Chapter 6 + Fighting

TransPower: the cry of migrants claiming their rights in New York City

Liaam Winslet teme morir antes de los 35 años, la esperanza de vida promedio para una mujer trans. La violencia, el maltrato y la falta de oportunidades contribuyen a la muerte temprana de este grupo de la población. En Nueva York, mujeres migrantes trans se manifiestan por sus derechos mientras recuerdan a sus compañeras.

A protest to commemorate the murdered trans women Credit: Sofia Cerda Campero and Sindy Nanclares.

Surrounded by cameras, fans, and tourists, TV host Raúl de Molina waited in Times Square, in the heart of New York City, for a live transmission of his show El Gordo y La Flaca. He was elegantly dressed in a navy blue suit, with his hair combed back and his polished shoes.

He had no way of knowing that on that Friday, October 12, 2018, a group of 12 women, camouflaged among the eager street audience, were prepared to confront him on national television.

On the other side, Liaam Winslet, a trans activist, dressed in a military green jacket, purple Converse sneakers and a messy ponytail, whispered instructions to a group of her sisters. “Hide the banners.” “You, take the girl to the other side.”

When the transmission began from the studio, a cry was clearly heard from afar.

“Trans!” yelled Liaam with her fist up in the air.
“Power!” they all responded.

The TV show that for 20 years has highlighted as the most important celebrity and entertainment gossip program stopped the live transmission. For 15 minutes, it went to commercial break and then to the Miami studio.

“No, no, no! We are not infiltrators! We are trans and we are fucking pissed!” the protestors, led by Liaam, continued to chant. They all belong to the Colectivo Intercultural TRANSgrediendo [Intercultural TRANSgressing Collective] an NGO that defends the rights of the LGBTQ Latinx community of Queens New York.

Like them, most transgender Latinas in New York, flee the threats of cultural prejudices, machismo, and gender violence in their home countries and seek refuge in the U.S. According to a report published in 2018 by the Trans Murder Monitoring Project, 79% of worldwide trans murders between 2008 and 2018 happened in Latin America.

Approximately 17,300 people identify as transgender in New York State. People who identify as Latino or Hispanic are the second largest group according to the Williams Institute on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Law and Public Policy; the state hosting the fourth largest translatina population in the country. The U.S. Census Department does not include transgender population in its census, leaving a gap in accurate data about the community. Existing data corresponds to surveys made by organizations that defend their rights, their results are quite limited and based on estimates and/or focus groups.

“It’s difficult to obtain information, about undocumented people, in general. People are not as willing to participate in government surveys, due to their concerns over confidentiality,” says Dr. Kerith Conron from The Williams Institute.

The situation for transmigrants in the U.S. does not always improve. Trans women’s murders are constantly rising. According to statistics from the Human Rights Campaign Foundation, eight out of every 10 trangender people who have been killed are women of color. This includes Afro-descendants and Latinas, there is still no registry of Asian trans women. “They are killing us,” said Liaam during the protest. “They’ve killed 28 trans women this year and no one has said anything.” The protesters claimed that, in the midst of this world emergency, Raúl De Molina and his partner, Lili Estefan “La Flaca”, had mocked the community in one of their shows.

Three days before the protest, the television duo had commented on the apparent death by suicide of a 33-year-old transgender activist from Zacatecas, a state in the north of Mexico, whose government rejects same-sex marriages and homosexual adoption. Her name was Itzel Aidana Ávila and she had criticized the comments made by the former Mexican Miss Universe Lupita Jones, who expressed her disagreement against transgender women taking part in beauty pageants.. 

“I don’t consider to have anything in common with a transgender,” Jones said in front of the TV Azteca cameras. Itzel responded to Jones by posting a video on her Facebook wall. “You need a lot of courage, strength, and character to become the person you identify with,” she said in reference to the experiences trans women go through. Her long lean face without make-up looked sad, resigned. “People kill themselves over comments like these,” she added. The video seemed to be a premonition.

Some hours later, Itzel was found dead. The police report didn’t state that she was a trans woman, as she identified herself, but as a male.  “If that man or woman, whatever you call them, wanted to commit suicide, she can’t be blamed for that,” said De Molina defending Jones. Estefan, his co-host, added, “In the U.S., by law, if you were born Roberto and all of a sudden you’re Juanita, you’re still Roberto”.With these declarations, Estefan was misinforming her audience. In the U.S. with the exception of Tennessee, transgender people are allowed to modify their birth certificates to reflect their gender identity through different procedures.  ‍

We are trans

Transgender people are those who do not identify with the sex that they were assigned to at birth. According to the OTD, trans people build identities that correspond to their expression more than their gender identity, independently from medical treatments or surgical interventions. Those who were assigned the male gender at birth and transition to female are trans women. Trans men are those who were assigned a female gender at birth and decide to transition to male. There are also non-binary trans people who do not identify with their assigned sex at birth and transition into neutral genders. 

