Guest Opinion: SF trans immigrant summit a great first step

  • by Anjali Rimi
  • Wednesday December 7, 2022
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Leaders met on stage for the proclamation ceremony at the inaugural Transgender Immigrant Symposium November 18. Photo: Courtesy Anjali Rimi
Leaders met on stage for the proclamation ceremony at the inaugural Transgender Immigrant Symposium November 18. Photo: Courtesy Anjali Rimi

Last month, San Francisco Mayor London Breed issued a proclamation recognizing November 18 as Transgender Immigrants Day. Coming from a city long associated with LGBTQ and immigrant rights, some will undoubtedly assume the proclamation was just another routine, unremarkable, and ultimately empty reaffirmation of the city's progressive credentials. However, they would be sorely mistaken.

San Francisco has indeed, over many decades, built a well-earned reputation as a sanctuary for countless immigrants, including members of the LGBTQ community. Nevertheless, the unique challenges of people living at the intersection of immigrant and transgender, gender-nonconformity, nonbinary, or intersex remain less understood. According to a study from the Williams Institute, an LGBTQ think tank at UCLA School of Law, LGBTQI migrants are particularly vulnerable to discrimination, persecution, and violence during migration. As a result, transgender immigrants face even greater challenges in navigating the immigration process, accessing social services, or finding community — even in California.

I am painfully aware of these obstacles, not only from my journey as a South Asian transgender immigrant but also as co-founder and president of ParivarBayArea, North America's sole trans-led and trans-centering organization by South Asian transgender leaders. Our families and communities scorn us. Many of us are effectively cut off from the support of the broader trans community, government agencies, and social services through differences in language and culture. We often don't even know what's available.

Dealing with the immigration system is even more treacherous. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detains us more than twice as long on average, while also subjecting us to harassment, assault, denial of healthcare, and other indignities. The Human Rights Campaign noted in a news release that trans immigrants are often mistreated in the U.S. immigration system. Human Rights Watch has issued a report stating that the U.S., at any given time, holds scores of trans women in immigration detention. Considering that many of us came here as refugees and asylum seekers, such mistreatment is even more egregious.

To address these vast inequities, ParivarBayArea, along with El/La Para Trans Latinas and the LGBT Asylum Project, joined hands to launch the California Coalition of Transgender Immigrants. We also found enthusiastic partners at multiple local and state government bodies, including the San Francisco Office of Transgender Initiatives, the San Francisco Office of Civic Engagement and Immigrant Affairs, the California Office of the Small Business Advocate, and the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.

Together, we launched the inaugural Transgender Immigrant Symposium, which was held November 18 at the State Building. It was the first of a series of gatherings uniting members of transgender immigrant communities and connecting them to public officials, non-governmental organization, and other allies committed to building a truly equitable support network. Such dialogues go beyond being simply informative; they empower our community to directly work with policymakers and advocates to integrate transgender equity at the systemic level.

Speakers included gay state Senator Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco); Nicole Santamaria, executive director of El/La Para TransLatinas; Okan Sengun, co-founder and executive director of the LGBT Asylum Project; District 11 Supervisor Ahsha Safaí; Pau Crego, executive director of the city's Office of Transgender Initiatives; Tara Lynn Gray, director of the California Office of the Small Business Advocate; and Richard Whipple, deputy director of the city's Office of Civic Engagement and Immigrant Affairs. There was also a resource fair and an opportunity for attendees to network with organizers.

Of course, we still have a long way to go — especially amid the growing transphobia throughout the country. However, as Mayor Breed stated in her proclamation, ending the violence and disparities the trans community endures "requires intersectional awareness and centering of Black, Brown, Indigenous, immigrant, and Global South lived experiences." The close collaboration between the city and our coalition shows these aren't just empty words. It's an unambiguous demonstration of commitment to achieving true transgender equity. And that is a great first step.

Anjali Rimi is an award-winning South Asian transgender Kinnar Immigrant who leads communities to advocate for transgender justice, inclusion, and equity globally, centering her efforts in the San Francisco Bay Area. She is president of ParivarBayArea, America's only transgender-led, transgender-centering organization led by South Asian transgender Hijrah Kinnar leaders.

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