Transgender activist Lorena Borjas, 59, died Monday morning after having contracted COVID-19.
She is but one of many who we will mourn, but her story is powerful and her legacy lives on in a gofundme benefiting the NYC trans community, which she started just days before passing.
On March 17 Lorena Borjas wrote, “During the current COVID-19 outbreak in New York, many transgender people are experiencing a loss of income that, over the next few days, may increase dramatically.”
“Like other communities that are experiencing an emergency situation, throughout the country, transgender people do not have a salary. Lacking minimum labor rights, the lack of a job, they cannot receive any benefit that helps them to pay the basic basket with non-perishable food, water, and personal hygiene products. Many transgender people live on a daily income, but due to the crisis, many transgender people are well affected and in precarious and poverty situations.”
“Our community faces a crisis,” She wrote.
Jhoni Jackson wrote a fitting tribute to Lorena Borjas. It is well worth reading.
Lorena Borjas (May 29, 1960 – March 30, 2020) was a Mexican-American transgender woman and immigrant rights activist, known as the mother of the transgender Latinx community in Queens, New York. Her work on behalf of immigrant and transgender communities garnered recognition throughout New York City and the United States. She lived for many years in the Jackson Heights neighborhood of Queens, where she was a community figure and leader.
— Women’s March (@womensmarch) March 30, 2020
Borjas emigrated to the United States in 1981 with the goal of obtaining hormone therapy and transitioning to live as a woman. Taking a job in a belt factory, she initially shared an apartment in the New York City neighborhood of Jackson Heights, Queens with 20 transgender women who worked as sex workers. Borjas aided these and other transgender sex workers, initially aiding Mexican trans women and ultimately working to help all Latin American trans women. As she explained,
“We were women without families and who had run away from our countries, persecuted for expressing our identity, for being ourselves. Here in New York, we did not have the life and freedom we had been dreaming about. We also endured violence and abuse here. In those days, it was a real crime to be a transgender immigrant of color.”
In 1990, Borjas became a legal permanent resident of the United States.
Went back to this interview I did with Lorena, right before Trump was elected, on organizing against gentrification and the racist policing that comes ahead of it, with it, after it: https://t.co/XuJDdo5lok pic.twitter.com/5XXmRQwFij
— Melissa Gira Grant (@melissagira) March 30, 2020
In 1995, Borjas decided to make activism her life’s work. Consequently, for decades, Borjas worked to protect transgender victims of human trafficking (which she herself had experienced), slavery, and violence. She hosted women who had been ostracized from their families in her own apartment until they were able to support themselves. She walked the streets seeking women who needed her help, providing condoms and food and connecting these women to social services. She worked without pay to facilitate access to HIV testing and hormone therapy for transgender sex workers, including setting up a weekly HIV testing clinic in her home and providing syringe exchanges for women taking hormone injections. In 1995, she organized her first march in support of the transgender community.
It is with a heavy heart I have to inform that this morning at 5:22 AM. Lorena Borjas, mother of the Trans latinx community of Queens passed away. Rest in peace. pic.twitter.com/LvuPJfH3iF
— Cecilia Gentili (@CeciliaGentili) March 30, 2020
As reflected by Cecilia Gentili, a friend and a transgender leader:
“Needed a lawyer? Doctor? Housing? A job? She was there. Lorena was that person who, if you got arrested, you called her at three in the morning and she would answer. First thing in the morning she would be in court with a lawyer to get you out of jail.”
With Chase Strangio, Borjas founded the Lorena Borjas Community Fund, which provides bail assistance to LGBT defendants. She became a counselor for the Community Healthcare Network’s Transgender Family Program, where she worked to obtain legal aid for victims of human trafficking.
Borjas earned honors from former Mayor David Dinkins, New York Attorney General Letitia James, and Queens District Attorney Melinda Katz. In 2019, she was declared a New York Woman of Distinction in the State Senate.
In 1994, Borjas was arrested and found guilty of facilitating a crime in the fourth degree, a charge dating back to her early years in the U.S., when Borjas was, in fact, a victim of trafficking and forced prostitution. She lost the immigration status she had gained under a 1986 amnesty law and lived under the threat of deportation. Starting in 2010, Borjas sought to have her own criminal record expunged, with the legal support of the Transgender Law Center. In recognition of her community activism, she was granted a pardon in 2017 by New York governor Andrew Cuomo, restoring her status as a legal immigrant, an outcome she had considered “farfetched and nearly impossible.
Lorena saved more people than almost anyone I have ever known. She was relentless in her fight for her community. I am so sorry we couldn’t protect you from this. pic.twitter.com/MhBKyv3d2F
— Chase Strangio (@chasestrangio) March 30, 2020
Borjas died at Coney Island Hospital on March 30, 2020, aged 59, from complications of COVID-19. She received memorials and tributes online from many public figures, including Chase Strangio and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
Heartbroken to share that #LorenaBorjas, a prolific trans organizer & Queens activist, passed away from COVID-19.
— Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (@AOC) March 30, 2020