Op-ed: They're Trans, They're Hispanic, and They've Changed This World
Part of the beauty of National Hispanic Heritage Month, celebrated from September 15 to October 15 annually in the U.S., is the unmistakable celebration of achievements, past and present, of our diverse familia. We are not, as President Obama notes in his 2014 proclamation, a monolithic group.
Indeed, the diversity within the Latino population is striking. We trace our family lines to more than a dozen countries. Many of us share in the nation's rich immigrant tradition — past and present. And some of us, myself included, are trans.
Unfortunately, even within the Latino community, few know the names and life's work of our trans brothers and sisters. Far too often, we get too fixated on the alarming statistics and gruesome violence to see how, in spite of seemingly insurmountable odds, trans Latinos have and are making rich contributions to our nation.
So, what better way to celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month than to lift up and recognize just a few trans Latinos long left out of the history books and annual venerations?
Have you ever heard of Sylvia Rivera? Sylvia, who passed away in 2002, was a trans, bi activist and native New Yorker of Puerto Rican and Venezuelan descent. She was a founding member of the Gay Liberation Front, the Gay Activists Alliance, and the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries.
Sylvia advocated for trans rights, especially on behalf of disenfranchised street youth and those caught up in the criminal justice system. She was at the Stonewall Inn riots in 1969 and was one of the lone voices demanding trans inclusion in the early gay rights movement — tirelessly fighting for trans issues to be heard in queer spaces and challenging trans-exclusion in some of our nation's earliest proposed gay rights legislation.
Does Diego Sanchez's name sound familiar? Diego has been a fixture in the trans rights movement for more than a decade. Diego spent three decades in the corporate world and was once named by Hispanic Business magazine as one of the 100 most powerful Latinos. Diego came to national prominence in late 2008 when he joined Congressman Barney Frank's policy staff, becoming the first out trans person to work on the Hill. Diego has since moved on to PFLAG, where he serves as policy director.
What about Pat Cordova-Goff? At only 17, Pat became the face of California's School Success and Opportunity Act. The act, which just recently survived a repeal attempt, gives trans students the right to participate in school athletics according their gender identity rather than legal or anatomical status.
Pat was one of the first trans student athletes to play under the protections of the law, joining Azusa High School's varsity Lady Aztec softball team. Reflecting on her experience earlier this year, Pat told The Advocate, "I will continue this season with a bow in my hair and Aztec pride in my heart. … Reporters will continue to incorrectly refer to me as 'him,' and people will not always understand or even want to understand. But I intend to take the field, and remain on the field. I will show transgender youth (and adults) out there that being happy is possible."
How about Carmen Carrera? Carmen is a reality television personality, model, and performer. Carmen became a household name when she appeared, pre-transition, on season 3 of RuPaul's Drag Race. Since coming out in 2012, Carmen has used her celebrity to bring attention to trans issues. She has written about her experience in W Magazine and has been interviewed by major media outlets like the LA Times and CNN.
When faced with bigotry, Carmen has used her celebrity to push back. In 2012 she publicly condemned an episode of TLC's Cake Boss that used her trans status as a demeaning punch line. In 2013, Carmen's fans petitioned for her to be named the first out trans model for Victoria's Secret, one of the first popular campaigns for trans inclusion in the industry. Earlier this year, along with Laverne Cox, Carmen deftly navigated inappropriate, highly invasive questions from Katie Couric, turning their media appearance into a teachable moment on what is and is not OK to ask out trans folks. It's no wonder Carmen was named to this year's Trans 100 list.
Of course, there are many others. Folks like community organizer and activist Victoria Ortega. And Holly Woodlawn, who rose to fame in the 1970s as a featured actress in several of Andy Warhol's avant-garde films. There's Micha Cárdenas, a mixed-race Latina femme theorist, poet, and artist. And Mitch Kellaway, a prolific editor and writer (and Advocate contributor) with more than 100 published articles and reviews.
We cannot begin to understand the true depth of our heritage without capturing the full diversity of our people. Let's make sure the names and contributions of trans Latinos are among those revered this Hispanic Heritage Month. We are shaped by and thrive because, not in spite of, our trans experience and Latino heritage.
Our work, and our lives, are worth celebrating.
EZRA YOUNG is an independent researcher and activist based in New York City. His work centers on trans rights, with a focus on rights of recognition, health care, and insurance coverage issues. From 2012 to 2014 he served as a post-doctoral scholar at Columbia Law School. Concurrently, he served as research director for the Columbia Center for Intersectionality and Social Policy Studies and legal director for the African American Policy Forum. He received his BA from Cornell University and his JD from Columbia Law School.