Facing Race Spotlight: Trans Latina Activist Isa Noyola

The San Francisco-based trans advocate explains why race and gender need to be in the same conversation.

By Julianne Hing Nov 05, 2014

For Isa Noyola, intersectionality isn’t an academic abstraction that she has the luxury to invoke and discard at will. A program manager at the Transgender Law Center and a national advocate with San Francisco-based El/La Para TransLatinas, Noyola works with trans women, women of color and monolingual immigrants. The political outlook is "a matter of life and death," she says. 

An intersectional approach has also been central to El/La Para Trans Latinas’ success. Last year the grassroots leadership development organization won a $200,000 grant from the San Francisco Human Rights Commission for violence-prevention work. Noyola says it marked the first time that trans Latinas received funding to develop community leaders in this way.

On Friday, November 14, Noyola will return to her native Texas for Facing Race, a national biannual conference hosted by Colorlines’ publisher Race Forward. She spoke with Colorlines about the urgent mandate for racial justice work that also puts gender at the center of the conversation.

Can you give a concrete example of what intersectionality looks like in action?

At El/La [Para TransLatinas], when we opened in 2006, we were primarily funded to do HIV-prevention work. So the city funded the program to pass out condoms in the streets, do outreach and present a handful of workshops about HIV prevention. But from the very beginning we have said that that’s only a part of what the community needs. So even though we’re being funded to do HIV prevention, we need to think about how we do this more holistically and really create an environment where our women and folks feel a sense of dignity and sisterhood.

What are some of the other aspects of your work?

We’ve had to go to City Hall, be part of the budgeting process, engage with partners at the Department on the Status of Women and the Domestic Violence consortium, and all these cis women’s agencies and collective organizing bodies that have existed in San Francisco for many years. For us, it’s been the first time that trans folks and trans Latinas in particular are at the table asking for resources. There’s been a consciousness-raising component to it too … to expand their definition to include more than cis women.

Can you explain how you approach violence-prevention work geared toward trans communities? It’s easy to think that it ought to be directed toward the people who are antagonizing trans Latinas.

For us, violence prevention means community power. As opposed to working with the perpetrator or offender, we’re asking, "How are we building the skills in our community so people who are facing harm can feel empowered to stand up for themselves?"

We understand that most of the violence goes unreported. Most is never unearthed because there’s shame informing the process. Women may feel like they’ve just got to take it in their partnerships and from who they love and who they live next door to. They may feel like it’s OK for people to make transphobic comments and add physical harm to that. 

Part of the program also involves training trans Latinas who will be known as luchadoras in the community and will empower other women. Can you say more about the sort of ambassadors they will be?

These luchadoras are going to go into the community and do healing and cultural work. They’re going to facilitate conversations, think about different ways to do outreach, run a support group and think about how to speak at City Hall. All those pieces are behind-the-scenes work to build leadership. We all have to see ourselves as representatives of our community and that takes an incredible amount of capacity to do that.

Can you talk for about the overlapping struggles of those who are undocumented, those who are trans and those, like immigrant rights activist Zoraida Reyes who was murdered this year, who happened to be both?

It means that [undocumented trans people] are facing multiple barriers so that society invisibilizes and deems you unworthy. Trans folks already have high rates of unemployment and already can’t access certain health services. To add another layer of documentation is a harsh reality.

Because people are facing these conditions they’re having to make choices about how to survive in a world that sees them as unworthy. Undocumented youth have energized the immigrant rights movement and said: "We’re not ashamed, and we’re not afraid." And that’s the same sentiment that trans folks [are expressing]. We deserve dignity.

This work seems urgent.

We have for many years waited for people to get it together and develop a language and consciousness around trans communities, and we no longer can wait. We no longer can wait for other people to get it together. We are demanding an acknowledgement. We want total liberation.