Community members, activists, and organizations gathered at the Little Village Library to hear the findings of a trans Latina focus group conducted by RAICES.
RAICES is an initiative of Project Vida, a 21-year-old community-based organization in Little Village that provides HIV/AIDS prevention programs and direct services to underserved communities. RAICES (Resources, Advocacy, Inclusion, Community Education, and Services) was created to reduce the stigma of HIV, homophobia, and transphobia in Berwyn and Cicero, two suburbs with a significant Latino population. Through peer education and social service provider training, RAICES found that when they asked participants what they wanted to know more about, trans issues was always the top response.
At Thursday’s presentation, RAICES Program Coordinator Emmanuel Garcia opened the event by modeling one of RAICES’ workshop activities, leading a discussion on the definitions of terms such as gender identity, transgender, and sexual orientation. Garcia encouraged the audience, saying “We’re in a safe space of learning. A lot of time in our community we don’t get the chance to ask questions. As activists it’s assumed we know everything.” Garcia mentioned the importance of defining these concepts with youth in particular. When he asks youth, “What’s your sexual orientation?” most respond “I don’t have one,” believing that the term only applies to LGBTQ people.
The findings of the focus group were then presented by the study’s co-facilitators Greg Van Hyfte, Project Vida consultant to program evaluation and grant writing, and Reyna Ortiz, a trans Latina activist who works with RAICES and founded an independent trans Latina group in Chicago.
Eight trans Latinas participated in the 2-hour focus group held in English in April of this year. While Van Hyfte stressed that the study is by no means representative of all trans Latinas, it did help them take “a pulse of the community.”
Highlights of Study
During the focus group, participants discussed the lack of accurate information about gender and sexual identity and how that feeds into the challenges of coming out as trans. For example, participants struggled at first to reconcile whether they were gay or transgender. As Ortiz noted, “I assumed I was gay because at the time I didn’t even know what a transsexual was.”
While one trans Latina stated that her mother supported her unconditionally after coming out, other participants were not so fortunate. Nationally, 57% of trans women report being rejected by family after coming out, an issue that often leads to homelessness, poverty, and suicide ideation. One participant whose mother rejected her asked her, “Would you prefer to have a trans daughter or a son that committed suicide?”
Another participant who came out recalled getting “dressed up with all my hidden stuff, and my poor mom called the police and said ‘Esta como loco.’ Police came and said, ‘Your son is a fag’”–a response that reveals the transphobia and lack of education on trans issues that is rampant among police. In fact, participants said they’re often harassed by police, who assume they’re prostitutes and threaten to charge them with solicitation.
Consequently, trans Latinas reported feeling a constant fear of violence, a recurring theme across the study. “Doing your everyday things in life puts you at risk just because you’re trans,” explained Ortiz.
The study reiterated factors that contribute to transphobia, such as traditional values, religious beliefs, rigid gender norms, and a general lack of knowledge about the transgender community. Participants also mentioned challenges regarding equal bathroom access, bullying in school, exclusion by gays and lesbians (“Gay clubs treat me like I’m a queen”), and portrayals of the trans community in media and pop culture. When briefly discussing RuPaul’s Drag Race show, Ortiz explained, “You can’t compare doing drag to living your life as a trans Latina.”
Dating heterosexual men also poses challenges, with one trans Latina sharing, “I actually do not believe in love. It’s twice as hard for us. Everything is twice as hard for us.They’re not giving me a real love or treating [me] like a real woman, like I wanna be treated.”
However, when asked to describe advantages of growing up as a trans Latina, responses showed self-pride and resilience, such as “A lot of people make fun of me, and that’s why I’m so strong. They’ve said so many bad things to me, and that made me stronger” and “As long as my loved ones accept me, fuck the world.”
Creating Safe Spaces for Trans Latinas: “Put the T back in LGBT”
In addition to discussing issues trans Latinas face, Van Hyfte emphasized, “We want to use this information and have it be useful for community change.”
Participants’ ideas for initiating change included:
• a trans Latina group
• education initiatives on trans issues directed at schools and families
• social marketing specifically on trans issues
• increased visibility in media
• employment and housing assistance
• trans-friendly medical and legal services
In addition, participants also stressed the importance of going to health fairs but warned “Don’t preach to the choir. Go to the community like kermeses instead of Market Days.”
Audience members joined in and suggested a directory of trans-owned and trans-friendly businesses and services.
During the focus group, several participants recognized their own talent for leading the effort. One participant noted, “I just want to be the trans Martin Luther King, Jr.” which prompted another participant to ask, “Can I be your Coretta?”
The focus group has already prompted the creation of a trans Latina group called TWIRL, co-founded by Ortiz: “If we don’t push for a change, no one is going to push for a change for us.”