People who identify with their assigned gender and therefore do not wish to transition into another gender are known as cisgender.

“With skirt or trousers, respect me, Asshole!”,  the protesters shouted.

Three men studied Liaam from a distance. “Is that a man or a woman?” one of them asked pointing at the leader. “I don’t know, I thought she was a woman,” said another one. “They are called hermaphrodites,” the third one added.

“A lot of people think of femininity as a desire to look like a cisgender woman,” said Liaam on April 2018, six months before the protest. She was sitting on a lime green colored couch in her apartment in Hillside, Queens. “I want people to respect my body regardless of me looking feminine or not.”

Liaam doesn’t wear any makeup. She had cinnamon skin and long black hair. When the day begins she wears it down but ties it as the hours go by, cause her hair makes her hot. She speaks slowly, with determination, but when she gets excited, her words quickly grasp and she underlines each phrase with an “¡ay niña!” followed by laughter.

Her room smells like tangerine and has the walls painted turquoise. It’s big, organized and has plenty of light. Her queen-size bed is made and is decorated with happy-face emoji cushions and stuffed animals.

Next to the bed is a shelf adorned with tiny colored lights and objects that she has collected through 15 years of travel doing activism: a hippopotamus from South Africa, alebrijes from Mexico, a tiny Black Label Johnny Walker wrapped in a yellow, red, and blue ribbon, the colors of the flag of her native Ecuador. There are books as well including, How to Send People to Hell by César Landaeta, The Homosexual Boy in Elementary School and the Bible by Jorge Orlando López. 

Although she has been involved in activism since she was 12, it was clear to her that although she felt like a woman, she would never be able to look like one in Ecuador. “I could never be a trans woman in my neighborhood with my violent neighbors, I would’ve been killed in less than three days.”

When Liaam lived in Ecuador her mother blamed her for her father’s abandonment because she was a “fucking faggot.” Liaam’s father had made it clear, “he would rather have a thief or drug addict for a son than a fag.”

“Typical, right?” asked Liaam.  

In 2015, 27,715 transgender people participated in The U.S. Transgender Survey, only 5% were Latino. From them, almost half said they had suffered a form of family rejection: they stopped speaking to them, didn’t allow them to wear the clothes that suited their gender, kicked them out of their house, or all of the above.

“To wake up every morning and know that probably someday I may leave the house and never come back, or knowing that one of my sisters is going through difficult situations….is hard,” confessed Liaam holding her tears back with a deep breath. She is tired of demanding what should be a given: that they respect their basic human rights.

“You are transphobic! You are transphobic!” sang the women at the same time while looking at the TV host.

Raúl de Molina, looking irritated and defensive, was left with no other option but to transmit the protest. He made space to speak to some of the protestors but refused to accept his declarations. Liaam, as a way of protesting his evasive answers, refused to participate. Instead Elizabeth Chávez, 36, decided to speak; moments earlier she was holding written signs that read “I am a woman. Not a man, woman, or whatever you want to call me.” She did not hesitate to express her anger. 

“If I look like a woman then I’m a woman, if I look like a man then I’m a man; I’m not ‘man, woman, or whatever you call them’,” Elizabeth told the host. She was wearing a baseball cap and golden hoops. “We accept your apologies but I will not stop here because we need to educate people.”

De Molina, who tends to have a permanent grim, was confused and upset. He bent over Elizabeth and rested his right arm on her shoulder to release the tension.

“Can I hug you?” he asked the activist.
“No,” she responded.

A confrontation between a showbiz personality and the leader of a group of women that have been historically marginalized may not make a lot of sense. But trans issues seem to be relegated to the entertainment beat. To see them only taking up those spaces is another way of neglecting the problems affecting them.

“Ladies, thank you for coming,” said De Molina.

We are fucking pissed

Elizabeth was carrying 28 pictures in her hand. It was November 20th, Transgender Day of Remembrance. A month had passed since the protest against Raúl de Molina. They were standing in the concrete sidewalk in the Manuel de Dios Unanue square on Roosevelt Avenue. As she had done before the cameras during the El Gordo y La Flaca protest, she took the microphone once again. 

