While tens of thousands of people descend on San Francisco for the party that Pride Weekend has become, the Trans March kicking things off will set a different tone.
Members of the city’s transgender community said Friday’s march will have a renewed sense of urgency, as the focus goes beyond the city’s borders to underscore the vulnerability of transgender women immigrants.
“The gay parade is like a party; our march is a political statement,” said Victoria Castro, a case manager at El/La, which works exclusively with transgender Latinas.
Along with others, Castro, who arrived in San Francisco from El Salvador in January 2017 and is now seeking political asylum, will wear black. Dressing as widows, their vigil will remember all the trans Latinas who have died at the hands of transphobic violence.
For Celia Luciano Sagastume, the research coordinator at UCSF’s Center of Excellence for Transgender Health, agreed that the undocumented trans population should be at the top of the community’s concerns.
The Trans March traces its origins to 2004, when an anonymous email calling for an increase in visibility circulated in the trans community. In response, a few hundred people gathered in Dolores Park and marched to Civic Center, launching a tradition of a “demonstration trek,” as one reporter dubbed it, through the Mission. In recent years, the march has attracted thousands of transgender residents and their supporters.
Trans residents living here, many who fled their home countries because of persecution, remain highly attuned to the violence that impacts the community at the border.
Castro wanted nothing more than to get to San Francisco. Sthefany Galante felt the same way about Mexico before leaving in 2001.
In their home countries, the hormonal treatment they were able to get on the black market ended up harming their livers. When they came to San Francisco, they were able to get on the right treatment plan.
“It’s something beautiful because it’s not harming us anymore,” said Galante.
Nowadays, Castro organizes regular workshops where members of El/La write letters to trans Latinas being held in immigration detention centers.
The women they work with leave their home countries — El Salvador, Mexico, Honduras and Nicaragua — because they lack opportunities for work, education, and adequate medical treatment.
A report from 2015 found that about one in 500 detainees held by ICE is transgender. Many are asylum seekers from Central and South American nations.
The treatment they encounter at reception centers can be brutal. The vigil at the Trans March will be in the memory of Roxana Hernández, the transgender Honduran woman who died in ICE custody at the Cibola County Correctional Center in Milan, New Mexico. Hernández, who had HIV, was held in freezing conditions and died from HIV-related complications in May.
For Sagastume, the issues of trans immigrants are so important that she considers this march the most important action of Pride Weekend, even though it it takes place in the shadows of Pride. As the Dyke March begins its program in the Mission, she said, people will gather at Embarcadero Plaza to oppose the federal border policy.
Castro said that once immigrant women make it to San Francisco, El/La helps them apply for a name change, takes them to court, and connects them with doctors, lawyers and organizations that can support them and make San Francisco home.
Up until the recent pressure from the Trump Administration and cost of living struggles, life in San Francisco had become better in the years since the Trans March began in 2004.
Notably, city-funded healthcare covers hormone therapy and transgender surgeries; and everyone, including undocumented immigrants, can change their name and gender. In total, the city invests over $1.5 million in annual grants for transgender services, including workforce development programs, community based organizations and harm reduction programs.
Since the 2016 election, however, there is increasing alarm about the federal government’s attempts to impact these advances.
“There’s a real focus on how the Trump administration is trying to take all our privileges — not privileges, but services — away,” said Nikki Calma, also known as “Tita Aida,” who is the associate director of HIV Prevention and Health Promotion at API Wellness, and helping organize this year’s Trans March.
“We don’t feel it directly, but when decisions are made it makes the community get a little paranoid — like these things could be taken away,” Calma added.
Clair Farley, a mayoral adviser on transgender issues, says the hostility towards transgender people from the federal government requires increased vigilance in the city.
At the beginning of the year, the federal Department of Health and Human Services announced a new Conscience and Religious Freedom Division, which would supposedly protect workers from being forced to violate their “deepest moral or religious convictions.” LGBT-advocacy groups fear it could be used to deny gay, lesbian and transgender patients health care.
While San Francisco and California have protections against such discrimination, the city has to make sure there is clarity around policies that conflict with the federal government.
“We are fortunate that we have protections — local and statewide — on issues of discrimination in health and housing,” Farley says.“A lot of people from around California, the country and elsewhere are moving to San Francisco in hopes of finding a more welcoming environment.”
That move, however, has increasing challenges.
Once trans immigrants make it here, Sagastume said, they often struggle to afford to live in the city that boasts progressive services.
“People travel here to access the services offered here, but it’s nearly impossible to afford to live here, especially if you’re undocumented or an asylum seeker.”
Many of the women El/La works with are homeless, sex workers, and undocumented. One wall of their small office on the top floor of the Redstone Building on 16th Street is dedicated to remembering trans Latinas who have been murdered across the country.
And while Castro and Galante praise all the ways San Francisco has welcomed them, they say they still face discrimination.
A 2015 San Francisco needs assessment found that 60 percent of transgender Latinas felt unsafe walking around the city during the day, while 12 percent of the overall queer population does.
A 2012 report found that transgender Californians experienced unemployment and poverty at twice the state average. One in five respondents had been homeless since they first identified as transgender.
“I think San Francisco has been the most welcoming,” says Galante, “but we still have to fight.”