Lost In Trans-Nation | Cover Story | Salt Lake City | Salt Lake City Weekly

October 14, 2015 News » Cover Story

Lost In Trans-Nation 

Undocumented queer Latina Ella Mendoza asks if Utah LGBT leaders are doing enough to fight for transgender rights

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This story was updated Oct. 16, 2015.

On June 5, 2015, Ella Mendoza made history in Utah. She was the first undocumented queer Latina to give a speech at the Utah Pride Festival. For the first time in Pride's nearly 40-year history of celebrating Utah's LGBT community, organizers lumped together rallies for transgender, lesbian, sexually fluid and polyamory groups into one, a decision that had angered some in the transgender community who felt that one march for all diluted their own message.

But such frustration was dwarfed by the anger 25-year-old Mendoza vented as she stood on the steps of the Capitol that Friday evening as the rally's final speaker. The co-founder of Utah's chapter of Familia: Trans Queer Liberation Movement said, "This world was made strange, because the white people came here in the first place and decided that trans people were wrong, that gender was a thing. They decided to put [up] these walls. I saw this and said, 'White people, you all look fucked up.'"

In a powerful voice, she contrasted those in the crowd who had attended college with her own experience at the age of 19 years old: being homeless for 18 months, living in a shelter and "wondering, 'Where are my rights?'"

As her fiery oration grew, she condemned "the romantic notion behind 'saviors,' behind helping victims." She told the crowd, "I am not your token; I'm not your token survivor. My trans sisters are not your token trannies. We are not here to make you feel good about saving us."

Then she spoke of the 75 undocumented trans women of color held in detention centers across the United States. "Our survival is not a request. It's a demand," she said.

Finally, she turned to the festival itself. Calling the rally "the poor people's party," she referenced the annual Grand Marshal Reception—which was being held at the same time. The shindig honored the parade's 2015 grand marshal, Janet Mock, a transgender woman of color, TV reporter, author and national celebrity. Many at the rally wished to hear Mock, but were effectively blocked either by wanting to march for their community, or because they couldn't afford the $50-per-head tickets.

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"How come we're here, and they're over there?" Mendoza said. "Do you realize that if Janet Mock was aware of this shit, she'd be pissed?"

Mendoza, along with her Familia chapter's co-founder, Eusebio Echeveste, joined Adrian Romero, leader of Stand for Queer Lives, both 20 years old, to lead the march to Salt Lake City's Library Square, where the festival was taking place. But not all were pleased with Mendoza's remarks about white privilege. The next day, one woman complained that it is white men, not white women, who enjoy privilege. Another argued that despite "white privilege," there are still white trans people suffering in jail. Mendoza learned later the person lodging the complaint was a transgender person who herself had a criminal history and had ties with a white supremacist group. Talking about race, Mendoza realized she was hitting some nerves. "I never thought I would feel threatened in my own movement."

Familia began in Los Angeles in late 2013, says national coordinator Jorge Gutierrez. "Part of the vision came from seeing that there was a lot of undocu-queer youth organizing and yet our identities and sexual orientation weren't being fully honored and included in all the immigrant work we were doing."

In December 2014, Mendoza and Echeveste founded Familia in Utah. Later, they attended a regional conference in New Mexico. "A family loves you and supports your losses and celebrates your life. That's why it's called 'Familia,'" Mendoza says. At the conference, they learned that their concerns about marginalization by the LGBT community were identical to those of Familia chapters from seven other states who attended. "Every state was saying the same thing." Mendoza recalls. Transgender women of color "are being silenced, we are being left behind."

While the mainstream LGBT community has focused on marriage equality for the past 10 years, the need for a strategy to combat issues facing people of color within the movement—issues like discrimination, police violence and homelessness—became undeniable, Gutierrez says. "The further you step away from that identity of a gay white cis man, the more difficulty you have asking for resources, for your voice to be heard, or to be part of the power table," he says. "That's why, for us, doing intersectional work is at the very critical core of who we are. We embody many identities, and by default, you can't push one issue at a time; we have to push different issues."

This has led to a distinct uneasiness between minority and mainstream LGBT communities that Mendoza—in speeches, press conferences and even a cartoon, "Ellita," she draws about her life—puts her finger on with, at times, merciless precision.

LGBT advocacy group Equality Utah's executive director Troy Williams believes the solution lies in communication and education. "Transgender people face twice the national average of unemployment, trans people of color face four times," he says. "They're worried about survival, putting food on the table, making sure the rent is paid." The challenge for white LGBT communities that want to address these issues, he says, "is how do you access these communities and know what their needs are if they're not around you?"

