This past year was not easy for transgender people. Aside from the alarming death rates we have witnessed with COVID-19 in the United States, transgender people are still being murdered at high rates.
As of now, the United States has had almost 400,000 deaths due to this pandemic. The average daily toll of COVID deaths has risen to 2,700 with no sign of reaching a peak. More people have died from COVID-19 than people who lost their lives on 9/11. The ripple effects of the pandemic are also putting transgender people in a more precarious situation than others, making it harder for them to afford housing and other resources that can protect them from the virus. Moreover, violence against transgender people continues to spike, with no sign of letting up. In the United States, 44 transgender people were slain in 2020, making it the deadliest on record for transgender people.
With so much death and violence happening, it is vital to honor our LGBT elders and give them their roses now, when they are alive—not just when they pass away. Transgender pioneer Monica Roberts died earlier this year, which broke hearts all over the country. Lorena Borjas was another transgender leader in the Latinx community who passed away this year at the age of 59, due to complications of COVID-19. This leader was known for her work with sex workers and policy agendas in decriminalizing HIV and sex work in New York City. “Lorena Borjas was a real hero for trans people, especially in Queens. She was a leader, a builder, and a healer,” Mara Keisling, the executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, said in a statement. “The NCTE family is saddened by her passing and has her broad family and the Queens Latinx community in our hearts today.”
One elder is currently making sure transgender people are still at the forefront of HIV activism. Alexandra Rodriguez de Ruiz is an activist, scholar, and co-founder of El/La Para TransLatinas, located in San Francisco. El/La started as an HIV prevention organization in 2006 and would later become a household name in supporting transgender Latinas living in the Bay area. Prior to becoming an organization, El/La was only the name of a program affiliated with Proyecto ContraSIDA Por Vida (PCPV). They were the first transgender latina HIV prevention program in Northern California. In 2006, after PCPV lost its funding, El/La became its own fiscally sponsored project. They continue to fight for transgender latina rights and provide resources and personal development in a safe space. Fourteen years later, this organization is still advocating for mental health, HIV, and policy work supporting the transgender community on a national scale.
Rodriguez de Ruiz herself has published essays on the United States’ condition of white supremacy under the Trump administration and has always been an activist at the forefront—both in the United States and Mexico. Rodriguez de Ruiz contributed to an anthology in 2016 called Trans Studies, which bridges the gap between activism and academia. This anthology differs from other academic texts because this form of pedagogy is being taught by transgender leaders in the community, rather than allowing academic institutions to speak on their behalf. Her commitment to the movement shows through her interdisciplinary approach; she has occupied spaces that were not designed for transgender leaders and yet continues to put praxis before theory as a form of resistance and an act of love for her community.
“She inspired me to believe that a trans girl like me can get asylum, change my name, and be a community leader in San Francisco,” says outreach coordinator of El/La Sthefany “La Bomba” Galante. “Thanks to her, I got an attorney and fought for my case. We are humans—and that goes beyond notions of gender identity.”
Sthefany “La Bomba” Galante is another leader in the transgender community in San Francisco. Rodriguez de Ruiz mentored her for many years, and now Ms. Galante is one of the main people affiliated with the nationally recognized organization known as El/La. “I remember walking home with Alexandra one night in the Mission District, and some men were shouting obscene comments towards us. I was scared for my life, and out of nowhere, I hear Alexandra scream, ‘This is San Francisco, we will not be discriminated here,’” said Galante. “[She] was always brave, and I will never forget what she has done for the transgender community in San Francisco.”
On Nov. 20, I had the pleasure of speaking to Rodriguez de Ruiz via Zoom on Transgender Day of Remembrance, in an effort to record her story and ensure her incredible legacy gets the recognition it deserves, in a time most trying for transgender folks across the country. A video of the interview is below.