Young LGBTQ+ El Pasoans have mobilized around the creation of the Trans-Youth Coalition, a project offering free and low cost resources to young transgender people in need.
Seeking to address gender dysphoria and combat the risk of suicide among young trans people, the Trans-Youth Coalition sees providing resources for transitioning as a critical lifeline to people who might not otherwise be able to access them.
Leo Rangel, the president of the Trans-Youth Coalition, is 14 years old and came out when he was 12. He decided to get involved with the group because he has had a great deal of family support throughout his transition, but recognizes that others have not.
“We often get people that will tell us about their situations, whether it’s financial or family, why they would need our help. It’s been very eye-opening to hear different perspectives from people who are less able to transition freely.” Leo says he wants to help others who have had a harder time than he has. “I haven’t really experienced many of the issues that other trans people have. It’s important to me to make a difference so that people in the future will have an easier experience.”
Isa, the 22-year-old secretary of the TYC, stressed the need among transgender people for the resources that the Trans-Youth Coalition provides. Isa, who uses they/them pronouns, asked that their last name not be used due to privacy concerns.
“Many low income communities don’t have access to transitional supplies, which are often pretty expensive and inaccessible. If you’re closeted or living at home and you’re not supported then it can often be difficult to get your hands on these supplies. You might not feel comfortable ordering them and having them arrive at your house and then risk them being found. That can be a bad situation,” Isa said. “The supplies that we offer are things like binders, trans tape, packers, and underwear that more closely aligns with people’s gender identities. We also provide safety supplies. We have options for people to order mace for security, because they’re at a higher risk of being assaulted.”
Other members of the TYC do not identify as transgender, but feel it is important to be an ally to the trans community nonetheless. “What better way to be an ally than to be an active ally, and actually do things. I just wanted to support my friends and really show that I care,” said Stephanie Saenz, the event coordinator for TYC.
Challenges facing trans people
Transgender people face significant hurdles throughout society, hurdles made more difficult by a lack of community support (trans people are frequently ostracized by family members who do not accept them.) A 2015 survey of transgender Americans found that trans people were nearly nine times more likely to attempt suicide in their life, and the majority of respondents reported some form of harassment because of their gender identity, including violence, sexual assault, and verbal harassment. Additionally the survey found that nearly one third of trans people live in poverty, compared to 12 percent of Americans at the time of the survey.
Melody Gomez, the executive director of Square Peg Youth Empowerment (the organization through which the Trans-Youth Coalition project was formed), said that cultural norms of the borderland can exacerbate the challenges that transgender El Pasoans face.
“There’s a lot of machismo still that runs El Paso. We’ve become more open-minded, but there’s still a lot of tradition, and a lot of expectation of conformity to traditional gender roles,” Gomez said. Many youth she’s worked with in El Paso feel doubly rejected, she said, both by their family and by their culture.
“They feel like we’re supposed to be a culture of togetherness and family, ‘but now I’m even being rejected by my family,’ so then that rejection just comes full force in this culture that is traditionally supposed to be very family-centered. Breaking that binary is so difficult when culturally that is how we define a lot of what we do. A lot of it is going to come down to education, and the recognition that this isn’t abnormal, and we just needed to open up those doors.”
Trans people on the border
Institutionally, the border also has a history of mistreatment of transgender people, particularly that of immigrants in ICE custody. The death of a transgender woman in El Paso who had fallen ill at a nearby detention center drew national headlines, with advocacy groups like the ACLU contending that ICE had fostered unsafe conditions for transgender detainees, including delayed response to requests for medical care.
According to 2017 data provided by ICE, LGBTQ immigrants were detained for twice as long as other immigrants, and were claimants in 12 percent of sexual assault and abuse cases, despite only making up .14 percent of total detainees.
Nationally too, LGBTQ+ rights advocates have decried institutional discrimination, such as the Trump administration’s recent removal of medical protections for transgender Americans during a global pandemic.
Oz Coronado, 22 year old vice president of the Trans-Youth Coalition, says that the political climate of America makes organizations like the TYC even more important.
“I want to let younger trans youth know that it’s going to be OK. There is support out there. There’s people who care; you’re not alone. Even though the Trump administration wants to shut us down and erase us, we’re not going to let that happen,” said Coronado.
Protest planned for Saturday
For the Trans-Youth Coalition, now is an important time to speak out on behalf of the rights of transgender people, particularly Black trans people. For this reason the TYC has organized an El Paso Protest for Queer and Black Lives from 6 to 8 p.m. Saturday at Centennial Plaza and San Jacinto Plaza.
“Our goal with (the demonstration) is we want to highlight black trans individuals and the lives that were lost even in the past year, right? We’ve seen that a lot of the Black Lives Matters conversations have been around police brutality and what that means for the Black community,” Isa said. “But we know that even today the Black community are not informed about trans individuals within the Black community. We just think it’s important to speak out on their behalf, because they’re neglected and left out of the conversation a lot of the time.”
The recent increase in violent killings of transgender women of color has been termed “an epidemic” by the American Medical Assocation.
Saturday’s protest and march will include speakers and performers from Black and trans community members, and was organized in partnership with Fronterizx Fianza Fund.
Gomez and Isa both emphasize the need for education of the broader El Paso community about transgender rights issues, and hope Saturday’s protest will help in galvanizing people around issues of justice and equality for trans and gender nonconforming community members.
Isa said that sometimes people (in El Paso and more broadly) use the fact that they do not understand the experience or perspective of a trans person as a justification to not accept their gender identity. To this, Isa has a response.
“Trans people don’t need to make sense to you for you to treat them with respect. Respect for trans people is not contingent on their identity and their experiences making sense to you. That’s something that I’ve found to be one of the biggest hang ups that cis people have, especially older people, is that they’re constantly trying to wrap their head around it making sense. When really, trans people have a right to safety and comfort, and it shouldn’t depend on everyone’s understanding,” Isa said.
Cover photo: Oz Coronado, right, vice president of Trans-Youth Coalition (TYC), talks about his concerns with recent White House policies that affect trans people as Melody Gomez, TYC treasurer, listens at the group’s headquarters. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)