Ebony Ava Harper is a Sacramento-based, nationally recognized human
rights activist and Director of California TRANscends, a statewide initiative that works to
promote the health and wellness of transgender people throughout the state of California.
Amid the coronavirus pandemic, when the news is full of worrying statistics and advice on social distancing, there is a bright light to be found in the acts of kindness of everyday people like our five transgender and gender-nonconforming superheroes that will restore your faith in humanity.
On Wednesday, March 18, 34-year-old Monika Diamond, a Black transgender woman and business owner, was gunned down in the back of an ambulance in Charlotte, North Carolina. 19-year-old Yampi Méndez Arocho was murdered two weeks ago for being himself, a transgender, Puerto Rican man. 2020 just started and Yampi's slaying marks the third transgender or gender non-conforming (GNC) death this year.
Last year, we buried 26 trans people, and a majority were Black transgender women of color, like me. Another terrifying prospect (based on a report by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights): 1 out of 8 transgender women of color will not live to see age 30. With many of these trans murders, unreported and unsolved, Human Rights Campaign (HRC) calls overall violence against transgender people a crisis of epidemic proportions.
While California has some of the most progressive transgender protection laws in the country, transgender people are still facing discrimination and harassment in record numbers. According to the U.S. Transgender Survey California State Report, 76% of the transgender respondents had experienced some form of mistreatment, from verbal harassment to being prohibited from dressing according to their gender identity to even physical (or sexual) assault. 55% of respondents experienced some form of mistreatment by law enforcement, and 33% of them reported having at least one negative experience with their healthcare provider. Unfortunately, due to significant instances of underreporting and very little data, we believe the numbers are even higher.
The transgender experience is not a phenomenon or trend. We've been around since the beginning of time—ancient texts from 4,500 years ago document gender-nonconforming people. We know many indigenous tribes historically call us "two-spirits" or the third gender and welcome our community with open arms, but because of mainstream religion and demonization, we've been relegated to the nether regions of society. The demonizing comes from the belief that we are sinful and immoral, a damaging sentiment that creates health disparities and record numbers of trans people experiencing homelessness.
We need to remove the barriers and realize an injustice to a trans woman is the same as an injustice to a cis woman. An injustice to a Black trans woman is an injustice to the Black community as a whole. An injustice to a trans or gender-nonconforming person is an injustice to all. There's no separation; our issues are relatable to any social justice issue today.
Over the last four years, hate crimes across the U.S. against the transgender and GNC community have skyrocketed. After Trump's rollback of transgender rights, now more than ever, transphobia and racism are running rampant. Yes, there have been tremendous advancements with T.V. shows such as POSE and transgender people getting elected to office, and we have advanced in our visibility, but the glaring disparities are still as real as ever.
That's why we thought it was necessary to highlight some rising transgender leaders in Sacramento doing the work to combat violence and discrimination throughout the city of Sacramento and the state of California. These five transgender activists are working towards making Sacramento a safer trans and GNC-friendly place in their respective fields.
So often, we don't get the time to celebrate our heroes and leaders until it is too late. We present this article in the hopes that many more will come in its wake, allowing us at Sacramento Bee Community Voices to honor the myriad of people working tirelessly to make Sacramento a better place.
Photos by Bryant Walton
Ayotunde Ikuku is a 23-year-old Nigerian-American Sacramento native. Witnessing the dehumanization of Black youth, the murder of Trayvon Martin, and the mistreatment of Black bodies while they were in high school moved them to take action. Ayotunde became involved with various movements such as Black Lives Matter Sacramento, Students Helping Honduras (SHH), as well as their current staff position at The Gender Health Center.
From speaking out at local City Council meetings to participating in local actions consistently, as well as participating in various local art/poetry events geared towards GNC and trans youth, Ayotunde has built a substantial online following and is an influential figure amongst Sacramento's queer youth. In honor of Ayo's tireless work and to pay homage to their reverence in this city, last year, they were featured on a Wide Open Walls Mural Festival installation in Del Paso Heights by the well-known muralist David Puck. Now, Ayotunde is forever embedded in the very fabric of what makes Sacramento one of the most culturally diverse cities in the nation.
Ayotunde says, "The mural is so affirming for me and it's meant to be affirming for others, in whatever ways it can manifest my queer, non-binary, Black essence transmuted into a public tribute not only to be consumed, but to say: people like me exist, and we will thrive despite our adversities."
Ayotunde is inspired by their Mother, Shannon. "I am most inspired by my Mother and my peers," they said. "My mom has shown me love and support that has never diminished or ceased due to my identity and has exemplified a great model encompassing ambition, affection, and resilience among adversity. She has also shown me the importance of boundaries, both directly and indirectly, and these are all elements that I harness in the way I occupy spaces."
Ayotunde is on the move to dismantle systems of trans and GNC oppression, and they have no plans of slowing down; they're just getting started.
The Political Strategist
Lauren Pulido is a world changer, advocate, writer for OutWord Magazine, political transgender rights advocate, and staffer in the California State legislature. Throughout Lauren's life, he has dedicated himself to deploying a progressive agenda fueled by morals and personal values that align with his message of compassion, advocacy, and inclusive visibility.
In 2016, Lauren was elected to the Sierra College Student Senate Board, and from there he began pursuing a journey into activism and politics. After graduating with a B.A. from Sacramento State in 2019, Lauren assumed a staff position with California's progressive District 7 Assembly Member Kevin McCarty. During his first four months in the California State Legislature, Lauren facilitated raising the Transgender Pride Flag over Sacramento's City Hall as well as California's State Capital for Transgender Day of Remembrance; this was the first time in our nation's history that the Transgender Pride Flag went up over the C.A. State Capital.
