SF Weekly Letters: Web Extra

Crossing Lines
The legal argument: We write to protest Lauren Smiley's offensive and inaccurate article, "Border Crossings" [Feature, 11/26]. We all spoke with Smiley at length, and are outraged at the misrepresentation of what we said. Rather than present a balanced picture of the incredible hurdles transgender asylum seekers face in proving their cases, Smiley unfairly painted them as criminals and prostitutes who are essentially given a free pass to immigration in the United States. This could not be farther from the truth.

The implication that most transgender asylum seekers are prostitutes is untrue and offensive, and grossly distorts the information we gave Smiley. If the attorneys with whom she spoke appeared to have a high success rates on their cases, this is because she spoke with the handful of attorneys in the U.S. who are actually experienced enough in transgender matters to present well-prepared, well-argued cases. We all routinely turn down representation for individuals who don't meet the legal standard, and unrepresented asylum seekers rarely win.

The most important aspect of asylum law is that each application is decided on a case-by-case basis. If transgender applicants have a relatively high grant rate, it is because there continues to be such extraordinary violence perpetrated against transgender people around the world that they can often demonstrate a likelihood of future persecution.

To make light of the courage transgender asylum seekers have shown in getting out of their countries and risking everything to seek lawful status in the United States does a grave injustice to these women and to the U.S. system that is required under international law to protect them.

Victoria Neilson, Immigration Equality

Noemi Calonje and Shannon Minter, Immigration & Asylum Project, National Center for Lesbian Rights

Dusty Araujo and Eric Berndt, National Immigrant Justice Center

The medical argument: We are a group of healthcare professionals in the Department of Public Health who have worked with transgender individuals for more than 10 years in our Transgender Tuesday clinic. Transgender services in general have a history of being controversial, and few surgeries or procedures are covered by any health insurance plans. Many patients have experienced rejection by medical providers, or have been taken advantage of prior to coming to our clinic. Our patients tend to be homeless, low-income, and have a variety of other issues including mental health, substance abuse, and trauma histories.

Our patients have a wide range of work experience, from the service industry to college-educated professionals. We have found that obtaining quality, stable employment is exceedingly challenging for many of our patients. Many of our transgender women face the choice of being 100 percent dependent on a "protector," or having independence through sex work.

We have also worked with patients who have come to us as undocumented refugees fleeing torture in their countries of origin. Some have been awarded asylum, and live and work as productive members of society while continuing to struggle with their traumatic memories. In our experience, by no means have all patients been granted asylum. Some lost their cases and have been deported. Those who have been granted asylum not only have horrible trauma histories, but also continue to struggle with the violence and discrimination transgender people face in our city.

Lauren Smiley perpetuated the very stereotypes of sexism, racism, bigotry, and transphobia that typify less enlightened geographies. San Francisco and transgender people everywhere deserve better consideration.

Transgender Team, Tom Waddell Health Center

S.F. Department of Public Health

UnFAIR: As medical and mental healthcare providers, and as civil rights and medical policy advocates, we were quite disturbed to read Lauren Smiley's recent article. The overtly racist and transphobic sentiments expressed in this article have no place in civilized discourse.

Because of the severe employment and educational discrimination Smiley only briefly acknowledges, transgender women are often forced to enter street economies such as prostitution and the drug trade in order to simply survive. Demonizing women who turn to survival sex as "hookers" who convert themselves "into an altar to silicone" because they are "vanity-stricken" trivializes the desperation that drives them to risk their health and safety. Any blame for this situation should be placed squarely on a society that allows its members to go without basic needed services like education, legal assistance, employment, or health care because of bigotry and ignorance. For many marginalized people, and especially for transgender women, entering the healthcare system is a first step toward finding the resources to enter "civil society." And yet such healthcare is often the subject of the derision exemplified by Smiley. Both the American Medical Association and the American Psychological Association passed resolutions this year recognizing that medical interventions to assist transgender people in social and medical transition are both necessary and the standard of care. (1) (2)

In addition, we were deeply disturbed by the racist sentiments implied through the repeated quoting of Dan Stein, the president of the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR). FAIR is listed as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center because of its deep ties to the white supremacist movement in the United States. (3) Additionally, FAIR promotes the idea that Mexico is secretly involved in a plot to conquer the southwestern United States. Having Mr. Stein prominently and repeatedly comment on Latina transwomen is like having the grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan comment on African-American transwomen. It is our hope this was simply the result of poor fact-checking on Smiley's part rather than a reflection of not only transphobic attitudes, but also an inexcusable racist sentiment unworthy of SF Weekly.

