At the Clínica Monseñor Oscar A. Romero in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Boyle Heights, Victoria Ortega, 33, focuses on women’s health, HIV prevention, beautification, and safety. As a transgender woman and community organizer, she actively incorporates LGBTQ issues into her community-building in the neighborhood.
Ortega has built a great nonprofit career for herself and recognizes the employment and career limitations transgender women face. “There is a lack of leadership-building for trans women,” she says.
Latino/a transgender people often live in extreme poverty. According to a National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE) survey, twenty-eight percent of transgender Latinos reported a household income of less than $10,000 a year, which is nearly double the rate for transgender people of all races, more than five times the general Latino/a population rate, and seven times the general U.S. population rate. For non-citizen Latino/a participants, the poverty rate was 43 percent. The unemployment rate for Latino/a transgender people is 20 percent.
When Alexis Martinez, 63, came out in 1998, her successful printing business began to suffer because she was losing clients. She says she was also harassed by workers because of her gender identity.
Martinez says she was aware of her gender identity from a very early age. “When I was four years old, I knew what I was,” she says. At nineteen Martinez began taking hormones, but she stopped at the age of 29. As a result, she became depressed and battled alcoholism and cocaine addiction until she resumed hormone treatments at the age of 43.
“There are multiple challenges– housing, jobs, and medical care– exacerbated in the trans community,” Martinez says.
A 2011 NCTE survey found that though discrimination was prevalent for all transgender participants, transgender prejudice — combined with constant and institutionalized racism — was especially devastating for Latino/a transgender people and other people of color.
The lack of medical care in the transgender community is also an overwhelming problem. The Human Rights Campaign reports transgender people can be denied coverage regardless of transitioning needs because of the way in which health insurance contracts are written. Twenty-three percent of Latino/a transgender people reported being refused medical care.
“We should be directly talking to insurance companies,” Martinez says. “The cost to insurance companies would be minuscule because the population is so small.”
High HIV rates and the lack of medical care can be especially devastating for this community. One in twelve Latino/a survey respondents were HIV-positive and an additional 10.23 percent reported that they did not know their status.
In addition to health matters, Ortega says that many transgender women are often concerned with issues of safety. Just one month ago, she was a victim of a hate crime when someone vandalized her car and left a note with a slur on it. At the Clínica Monseñor Oscar A. Romero, Ortega focuses on directly addressing these kinds of issues.
Frida Moreno, 34, who identifies herself as gender variant (neither male or female), is a community activist who feels lucky to have grown up in a household where gender was fluid and where she was allowed to be herself. Because of this, she felt she needed to do something in return and began doing community work.
Moreno is currently pursuing a Bachelor’s in Women’s Studies at the University of New Mexico and works at her university’s LGBTQ Research Center. “As a safe zone environment, we stand up against homophobia and value the worth and dignity of all people,” she says.
Like Ortega and Moreno, Martinez has also used her own experiences to fuel her activism and community-building. She is currently a member of Chicago Dyke March, T.G.I.F (trans, gnc, and intersex freedom), and many other organizations.
“I’m trying to gather as many Latinas as I can,” she says. “I’m gently trying to urge people and build bridges between people of color.
Erika L. Sánchez is a poet and freelance writer living in Chicago. She is currently a book reviewer for Kirkus Reviews and a contributor for The Huffington Post, AlterNet, and Mamiverse. Her poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in Pleiades, Witness, Anti-, Hunger Mountain, Crab Orchard Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Copper Nickel, and others. Her nonfiction has appeared in Jezebel, Ms. Magazine, and American Public Media. You can find her on Facebook, Twitter, or erikalsanchez.com.