Lauren will forever dedicate his life to embracing the Movement, living authentically, and breaking down barriers to help build a society focused on equity and protecting our most vulnerable and valuable communities of people. Not very often do you see compassion and politics intersect, but compassionate politics is what fuels Lauren's life.
He's very close to his mother, Tammy Chance, and grandmother JoAnn Chance, and says they are his inspiration. "Without these two women, I would not even be half the person I am today," he said. "The strength, generosity, selflessness, and ever-loving spirit of these two wonderful women never ceases to amaze me. Their loving embrace and genuine purity are obvious, and they show it effortlessly. They are my beacons of light in any dark situation. They're all I could ever ask for."
Lauren plans on taking his compassionate politics statewide and advocating for trans people that have little to no support.
Nghia Nguyen is a Vietnamese-American organizer who journeyed as a refugee to the U.S. from Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, in the late 80s. Nghia organized Sacramento's first-ever Trans March, called The "#GiveUsOurRoses" March, which was well attended by transgender people from all over the state, with some even flying in from out of state to attend the trans rally at the California State Capital. In the daytime, Nghia is program coordinator at Gender Health Center and at night, she's organizing rallies, taking in and feeding unhoused trans people and supporting her life partner and their four-legged babies.
Nghia is in the fight for trans liberation for the long haul. "The Movement will not be won only in the streets; everyone has a role to play in this. People who care, people who feed, people who protect the base. The road may be where revolutions can begin, but it must also start in hearts and minds," says Nguyen. "Be humble. Neoliberalism has manufactured a lot of ego, individualism, and selfishness in us. We tend to hurt each other often, and some compassion and humility can do well in the struggle for liberation."
Nghia's inspiration is her sister Alyssa Pariah, and the youth. "The youth inspire me; they inherited a world that my and the generation before mine have left them, and they see the mechanism of this purveyor of violence firsthand, and they are and have to be more resourceful to the brutal world," Nghia said. "We owe them so much, and listening for their lead is best. Along with looking forward to the future for inspiration, I look back as well; I stand on the shoulders of giants and movements that have been doing this work for so long."
Nghia is a tremendous inspiration to so many in Sacramento and will continue to push those in power to see trans people as people.
Christina Arias Phillips
Christina Arias Phillips was born in Guadalajara, Mexico, and raised in sunny Puerto Vallarta. She graduated from the University of Guadalajara, where she majored in Multimedia Engineering. Christina migrated to California in 2016. She currently works as the Bilingual Outreach Coordinator for the Sacramento LGBT Center, and is the first-ever transgender Latina to be employed there. Christina is an advocate for human, transgender immigration, Afro Latinx, and Latinx rights throughout California and Latin America. She's always fighting the good fight on the advocacy battlefield, trying to obtain more resources for transgender Latinas needing work and education opportunities, as well as any additional support they need to thrive. Christina says, “My work for my trans immigrant communities is especially important right now. They face a lot of obstacles in search of a happy, safe life. I work closely with the Latinx community, but more closely work with the Trans Latinx community to help reduce barriers and empower them by sharing knowledge and experience just as my trans sisters did for me."
Christina is inspired by influential trans leaders and her husband. "I'm inspired by powerful leaders like Maria Roman, Bamby Salcedo, Ebony Harper, and my husband Adam Phillips who is the support behind my success, as well as my close friends Danny Love, Camila, Cristina & Valentina who are fierce women and helped me to become who I am now."
The Spiritual Leader
Pastor AmunDayo Edwards is the Founding Pastor of the Integrated Praise Spiritual Center, located in North Sacramento. He is the West Coast Regional Assistant for TransSaints of The Fellowship of Affirming Ministries. TransSaints is a ministry within The Fellowship of Affirming Ministries designed to connect Transgender faith community leaders, clergy, seminarians, and other leaders for training, empowerment, mentoring, and peer support. AmunDayo started his TransSaints work alongside the late great Min BobbieJean Baker (who was a known activist and daughter to Miss Major Griffin-Gracy). It was Presiding Bishop of The Fellowship of Affirming Ministries and civil rights leader, Bishop Yvette Flunder, who had the vision of starting a transgender leadership coalition because she saw little to no support for trans leaders in faith-based communities.
They have built communities of transgender spiritual leaders throughout the country. Now, as the Co-facilitator and West Coast Regional Coordinator for TransSaints, AmunDayo is focused on ensuring trans people are not just visible but also hold critical positions in spiritual communities all over the country.
"One mantra that keeps me humble and connected to the fight for transgender spiritual liberation is, I Am You! Essentially, if I remember that all my siblings are a reflection of me," he said. With that mantra, he's bringing humanity back to a spiritual community that has been long rejected and broken. He's connecting trans people throughout the country to a deeper spiritual life and leadership in religious communities.
When asked what he's inspired by, he said, "In terms of the work, BobbieJean Baker. She had a heart for the work, and no matter how hard it got, she never gave up on the fight for all Transgender people of color. Bishop Flunder is another inspiration because she sees our worth even when we do not. My wife, because she stands beside me despite her fears. Lastly, love inspires me. It is because of my love for people, my people, I am willing to stand on the front line to ensure freedom for all of us."
You can learn more about TransSaints by going to their website, www.transsaints.org.
For more resources on how you can support the transgender and GNC community, go to www.transgenderlawcenter.org.