(1) AMA House of Delegates Resolution 122 (A-08) "Removing Financial Barriers to Care for Transgender Patients." Available at: http://www.ama-assn.org/ama1/pub/upload/mm/16/a08_hod_resolutions.pdf

(2) American Psychological Association. (2008, August). Resolution on transgender, gender identity, and gender expression nondiscrimination. Available at: http://www.apa.org/pi/lgbc/policy/transgender.html.

(3) Southern Poverty Law Center Intelligence Report. Retrieved November 26, 2008 from: http://www.splcenter.org/intel/intelreport/article.jsp?sid=175

Rebecca Allison, MD

Stephanie Brill

Gender Spectrum Education and Training

Laura S. Brown, Ph.D. ABPP, Seattle

Past President, Divisions 35 and 44 of APA, President-Elect, 2009, Division of Trauma Psychology of APA

Rea Carey

National Gay and Lesbian Task Force

Sand Chang, PhD

Clinical Psychologist, LaGuardia Community College, Queens, NY

Randall Ehrbar, PsyD

New Leaf Services for Our Community

Lisa K. Fowler, PsyD

Jamison Green

Author, Educator, Policy Consultant

Peter Goldblum, PhD, MPH

Professor and Director of Center for LGBTQ Evidence-based Applied Research (CLEAR), Pacific Graduate School of Psychology

R. Nick Gorton, MD

Lyon-Martin Health Services

Dawn Harbatkin, MD

Medical Director Lyon-Martin Health Services

Ann Harrison, MA

Executive Director, New Leaf Services for our Community

William A. Henkin, PhD

Dan Karasic, MD

Clinical Professor of Psychiatry, UCSF

JoAnne Keatley, MSW

Lori Kohler, MD

Lisette Lahana, MSW, LCSW

Arlene Istar Lev LCSW, CASAC

Family Therapist and Educator

Teri McGinnis

Executive Director Lyon-Martin Health Services

Carol F. Milazzo, MD

Transgender Health Alliance

John H. Otto, MLIS

Transgender Activist

Julia Serano, PhD

Author and Transgender Activist

Anne Vitale PhD

Licensed Psychologist

Michael Williams, MSW

Jay Wilson, MSW/MDIV

Assistant Director, The Welcome Ministry

Kelley Winters, PhD

Medical Policy Advocate

Disapointed: I am writing this letter with great sadness because I feel our community has been betrayed by Lauren Smiley in her article. I was approached by Smiley to participate in this story when she came to our agency, a nonprofit HIV prevention organization called El/La Program Para Translatinas, located in the Mission District. We are a support group which provides HIV prevention services in a safe environment where many trans-Latinas are able to participate in our workshops about how to improve themselves personally and professionally.

Smiley mentioned to me the subject of her story; I was reluctant to contribute because during our conversation about the article she told me she thought that "Translatinas are coming to San Francisco seeking asylum" and "Translatinas are prostitutes who learned that even a lengthy rap sheet in this country won't seriously threaten their chances of receiving protected immigration status."

I was very honest with Smiley when I told her that this was not necessarily the truth. In fact, most transgender refugees do not have any kind of criminal record and are law-abiding people like everyone else.

In my two years of experience as a program coordinator for the El/La Program, I have seen the hardship, the pain, and the suffering caused by the violence and rejection most of the Translatinas have endured in their home countries and in the U.S. as well. Smiley has chosen to write a story that shows only one side of what some Translatinas must face, due to the stereotyping and stigma that this community has endured throughout their lives.

