Cameron Malakai Overton is a social worker and worship pastor of Zao MKE Church in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. As a young, Black, queer and trans person, Cameron's ministry calling is to build the church into an intersectional and queer liberated space, seeking justice and liberation for all.
Tell us about your work and community organizing
I am an assistant professor here in the Milwaukee area at a small liberal arts college. I have been in the field of social work for many years working "in systems" trying to make a change toward liberation. It is hard to do that as a Black, queer and trans person as I grow weary of systems that do not want to change, as that would require relinquishing power. In my role as a pastor at a church whose core values consist of being "Jesus rooted, justice-centered, and radically inclusive," I get to experience a different way of being. At Zao MKE Church we know that we look to the Bible, to the life of Jesus who was a Brown-skinned revolutionary who showed us the way. That way requires us to fight systems of oppression wherever they are and push us toward a different way of community. That community is radically inclusive which means we prioritize those who are most marginalized as they will be held up first. This is the way we make all decisions and pushes us to be often found in the streets, putting boots on the ground, to do the work of showing up, as I believe Jesus would have today. So this has taken us to many different places and organized with many community members who are also doing that similar work. During the uprisings after the murder of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor (and COUNTLESS OTHERS), we worked with local activists and community members to turn our church building into a drop and distribution center where any person in the community who needed supplies to keep protesting, gathering, or community actions, were able to get the supplies they need. We at Zao MKE Church have a clothing exchange for trans folks who need gender-affirming clothes. We are open to what the community needs and attempt to provide a place to come and be fully themselves. We can only do this labor of love because we look to the one who taught us first, Jesus.
What are some of the biggest barriers facing trans and non-binary folks, especially in accessing care?
There is an abundance of obstacles facing trans and non-binary people in accessing care. The first one is ignorance on the part of providers. It is really hard to find folks who specialize in trans-care. I feel lucky to have the doctor that I do, Dr. Linda Wesp, at Health Connections Inc here in Milwaukee. I know I can call them for any need and if there is ever an issue, Ericka Sinclair, the CEO will move mountains to get me what I need. Linda asked different questions, told me to listen to what my body needed, and then helped me get the care it deserved. I AM LUCKY. Not everyone has an experience like this. Not everyone has the ability to even find a doctor around them let alone have multiple options like I do. There are providers who treat this experience like an experiment, and my body is not that. The other large issue around getting care, other than the access to competent providers, is how to pay for what you need. Sometimes it feels like insurance companies are looking for ways to ensure that trans folx will not get what they need. We potentially have many needs like ongoing medications or surgeries that cost more than what we have. I had a surgery that my insurance said they cover but they found a loophole to not cover it. This should not be. There are trans and non-binary folx who have NEED these things covered, it should not be a decision whether to pay for rent or get their meds. Folx are already working in unsafe environments, in underpaid positions, trying to make ends meet.
Could you share your personal experience accessing healthcare?
In order for me to get top surgery and get on T(testosterone), I had to first go to a therapist who would write me letters that said i was ready. These things were required in a way that was outdated. At Health Connections Inc and other more up-to-date care providers, informed consent is the appropriate process. Though I loved my therapist(this is not a luxury for all trans folx to find) and really therapy might be helpful for us to deal with all of the transphobia and internalized hate we have had to endure our whole lives, it should not be a requirement for treatment. I did it though and went to my provider at the time, and was given my first shot of testosterone. I felt over the moon to be starting this journey to be more fully me. From there i had many appointments and many blood draws to make sure that I was doing well with the medication. It was then other questions came about as to what other types of medical transition I would want to have. I knew top surgery was a must for my life. The time i spent researching where to go and how to access that gender-affirming care was extensive. Then, the time i spent saving money to get the surgery was a lot as well. I thought I was lucky enough to have insurance that would cover it. But, of course, in the end, they figured out a way to not cover the surgery and left me having to pay for it out of pocket. Though i would still go to the surgeon i went to it was a financial burden. The aftercare was the scariest part as I did have post-surgery complications. This is where I was the most fearful because I did not know where to turn to get the help i needed as a trans person. My surgeon was not in my home state. I ended up with a hole in my chest(this is a potential side effect that occurs more often that I think we talk about). These are the moments that as a trans person i looked around and said who do i ask and turn to? With they know what top surgery is? Will they give me good care because of who I am? This is the thing that I should not have to worry about. Luckily my partner knew a friend who worked in wound care. That friend explained what she knew and we brought that to my doctor, Linda Wesp. She helped more than any doctor would likely take the time to do. She called around explained my situation and made sure to ask the right questions to find a wound care specialist who would act appropriately with me as a trans person. She also would let me call her with any questions or concerns while things healed. I can never thank Dr. Wesp enough.
How can people support your work?
People can support the work I do by spreading the news to others that there are queer and trans pastors like me. I grew up in an area where I was certain God hated people like me, and that is not the case! We have folks all over the county talking to us at Zao MKE Church about how to do better in their churches to talk about and live out liberation, how to move others toward liberation around them, or simply to be a part of what we are doing by coming to service virtually or giving financially because they believe in the work that we are doing. It means so much when a young person messages me over facebook or Instagram and says, "I watched a sermon you preached about being a Black trans person and a Christian, and it changed my life." That is why i strive to be so OUT because we have to find one another. No one was meant to do this journey of life alone. I will work my entire life to bring the message that liberation is possible, that you are loved, and together we can be fully alive (one of my favorite meanings of the word Zao).
— Find out more about Cameron Malakai Overton work at zaomke.org | Twitter