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After a sleepless night, Bianey García-D la O woke up on a recent rainy Sunday to begin what she would come to think of as the most rewarding day of her life.
Dressed in an elegant sash laid over a floral dress, Bianey marched down 37th Avenue in Jackson Heights holding a pink-and-blue transgender flag and beaming with pride. The first trans Latina and first Mexican American to be honored as a grand marshal of the Queens Pride Parade, Bianey later said of the moment: “I never imagined this.”
Ten years ago, Bianey attended the same parade while she was still a “boy” at age seventeen. It was her first-ever parade and a moment of liberation. Bianey had arrived in the United States when she was fourteen, after fleeing Veracruz, Mexico, where she had faced rejection from her family, experienced transphobia, and witnessed the murder of a trans friend by a man who was embarrassed to have unknowingly danced with a transgender woman. Since arriving in the U.S., initially undocumented and a non–English speaker, Bianey had been kidnapped and forced into sex work at age sixteen by a man who threatened to “call immigration” if she refused.
She went on to face further trials. After starting her transition in 2008, she says, she was fired with one day’s notice from a Manhattan restaurant, in a typical example of the harassment, mistreatment, and discrimination that a poll by the pro-immigrant group Make the Road New York found 90 percent of transgender New Yorkers have experienced on the job. One year later, when she defended a friend who was being attacked by a broomstick-wielding man yelling “faggots,” she was arrested and charged with assault and robbery. She spent eighteen months at Rikers Island, where she was placed in a male facility and suffered “terrible abuse” by both officials and inmates, she says. Thanks to legal assistance from Sex Workers Project — even though she was not making a living as a sex worker at that time — she was finally released.
These experiences caused Bianey to rely on drugs and alcohol and led her to twice attempt suicide, she says. She credits therapy as the key to both helping her to overcome her traumas and sparking her desire to be a role model for her communities.
“I did not choose to be an activist,” she says. “Injustice pushed me into it.”
Her first foray into community activism came at age nineteen, when she began attending transgender support groups, and working with community leaders on STI prevention education campaigns. After getting out of Rikers she became a member of Make the Road New York; following a fellowship with the group, she was hired in 2012 as LGBTQ justice organizer, leading TrIP, their Transgender Immigrant Project support group. Created nine years ago to help immigrant youth navigate their gender identity, it has grown under Bianey to address the intersection of immigration, discrimination in housing and employment, workers’ rights, and hate crimes. She also works to ensure that local authorities and neighbors listen to the group’s concerns, and the police receive training on LGBTQ issues.
Bianey’s story embodies, in many ways, the resilience that the Latinx queer community has shown in the face of challenges. Despite marriage equality and the rise of Latinx queer visibility in the city power structure — including councilmembers Carlos Menchaca, Ritchie Torres, and Rosie Méndez — queer communities of color still face higher rates of unemployment, homelessness, violence, and workplace and housing discrimination, as well as serious challenges in access to quality health care.
Many TrIP members have reported to Bianey that they have been repeatedly rejected for housing, leaving them facing miserable and unsafe living conditions, often in illegal, unsanitary spaces. (According to a 2015 report by the National Center on Transgender Equality, 43 percent of trans Latinx people live in extreme poverty.) Violence is another pressing issue: Fifteen hate crimes against transgender women of color were reported in Queens last year and four more so far this year, by Bianey’s count. In March, she says, a man knocked one transgender woman to the ground, fracturing her ankle, while he beat another trans woman with an umbrella. (According to the Anti-Violence Project, last year 68 percent of LGBTQ homicide victims — not counting those killed in the Orlando Pulse nightclub shooting — were transgender and gender nonconforming people, while 79 percent were people of color.)
Bianey has also been a leader in fighting for trans people’s rights to access to public facilities consistent with their gender identity — she has been humiliated, she says, by being denied access to a bathroom for being transgender — and against unjust prostitution charges. The latter interest stems from her arrest at age eighteen when, she says, she was holding hands with her boyfriend when she was arrested and charged with prostitution. The NYPD’s evidence: unopened condoms she was carrying in her bag. (When her boyfriend tried to explain, the police threatened to arrest him, too.) Desperate to be released, she says, she declared herself guilty on the advice of her lawyer, but the incident moved her to become a leader in the fight against condoms being used as evidence of prostitution in court cases. “Just for being trans the police take you as a sex worker,” she says.
In 2014, the NYPD announced it was reviewing its policy and the city declared it would significantly limit the use of condoms as evidence in some cases against sex workers, though not in cases of promoting prostitution and sex trafficking. Since 1999, a bill to amend civil and criminal law to formally abolish such abuses has been introduced each legislative session by several Democratic state lawmakers, only to die in committee each time. Still, Bianey says she’s seen some success: Since she started working on the campaign, she has not seen another case of a transgender woman arrested for carrying condoms.
In 2012, trans members of TrIP came up with the idea of having an event for and by their community. Led by Bianey, a group of fifty trans immigrants created the Trans-Latina March, with the goal of showing Jackson Heights that they were also part of their neighborhood. The group took over Roosevelt Avenue — the “Latino Times Square,” as Bianey calls it — carrying signs in Spanish and English, and chanting, “Trans justice!” (This year’s edition will take place on July 10 at 4 p.m. at Make the Road’s Jackson Heights office on Roosevelt Avenue and 92nd Street.)
For many years, like many other undocu-queer people in New York City, Bianey lived in fear of deportation. However, a few years ago she received a federal T visa as a survivor of human trafficking. This August, green card in hand, Bianey plans to return to Mexico for the first time in twelve years and visit her family. Their relationship was very difficult for a decade: It was not until four months ago that Bianey told them she is a woman. To her surprise, she says, they now embrace her identity and are proud of the work she does.
At the Queens parade, Bianey marched with about fifteen TrIP members. She helped carry a banner that read “My existence is a form of resistance,” and depicted a winged Rosie the Riveter — only this Rosie was brown, Latina, and trans.
NOTE: An earlier version of this article described Bianey D la O as the “first trans woman” to be named grand marshal of the Queens Pride Parade. She was, in fact, the first trans Latina; Melissa Sklarz was a grand marshal in 2014.