.
“We are here, we are visible and we are not going anywhere,” Santiago said.
The idea for the campaign grew out of Santiago’s involvement in racial justice protests in 2020. As the social justice movement unfolded throughout the summer, trans activists questioned whether they were welcomed and organized two marches in Atlanta focused on Black trans people.
“There was a lot of conversation going around that we shouldn’t support it because they don’t include the LGBTQ community and damn sure don’t include the trans community,” Santiago said.
As activists debated that issue, Santiago wanted to take action. So he approached outdoor media companies with the idea of the billboard campaign. Outfront Media – one of the largest outdoor media companies in the U.S. – jumped at the chance to help and was the only company of four that responded to Santiago.
In January, three billboards went up with messaging that included “Black Trans Lives Matter” and “I Am Human.”
Santiago footed the nearly $5,000 cost of the campaign out of his own pocket. That paid for the University Avenue billboard, while Outfront donated space on two smaller billboards along Moreland and Ponce de Leon avenues.
“I was nervous. I wasn’t sure when I reached out to these different billboard companies how receptive they would be with the message I want to put out,” Santiago said.
Outfront donated more space and kept the campaign alive past its initial eight-week run. Donations and support from AIDS Healthcare Foundation – Santiago co-chairs the Atlanta chapter of FLUX, an AHF affinity network focused on transgender issues – helped fund the second leg of the campaign.
“Outfront has gone above and beyond to make sure the ad campaign worked for me. They have been amazing,” he said.
‘Stop killing trans women’
The messaging for the second stage of the campaign focused on the violence faced by trans people after Santiago learned of the murder of Bianca “Muffin” Bankz. She was killed on Jan. 17 by a man inside her apartment who then killed himself.
Bankz is among at least six transgender and non-conforming people who died in Georgia since March 2020. Bonaire “Bonnie” Black, 19, was found dead on Dec. 31 in a Midtown parking garage. Kimberely Patricia Cope, 40, was found dead in a restaurant parking lot a few hundred feet from her apartment in Athens on Dec. 27. Felycya Harris, 33, was shot to death in an Augusta park in October. KaKedius “Rebel” Reid, 31, died of a possible drug overdose on Aug. 29, according to the National Black Justice Coalition. Scottlyn Kelly Devore, 51, was choked to death and dumped in a wooded area near Augusta in March 2020.
“She was killed in this city, and I didn’t know anything about it. It made me feel like Black trans lives don’t matter. They are misgendered in the press or they just don’t feel like it’s newsworthy. It pissed me off that it happened in my city and I didn’t know. I definitely wanted the next set of billboards to say stop killing trans women,” Santiago said.
The reaction to the campaign has been positive and supporters are donating online through the I Am Human Foundation’s website, he said. The financial support will help expand the campaign to other cities, with the first likely being Miami or Fort Lauderdale.
“I have people reaching out to me from all over the country. We are going nationwide with this,” Santiago said.
“I am going to keep going, and I am not stopping this until something changes. It may break me, but I’m going to keep going. If I can have one person change the way they look at us as trans people, then I’ve done my job,” he added.
In January, a national “Trans People Are Sacred” exhibit from SaveArtSpace featured creations from trans and nonbinary artists and included two billboards in Atlanta.