Nizah Morris (1955-2002) was one of the United States’ leading African American transgender Buddhists. Among her teachers were the late Venerable Bhante Suhita Dharma, a senior Buddhist bhikkhu ordained by the late Venerable Thich Thien An. (Bhante was the first African American to become a Buddhist monk).
Throughout Nizah’s life she practiced many Buddhist traditions including Chan, Nichiren, Theravada, and Zen. She considered herself to be a ‘nondenominational Buddhist with Christian-roots.’ One of her most enduring sayings was, ‘What is the most loving thing to do?’
She was one of the co-founders of a Philadelphia-based LGBT nondenominational upāsaka/upāsikā Buddhist fellowship called AI. This fellowship began in the 1970s, and although it is now defunct, it may have been the world’s first and only multiracial upāsaka/upāsikā fellowship for gender non-conforming queer people of color. The fellowship was formed as a private safe haven for low-income queer and gender-variant Buddhists of color to skill-share, collectively meditate, and pool money to attend expensive retreats in the United States and abroad.
Nizah was also one of the elders in a now-defunct street outreach nonprofit organization called Genders Within that guided gender-variant sex workers and addicts in harm reduction. She volunteered extensively as a harm reductionist and HIV/AIDS prevention worker for organizations like Bebashi and Action AIDS (now Action Wellness).
On December 22, 2002, Nizah was attacked after being taken for a ‘courtesy ride’ home from a bar in a police cruiser. She never regained consciousness and died at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital two days later. Testimony from police regarding these events was markedly inconsistent, and the officer who gave the ride was found by the Philadelphia Police Advisory Commission to have lied “blatantly and methodically” about the events leading up to Nizah’s death. Efforts to gain access to key facts about Nizah’s last days of life continue to this day.