Mendoza and Echeveste identify as bisexual, while Romero uses the more general term, queer. Their stories speak to a growing number of children, teenagers and adults embracing a spectrum of gender identities, all at a time when the topic of transgender is trending in America, as the popular Amazon TV series Transparent and extensive media coverage of Caitlin Jenner's transition would attest. According to the American Psychological Association, "Transgender is an umbrella term for persons whose gender identity, gender expression or behavior does not conform to that typically associated with the sex to which they were assigned at birth." Mendoza says she is "cis-passing," meaning that she appears cis-gender—defined as someone who is comfortable with being the sex assigned at birth. But, she says, she is gender fluid: That is, "I'm always both male and female."

Her group, Familia, are rabble-rousers. "We're a couple of brown undocumented queers standing up and saying 'fuck you' to the system," Mendoza says. That's a reflection of the culture of the national organization that saw one of its members, Jennicet Gutierrez, interrupt President Barack Obama during a speech he was giving to demand rights for detained undocumented trans women, only to be shouted down by representatives of other LGBT groups.

"I don't believe in equality," Mendoza says. "I believe in solidarity. I believe in revolution." At the heart of their struggle is what Mendoza believes is a taboo subject in Utah's LGBT community: namely, white privilege. "People don't want to know the privilege they have," she says.


Along with the relative lack of support the LGBT community has shown the fledgling group until recently, the hostile reception to Mendoza's remarks at Pride showed that the marginalized state of trans people of color in Utah's LGBT community remains highly sensitive. And it's one that Familia and others insist be addressed. Alejandro Mora is a board member of T of Utah, a transgender education and advocacy group. "As a community, we are tasked with challenging the damaging perception that LGBT identities and politics are for and about white people," he wrote in a statement prepared for City Weekly. "It is the responsibility of our state's LGBT advocacy organizations to take on the intersection of race, sexuality and gender identity and expression head on."

Mora advocates for "general and targeted funding for LGBT organizations of color and partnership-building" and calls for prioritizing increased "visibility for LGBT leaders of color—who represent some of the most vulnerable among us."

With the passage of marriage equality, some LGBT community members wondered if there were any point to keeping the services-focused Pride Center and advocacy agency Equality Utah's doors open. Pride's newly minted executive director Marian Edmonds-Allen says the fight is far from over, precisely because of the kind of issues Familia is raising.

In August, Mendoza went to a transgender picnic and met Edmonds-Allen. When Edmonds-Allen offered the center's help to Familia, she recalls Mendoza sharply putting her in her place. "You know what?" Mendoza said, "If you want to be an ally, get the Pride Center in order," referring to its lack of services for minorities and lack of diversity. Edmonds-Allen didn't know what to say. Mendoza "is exactly right," she concedes.

Mendoza grew up in a gated community in La Molina, a suburb on the outskirts of Lima, Peru. Her parents were separated. She remembers her mother taking her to visit relatives at the shantytown her mother grew up in, Tahuantinsuyo, named after the Kingdom of the Incas. While Mendoza would complain of Tahuantinsuyo's impoverished conditions, her mother told her she wanted her to remember her roots and her people.

When Mendoza was 12, she, along with her younger brother, went to live with her father in Utah. Her mother flew with her to Salt Lake City, then said farewell at the Salt Lake City International Airport before flying back to Peru. "We didn't really say goodbye. I just thought it was, 'See you later.'" It's been 13 years since she has seen her mother. "I didn't think that was the last time I was going to see her." Shortly after Mendoza moved to the states, her mother hit hard times and lost her home.

All Mendoza knew about Utah was the image of a salt-shaker over a lake on a puzzle. During her teenage years in Layton, "I truly believed I was one of them," she says, meaning an American. But, while she was in high school, she learned she was not only undocumented, but that pathways to college and scholarships open to her friends were closed to her. She ran away from home at age 19 and lived on the streets for a year and a half.

She bounced from one friend's couch to another, cleaning houses and babysitting in exchange for a bed, in between the one week per month she was permitted to stay at an Ogden shelter without papers. If she had documentation, she could have stayed at a shelter for three months. Sometimes, the best she could get was sleeping for a few hours on a toilet in a Walmart, her foot propped up against the door, her head on her knee. "I tried to be the best homeless person I could be," she says.


