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Transgender Immigrants in New York: A Game of Survival

"Mommy, mommy that is a man!" mocks Sequida, a drag queen extraordinaire and host of the weekly talent search at Barrcuda, as she plays out an incident with a little girl she had encountered on the street. "What? Where?! Where?!" shrilling in disgust as she whips her head frantically searching for a man.  Sequida, a women of transgender experience, has the figure of Tyra Banks and the crudeness and humor of Dave Chappelle. For that moment, Sequida turns her focus to her identity and makes us laugh at the ridiculous social constructions of sex and gender. It was easy for Sequida who commands the attention and admiration of aspiring drag queens with her stylish zebra print chiffon dress, beautiful body, and pearly white smile in the cozy gay bar in Chelsea. It is easy to forget the harsh and unforgiving contempt that transgender people have to face every day.   Sequida is one of the lucky few that started her debut as a teen at the famous Roxy Theater and now has over twenty years of experience as a professional entertainer. New York attracts many people with high hopes of achieving the same success as Sequida, believing faithfully in our liberal and democratic society. Queer people from different countries seek out the US as a safe space, because they are often publicly and physically persecuted for being open with their sexual and gender identity. Some queer immigrants have discovered and applied for political asylum based on sexual orientation persecution. Transgender immigrants face not only physical and sexual abuse but share the same language barriers as immigrants and the increasing xenophobic attitudes. As outsiders we expected to find transgender immigrants isolated and dispirited, but to our surprise we found a vibrant community that have formed in the shadows of the predomi-nately gay organizations that often ignore the special needs of transgender immigrants. Transgender interest groups are as diverse as any non-profit interest groups. There are the immediate legal and HIV clinics for trans-gender people and parallel organizations for immigrants. Then there are a slew of specialized organizations that serve to empower, inspire, and support alternative lifestyles. We sat behind the computer and rallied as we discovered a transgender yoga program for and by transgender people at the LGBT Community Center, a week-long Camp Trans for trans-gender people and allies in Michigan, and an art gallery in a gay church supporting LGBT artists. We marveled at the spirit organizers, social workers, doctors, entertainers, lawyers, and spiritual leaders that make up the community.  

Integration through division

Know the rules, play the game: FIERCE!

Through the bell did not work very well, the brand new FIERCE! (Fabulous Independent Radical for the Community Empowerment!) office in West Village has cozy eco-friendly couches, a score of Apple computers recently donated by Columbia University, and the Bordeaux wall creates a bohemian atmos-phere. On the walls, huge posters display FIERCE!s strategy charts, with an emphasis on core values of “empowerment”, “leadership” and “outreach action”. 

Bran Fenner, the executive director with bright eyes and big smile explains, “We want to create a safe place, where the kids can be out without the fear of getting bullied. Everyone gets targeted in a different way. So if you are young, black and transgender you are screwed”. There is constant harassment and profiling by the police. Those who should protect you become the cause of your fear.  

In order to navigate the intricate bureaucracies of American social services, organizations, and networks, one needs to have access to the knowledge. FIERCE!'s founders have learned how to use the mechanism of dominant system. They used to be homeless and yet they created their own non-profit. Isn’t it that, the “American dream?” As for the clients, Bran says, “we organize and try to turn hopelessness and anger in something that may change.” FIERCE! teaches the new generation of transgender youth of color the rules of the “game.”  

A Safe space Within Boundaries 

Cristina Herrera, a counselor for transgender people at The Lesbian, Gay, Bixexual, and Transgender Community Center confirms that building up social networks for transgender people is essential for their integration and survival in the American society. After having left El Salvador, she spent few years in California, until she finally moved to New York in the 1980s. New York City and her job is her personal safe space. The Center meets the basic needs of the clients, so that they can “detach and relax”. Their sexual identity is not something that needs to be discussed all the time.  

There are moments where you want to talk about movies, shopping and sport, without anyone wondering: “Is he a man?”, We didn't not tell Cristina that for the first three minutes we kept asking ourselves “Did this very femi-nine Cristina use to be a man?”. Then one of us finally dared: “Are you trans yourself?”. “It's funny that you ask” she replied. Amongst many other pictures she had also the one from her childhood. And yes. She was a sweet boy at that time.  

