By Robin Brown
— The mood was celebratory last night as Albuquerque’s first march to honor transgender rights activism drew around 70 people outside the Transgender Resource Center of New Mexico.
“We now join the brotherhood and sisterhood of trans marches across America,” said organizer Paula Kaski.
Underlying the activism, said Kaski, are basic needs for access to jobs, healthcare, for safety and respect. She referenced a 2011 survey of 6,400 transgender people that found a majority had experienced physical and sexual assault while 41 percent had attempted suicide. “If [wanting to be]talked to by the police in a respectful way means I have an agenda—then, yes, I have an agenda.”
Adrien Lawyer, founder and executive director of the TGRCNM, introduced speaker Virginia Stephenson as someone who pushed for transgender rights long before such advocacy came to be viewed as acceptable by the general public.
Stephenson said New Mexico has enacted some laws that protect transgender people, there is still a lot of work ahead. “In the trans community, we have to stay visible. If we don’t stay visible, we’re going to lose the urgency of the moment. It’s urgent for all trans people, whatever our age is, to be able to have a job that’s prosperous and fair and ethical.”
Attendee Janice Devereaux grew up in Belen, where she said her early years were marked by feelings of isolation. It took time to find a small community that understood her. “Ten years ago, I never thought I would see this,” said Devereaux, her voice breaking. “I think about all the people that I met living in that group who didn’t make it, who would be here, but they’re not—either of their own means, or they were beat back into the closet. But they should be here. ”
Mike Butler said his part in the event was to commemorate transgender political prisoner Chelsea Manning. Manning was arrested for handing classified military information over to Wikileaks, kept in solitary confinement for nearly a year, then tried and sentenced to 35 years in federal prison. After her sentencing in September, Manning applied for a sex change and changed her first name to Chelsea.
“They need to release her now,” said Butler, “and pay her reparations, and honor her for the work that she did.”
Pre-“don’t ask, don’t tell” policy veteran Allanna Rose Chilcoat, who served from May 1989 until October 1990, recalled her own days of military service. “I got all the way through the Army as a man before I decided to come out.” It was an unnerving experience, said Chilcoat—not least of all because she was so skilled at hiding her true identity. “I don’t think anybody had a clue. I mean, I was good.”
And like Chilcoat and Manning, activist Denee Mallon is a transgender woman who served in the Army as a man. She’s also in the midst of a lawsuit that seeks a requirement for Medicare to cover costs of sex change operations. The case has received national attention.
“This really affects a very small number of people,” says Mallon, but “its implications are going far. What it boils down to is: If a doctor thinks a medical procedure is necessary, Medicare should fund it.”
As the rally wound down, demonstrators marched across Central to join the annual LGBTQ Pride week candlelight vigil. They were greeted warmly by the hundreds gathered at Morningside Park, including city councilors Rey Garduño and Diane Gibson, a pink Pomeranian and last year’s Albuquerque Pride King and Queen. Poems were read and candles lit in honor of late writer and civil rights figure Maya Angelou, and the Albuquerque Gay Men’s Chorus sang songs.
“We have been at this for a long time,” said Lawyer. “Longer than this this year, longer than last year. It’s been years and years and years and years. And we’re just getting started.”
Editor’s Note: The original version of this article incorrectly stated the gender of Allanna Rose Chilcoat. It has been corrected below. We apologize for the error.