Heart to Heart with Heartland

Heartland Trans Wellness Group director Jonah Yokoyama talks LGBTQ+ needs, services and Pride

click to enlarge Jonah Yokoyama - Photo: Hailey Bollinger
Photo: Hailey Bollinger
Jonah Yokoyama
A framed sheet crowded with signatures from 2015’s Pride march sits next to the door of Heartland Trans Wellness Group. Each year, an average of 600 to 700 people stop by their table at Cincinnati’s Pride, making it a vital moment of exposure.

The center, which moved to its new location in Mount Auburn two years ago, is an alcove of community in Cincinnati that provides accessible resources to trans, queer and other LGBTQ+ individuals. The center is located in a space leased from Mount Auburn Presbyterian Church; the next closest center that specifically deals with trans issues is more than 100 miles away in Columbus. 

Jonah Yokoyama, director of Heartland and a registered nurse, says deaths within the trans community attracted a spike both in awareness and the need for Heartland’s services. Specifically, he mentioned Leelah Alcorn, a trans teenager from Mason whose suicide attracted international attention; at the time, Heartland received a 20 percent increase in contacts. 

The need never went back down. Though more trans people and their families have sought Heartland’s help, the organization’s funding has stayed the same. They have an annual budget of $10,000, which they receive through donations and grants from organizations such as the Trans Justice Funding Project. If they were to be paid for what they do, they would receive upward of $90,000, according to Yokoyama. 

In 2014, the Arcus Foundation, which supports LGBTQ+ social justice, found that only 7 percent of all LGBTQ+ funding goes to trans organizations. Yokoyama said that this gap is difficult to overcome.  

Yokoyama, a trans man, first heard the term “trans” in 1996 when he was 16 but didn’t feel safe to come out until he was 18. “Kids now hear about it younger and understand who they are,” he says. “Parents recognize it at a younger age and are less likely to shame them or force them to be something they’re not. We can connect them to other trans adults so they can see that it’s not all Jerry Springer or the ridiculousness you sometimes see in media. They can have a life. They can be OK.”

As Cincinnati Pride approaches, we asked Yokoyama more about Heartland and what they do.  

CityBeat: Tell us about your services?

Jonah Yokoyama: I think one of the most important things we do is crisis-related work. We don’t bill ourselves as crisis care simply because there’s not enough of us to handle the need, but that’s what comes my way so much: people who are suicidal, people who have been kicked out, people who have been a victim of an assault or some kind of violence. …We do what we can. We not only get these contacts from local folks, but nationally and internationally. There’s just not enough people doing this work around the world. Besides crisis care work, one of the other things we do is professional training. I’ve provided training for everything from a local hospital to a small business who might want to serve their employees or customers better.

CB: With Pride approaching in Cincinnati, how would you say trans and queer issues differ in the Midwest compared to other regions? 

JY: We have exceedingly high rates of violence here in the Midwest. Ohio has been up there in deaths and assaults of trans people. That’s something I continue to see. I’ve been the victim of violence here in Cincinnati. I’ve lived in California and in Texas, and I haven’t experienced as much violence as I have here. There are limited providers. We don’t have enough doctors that are trans competent. We have people who will drive all the way to Chicago or Columbus to get care. We’re lucky that we have the Cincinnati Trans Clinic at Children’s Hospital, who are serving over 600 youths age 24 and under. We’re the only city in quite some distance that serves youth, but for the adult folks, there’s just not enough. We still have employment issues. We’re not very protected here. The climate a lot of folks run into — not just here, but everywhere — is we’re still treated as the tacked-on “T” to the “LGBT.” I know that the Pride committee here has been making some great efforts to be inclusive and to up their trans competency in the events that they run. 

CB: As a registered nurse, how does your profession play into your work at Heartland? 

JY: One, I’m a psychiatric nurse so it works really well for me to do the crisis work that I do for Heartland because I do a lot of that anyway. We also do testosterone and estrogen workshops (which help) people learn about hormone replacement therapy and how to give injections. It also helps with the assessments, or trying to figure out what someone might need. People don’t always know what’s available. 

CB: Have you made any changes in the past year? Any upcoming changes? 

JY: (We have started) offering more programming at this location, (including) more workshops and social gatherings. Every month we have multiple events planned. That’s been a huge change. 

We continue to be inundated with folks who are in crisis and folks who need referrals or resources. We have about three people doing professional services and we have more than 1,000 clients in the Greater Cincinnati area, not to mention all the contacts we get from (around) the world. We don’t have enough people to do this work. I’m consistently two-months behind in non-crisis emails. We’re trying to build funding, structure and a volunteer base so we can do more. This has been a year of growth and preparation in a lot of ways. 

CB: Can you speak on how the events you mentioned will ultimately provide for the at-risk LGBTQ+ community? 

JY: We just partnered with Equitas Health and TransOhio in April for a legal clinic so people could get assistance with paperwork for legal name changes — ID changes, social security and passports. That’s a big need.  

The social things we do, if you look at it this way, most minority groups, say a religious or ethnic minority, tend to have a place to cluster, whether it’s a neighborhood where similar people have settled or a religious place where people come together. Trans people pop everywhere so to have community we have to build it. We have to come together. 


To learn more about HEARTLAND TRANS WELLNESS GROUP, visit transwellness.org.


* An earlier version of this story identified Yokoyama as "assigned female at birth;" the preferred term is trans man.