We would love to come up with more success stories like hers. Stories where lots of people who, against all odds, find their safe space in America or New York City and are now providing it to the others in need. But alas, it would be an overstatement to see them as a proof for integration. They still have to integrate within the “transgender people of color,” and they rarely venture outside the borders of their own community. Why then isn't the majority of transgender people, immigrants especially, part of this community-network? Where are the other safe social spaces for them?  

Integration, rejection: the case of a religious group 

Whoever seeks the answer should pay a visit to the Metropolitan Church Community of New York City (MCCNYC) that serves the LGBT community. Although it is just a tiny fish in the religious ocean of congregations in NYC, it seems to be still doing pretty well amongst the other giants. Maybe it is ignored, maybe nobody wants to serve the people it serves, but in this place, God causes less trouble than anywhere else. 

Among the patrons, mostly white middleclass gay men, we observe some African American men, a few women, and a handful of trans-gender men and women are seated at the back of the room. At the end of the service, those who want to can join the after-service brunch. Most of the transgender people are seated in a smaller room on cozy couches, apparently waiting for something, obviously isolated from the other patrons. Then, one transgender female in her fifties, wearing a pacific blue dress and blond wig, announces the beginning of the “GenderPeople Spirituality session”.  

The final group consists of five black “women of transgender experience,” some of them post operation, others just wearing wigs. One African American participant introduces himself by saying, “I don't have money for the operation, but I know I'm a man and God knows it too,” with long braids that stick out of a “I love NY” baseball cap and hints of feminine curves are visible under the baggy clothes. A skinny white male with long hair in his forties presents himself as being in his transition phase to become a woman and adds: “ I must say I have even been suicidal these last times”. The session of “spiritual surgery” begins. The group first talks about their experiences of transition and suicidal mood. Then the group re-reads two bible passages from the previous sermon, and the conversation evolves into a broader definition of spirituality: Christianity, Pentecostalism, two-spirits and Wicca. The atmosphere is very relaxed and free – so free than one of the female transgender next to us even begins to snore. 

As Reverend Edgard Danielsen-Morales summarizes, transgender immigrants “are having a rough time with the Church.” Indeed, they are caught in a very ambiguous and difficult religious dilemma. In most mainstream Churches, everything is constructed in terms of wrong or right. Immigrant women – especially when they come from Central or South America, where the Catholic Church is extremely prominent – often build their social networks around or through religious institutions. As a Salvadorian transgender female, she is excluded from the Hispanic Christian community. 

But on a another level, this can be internalized in a more subtle, inner struggle: religious transgender people tend to really believe that they are going against God’s will by challenging their biological sex. This pattern is replicable to many transgender women of New York since most of them have Latin American origins.  After fortyfive minutes, we hug and say thank you– we are being encouraged to come back the next week. The experience was unique and the issue is much more complex than one might think. The transgender people find something at the session where they can't find anywhere else. Their spirituality does not find shelter in the majority of the NYC congrega-tions. By integrating the MCCNYC and the “gender spirituality” group within this Church, they can find a proper combination of mainstream institution and fitting specific struc-tures. Their need of belonging together with a non-exclusive spirituality is hardly met in any other Churches. Transgender people are inte-grated through the creation of smaller and safer sub-groups. 

Something rotten...

Sand in integration mechanisms

Kate Barnhart, the official manager of Sylvia's Place shelter (SP), sits at the end of the long kitchen, her simple wooden desk cluttered with legal papers, condoms and lubricants - no computer insight. While conducting an interview with us and interns from CNN, she is finishing up the paperwork to get a client's birth certificate, directing an intern to cabinet keys, helping Desi, a young African American transgender female, to locate a bra for her drag debut, and occasionally interrupting our discussion to give advice to young clients about their rights when stopped by the police. 

The petite woman in green, though her title reads “manager”, she doesn’t believe in helping her clients from 9am-5pm, instead she fights on their side ready to sacrifice everything. Her face gets tainted with bitterness while answering our questions about the attraction of New York City on her specific clients, homeless transgender youth of color.

“They come to New York because they think they can find a better living here. But the reality is tough. Competition in the job market in NYC is really hard,” she says. One of the transgender females intern chimes in, “ I graduated from high school, then from college, and still, having a such discrepancy between my appearance and my ID makes it im-possible for me to find a job.” 