It is unfortunate that Smiley has written a partial and sensationalist story, and not the whole story of the experiences transgender Latinas face. Nowhere in the article does she address any of the issues that I, as a health provider, discussed with her — such as discrimination, lack of housing and employment, and violence Translatinas confront every day while struggling to make a life here in San Francisco.

Her story is not only anti-immigrant; it also dehumanizes Translatinas and promotes hate. That was one of my main concerns during my conversation with Smiley, and I wonder why she did not write about our conversation. Instead, she chose to sensationalize and abuse the people that trusted her with their stories.

She has not only betrayed me as an individual; she has also betrayed the people involved in her story. She has placed at risk a group of people who face discrimination, violence, and hate on a daily basis.

Alexandra Byerly

Program Coordinator/Health Educator

El/La Transgender Latina HIV Prevention Program

Lauren Smiley responds: While I thank Ms. Byerly for talking with me, I disagree with her take on our interaction. I first spoke to her early on in the reporting process after another source told me about trans-Latinas seeking asylum. I'd be lying if I claimed to remember exactly what I told her at the time, but I do recall asking her whether some of the women worked as sex workers, and asked her about her program's outreach to them.

I know I never said, "Translatinas are prostitutes who learned that even a lengthy rap sheet in this country won't seriously threaten their chances of receiving protected immigration status." Even when I interviewed Ms. Byerly for the second time, I had still talked only briefly with two women working on Post Street who were seeking asylum, and I still had no knowledge of how that would affect their asylum cases. So it makes no sense that I would have said something definitive like that.

In any event, the exact phrasing of what I said about the women's reasons for coming to the United States is a moot point, since my subsequent reporting and the final story show that most women don't know they can get asylum when they arrive, and many don't learn until after they've been here several years.

Finally, I don't believe the story exaggerated a small number of asylum applicants to represent the whole. Various attorneys I spoke with characterized the portion of applicants with prostitution arrests as "a good number," "about half," and "many, many." While the general discrimination faced by trans-Latinas in San Francisco is an important story, too, my article wasn't about that. It was about the asylum system, and so Ms. Byerly's quotes ended up not making it into the story. I had hoped to talk with her more specifically about the asylum angle as my reporting progressed, but she did not return a message I left at her office.

TAG, you're it: The Transgender Advisory Group (TAG) is an advisory body to the San Francisco Department of Public Health, HIV Prevention Section (HPS) comprising community members, service providers, and public health professionals with the mission of reducing HIV infection among all transgender communities by providing leadership and guidance to HPS and the San Francisco HIV Prevention Planning Council (HPPC). The TAG is gravely concerned by Lauren Smiley's recent article, and considers such sensationalistic journalism to negatively affect the health and wellness of transgender Latinas and other transgender people.

This article perpetuates stigmatizing stereotypes about transgender Latinas and other transgender people. Such stereotypes are harmful to transgender communities. We are truly disappointed in the author and in SF Weekly for publishing an article that is counterproductive to our goals of celebrating our communities' resiliency and empowering transgender people to live healthy and vibrant lives. There is a dire need for public education about transgender lives, not sensationalistic journalism that reduces us to stereotypes.

Although the intentions of this article may have been to engage readers in a thoughtful manner about the realities and struggles of transgender immigrants, the author's framing and tone are offensive to transgender Latinas and contribute to widening the health disparities faced by transgender Latinas and other transgender people. Such disparities include lack of access to primary health care, greater risks for HIV, lack of access to behavioral health services and providers' inability to provide culturally and linguistically competent services to all transgender individuals.

Descriptions such as "with all the porn-worthy ass a backroom peddler of industrial-grade collagen could inject" and "transgender Latina hookers" not only blur and compromise the harsh realities and struggles of transgender Latina immigrants lives, but also contribute to the systems of oppression and discrimination many transgender people experience. These ideologies and belief systems lie at the root of transgender discrimination and oppression that impacts the health and wellbeing of the community. The racist, anti-immigrant, anti-trans, and criminalizing undertones of this article fail to substantially contextualize the day-to-day hardships and multiple social, environmental, behavioral, and health issues identified by the TAG, HPPC, and numerous HIV-prevention leaders and researchers.

