By Stephen Ira
Lorena Borjas has years of work trailing behind her like the train of a gown. Work in Queens, in her neighborhood of Jackson Heights, work with the trans folks she calls her chicas, who follow her into Sylvia Rivera Law Project’s intake sessions on Thursdays. I’m often the youngest person in a room, but as I introduce myself to her through Jorge, an interpreter, I feel nine years old. Her air of authority makes me a little nervous, but not afraid. It makes sense I’d be nervous—after all, Borjas has been doing the work she does for literally as long as I have been alive.
We sit down, and after I ask a few questions, she brings us right up to something immediate: “Girls who never even thought it was possible to change their names have now changed their names.” The personal support SRLP offers is crucial for Borjas—with the project, trans people have someone to guide them through the legal system, someone who cares about them as an individual. Her eyebrows rise on her forehead, high and serious, as she says, “It’s a dream come true.”
For years, Borjas has been “walking the streets of Queens,” looking communities in the eye, trying to find needs and fulfill them. As we talk I think about infrastructure, about the fear that “radical queer” activists often have of anything with clear framework, funding, goals. Borjas builds radical infrastructure, or she transforms infrastructure that is already there. She walked the streets of Queens, she saw Latina trans women needing accessible health care, and she worked with the local Community Health Care Network to fill that need. She found ways for women safely to access the hormone treatment they needed. She facilitated sensitivity training for general practitioners. “They’d scream your name, your legal name, in front of everyone there!” Not so these days.
As she thinks about it, she shakes her head. “They needed a place where the girls will not be humiliated.” These days, for a price that many can afford, trans women are able to access medical transition and a safe medical space through the CHN. But the humiliation of a name shouted in a waiting room is only one kind of humiliation, denigration, enforcement of fear.
“I saw this in my own skin,” Borjas makes clear, before she tells me of a woman beaten and thrown onto the pavement by NYPD officers in Jackson Heights. The woman had no family to help her, no structure around her to bear her up. This event, she explains, was a catalyst for establishing the Lorena Borjas Community Fund.
The LBCF began last September, and Borjas smiles when she talks about it, evoking for me again the institutional memory of joy I feel among so many of these trans activists. Her smile does not degrade the horror and trauma of the story she has told me of the woman beaten by cops. Borjas simply proceeds, as if down the street—she will do the next thing that must be done, say the next thing that must be said. What must be done now is a centering on trans and/or immigrants, particularly those who speak only Spanish, for whom navigating the legal system is especially difficult. This is the work that LBCF is poised to begin.
It’s also the work that she sees SRLP as perhaps moving towards. “My only dream,” she offers, “is for SRLP to become a whole organization”—but she hastens to add that she does not mean it is now somehow broken, only that she longs for a broad community move towards the focus on immigration law that LBCF will hopefully bring to New York’s grassroots queer organizing world.
As I speak to her, I become more aware of my preconceived notions of what activists are and do. Borjas does not want to debate questions of identities, categories—it’s not that she lacks the language or the expertise, which she clearly has in spades. It’s because she has much bigger fish to fry. An activist from the world I come from, of conferences and academic debates on terminology, would tell me that they began their work because of systemic inequalities. I ask Borjas why she began LBCF, and she says, “I saw the police making illegal arrests.”
As I try to write about this woman, I return over and over to the image of her walking around her community, and I encourage you to walk around yours. See it in your own skin. Think about whose skin that is, what that skin means for other skins. Borjas is not sure whether she’d describe the changes in Queens during her twenty years of activism as an improvement, but now she says, “The police are aware that we are talking about them.”
What I learned from speaking to Lorena Borjas is this: Walk around your community and talk about what you see there. Help the people you can help. Get them resources, get them care. If the structures you see seem evil, don’t decide that structure is evil; imagine new and liberatory ways of making a structure.
What about the party, I ask, where SRLP will be honoring her? She almost brushes over the question of being honored, and it isn’t false modesty. “I think it’s going to be fabulous,” she says, smiling into the air of the SRLP offices. She is looking at her world. She is angry about it; she is hopeful about it. She likes it.
Stephen Ira is an activist and a write who lives in Yonkers, NY and studies at Sarah Lawrence College. Stephen also manages the blog, Super Mattachine.
The Sylvia Rivera Law Project works to guarantee that all people are free to self-determine gender identity and expression, regardless of income or race, and without facing harassment, discrimination or violence.