“I am going to read out the names of the sisters that we lost this year. When I read them I want us to yell ‘presente’,” she said. Over 40 transgender women surrounded her, the carried crosses with the names of their sisters. 28 crosses for 28 deaths.

“We are going to say ‘presente’ because they are here, in every one of us. Because we are traveling the same path that they traveled. When I say their names we say ‘presente’ with our first up in the air.”

Tonya Harvey. Viccky Gutiérrez. Sasha Wall. Cathalina Christina James.

Frozen wind made their way through the street corners. There, under the shelter of a bright orange tent, trans women, members of the LGBTQ community, social workers and activists, came together to remember trans deaths. The 28 deaths from 2018, 29 from the year before, and 23 from 2016.

Londonn Moore. Ciara Minaj Carter Fraizer. Vanessa Campos. Shantee Tucker.

Lorena Borjas observed the scene from a distance. She took her sisters by the arm, they were resting their heads on her shoulder as they listened to the speeches. An audio system played sad Christian rock tunes in the background. It was a night for mourning.

Karla Patricia Flores Pavón. Keisha Wells. Dejanay Stanton. Roxana Hernández.

Lorena Borjas, a 59-year-old former sex worker, is the main transgender Latina activist in New York. She founded the Colectivo Intercultural TRANSgrediendo, the same group that boycotted El Gordo y La Flaca.

Lorena has exceeded the life expectancy of a trans woman by almost double, now she takes advantage of these “extra” years to help more than 500 transgender sex workers, from helping them get political asylum or permanent residence, to access HIV tests; she hands out condoms on the street.

Lorena seems unmovable. She is a large woman, with a wide back and heavy hands decorated by gold rings like a boss lady, the head of the family no doubt. She is strong and determined, speaks with a few words and demonstrates the rest with her actions. She has limitless capacity to give.

A native of Veracruz, a state in the south of Mexico, she fled her country in 1981 with one goal in mind: finding the liberty of being who she really is.

“In Mexico, I had to settle with being a travesti,” said Lorena. “I didn’t even know there was a word for women like me, trans women. I dressed as a woman but had the body of a man, they called me ‘Lucha.’ It wasn’t until I came to New York and began my transition that I could be Lorena, my real name.”

Lorena’s transition also came with years of sex work on Roosevelt Avenue between 60 and 103 st. She suffered violence, addiction, and was unable to access primary services. Lorena quit prostitution in 1995 over the fear of getting deported. 

That same year she began helping sex workers who were experiencing similar situations to hers. “Numbers kept growing, trans women were dying, trans women kept getting infected,” remembers Lorena about the early ‘90s. She has been an activist since. This is how Lorena and Liaam’s lives crossed. 

In 2013, Liaam boarded a plane to attend a trans congress in Philadelphia. She had decided to begin her transition in the U.S. and knew she could not come back to Ecuador. This way, she was leaving behind a gang member who harassed and threatened to kill her for giving support to transgender sex worker groups. He said that “she was fucking up his business, that “whores” had to give him money because that’s why they’re “whores”.”  

Although Lorena offered to help, Liaam’s money was still scarce. During her first year in New York she was a sex worker, this job wasn’t new to her, she had first performed sex work at 15.

Sasha Garden. Jessenia Paparazzi. Vanessa Campos. Vontashia Bell 

That night, during the remembrance ceremony, Lorena, the unbreakable matriarch looked defenseless and vulnerable for the first time. 

Christa Leigh Steele-Knudslei. Celine Walker. Nikki Enriquez. Zakira Fry, Kelly Stough. 

Liaam took the microphone. Once again, her hair is in a messy ponytail, she is wearing the same army green jacket she wore during the protest. This time, she has a white ribbon on the left side of her breast.

“I have a motto that I always want to make clear,” she said. She looked down at the floor and shyly smiled. “I’ll say it and you can repeat it.” 

Lorena stood by Liaam’s side and put her right arm around her shoulder, she made a fist with her left arm.

They all cried:
No, no, no! We’re not infiltrators! We’re trans and we’re fucking pissed! 

Sofía Cerda Campero is a journalist and translator. She has a Bachelor's Degree in Communications and a Masters in Bilingual Journalism by The Craig Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY. She writes about gender, immigration, culture and food for American and Mexican outlets. Raised in Mexico City she has been living in New York for the past four years. 
Sindy Nanclares is a Colombian-American multimedia journalist. She is a graduate of the Masters of Bilingual Journalism at The Craig Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY. Sindy covers social topics related to underrepresented communities in the U.S. through investigative journalism and video. She currently works as a producer for Brut Mexico.