Being on the streets was, in a sense, liberating. Being undocumented, she had always lived "in the shadows," she says. Suddenly, even though her immigration status remained the same, her attitude toward it changed. "I could breath the air, I was so happy," she says. "I felt that air, I felt that breeze, the world seemed wide open. Even in my homelessness, I found my freedom, my happiness, my peace. Stepping out of the shadows is good. I was out as queer, out as undocumented."

Yet, despite such freedom, she still struggled with fear. "I think my biggest struggle was how unrelatable I felt, how lonely. I didn't know when it was safe to talk about my documentation. I just felt so alone."

When her 17-year-old brother left their father's home, Mendoza feared he would not be able to survive on the streets, and so she got him a plane ticket to New York City, where their uncle lives. The siblings have not seen each other in five years. "I miss my brother. I wish I never sent him, I wish I could have kept him—but for what, you know?" She pushes up her glasses and wipes away tears. "I couldn't keep my family together. I tried."

Eusebio Echeveste also learned he was undocumented while in high school, having grown up believing he was American. When Echeveste was filling in applications for college, he realized there were questions he had about his past. His father told him he was "an alien." When he Googled the term, "I felt sick to my stomach."

He identifies as bisexual but, at times, struggles with the machismo culture of the Latino community that can be oppressive and violent to LGBT members. He and Mendoza met at a Salt Lake City rally. "Her voice was the same as it is now, but less," Echeveste recalls. "She was still trying to find herself, still trying to find other people who were undocumented. Her speeches were nothing but a punch to people's faces." She and Echeveste became close. "We just got connected like bubblegum," he says.

Echeveste met Adrian Romero in high school. Romero had identified as queer at age 11. Romero recalls not fitting in with either gender and strugging with gender dysphoria, in which "your body causes you a great deal of misery. Your body doesn't want to correspond with the idea you have, the way you want to see yourself."

Romero wanted to be liked and to stop being bullied, and adopted a more feminine identity. "My sister helped me pick out my clothes, shave my arms. I was trying really hard to be feminine and act like other children my age." That, Romero says, led to depression. "I'm not good at this woman thing, I beat myself up about my masculine voice." After high school Romero moved out, got a part-time job in a fast-food Mexican restaurant and pursued activism in the form of Stand for Queer Lives, which began one month before Familia, in response to the suicide of a transgender teen from Ohio, Leelah Alcorn, in late 2014. Romero began Stand as a support campaign for youth in the LGBT community. Nationwide, according to a survey by the National Center for Transgender Equality and the National LGBTQ Task Force, each year, a staggering 41 percent of trans people attempt suicide.


"I struggled with depression my whole life because of who I am, what I feel," Romero says. "I struggled with people trying to change me, make me feel ashamed; I struggled with self-harm."

Romero joined Familia shortly after it was formed, because "they were doing what I wasn't doing: focusing on marginalized people, focusing on Latinos and the undocumented."

In June 2012, President Obama announced Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), a program that provides access to work permits for undocumented people who came to the United States as minors.

When Familia co-founder Echeveste heard the news, he realized that his horizons, while still limited, had broadened. "'I can work legally,'" he recalls thinking. "My limits got wider, but I still have limits to what I can do"—such as being unable to secure scholarships to go to college or work for the government.

When Mendoza received a DACA work permit in April 2013, she says the world changed, not only in terms of her ability to secure long-term employment—she got a job as a kindergarten teacher in Davis County—but also in the way she saw things. The third year she attended Pride, she asked herself, "Where are the Latino people?"

Mendoza joined the immigrant-rights group Salt Lake Dreamers and, with Echeveste, helped organize protests against local deportations. Henia Belalia is a former Salt Lake Dreamer who now resides in New York City. Via Facebook, she writes that what had started out as "youth fighting for DACA mostly grew into an intergenerational crew of folks also fighting deportations [and] border imperialism." The Salt Lake Dream Team came to "a natural ending" in December 2014, Belia writes. "At first we called it a hiatus, as there were only a few of us showing up [and] we couldn't build our momentum back up," she wrote. "A lot of undocumented folks are busy surviving, so organizing meetings and events can be tough."

A month after the Dream Team's mothballing, Mendoza and Echeveste launched Familia. Three people showed up at Mestizo's Coffeehouse near Rose Park. To boost their numbers, they asked a barista to join them in their group photo. Shortly after, Romero joined.

In February 2015, Mendoza sent 16 emails to the Utah Pride Center and Equality Utah announcing Familia's birth and seeking their support. She received no response. At the time, Pride director Edmonds-Allen was not yet working at the center. EU's Williams says the emails came during the middle of the legislative session—at a time, he says, when "we were passing a bill to protect them." Senate Bill 96 provided legal protections in employment and housing for gay, lesbian and transgender communities, "making Utah the first red state to do it. I'm proud of that," says Williams.

