by Jasmine M. Pulido
She was my mentor.
Not in an ethereal, vague way. But in a literal way. She was assigned to me through the Alphabet Alliance of Color’s summer institute where experienced local QTBIPOC (Queer, Trans, Black, Indigenous, People of Color) community organizers pass down their skills to newer ones. We were prompted to pick our top three choices for mentors and, I’ll be honest, Constance Blakeley wasn’t in my top three. My top pick — an Asian American columnist writing about social justice, culture, and equity with a focus on marginalized communities. I thought the best pick for me would be someone with a similar background, in profession or in identity, or both.
I couldn’t have been more wrong.
Yes, at age 27, Constance was more than a decade younger than me. Yes, she worked in Non-Profit while I worked as a small business entrepreneur and freelance writer. She was Black and I am Filipina. She was trans and I am cis. We were in almost entirely different worlds.
But we weren’t.
The first time we met online, she gave off this vibe of quiet openness and casual authenticity. She wasn’t loud about her values or who she was. She humbly recited her experience to me as a fact not in need of celebration. I followed-up with a few questions to fill up conversational space, wondering who it was I was really speaking to and how our mentorship relationship would work out.
Our planned second and third online meetings didn’t work. Constance kept getting locked out of her office. She tried to have a Zoom conversation with me in a car, but a colleague spoke over most of it while on their own call. We decided to meet up instead. It was when I met Constance in person, masked and physically distant, in the International District, that I felt us really connect for the first time. During the pandemic where I rarely saw anyone in person anymore, but was feeling conflicted between the urgent needs of the communities I placed myself in and my own emotional needs, this connection between Constance and I felt especially important to me.
I immediately noticed Constance had a deep appreciation for Asian culture. She chose to meet in the ID, absolutely loved boba, was learning to speak Korean, and mentioned going to South Korea in October for a surgery. Knowing that she had some interest in Asian and Asian American culture made me feel like we had something in common.
At our meeting, we talked about social activism, BIPOC exhaustion, and burnout. Or, more accurately, I opened up about these topics and Constance listened carefully. There was that quiet openness again. It wasn’t expectant or a projection, it just was. Seeing Constance as she listened, concealing her half-full boba with two hands, her mask threatening to droop past her nose, was simply to witness a human being just … being. Her reserved presence was whole and unassuming. Not cloaked in invisibility but with no need to present any way other than as herself.
In the middle of our meeting, a flock of cooing pigeons suddenly burst into the air, flying brazenly close above us. Constance let out a high-pitched scream as the birds careened over our heads. I laughed as we both ducked. No longer was I with a composed professional or a badass community advocate. She was a friend now, clutching her chest with one hand while catching her breath, commenting on how she never liked birds. Something about that moment made me really like her. It shook us out of any ceremonious tones. You can’t get more real than when you’re ambushed by a flock of birds.
A couple weeks later, I texted Constance to schedule our next meetup, expecting a brief business-like exchange. She responded but also asked how I was doing, followed up in detail on an action I was contemplating taking as a community organizer at our last meeting. That she would spend a few extra minutes to thoughtfully check in on me made me feel appreciated. It seemed like more than a mentor’s obligation, more than clocking hours for a stipend. Constance ended our text exchange with a few heartfelt, encouraging words, an offer to help me process the unexpected negative outcomes that came from the action I took when we next met, and an affirmation that she was grateful to be partnered with me. I felt lucky to have her in my corner.
Those were her last words to me.
Constance passed away in the early hours on the morning of October 2, 2020. I received news about it through the AAOC in an email that Sunday. When I read the posts others dedicated to Constance’s memory or talked to people who knew her, I saw that I had the privilege of getting a tiny peek at the special person Constance was. Yes, she was a Human Rights Activist, a Racial Equity and Human Trafficking Consultant, a Youth, Child, and Family Case Manager. Yes, her email signature boldly stated, “Champion for Diversity, Inclusion, and Representation in Black and POC communities.” Yes, she was a fierce leader, an active board member, and a highly visible trans woman.
But she was also a clutz, passionate about mental health, and an avid K-pop fan who loved soju. The TWOCSN (Trans Women of Color Solidarity Network) recalls her as a keeper of secrets. A Facebook friend recalls how she was also a beloved sister who would dance to the City Girls with a captive audience of three Bulas. Other loved ones wrote about how she was that dear friend making tipsy calls at 3 a.m. or the one nicknamed “Grandma” for her voice of reason in shenanigans. A scroll through her Facebook shows she was a vibrant spirit who commonly posted little snippets of hope, encouragement, and inspiration as messages signed by “The Universe.” The Black Trans Task Force recounts how she was that grounding presence sending “I love you” messages during meetings, checking in one on one, and setting up gatherings.
Her life mattered. Black Trans Lives like hers have always mattered.
It was Constance’s wholeness and warmth that we all loved about her. She was real and her impact on us continues to be real. We carry on her work by aiding the multiple marginalized communities she served like trans and femme BIPOC sex workers, the homeless, and Trans Women of Color to name a few. We learn from her gracious wisdom and epic brilliance and honor Constance by protecting, supporting, and cherishing the Black trans women still with us.
For those of us she touched, Constance’s transition out of life will always feel like it came too soon. But while Constance Blakeley may be gone from us in physical form, her divine heart, gracious wisdom, epic brilliance, vibrant spirit, and grounding presence will remain as our perfect transcestor.
“While the world has become a bit darker with her departure, there are some who bring a light so great to the world that even after they have gone, the light remains. As our spiritual guardian, her light shines brighter than ever before. We will continue the work we do, in her honor, in hope that we can touch lives the way she touched ours and everyone else’s. Thank you for being a wonderful part of our lives.”
—Fania Sipili, U.T.O.P.I.A. Seattle.
Special thanks to: Trans Women of Color Solidarity Network, Fania Sipili, U.T.O.P.I.A. Seattle, Black Trans Task Force, API Chaya, Alphabet Alliance of Color, Lourdez Velasco, Mattie Mooney, and Alphonse Littlejohn.
TWOCSN is collecting funds to support Constance’s family as Constance’s brother also passed away in the same week.
Write “For Constance” in the caption so funds are properly allocated. No matter what you can offer, thank you for helping us make sure we honor and celebrate this brilliant gem of a human.
Jasmine M. Pulido is a first-generation Filipinx American writer-activist and mother of two in Seattle, WA. She is currently writing a full-length play entitled, “The Master’s Tool.” Her Facebook experiment personally exploring the theme of shame in story posts for 30 days ultimately inspired her to launch an ongoing blog called, “Shameless Jas.” She still contributes new essays to it intermittently in her spare time.
Featured image: Constance Blakely (Photo: Mel Ponder)