The exclusion of trans women of color in the LGBT movement
Tuesday, July 28th, 2015
By Jessica Manzano-Valdez, Public Policy and Communications Intern
On June 26th, 2015, the Supreme Court legalized same sex marriage in the United States. I was just inches away from the steps of the court, surrounded by vibrant colors and joy when history was made. I only realized how monumental this event was when the pictures of the first married same sex couples came out of my conservative home state of Texas. The decision was one of the biggest steps towards LGBTQ equality.
But as the crowd stood in the midst of history making, there was no mention of Sylvia Rivera. Rivera, a trans woman of Puerto Rican and Venezuelan descent and champion advocate for trans people of color, is credited with throwing the first Molotov cocktail (though she claims it was the second) that turned into the Stonewall Riots, the beginning of the modern LGBTQ movement. She continued to fight for the rights of transgender people of color and low socioeconomic status until her death in 2002. Yet, as the LGBTQ movement became more mainstream and more focused on cis-gender, gay, white men, Rivera was pushed out of history. The issues of the trans community, according to the movement, were too extreme for the public to handle.
History repeated itself just two days before the Supreme Court’s landmark decision. At the White House Pride Month Celebration, LGBTQ advocate and undocumented trans woman Jannicet Gutierez interrupted President Obama’s speech asking the president to halt the detention and deportation of LGBTQ immigrants. Gutierrez said, “President Obama, stop the torture and abuse of trans women in detention centers. I am a trans woman. I am tired of the abuse.” As a response, those in attendance boo-ed Gutierrez and repeatedly told her to keep silent. One attendee yelled at Gutierrez, “This is not for you! This is for all of us!” The reactions and comments show that the attendees were there to celebrate the progress of a certain section of their community and were willing to silence anyone, including one of their own, if they do not fit the rest of the movement.
In a time meant to celebrate the progress, just days before the Supreme Court’s decision, the LGBTQ movement once again silenced a trans woman of color. The jeers and comments of attendees sent a clear message to Gutierrez: your problems do not reflect the problems of our community. Get out. (Gutierrez was escorted out of the event, chanting “Not one more deportations! Ni una más deportación!”)
An investigation conducted by Fusion found that up to 75 transgender individuals are detained in ICE immigration centers every night. According to advocates of transgender detainees, a trans woman is rarely housed in a female detention center. Instead, trans women are housed in male detention centers where they face extremely high levels of sexual assault by detainees and guards. ICE recently announced new guidelines for housing trans individuals to provide the highest level of protection possible, including allowing trans women to be detained in all-women centers. Though the guidelines are a step forward, they fail to address how difficult it is for a trans woman to report sexual assault. Although trans women make up 1% of the entire ICE detained population, they account for 20% of all confirmed sexual abuse cases. These women left countries where they are persecuted; yet, many of them claim their detention as the most traumatizing part of their journey.
Take, for example, the case of Nicoll Hernandez-Polanco, a trans woman from Guatemala who turned herself to the authorities at the border in hopes of being granted asylum. Hernandez-Polanco was housed in an all-male detention center where she experienced verbal, physical, and sexual abuse at the hands of other detainees and guards. After filing a complaint with ICE officials, she wasn’t informed of any resolution and was even housed with her aggressor. Though Hernandez-Polanco was released after local organizations raised enough money for her bond, her experiences continue to be a reality for trans women still detained.
It is because of violence very similar to what Hernandez-Polanco experienced that Representatives Raul Rijalva (D-AZ), Michael Honda (D-CA), and 33 other members of Congress sent a letter to the Department of Homeland Security expressing concern for the LGBTQ detainees under ICE’s responsibility. Though the letter is a step in the right direction, it is time for LGBTQ organizations to step in and fight against the incarceration of those members of their community. With the victory of marriage equality, it is time LGBTQ organizations such as the Human Rights Campaign to advocate for the legal and societal protection of trans women of color.
The current lack of support from LGBTQ organizations for Gutierrez’s message demonstrates the lack of overall societal support for transgender women of color. More often than not, the alarming number of hate crimes against trans woman of color goes unreported. While we celebrated the legalization of same sex marriage in late June, we forgot that by the end of the February of the same year, eight trans women had been murdered. Black trans women have a life expectancy of 35 years, less than half of a cis-gender woman in the US, and are constant targets for hate crimes. In a 2013 report conducted by the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs, 90% of all LGBTQ homicide victims were people of color and 67% were transgender women of color. In the recently released 2014 report, 80% of all LGBTQ homicide victims were people of color and 50% consisted of transgender women of color. Despite these high numbers of violence and prejudice directed towards trans women of color, few resources are directed to trans issues. In that same AVP report, only .015% of all foundation giving to LGBTQ organizations went to trans advocacy. Although several LGBTQ organizations have shown support, including the National LGBTQ Task Force, it is time more organizations fight against the issues faced by trans women of color.
As social justice activists, we must recognize the hypocrisy that exists across different social movements towards trans women of color because of transphobia. We can only claim to be feminists if we acknowledge the high rates of homicide among trans women of color and aim to make life for our sisters better. We can only be advocates for LGBTQ rights if we’re booing the inhumane practices by the US government and not the trans woman who brought up the issue. If we truly want to fight racism, we must acknowledge that trans women of color lack access to fair housing and adequate healthcare. As activists fighting to end systems of oppression, let us not forget that those who lie at the intersections of these systems of oppression are the most vulnerable in our society.
This July 2nd marks what would have been Rivera’s 65th birthday. Had she been at the Supreme Court on the 26th, she would have rightfully reminded us that equality does not stop at marriage. She would have used her voice to carry Gutierrez’s message about detention practices. She would have yelled the names of murdered trans women of color so we don’t forget them. Unfortunately, Rivera is no longer with us, so it’s on us to carry her message and assure that when we claim to be pro-LGBTQ, anti-racists, advocates, and feminists we are not forgetting our trans sisters.
 Please note the Fusion article contains graphic descriptions of sexual violence that might be triggering for many readers.
Note: While Casa de Esperanza: National Latin@ Network publishes several articles of political nature, we do not necessarily endorse the opinions of the authors.