Silence wasn't the only issue Mendoza encountered. Links on the Pride website for services for Latinos were all broken. "What happens when a Latino person comes out as queer?" Mendoza says. "Email Pride, and nobody will ever get back to you. How many people are we leaving behind? That's my biggest fear."

Familia's emergence came during a crucial time for Utah's Pride Center. The service organization had been through an extended period of turmoil that saw first longtime executive director Valerie Larrabee depart, followed by two subsequent replacements also leaving in short order.

Critics have long argued that the agenda of Pride, being overwhelmingly about marriage equality, reflected domination by rich, white gay men and women. "It became a club for rich, white queer people to feel good about themselves, that they're making a difference," says former Pride Center staff Dayne Law, current volunteer, trans man and board member of T of Utah. "But they're making a difference in causes they feel good about, not that necessarily are important."

In the past, Law says, when concerned community members brought up the board's lack of diversity, "they think inclusion means a token person of color or Latino." Rather than simply adding a person of color to the board, "it's about changing things that you do in terms of ... programs for the most marginalized communities."

Board member and high-profile hairdresser Matthew Landis has a different take. "One of the reasons I joined the board of the Pride center is I believe it does important work on the ground as a service organization. It's there to provide a safe space for people, advocate for people, find the services and support that they need—and that means everybody," he says.

Marian Edmonds-Allen took over as executive director of the Pride center in August 2015, after a much-lauded career in social and economic justice, particularly working with homeless youth in Ogden.

Edmonds-Allen is keenly aware of the criticism Pride is facing. Indeed, at a press conference upon her appointment, she says among the first questions she was asked was, "What are you going to do for people of color in the community? What are you doing for trans people?" She says the center is working to both improve services access for minorities and diversity at the center itself.


Some critics have noted a reluctance to address the needs of transgender people, whether in terms of access to a shower for homeless trans individuals (Edmonds-Allen says the center's shower is available for anyone to use) or publicly addressing violence against members of the trans community.

Violence against trans women, both white and of color, is rarely reported in Utah and across the nation. T board member Law says that, by mid-2014, there had been 20 attacks in Utah in that year alone. And although community members held meetings attempting to address the violence, "it didn't come out to anything solid," Law says.

Pride recently instituted a self-defense clinic for transgender and non-binary adults and youth. ("Non-binary" refers to individuals who do not conform to either female or male gender identities.) "We are very aware if you are transgender, you are at high risk of assault," Edmonds-Allen says. She plans to develop a street outreach program and a mobile medical clinic.

Edmonds-Allen says that the turmoil at the center prior to her arrival reflected turmoil within the community at large. "It seems to be pretty fractured to me," she says. "There's a lot of fighting, a lot of arguing, 'This is for us; this is for you.'"

Healing these lines of fracture will take some doing: "What I am working on is bringing all these different groups together," Edmonds-Allen says. She plans to implement a community council, where groups from across the spectrum of the LGBT community can meet regularly to air their concerns.

Landis argues that the LGBT movement is "experiencing growing pains as we strive to be more inclusive." With Edmonds-Allen at the helm, he believes "we are getting back to where we need to be, refocusing our mission which is reconnecting with our community."

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In March 2015, Mendoza and Echeveste "barged into the Pride center," they recall, demanding a meeting. Several unproductive meetings later, they were told they could march in the Pride Parade. They ended up having the 96th slot out of 100.

Dayne Law asked Mendoza to speak at the trans rally. In the weeks running up to the Pride Festival, controversy emerged about the rally's scheduling. Frustrations about the combined march came to a boil in a Facebook thread on the "Dyke, Trans, Sexually Fluid and Poly rally and march" page. Pride festival supporters tried to address complaints from transgender members of the community who felt the decision to combine the rallies did them a disservice.

When it came to Mendoza's Pride speech, "the ones who really needed to hear that speech were not there," Law says. "They were with 'the haves'—they were partying."

As it has done for a decade, Pride held its annual Grand Marshal Reception on the Friday of Pride weekend. Pride board member Landis says the scheduling of the rally and march at the same time was "unfortunate," but says it was the members of the participating communities who combined their respective demonstrations into one Friday march.

Mendoza, however, believes the rationale was financial, since it costs less to police one march than four.

EU's Troy Williams says bringing Janet Mock to Utah was meant to launch conversations, rather than lead to acrimony and allegations of exclusion. "We didn't intend to marginalize.

