- Chela Demuir started The Unique Woman’s Coalition in 1997 to provide safe spaces for the queer and trans community.
- Serving her community helped her achieve her own financial stability.
- Now 51 years old, Demuir says she looks forward to a relaxed and easy retirement.
Before starting The Unique Woman’s Coalition in 1997, Chela Demuir, a 51-year-old trans woman living in Los Angeles, was a college student in the ’90s juggling a host of side gigs to make ends meet. Unlike most college students, though, her financial worries stretched beyond ramen noodles and school books.
“I was basically on my own,” Demuir told Insider. “Any real level of normal life for a 19-year-old? That was nonexistent for me. I was really busy trying to collect money to sustain my hormones.”
She didn’t have access to health insurance, she says, so she had to buy “black-market hormones” and pay for them out of pocket. At school, as a Black trans woman, Demuir was worried about experiencing violence from her classmates. She felt there were very few safe spaces for her to exist — so she made her own.
Demuir created safe spaces for herself and her chosen family
Her work began in 1990, when a young community member — whom she considers her son — disclosed to her that he had been diagnosed with HIV. At the time, she was performing at local pageants, doing voiceover work for a phone sex company, and pursuing internships at radio stations. She started using her performances to inform the community about HIV prevention and care. “It was my way of increasing knowledge without disclosing my son’s situation,” she says.
In the coming years, Demuir continued to be a cornerstone in her community. “I’ve always been a community mother,” she says.
In 1997, Demuir started The Unique Woman’s Coalition to provide support groups and social events for her chosen family and community. UWC also runs a community closet where transgender and non-binary folx can pick out gender-affirming clothes free of charge — and free from the scrutiny they usually experience at traditional retail stores.
“At the time, I didn’t even know the word ‘transgender,'” Demuir said. “There was no internet or anything like that. The only access I had with the community was when I did the pageants and shows. I just knew I belonged to that community.”
On Thanksgiving Day in 2000, Demuir and her family started a canned food drive, then prepared meals that community members could take with them in paper bags. “Our community felt so empowered and embraced,” she says. “And those of us who participated in the cooking and putting it together, we were just so in awe of this effort that we decided to do it every year.”
This year’s Transgiving Dinner will be the 22nd year that Demuir has hosted this event, which the L.A. transgender and non-binary community still attends regularly.
Creating community spaces led to full-time work opportunities
In 2001, Demuir was offered a full-time position at a transgender youth program, where she was in charge of creating safe spaces and work-advancement programs for trans youth. In 2004, at 33, she was hired by the Los Angeles County Health Department to work on an HIV research project.
“I was finally introduced to medical insurance,” said Demuir. “This was also the very first job that I was able to get a savings account and actually put something in that savings account.”
While she did achieve some sense of financial stability, Demuir said there were still times when all the bills were paid, “but you have $50 until the next pay day.” Demuir attributes her financial issues to being underpaid in the nonprofit industry.
A 2018 study called The Price of Doing Good: Measuring the Nonprofit Pay Cut conducted by Payscale shows that nonprofit workers take a pay cut of up to 17.8% for the exact same job description as for-profit workers. Additionally, according to the LGBTQ+ Wage Gap study conducted by the Human Rights Campaign, gender-diverse workers earn 60 cents for every dollar the typical US worker earns.
Because of bleak earning opportunities in the nonprofit industry, Demuir continued traveling to other cities to perform at pageants and earn money on top of her demanding day job. She also continued organizing much-needed events for her community even though there was no additional pay involved.
After a spine injury left her finances in tatters, she decided to be her own boss
In her mid-40s, decades of overworking finally took a physical toll: Demuir experienced a spine injury that left her unable to stand up straight. “I was in surgery the next day and bedridden for almost a year,” Demuir said. She had to wipe out her savings to fill the financial gaps.
At that point, she saw that her workload would not support a healthy retirement and that she needed to do something differently.
Fed up with being underpaid, Demuir thought, “I’m not the same person anymore. I have to find out who the new Chela is. How will the new Chela be able to move forward? And I said, ‘Well, I’ m not gonna go to work for anyone else.”‘”
From the ashes emerged Boss Chela: She decided to focus on The Unique Woman’s Coalition and began working as a consultant for other companies and organizations, informing their efforts to create inclusive and safe spaces for trans people everywhere.
As a consultant, Demuir began making the most money she’s ever made in her career. She told Insider, “Now that the business is growing, I’m able to grow. I’m able to reap some of the benefits now. I finally started feeling financially comfortable at 49 years old. I made a commitment to travel each year.” for my birthday. I haven’t experienced that before.”
Demuir has retirement plans for both herself and for UWC
On her 50th birthday, Demuir was able to fulfill her promise to herself by taking a trip to Hawaii with her girlfriends. Additionally, she says, “I was privileged enough to become a homeowner last March. I’m the first person in my generation to do so.”
“As a trans person, we’re not used to having elders. Growing up, you learn that you’ll be lucky to live past 25 years old,” she says. “Now as a trans elder, I get a chance to think about what my retirement looks like, not only for myself, but as a part of history and culture. I wanna be the generation that leaves behind more than the stories.”
Of UWC’s legacy, she envisions a long-standing company that builds community wealth. For her own retirement plans, she said, “I would love to be in water, surrounded by palm trees, with fancy drinks with umbrellas. I just wanna see the world. I know that the sky is the limit when I retire.”
This article is part of “We/Us/Ours,” a series about LGBTQ communities and spaces that inspire queer unity.