Reyna Ortiz, Chicago activist and educator, who helps connect transgender youth and women with medical, legal, education and housing resources, opened a presentation Wednesday by emphasizing the progress made by and within the trans community throughout time.

Ortiz has been doing activist work in the trans community since her transition in 1994 at 14 years old.

“I’m fighting for the liberation of the trans community in this country and in this world,” Ortiz said. “It’s my passion; it is my life. All my life experiences as a trans person for 25 years has brought me to this point, today, working and fighting for equality for trans people.”

Ortiz spoke at the School of Social Work as part of the Trans Awareness Week series of events hosted by the Spectrum Center at the University of Michigan. She was the keynote speaker of the series and raised awareness of issues facing the transgender, genderqueer and gender non-conforming communities.
Ortiz recalled the loneliness she felt when she came out as trans-identifying at a young age. She said for so long, she felt she was the only trans person in her community. This experience, Ortiz explained, helps her connect with the people she works with.

“I think starting off trans so young, feeling so many types of ways about being trans is the reason why I work so well with youth in Chicago,” Ortiz said.

The services Ortiz’s two trans resource programs include are GED preparation programs, permanent and supportive housing research, and legal services for name-changing and criminal expungement. She said she’s able to see 60 to 80 participants weekly and found 50 kids supportive housing this past year.

This work is not just for trans people, though, Ortiz said. She emphasized the importance of allyship, urging allies to be active, consistent and to focus on the communities they’re supporting. Ortiz also noted everyone has different roles to fulfill in the movement.

“It’s a call to action,” Ortiz said. “It’s being consistent. It’s about finding something that you feel is beneficial to a community. And it’s different for everybody, not everybody is going to do the same thing, you have to find your niches.”

Challenging the audience further, Ortiz reminded everyone though there has been much progress, it’s crucial to acknowledge the trans activists of the past — many of them being trans women of color — such as Sylvia Rivera. The work of these women in the 1960s and ’70s, she highlighted, set the foundation for all work being done today.

“Pay homage to the queens,” Ortiz said. “To think about being trans-identified women of color in the ’60s and the ’70s, it just blows my mind the level of survival these women had to go through. So when you think about gender fluidity in 2018 and how open everyone is, it’s wonderful, it is progress, but sometimes we do have to pay homage to the queens. They laid the foundation for gender fluidity in this country.”

This idea resonated with Kari Nilsen, a Social Work and Public Health student who came to the event because of their non-binary trans-masculine identity and because of their desire to work in Ortiz’s field. Nilsen talked of the significance of recognizing the different racial identities within the trans community and repeated Ortiz’s message of paying homage to the “queens.

“It’s really important that we make sure to have an intersectional lens and recognize that the people that have done the work are trans women of color,” Nilsen said.

Nilsen further emphasized another of Ortiz’s points, which was to always ask about someone’s gender identity and never assume.

“One thing you all can do to be an ally is in every single introduction ask what someone’s pronouns are,” Nilsen said. “Because it’s just like your name, it’s just how you’re referred to. It’s the exact same thing and there’s no way you can know without asking.

Social Work student Erica Watson said she came to learn about the challenges of the trans community face — something especially close to home because of her queer identity and her partner’s trans identity.

“I came because I identify as queer and my partner is trans, and I’m always trying to learn as much as I can about the community and really engage with the community and I think the best way to do that is to really listen to the people who are experiencing these things,” Watson said.

Watson expressed her appreciation of Ortiz’s discussion of the positives happening in the trans community and in trans social work. This type of discussion is especially imperative in a time full of negative news and policies.

“I get lost often in the idea that everything seems bad and it’s only getting worse, and it feels overwhelming, like there’s nothing you can do and I think it’s really good to take time and look at the work that people have been doing and will continue to do,” Watson said.

Ortiz left the audience with words empowering the trans community.

“This society needs to understand that trans people are here, we have been here and we will always be here,” Ortiz said.

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