But if we did, we've got to be better," Williams says. "I can't make excuses for that." He points to a lack of knowledge both in straight and gay societies regarding the transgender community. While most straight people know someone who is gay, very few gay or straight people know someone who is transgender. "We don't know that there's a whole community that's in crisis, that's facing issues of poverty, violence. [Without knowing someone in the transgender community] there isn't this urgency," Williams says.

Edmonds-Allen says there are no statistics for Utah's transgender community, white or of color, as trans individuals are reluctant to come forward for fear of violence.

Williams is a fan of Mock's. "I love a good activist. They call people on their shit, they disrupt the status quo." Mock in her speech "connected us to our history, that the Stonewall riots were launched by Latino drag queens. It was a riot, not polite gays at a cocktail movement." Despite such a discourse, Mock was irked by the loud chatter among roughly half the people in the room when she spoke. She furiously called out one group of loquacious males at the bar with their backs to her.

Pride's Edmond-Allen says that problems that dogged the Pride Festival in 2015, such as the cross-scheduling of the rally and the reception, as well as the reception's high ticket prices, will not reoccur. "I find it tremendously unfortunate, and it's not anything that will happen under my watch. My goal is to have a community festival where everyone has access to the things they want to have access to."

Despite all the drama, arguments and confrontations, when Sunday, June 7, came around, Mendoza shrugged off the controversy surrounding her speech and got dressed for the Pride parade. She chose her outfit to reflect her identity—a black bikini top to emphasis femininity, fishnets for sensuality, a bandana for radical politics and butterfly wings for the Monarch butterflies who emigrate from South to North America, a symbol of the fight for immigrant rights.

Late summer 2015, Mendoza learned her mother planned to travel from Peru to New York to meet with her and her brother. Her longtime friend and fellow Dreamer, Itza Hernandez told her she would attend a fundraiser for Mendoza's plane ticket on Sept. 26. But instead, Mendoza was at a fundraiser the following day to raise bail for Hernandez, who days before had been detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

Hernandez was arrested in May 2011 on DUI and assault charges and then detained by ICE. The immigration judge granted her bail, and shortly after, she took plea deals on the charges that left her with two class B misdemeanor convictions. Unbeknownst to her and her bail-bond company, the insurance company holding the bond filed for bankruptcy. Almost four years later, ICE called in 27 people, among them Hernandez, whose bonds were held by the bankrupt company. Most were released. Hernandez was held.

An ICE spokesperson in a statement wrote that Hernandez was "a civil immigration enforcement priority," and would be held without bail until she appeared before an immigration judge on Oct. 29, when she was scheduled for a hearing on her green-card application. Just prior to being detained, Hernandez had started work at a bakery.

Caught between anguish and fury, Mendoza helped organize a protest outside Beehive Bail Bonds that saw many of the former Salt Lake Dream Team reunite for their detained friend and activist. She told reporters, "Today is a press conference. Next time, we rise."

Hernandez was a key figure in Salt Lake Dream Team, which was where she and Mendoza met. In a phone interview from a Spanish Fork jail, Hernandez describes herself as identifying as "queer in a non-binary way." She says "the only kind of organizing that makes sense is intersectional"—which is responding to where race, gender and other issues overlap in peoples' lives and can result in systemic social and economic injustice. That way, "you address things from the root of the problem and you're not leaving anyone behind."

Equality Utah's executive director Troy Williams says Familia, and particularly Mendoza, "are reinventing and blowing apart all the old ideas about gender, race and class in a very exciting way, but also in a way that's very disturbing and uncomfortable for the older generations. They are challenging power—namely who has it and who has been excluded. Conversations we have had a hard time going to in America—race, gender, identity, poverty and violence—they're going right to it." That's because all those issues intersect in the lives of trans people of color. So Familia, "are challenging us to engage in these issues that are the most difficult to talk about."

And challenge the establishment she does, including Equality Utah. On Oct. 3, 2015, EU invited Mendoza to attend its annual fundraising dinner, themed "Queer New World." Online the next day, she condemned EU as unnecessary, writing "white [saviorism] ABOUNDS in Utah." Small things jumped out at her at the dinner: "the amount of white award recipients, and the people of color GIVING the awards, the gendered bathrooms and the firm line between the classes."

Mendoza says marginalization in Utah is not simply an issue of white privilege, of white entitlement but of Utahns fostering "this white-dominated narrative in a place where color is rare." She asks and answers her own question. "Where's the color in the rainbow?" For all its spectrum of colors, when it comes to people of color, "There is no color in that rainbow." CW

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