In the beginning, there were only four. They met to find support and friendship, with the shared experience of being transgender women in Santa Rosa.
“Little by little, we’ve grown to where we are now, and we hope to get even further,” said Paloma Reyes, a 39-year-old from Michoacan, Mexico, who helped found the Santa Rosa Trans Latina support group in 2006.
People who identify as transgender are considered members of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender community (LGBT). “A transgender person is someone who is born in a certain body, but mentally feels like they are of the other gender,” said founding member and facilitator Monica Reyes, 43, from Guanajuato, Mexico. “For example, someone who is born a man but feels like and wants to be a woman, and vice versa.”
Choosing to transition is a big decision, but one that for many feels like the right choice. “For me, ever since I was a kid, I had feminine tendencies. I felt like a woman, and that’s why I decided to do this change,” Monica said. “I started little by little, to see what the result would be, how the hormones would work, how my family would take it. If it was good, I would continue, and if it was bad, I would stop. But I wanted to be feminine, I wanted to be a woman.”
The women met with the help of a social worker, who met them at a bar while doing HIV testing and took them under her wing. She encouraged them to begin meeting as a support for one another.
After four years, the social worker moved on and persuaded Santa Rosa Community Health to continue the group. With their help, participants have been able to access referrals for gender-affirming surgery, hormone therapy and mental health services.
The women say they started the group out of necessity.
“When I started my transition, I had to go all the way to San Francisco for medical services. It got to a point where I didn’t want to waste a day driving,” Monica says. “Sometimes you had to return multiple times a month. It was really difficult.”
They also wanted to create a space where they felt comfortable. “We, as trans women, couldn’t go to a health clinic without being bullied,” Paloma shares.
Although there have been vast improvements in accessibility to transgender care in Sonoma County, there are still residents who need to travel to access it.
Anthony Sanchez, 24, of Jalisco drives from Sonoma to Santa Rosa for his doctor’s appointments and to attend group meetings. “There are resources there, but because I don’t speak English, it’s hard,” said Sanchez, who identifies as a transgender male. “I feel more comfortable here since everyone speaks Spanish.”
Many of the groups’ participants have experienced significant challenges in life for proudly being out as transgender.
At a job site in Petaluma, Anthony was singled out. “They denied my access to the bathrooms. They asked me to show paperwork saying that I was a man, to use the men’s bathroom because the men didn’t want me there. But the women didn’t want me to use the restroom either,” he said. “Sometimes I had to hold it in for the eight hours I worked or go outside. Finally, I presented them with paperwork.”
Monica came out at 18 years old and began to transition at 20. “I started at that age because, obviously coming from a Mexican family, there is a lot of machismo,” she explained.
One of the reasons Yuri Alexandra Aguila Rodriguez, 29, moved to the United States was because of how her family reacted to her coming out as transgender. Although her mother accepted her, her father did not. She is the only member of her family who lives here.
“Sometimes you prefer to make your own family. I have gotten more from people who are not my biological family, than from my own,” she said. “I am so grateful that I have found that support here.”
They all agreed that they experience more discrimination from the Latino community.
Paloma, who began hormone therapy at 19 years old, recalls being harassed in stores. “Around 2006, whenever we would go to Mexican stores, they would always make fun of us,” she said. “On the street, they would scream at us. There are a lot of people in our community who are homophobic, small-minded.”
But she does feel like things have improved. “Now when we go to the stores, sure we get looks, but that’s normal,” she explained.
“In my opinion, Latinos are not yet willing to undo machismo in our culture,” Monica said, adding it will take time to change that mindset. “Sometimes people change when this experience hits close to home when a family member comes out as gay or transgender.”
Although Anthony had a family who rejected him after he came out, some did change their sentiments after they saw what he experienced. “They would say things behind my back but when they saw how I suffered when I was attacked,” he said. “That’s when my family started changing their thinking.”
Most of the participants are undocumented and in the process of gaining legal status in the United States, another long and expensive journey. “I asked for political asylum in 2014, because of safety,” Paloma said. “I paid $8,000 for a lawyer, not including the cost of seeing a psychologist.”
Yuri, who is also requesting political asylum, has not had to pay for a lawyer. “I was detained in a center in Santa Fe. When I was released, I was connected to a lawyer in Oakland, who is helping me for free.”
Transgender people can pursue political asylum because of the lack of safety in their home countries, Monica said. It is often safer to remain in the United States than return home.
“If you return to Mexico, you are often in danger,” she said. “You could be attacked, and even kidnapped for being transgender.”
The Santa Rosa Trans Latina group has blossomed from its humble roots. Paloma estimates that over the years around 50 transgender people have been members of the group, and they want to see the group continue to flourish.
“We don’t only want to be a group where you get medical care. We want to be a group where you can connect with immigration help and social services. We want to do a lot more,” said Monica.
The group hopes to find a more permanent space in the future through donations and grants.
“We are open to anyone who needs support,” Yuri said. “You will be received with open arms.”
The Santa Rosa Trans Latina meets the first Thursday of each month at the Lombardi Campus from 6-8 p.m. and the third Wednesday of each month at Abraham Lincoln Elementary School from 6-8 p.m.
Reach La Prensa Sonoma’s Editor Ricardo Ibarra at 707-526-8501 or email email@example.com. On Twitter @ricardibarra.[/fusion_text]
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