By Danny Olvera
Dana Gonzalez is a young ambitious woman, but because she is trans her road has not been an easy one. However right now, Gonzalez is ready to be an advocate for her community.
“I’ve had to fight strangers for my rights. I know what it feels like to have no one on your side and not have the support that you need. I know what it feels like when you don’t have a piece of bread to eat when you’re hungry or a glass of water to drink when you’re thirsty. So now, given my position, I want to help.”
The timing may be right for Gonzalez. According to her, she has seen a sudden hiring of Latina trans women by various Chicago LGBTQ and Latino organizations, including Howard Brown Health Center where she currently serves as a Trans Woman of Color Research assistant for the Transgender Health Program.
“All of a sudden Latino service agencies have decided to take in girls who show potential, passion and the drive to do this activism, and they mentor them so they can flourish,” say Gonzalez.
And although it may seem like it’s the first time, trans women have been present in LGBTQ activism from the very beginning. Trans pioneers Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson are credited with throwing the first bottles at police during the Stonewall Riot in New York City in June of 1969.
“People have always been trying to help the community,” says Alexis Martinez, a long-time community activist. “The problem was that few were listening, but things are changing. Now all the big name gay organizations want to jump in. Everyone wants to do something trans.”
Despite growing interest in trans inclusivity, trans people – particularly trans women of color – continue to be disproportionately affected by violence and systemic discrimination.
According to a report published by the National Center for Transgender Equality and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force in 2011, trans Latino/as are almost 3 times more likely to be unemployed when compared to the general population, with 36% of trans women reporting having lost their jobs upon disclosure of their trans identity. More alarming, however, is that 20% of all Latino/a trans people reported physical assault while working.
The lack of safe work environments has widespread implications for transgender people. For trans Latino/as, it often means homelessness, with 29% reporting periods where they did not have a place to stay.
Gonzalez herself had been homeless on and off since she was sixteen, but finding resources that were sensitive to her needs was a struggle.
“When I was homeless there were no housing opportunities for transgender women, whether in the city of Chicago or down south near St. Louis. At one point they tried to throw me in a male shelter,” recalls Gonzalez. “It made me feel uncomfortable and being in a male shelter makes you more of a target for rape and discrimination. They kept mispronouncing me and calling me by my legal name, to the point where I was so uncomfortable that I would rather be on the street.”
Yet despite the diverse barriers in the fields of housing and employment, and new documentation to support claims of systemic discrimination, services and programs available and sensitive to the specific needs of trans women are often still limited to HIV/STI prevention.
“Many programs for trans women are only about HIV. If you aren’t HIV positive they don’t want you. If you don’t have sex with men they don’t want you. These are very important services, but it leaves out a lot of trans women that need support.”
Focusing exclusively on one issue, without addressing the person holistically, is often what leads trans women to refuse to obtain services, even when much needed.
“Every time I would go into a social service agency I always felt like I was just a number,” she states. “I felt like I was just a statistic. And they weren’t shy about letting me know that. They tag you with a number, give you their services, then they tend to toss you aside.”
Gonzalez argues that treating trans women like numbers, often ignores the circumstance that lead to the higher rates of sex work and HIV/STI infections.
“What happens in the future?” she asks. “What happens if you need more help? What if you need help to find a stable job or need help to stay HIV negative?”
This focus on numbers in particular is an additional barrier for immigrant trans women, particularly undocumented trans women.
“A lot of trans Latina women come from Puerto Rico, Mexico, and the rest of Latin America not knowing English. Also, some social service agencies don’t want to work with you if you don’t have a social security number. Because a social security number is what gets them paid. Again, treating us like numbers.”
To challenge that treatment, Gonzalez, in conjunction with United Latin@ Pride, is organizing a panel discussion aptly titled “No Soy Número,” featuring various trans Latina leaders in Chicago.
“On June 4, a panel of all trans women of color will be sharing our stories and talking about how many organizations end up pushing trans Latina women away.”
Sitting on the panel are Gonzalez and Martinez, along with other trans Latina and trans women of color activists and service providers.
“We hope this panel sparks a very needed conversation between organizations providing services and the trans women of color that get them.”
“No Soy Número: Trans Latina Panel” will take place June 4 at 5 pm at La Catrina Cafe in Pilsen. For more information visit UnitedLatinoPride.org.
Danny Olvera is an organizer with United Latino Pride. Follow Danny on Twitter at @KarariKue.