| April 22 2019,

00:55 am

Ashlee Marie Preston, a black transgender activist and media personality, is the creator the viral "Thrive Over 35" hashtag.

The hashtag went viral last June as part of Preston's efforts to draw attention to stats that show the average lifespan of a trans woman of color is 35-years-old -- a statistic, Preston says, many people are shocked to hear.

"That wasn't surprising to me, because if you don't see us, you most certainly don't hear us," Preston told Blavity, as part of our "Regarding" video series.

Preston was born in Louisville, Kentucky (the "land of God doesn't make mistakes" she calls it). Growing up, Preston said she always felt different, but she didn't have language to express her trans identity. So at 19, she moved to California because she wanted to experience the world through a different lens than what she had grown up around.

"When I found my community in Los Angeles, I finally found the courage to transition and step into my full authenticity," Preston said. "Although I was ready to live as my authentic self, society wasn't ready to accept that."

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Preston says she began experiencing discrimination, bullying, and harassment at her job. But when she went to human resources, they didn't know how to handle it. Instead of advocating for her, Preston says they decided to fire her.

"I lost my job, I lost my apartment and I ended up on the streets of Hollywood," Preston told Blavity.

She wasn't even able to go to a homeless shelter. Men's shelters wouldn't take her because they saw her presentation as a "disruption" and a potential liability. Women's shelters wouldn't accept her because of her assigned sex at birth. 

"So essentially the streets was the only place I had to turn to, that welcomed me with open arms" she said. 

People assumed that Preston's family had abandoned her, but the activist admits that not only did they not know she was homeless, they didn't know she was trans. 

"I was so afraid of having that conversation that I decided to suffer in silence, instead of reaching out and leaning on those who probably wanted to be just as much a part of my life as I wanted them to be."

Preston finally reached a point where she knew she had to speak up.  Many of her friends were discovered dead in hotel rooms -- dumped off in dumpsters or shot in the head on side streets, she said. She didn't want to be another statistic.

"I've always been a fighter," she said. "And I was determined that I wouldn't end up like my peers."

So, she fought back through a somewhat unconventional means: she started a podcast.

"Shook with Ashlee Marie Preston," gave her an opportunity to examine news, politics, entertainment and pop culture through the social justice lens. She essentially provided a voice for marginalized communities.  

Social media soon took notice. Several editors reached out to Preston and asked her to contribute to their publications.

In 2017, she became Editor-In-Chief of Wear Your Voice magazine, which historically made her the first trans person to become Editor-In-Chief of a national publication. Still, she was shocked to discover transphobia within the feminist community

"Although I had this historical moment that made me feel  so empowered and triumphant, black trans women were still being murdered at exponential rates," she said.

Tired of people turning a blind eye to the experiences of black trans women, Preston decided to take action. In June 2018, to celebrate her 34th birthday, she commissioned a baker to bake a cake that had the pictures of 77 black trans women who had all been murdered under the age of 35. 

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Thank you for all the birthday wishes! 🙏🏾 Today I turned 34! ❤️ Sadly the average life expectancy for a black trans woman in America is 35 years old...I had @cakeandart place the photos of 77 black trans women who were murdered under 35 years old on my cake. I’m rolling out the #ThriveOver35 campaign today which is intended to help black trans women reimagine themselves somewhere other than an open casket. Please use this hashtag for every birthday under and over 35 years old to remind our sisters brothers and others that we’re not only surviving we’re THRIVING!! ✊🏾✨💫 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . #Thrive #live #birthday #happybirthday #happybirthdaytome #celebrate #blacktranslivesmatter #blacktranswomen #women #trans #lgbtq #lgbt #masterpiece #queer #facts #statistics #picoftheday #bestoftheday #instagram #instadaily #daily #instagood #media #losangeles #LA #campaign #blacklivesmatter #blm #pride

A post shared by Ashlee Marie Preston (@ashleemariepreston) on

"While we always want to remember those who've lost their lives simply for being who they are, we also want to address those issues that still impact many of us today," she said. "So what I would encourage us all to do is to get really honest about how much black lives really matter, and for us to stop putting these limits on which black lives are worthy of being liberated.   

Watch the video above for the full interview and let us know what you think!

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