The complex lives and experiences of transgender Latinas and other transgender people are laden with racism, immigration, stigma, low self-esteem, behavioral health issues, discrimination, homelessness, unemployment, poverty, violence, sexual harassment, abuse, and commercial sex work (by choice or necessity). We believe that these confounding issues and cofactors contribute to high HIV prevalence rates among transgender Latinas and transgender women. This article reduces transgender Latinas to sexual deviants, criminals, and social outcasts, adding to the stigma already faced by this community. It is disheartening to witness the mainstream media perpetuate oppressive systems and participate in an adversarial role against the transgender movement of equality and visibility.

Beyond Smiley's ignorant and negative portrayals of transgender people, there are exciting and positive aspects of the community we have much to celebrate about. In recent years, transgender people have slowly made their way into mainstream media, have become leaders and advocates for the community, contributed immensely to the socio and political LGBT consciousness, and have much to boast about local transgender services and program that models San Francisco as one of the most transgender accepting metropolitan city in this nation. Programs such as El-La Program Para Trans Latinas, TRANS:THRIVE, the Transgender Center of Excellence, the Transgender, Gender Variant & Intersex (TGI) Justice Project, Asian Pacific Islander Wellness Center, Ark of Refuge, the San Francisco Transgender Empowerment, Advocacy & Mentorship (SF TEAM), Transgender Law Center, Transgender Economic Empowerment Initiative (TEEI), Tenderloin Health, Ark of Refuge and countless programs and community leaders have contributed to the vitality and wellness of the community.

In addition, some may feel that transgender and gender variant individuals, who move to San Francisco from other parts of the state, country and world, may be a problem. It is only a problem because anyone, regardless of gender expression or identity should be able to thrive anywhere in the world. Unfortunately this is not the case, and San Francisco, a leader of the LGBT movement, has services and protections for everyone, including transgender men and women. We want to remind the author that the city and county of San Francisco has adapted a "sanctuary" policy for all immigrants, regardless of status, assuring that all residents have fair and equal access to city services without making immigrants vulnerable to federal immigration authorities. The Sanctuary City Ordinance helps to maintain the stability of San Francisco communities and has been one of many reasons transgender Latinas choose San Francisco as a safe place for refuge.

Jenna J. Rapues

Health Educator/HPS Liaison to the Transgender Community

AIDS Office - HIV Prevention Section, San Francisco Department of Public Health

JoAnne Keately, MSW

Program Director, The Center of Excellence for Transgender HIV Prevention, University of California, San Francisco

Alexandra Byerly

Health Educator/Program Coordinator, El-La Program Para Trans-Latinas

Tita Aida (Nikki Calma),Health Education Program Supervisor

Asian & Pacific Islander Transgender Empowerment (ATE) Program, Asian & Pacific Islander Wellness Center

Davey Shlasko, Employment Specialist, Transgender Economic Empowerment Initiative (TEEI)

Jewish Vocational Services

Luke Woodward

Program Coordinator, TRANS: THRIVE (Transgender Resource and Neighborhood Space: Transgender Health & Resource Initiative for Vital Empowerment), Asian & Pacific Islander Wellness Center

Carla Clynes

Program Coordinator, Instituto Familiar de la Raza

Yavante' M. Thomas-Guess

Co-Chair, San Francisco Transgender Empowerment, Advocacy & Mentorship (SF TEAM)

Felicia A. Elizondo, Community Member & Advocate

Isela Gonzalez, MPA, TAG Member and Community Advocate

Sarah Colvario, TAG Member and Community Advocate

Tamara Ching, Community Member & Advocate

Lauren Smiley responds: This story wasn't about the obstacles transgender women face in San Francisco (although that is indeed an important issue), but about a previously unreported aspect of the asylum system. Of course, not all transgender asylum seekers have had prostitution arrests, but sex work isn't confined to the women I focused on. (Attorneys I interviewed said the portion of their clients with prior arrests ranged from "a good number" to "many, many" to "about half.") The story included three women who told me they couldn't find work other than sex work because of discrimination, as well as information about the persecution they faced in their home countries.

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