TransLatinas - HAF & Liz Profile

March 15, 2005
TransLatinas - HAF & Liz Profile

TransLatinas and the Fight for Derechos Civiles

By Lexi Adams

When Liz was growing up - in a large, loud, Catholic family in 1960s Colombia - one message came across loudest and clearest in the story of who she was to become: ""Tienes que ser un hombre, tienes que ser un hombre, tienes que ser un hombre.""  You have to be a man.  Grow up and find a wife, get married, have kids, and raise a family.  Inside, she felt different, but did not have any words or stories to explain that difference.  Today she says her true name came to her in a dream, a long time ago.  Falling asleep at night as a little boy, she could imagine glimpses of another way to be, and a secret name to call herself: Elizabeth.  But waking up with the secret, she knew to keep her mouth shut.

 Liz HAF

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Liz, a client of the Hispanic AIDS Forum

Liz is now 41, lives in the Bronx, and is a client of the TransLatina Services program of the Hispanic AIDS Forum (HAF).  Her story is one among the many stories of clients who flow through HAF's three busy offices in New York City every day.   HAF provides direct services like HIV testing, counseling, health education, and youth outreach within at-risk Latino communities.  The TransLatinas program was founded at HAF's Jackson Heights, Queens location in 2000, with the goal of providing targeted support and resources to New York's growing transgender Latina community.  The women in this innovative program come to HAF's office for group counseling, housing assistance, HIV prevention workshops, referrals, community information sessions on hormone treatment and transition, and other resources that are rarely available in Spanish. 

In 2001, HAF was evicted from its Queens office, where it had been a community fixture for ten years.  The landlord said that the building's other tenants had complained that HAF's clients - participants in the TransLatinas program - were using the ""wrong"" bathrooms.  When HAF attempted to negotiate, the landlord said that they would only be able to stay if the transgender clients were barred from using either the women's or the men's bathrooms, or from occupying any common areas of the building.  This was unacceptable to HAF and the clients they serve.  In June of 2001, the ACLU Lesbian & Gay Rights and AIDS Projects took HAF's case and sued the landlord for illegal eviction, arguing that transgender people are protected from discrimination under existing New York state sex discrimination laws.  The HAF lawsuit is the first transgender rights case to reach a New York state appeals court.

This discrimination feels very real to Liz, who points out that even the gay community remains uneducated and unsure about the full inclusion of transgender people.  ""Many organizations say that they stand for the LGBT, but the 'T' is left hanging in quotes,"" she said. 

She gets frustrated relating a recent experience of attending what was billed as an LGBT Health Fair in the Bronx with a group of ""muchachas trans,"" only to have the health and outreach workers separate the transwomen from the other participants.  They were told to wait in a separate area until they could figure out what to do with them, and ultimately no information or services were targeted to their needs.
 
 Liz has spent much of her adult life struggling to make ends meet and navigate the city services available to her.  It wasn't until she came to New York from Colombia in 1979 that she got a taste of what she calls ""freedom of expression,"" and eventually realized there were different ways for her to live than being a son and a husband.  She lives as a woman, and seven years ago she started taking female hormones.  Despite the peace she has gained by living her life in a way that feels right to her, she faces huge obstacles as a poor, non-English speaking, transgender immigrant of color.  A few years ago, she began attending the TransLatinas Monday night group meetings.  She's become friends with other women in the group, an open forum where they can discuss all kinds of issues affecting them.  Recently, topics have included living with HIV, employment, domestic violence, harassment, sex work, boyfriends, healthcare and hormones, and general check-in.

Liz is hesitant to talk about some of these issues in her own life.  She says she has been lucky to escape the outright violence and assault often faced by members of the transgender community.  And these days, she tries not to let the comments, solicitations, and harassment she faces on the street affect her.  

When people harass me or say bad things to me, I used to feel bad because I thought that there was something wrong with me; that I needed to change,"" she said.  ""Now I realize that they are the ones that have a problem.  They are the ones who need to change.""

