Santa Monica transgender rights rally focuses on a long fight ahead

By Beige Luciano-Adams

Advocates and allies gathered at City Hall for a Rally for Trans Resistance
Photos by Shilah Montiel

This year, International Transgender Day of Visibility came at a time when transgender people are more visible — and arguably more vulnerable — than ever. Outside the ideological bunker of California, President Trump is rolling back Obama-era protections as emboldened Red State legislators chip away at LGBTQ rights.

The last several years have seen a trending of gender nonconformity and exposure of some transgender people — in the dusky revolution of Amazon’s “Transparent” series; with former Olympic gold medalist Caitlyn Jenner and “Orange is the New Black” actress LaVerne Cox gracing magazine covers long considered the exclusive domain of cisgendered women; in Time magazine’s declaration of a “transgender tipping point.”

But the top notes of a celebrity-driven cultural revolution feel especially thin now — woefully ephemeral. What does it mean in the face of daily struggles, banal indignities, the increasingly stacked fight against institutional discrimination?

In addition to reversing Title IX protections that would allow transgender students to use the bathrooms of their choice, Trump recently overturned requirements that federal contractors comply with anti-discrimination laws. And in a shocking affront, the federal government seems to hope it can erase LGBTQ people from the official record: The U.S. Census Bureau has called a prior proposal to include LGBT Americans in its reporting a mistake, while sexual orientation questions disappeared from other government surveys.

The table is set for a civil rights imperative. And while the Trump presidency may be an unexpected nightmare for them, transgender activists are familiar with the perils of invisibility.

At a resistance rally outside Santa Monica City Hall on April 1, a constellation of prominent activists gathered to amplify their voices in hopes of reaching places where visibility and voice can be elusive or dangerous. Under the punishing high-noon sun, the tone was defiant, expansive, beleaguered but unflinching.

Queen Victoria Ortega, a veteran activist with a gifted verbal strut who counts herself as the first transgender on the board of a political action committee, spoke about what “visibility” really means.

“Does it mean exploiting our stories and our trauma? Or does it mean providing spaces for advancement?” she asked. “It’s really about raising the bar and creating spaces where people who don’t have the privilege of being here get to be visible as well.”

For City of Los Angeles Human Relations Commission member Justine Gonzalez, visibility also means self-care: “This work is grueling, it’s heavy, and we need the support of family and friends. … The only way it can be done sustainably is if we ask each other for help, if we bring each other to the table.”

In front of the podium, there was a name chalked on the cement: Leelah Alcorn.

Rachael Rose Luckey, an executive officer with the Stonewall Democratic Club, read aloud from Alcorn’s 2014 suicide note: “My death needs to mean something. My death needs to be counted in the number of transgender people who commit suicide this year.”

Those words — voiced shortly before the transgender Ohio teen stepped in front of a semi-trailer truck, Luckey said, “motivate me every day.”

For Luckey, this resistance rally was a pushback against normalized discrimination.

“I consider myself very fortunate to have transitioned in Los Angeles,” she said, acknowledging statewide protections for transgender people. “Because I am able to live my life without interference … I feel it’s my duty … to be the voice for so many transgender people left voiceless in Red States and conservative areas,” she said. “It’s not enough to keep our heads down and hope they don’t come for us.”

Santa Monica City Councilmember Tony Vasquez said he searched for what he might add to the discourse.

“One thing comes to mind,” Vasquez said, recalling classmates at Venice High School who, several decades ago, were afraid to come out.

“Being raised in a very traditional Mexican Catholic family, it was difficult for me to hang out with some of these folks,” he said, remembering one of his best friends who debated coming out to his own militantly Catholic family.

“And at the end of the day…” Vasquez stopped. After a long pause, choking back tears, he continued: “He chose to take his life. He hung himself. We found him in the garage that afternoon after school, and that image still sticks in my mind.”

Young men and women coming up through the city’s schools today, Vasquez said, must be going through the same struggles. “My movements have always been for equality … about people of color and discrimination. We often forget about folks that choose to live a different lifestyle for whatever reason. And we need to embrace it.”

Michaela Mendelsohn, founder of the California Transgender Workplace Project, illustrated the power of small-scale initiatives. At her franchised restaurants, Mendelsohn began targeted hiring of transgender workers, many of whom were unable to find jobs elsewhere.

“Most of them were sitting at home wondering if their lives were worthwhile and how they were going to get by. They came to us beaten down, low self-esteem. But we watched as they got in front of customers in their authentic gender identity. We watched them grow,” she said.

Actor and activist Scott Turner Schofield announced he was working with city officials in Santa Monica to create a training video for front-line staff to work with transgender and gender-nonconforming people in locker rooms this summer.

“And let me tell you how supportive they are. This is a great city to come and play and be trans in,” Schofield said.