Director of programs, transgender Law center
A leader and respected voice in the LGBTQ+ immigrant rights movement, Isa Noyola is the director of programs at Ford grantee Transgender Law Center, the largest national trans-led organization advocating for a world where all people are free to define themselves and their futures.*
What does the Transgender Law Center seek to do?
It focuses on impact litigation and policy work. But we also have a programmatic strategy that complements our legal strategy so that our work is grounded to help those most impacted by discrimination, harassment, and violence. We send teams into urban and rural communities to build up the leadership of trans folks.
In addition to your work with the trans community, you also advocate on behalf of immigrant communities. What do these two communities have in common?
I think both see a lot of violence but both have a lot of magic happening. I’ve been so fortunate to see thriving communities that with very little have cobbled together strategies around safety, strategies to provide relief and address the basic needs the communities have. Both of these communities come together and really have an experience of various stories that, you know, just come from the heart. Both also sustain lots of pain and suffering. Trans-immigrant women face a disproportionate amount of violence at the hands of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, both by being caught in the deportation machine and being placed in detention facilities where a lot of the violence takes place.
So we’ve advocated to communities and to the broader immigration community around really making sure that they have an awareness around how transphobia is manifested within the immigration context and within the detention context, and how folks get caught up in that system.
Can you point to a pivotal moment or event that inspired your work as an activist?
In thinking about what really brought me to this work, I think about Ruby Ordenana who was a trans-immigrant woman living in San Francisco. Her life was tragically taken in a very violent way because of transphobia. Most communities really lack an understanding of who trans people are. So I carry her story in my heart because it’s a constant, everyday reminder of the struggles for trans and gender-nonconforming people.
What does it look like to live a life of dignity where society respects your rights?
When I think of what it’s like to live with dignity, I think about a trans person just simply waking up, deciding to step outside their door and have the courage to confront the day and not know what might happen. And that is really, to me, that is so—it is so deep, because I understand, even in my own experience, the level of courage that that even takes. Because the daily messages we as a community receive from media, from catcalls, from politicians are so negative. We’re constantly being told that we are disposable and that our lives actually are not seen, or not even acknowledged, right? We as a community begin to internalize these negative messages. And so, for someone to live in dignity and to live in truth, those barriers need to be removed. That is one of the fights that organizations like ours are really invested in.
What kind of toll do these barriers and negative messages take on a trans person?
One of the major negative impacts on our community that is not often talked about is the isolation that many trans people impose on themselves. It’s a coping mechanism so we don’t have to deal with transphobia and ridicule and assaults. We do it to avoid the comments hurled our way on public transportation. Day after day, all of those things take a real toll. So if you look at who is really at the forefront of this work, there are very few of us, because so many of our leaders have been violently taken away from us. When I think about the trans women that started this work with me who are no longer with me, that actually has an impact in terms of my own ability to also step out and also be courageous for my community.
What is your hope for the future of trans people in America?
We are actually demanding for communities, not just in the United States but globally, to think about gender in a more complex way. And so, we’re looking for a cultural shift—that we’re actually a part of the fabric of everyday communities. We are not just settling for crumbs—that we’re not just settling for policy wins and bathroom accommodations. But actually, for everyone to really understand gender and to understand our lives in more complex ways. That I just don’t think our society is really, is really there yet. And so, there’s so much work to do.
What does equality mean to you?
True equality can be achieved not just when our laws reflect it, but also when our culture and values as a society do too. Everyone’s humanity is important.
*Isa has moved on from the law center and is now deputy director of Mijente, a political, digital, and grassroots hub for Latinx and Chicanx organizing and movement-building.