She is concerned that society's fascination with transgender people comes without any real regard for their lives and experiences.  She points out the girls she knows who are objectified, sought after for sex work, and abused, beaten down by life.  

"Nos mastican, pero no nos tragan.""  Society wants to chew us up, but they refuse to swallow us.  ""Why?  I also want to know why it's hard to get hormones from a doctor, why everyone has to buy them on the black market?""  She clarified that though she has Medicaid, the insurance does not offer her adequate treatment, and has refused to cover her hormone therapy, forcing her to buy estrogen on the street.  ""It should be covered,"" she said adamantly.  HAF's Community Health Specialist recently let her know about a clinic that might be able to help, but Liz seems somewhat uncertain; like a lot of people on public assistance, she already spends many of her days shuffling from one appointment to another.  She believes the key to moving forward is more education.

I don't think people understand that we're just like anybody else - all we want is to be accepted for who we are.  Education is what I really hope for.  I want people to know that we are a reality.""  

Liz wants to speak for her community, and at the same time she is reluctant.  She just wants to be Liz.  When asked what her day-to-day life is like, or what her hopes are, she looked puzzled at the question: ""Es normal.""  But, she admited, sometimes just making it out of the house is hard.  Still, her New Year's resolutions are like almost any American's: get out more, maybe lose some weight, devote more time to her favorite hobby, cooking.  Some of her happiest memories are of being in her childhood kitchen, studying her mother's movements, helping to prepare the family's meals.  Today, her dream is to become a chef.  But, she sighed, there's probably no use trying.  After all, ""I wouldn't be able to get a regular job if I applied as a woman.""  

She is hopeful that efforts like the HAF lawsuit can help her community.  ""Adelante, adelante, adelante...""  We just have to keep going, keep going, keep going.  ""It might be difficult, but perhaps it's not impossible, to be accepted and achieve the real goal - civil rights."" Derechos civiles
 
In the course of civil rights, one person is often asked - or thrust forward - to stand in as a symbol for the larger struggle of a group of people.  Highlighting the plight of the individual can be key to structuring compelling ""impact"" lawsuits or pushing a public audience towards acceptance of a new or uncomfortable idea. The personal, intimate stories of real people's lives can captivate and persuade us in a way that a legal theory or abstract concept rarely can.  But how much can one person's experience ever really tell us the whole story?  After all, the clients at HAF would be quick to tell you that they aren't ""just"" about one issue.  Their lives, their needs, and their stories are complex.  

In representing the Hispanic AIDS Forum as an organization, the ACLU is addressing the very real need for direct services organizations to be able to keep their doors open and continue their crucial work within at-risk communities.  By doing just that, HAF represents a multitude of individual stories, voices, and identities.  Now, in their new Queens office in Woodside (where they have the floor all to themselves - including the bathrooms), HAF has a lot of plans to improve their outreach to the Spanish-speaking transgender population.  Lately, Liz has become a vocal participant in helping HAF learn to better serve her community, and ultimately, her.  She has a broad, inquiring mind that makes connections between her own concerns and the needs of the larger groups she works within.  She wants to raise her voice.  

Liz has no family here in New York, but she still calls home to Colombia occasionally.  When she tries to talk to her relatives about being a different person than she used to be, they change the topic.  ""They love me, but they don't want to know about it.  They don't want to hear about my life.""

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Special thanks to Madelon Gauthier, Site Director of the Hispanic AIDS Forum's Queens office, for all her help and translation assistance.

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About the Hispanic AIDS Forum
The Hispanic AIDS Forum provides treatment, education and innovative prevention services to New York City's Latino population.  The agency's mission is to reduce HIV transmission and to secure timely and quality support services for Latina/os affected by HIV/AIDS.  The Hispanic AIDS Forum operates three community-based offices in some of New York's largest Latino neighborhoods: Western Queens, Manhattan and the South Bronx.

 



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