By Aisling Fae
In 2014, I attended my first ever Trans Day of Remembrance event. I marched with a demonstration led by the Brooklyn Community Pride Center into Manhattan. The procession broke off but most of us moved on to the LGBT Center on 14th Street where several people spoke and reflected on the importance of remembering the lives lost to transphobic violence.
From the onset of the event, something bothered me. The night started with a quote from President Obama who that year had affirmed his commitment to protect "transgender Americans." Several of the invited speakers mentioned “transgender Americans” in their statements to the crowd. After the invited speakers, members of the public were invited to go to the mic and say whatever they felt needed to be said: say the names of people they lost or air their frustrations at having to live in this world that seldom cares for transgender lives. Several non-Americans took to the stage to speak about violence they've experienced in their home countries and for the people they lost back home in countries like Argentina, Brazil, and Mexico, which also have extreme murder rates. When I was given the opportunity, I decided to speak to an issue everyone else seemed frightened to address. The issue Americans ignore—including transgender Americans—is how we’ve failed those of us who aren't American, but who live here.
I wasn't the only immigrant in the room. Cristina Herrera, a trans Latina, was the project coordinator for the Gender Identity Project, the group that planned the event. Many of us were there in force, we helped organize the event, and took care of feeding those in attendance. The trans Latinas are comprised of Latina trans women of all types of immigration statuses, including undocumented. This event would not have happened without them. Most trans organizing in New York City would not happen without Latina trans women and immigrant trans women from all over the world. So, to come and listen to people speak incessantly about "transgender Americans" and their plight was more than a little bit insulting.
I immigrated to the U.S. from the Dominican Republic in 2010. I came as a student on an F-1 Visa. I set out to immigrate to the U.S. in what conservatives call "the right way". I attempted to go through the correct process, but the process failed me. In 2014, after I graduated, I found myself in the “process” but barred by a bureaucratic slip-up. I never got the work permit that would allow me to stay. I moved back to the Dominican Republic, but by this point I realized I was a trans woman. I could not stay in the Dominican Republic where I had no support network and no real way to medically transition. And so, I moved back to the U.S.—New York City—to live with a dubious legal status.
For me, it can be challenging to listen to my community members discuss how excited they are about all the things they have access to that many of us do not. Those of us who are legally allowed to live and work in the U.S. are still not able to vote on the very issues that will affect our lives. We are forced to rely on well-meaning Americans to secure our rights. Many of us who are transgender and immigrants devote our lives to trans activism, sex work reform, anti-racist crusading. We are also helping secure the rights of people who do not in turn, think about what we are going through as immigrants.
Recently, the State of New York where I currently live passed regulations expanding Medicaid to cover several trans-related expenses, including surgeries. With a heavy heart, I've read the requirements for some exciting opportunities, scholarships, internships and job training only to be disappointed when I arrive to the condition that states, "must be a U.S. citizen, or permanent resident to apply."
Many believe that because gay marriage has become the law of the land, I can get citizenship. The fact is that the costs to immigrate through marriage, between $1000 and $3000 dollars in fees and related costs, is not an attainable option for me.
Most trans people are discriminated against when it comes to hiring and employment, but trans immigrants are not only matched with the transphobia involved in looking for work but also the struggle of finding work as an undocumented citizen. These restrictions force us into poverty and into dangerous means of survival. Trans immigrants have to turn to sex work, drug dealing, and other high-risk jobs—snubbed by the same Americans who will mourn us after we die.
Those murdered in the US in 2016 were overwhelmingly black and brown trans women. Often, they were also sex workers killed by clients. The complicated picture is that many of the same people who show up to Trans Day of Awareness are the people who seek to pass legislation outlawing or over-regulating sex work, making it more difficult for sex workers to get good help and protection and subjecting them to police violence through stringent regulation. While these laws are bad for American sex workers, they hurt immigrant sex workers all the more as they also have to worry about ICE whenever they go on the job.
On this trans day of remembrance, I’d like to ask that we recognize all that immigrant trans people do for our community and our country, and that you take a moment to consider the various ways in which you can help us and consider us. Giving us space to speak about these problems, being mindful of advocating for other issues that can unintentionally impact and hurt us, or helping us find healthcare are a few ways to support transgender immigrant people. With the looming threat of an authoritarian fascist government that openly seeks to incarcerate and deport us, we need your engagement, support and your allyship. We are immigrants, but we need to be considered as Americans—our plight must be considered. Don’t let this day pass by without thinking of our unique struggles because now more than ever we need to be remembered.
Aisling Fae is a transgender woman of colour, writer, scientist, and activist. She was born in the Dominican Republic, and now resides mostly in Brooklyn, NY, where she is a member of the trans literary scene. She sometimes lives in Berlin, Germany, where she organises spaces for trans women, and tries to foment and create a trans literary scene in the city. More of her work can be found on her website Transfaerie.com. She's on twitter @transfaerie.