As for Angel, an undocumented Peruvian gay male who is a regular client of SP, he's in a deadlock. He's lived in the US since he was five, but since his parents were going through divorce, nobody ever filed his application for legal status. He is 20 years old and the only one in his family that does not have an ID. “Without US citizenship or an ID, you can not get health care, you can not apply for college, you have no chance to get a longterm job or an apartment.” He pursues, “When you have no other choice, you end up doing bad things.”

The people that move to America, or New York, or more specifically to New York gay areas, are all in search for the same promise of freedom, security, and opportunities. But their gender identity and legal status becomes a major handicap and is multiplied in each socio-economical field – education, health, job, etc. Being socially, culturally and economically disadvantaged, transgender immigrants are the most likely be pushed out of housing in the process of gentrification and are forced leave the very areas that embrace their identities.

Because they are “heavily visible,”, trans-gender immigrants are being trapped in competition mechanisms that regulate many fields of one's daily life – job, housing, health. Their double identity is being turned into a double handicap. And because of the interrelations between all these vital fields, they suffer from a snowball effect. 

The ethic of hard work and individual's responsibility in the “land of unlimited possibilities” don't recognize these daily life struggles as a part of a bigger socio-economical pattern; there is a huge lack of anti-discrimination and affirmative action laws aimed at this community. To put it in a nutshell, if transgender im-migrants are trapped in market mechanisms, they are also subject to a hole in government corrective policies net.

Institutionalized inequality

The government’s role in the injustices and inequalities that transgender immigrants suffer from isn't just passive. Actively and openly, the whole legal institution - police, and pris-ons, laws and courts - backs discrimination against transgender immigrants. Since the Hernandez-Montiel vs. Immigration and Naturalization Service case in 2000, one can apply for asylum or refugee status in the US on behalf of sexual orientation or one's gender identity. But Sarah Sohn, a lawyer at Immigration Equality, says, “So many LGBT immigrants may not know that they have a potential asylum claim until they somehow come across this information in the U.S.”

She pursues, “Unfortunately, there are no statistics available on the success rate of gender identity based asylum claims nationally or with specific judges. I can tell you, though, that success rates for all asylum claims vary greatly from one immigration judge to another.” No data is being gathered about these particular cases; obviously what you do not want to recognize you do not count, thereby making it very hard to study. This institutional immobility is being backed by an open inequality of immigration rights between transgender immigrants and straight immigrants, for instance in terms of recognition of binational couples. 

Because of quasi automatic detention at final stage of asylum applications as well as police profiling methods against transgender people of color in gentrifying gay areas, most transgender immigrants in the US experience incar-ceration in one way or another. In 2003 Ms. Mayra Soto, a female transgender asylum seeker, was incarcerated in San Pedro Service Processing Center. In her testimony before the National Prison Rape Elimination Com-mission, she said, “Because of my gender identity, I was placed in an administrative seg-regation cell with 10 to 12 other transgender women. The cell was overcrowded, and we were denied the basic rights that other non-transgender detainees exercised.”  

Although Soto proved she was raped by an immigration officer, she remained detained until she reached a point where, she said, “I literally felt like I was going to explode. I felt it would be better to be sent back to Mexico than to stay in the destructive environment in that facility.” Her compelling story didn't stop there: after a few months back in Mexico, she decided to flee again and was incarcerated again in the US. This time she was labeled as a level four prisoner and was therefore put in a cell together with murderers and rapists - where she experienced sexual violence, again.

Transgender immigrants are the pariahs of the American integration system - that is the mar-ket regulation corrected by the government’s legislative and executive action. As for many other socio-economical issues, private initia-tive and community empowerment are the only hope for these human beings. Sharing her experience as political asylum seekers in the US, Yasmeen, an Uzbek ex-journalist, said “ I had friends from my country that came to the US with a green card. After two months, they went mad… I have my freedom, now. But in this country, the one that isn't strong enough, he'll go down, because nobody's ever gonna pay attention to him.”

No surprises, then, when Rodrigo Martinez, an anthropologist of Mexican origins at Immigration Equality, when he hears that we are working on transgender immigrants in New York, begins the conversation by saying, “ you know, these people are survivors...”

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