Being openly transgender opens the door to a slew of challenges, but Chyna Fierro said she decided it’s more important to try to reduce the stigma and raise awareness.

Together with the office of Senator José Rodríguez and other advocates, she’s working towards increasing tolerance in El Paso. On Monday, March 27, the El Paso County Commissioner's Court unanimously passed a resolution recognizing Thursday, March 31 as Transgender Day of Visibility.

For Fierro, the dangers that can come with being transgender hit close to home. Last year, her friend Erykah Tijerina, a transgender woman, was murdered by Fort Bliss soldier Anthony Michael Bowden.

“Ever since the murder, I’ve been more vocal and opinionated,” said Fierro, who knew her for 19 years. “Ever since, it’s been like, ‘No, we’re not going to stay quiet.’ I’m not, at least.”

Fierro said although she doesn’t feel entirely unwelcome in El Paso, there’s still progress to be made.

“El Paso is very old fashioned,” Fierro said. “We’re old school, but its not a dangerous place to live in if you are trans or gay. But it’s like, ‘We’ll tolerate you, we’ll let you be here, but shut your mouth.’”

Tijerina was the third known transgender woman to be murdered in Texas in 2016. The murders were not connected, but they add to a growing trend of violence towards transgender people. A record number of 23 transgender individuals died from violence in 2016 according to the Human Rights Campaign. There were 21 reported homicides of transgender women in 2015.

The violence continues in 2017. Newsweek reported that seven transgender women were murdered in the U.S. within the first six weeks of this year. Three transgender women were murdered in Louisiana in February.

Such startling numbers inevitably struck fear into many in the transgender community.

“I wish we could all come out and support each other and fight the man, but they don’t want to, and I get it,” Fierro said. “Yes, you might inspire more people. Yes, you might make a difference – but at the same time, it’s scary.”

Aside from safety issues, there is the uncomfortable scenario when people’s questions go too far.

“I’ll have people ask me right away, ‘What do you have down there?’ or ‘Do you still have a penis?’,” Fierro said. “You don’t go around just asking people about their private parts. Just because I’m a trans woman, people think that I’m a secondhand human – that it’s ok to ask me about my body parts. And that really, really bothers me. It’s rude.”

But one of the biggest challenges for Fierro has been finding a steady job.

“It’s just a thing that we go through –not just me – but a lot of trans people,” Fierro said. “A lot of trans women have to go to sex work because nobody wants to hire us, and it’s so sad.

“If you have the experience and the qualifications and the status they’re looking for, it don’t matter if you’re trans or not. You should be able to get that job. We’re not asking for special treatment.”

Fierro said her goal is to legally change her name by the end of the year.

“A lot of times, they say, ‘You’re totally hired. You’ll be perfect for the position,’ And they see my ID, and then they will tell me, ‘Oh. The position just got filled,’” Fierro said.

In February, the Office of Senator José Rodríguez and the El Paso Queer Bar Association invited Austin-based attorney Clair Bow to talk about how Texans can legally change their identifying information on government documents.

“Getting an ID that matches who you are can be really important,” Bow said. “It’s a matter of correcting the birth certificate. Is that birth certificate a picture of who you are frozen in time, or is it a living document? If it does not accurately describe the person who is living in society, then it needs to reflect that person.”

A primary concern of many transgender communities is finding a healthcare provider.

Oralia Loza, an assistant professor at UTEP’s Department of Public Health Sciences, teamed up with former graduate students and created the Purple Pages of El Paso to help solve this concern. The website is a directory of LGBTQI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and intersex) friendly healthcare and social service providers.

Loza first found out about the needs of transgender individuals when she was researching men and women with a high risk of HIV and sexually transmitted diseases in Mexico.

Her research showed that trans women were in need of services, but she couldn’t reach out and explore further because federal funding made the study gender-specific, effectively blocking out trans men and women. When she received a position at UTEP, she was able to reach out to the transgender community.

“Because of what I learned in the first study that I completed, I felt like I needed to follow up with that in a meaningful, useful way,” Loza said. “A lot of [transgender people] didn’t trust the healthcare system, because at one point, they had been discriminated against, and they felt humiliated. A lot of them had to travel outside the city to just get simple services.

“People in El Paso were open to providing services, but it wasn’t easy to find them. This campaign helped bring people together.”

A new support system in EL Paso’s LGBTQI community is Rainbow Borderland Center. Brenda Risch, former director of the UTEP Women and Gender Studies program, helped open the center last year.

“This is a collaborative community effort,” Risch said. “People have the space to develop and create their own projects, collaborate and work with the board.”

An active proponent for El Paso’s LGBTQI community, Risch wanted to serve her community, but didn’t know where to start, so she created a community needs assessment to find out.

She surveyed 325 El Pasoans and out of those, 96 percent felt that the LGBTQI population was direly underserved, 94 percent felt there were no or few outreach activities available to LGBTQI allies and people and 92 percent felt there were no LGBTQI-friendly, substance-free social spaces

The Rainbow Center addresses those needs by offering a food pantry, community garden and weekly youth transgender support groups.

“It’s nice to see the progress it’s made,” said Hunter, a high school freshman who chose to withhold his last name. He helped clean and prepare the building once it was donated. “I like seeing the people who come here because they’re great company. I guess it gives you a sense of not being alone.”

Hunter was born female, but identifies as male. He hopes to start hormone therapy this year. Finding a doctor who would help with his transition was somewhat daunting, he said.

“At first, when you walk into a doctor’s office, you don’t know how they’re going to react,” Hunter said.

But at the end of the day, like many other local transgender individuals, Hunter finds strength in numbers.

“I don’t think it’s a big deal if anyone else knows who I am,” Hunter said. “As long as you know who you are and you have people who support you, it shouldn’t affect you if someone treats you badly.”

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