More than 30 people turned out at Smokin’ Betty’s Tuesday for a community conversation on statewide transgender rights.
Trans Rights in PA with Naiymah Sanchez & ACLU-PA's (American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania) Youth Leadership Outreach Team featured comments from ACLU leadership on trans issues and a Q&A portion following the event.
Sanchez, ACLU PA’s transgender advocacy coordinator, spoke on her personal experiences.
“I want to acknowledge being in this position as a transgender woman of color and to extend my gratitude to all of you who are here tonight to learn the state of transgender rights in the state of Pennsylvania,” Sanchez said.
Sanchez’s goals for ACLU PA
Sanchez described the goals for her role at ACLU PA, which she has held since January. She said she wanted to have more community conversations, which she labeled as “Transgender to the table, setting the tone for change.”
“I labeled it this because [trans people] have been invited to so many events but these events were not designed for us,” Sanchez said. “They were there to take our stories and for other people to advocate for us. I wanted us — and when I say us, I mean trans, gender-variant, non-binary folks — to come to the table. Tell me. Tell us [and] the ACLU. Learn the challenges, our barriers and how we can change things at policy- and legislative-related levels to increase the successful life of a trans person.”
Sanchez added that she had not appreciated the size of the state before she took on her ACLU position, which has had her traveling to areas such as Pittsburgh and State College to engage communities.
“These conversations were amazing,” Sanchez said. “We were able to gain knowledge of what people were seeing as challenges or barriers in holding us, the ACLU, accountable for fighting for freedom and equality for trans individuals.”
The ACLU of Ohio has a webpage specifically related to transgender rights and Sanchez said the Pennsylvania chapter will develop a similar site. She said it will include social-justice resources related to housing, health coverage and other “Know Your Rights” materials.
“We have been grouped together as the LGBQ-T community,” Sanchez said. “A lot of things and a lot of issues that trans folks face, LGBQ people don’t face.”
Sanchez added that she also wants the site to highlight specific stories of transgender individuals and their intersectional identities such as people of color and those of different religions, HIV-statuses and other areas.
“We want to get these stories out because our senators, our legislators, really don't know our struggles until we tell them,” she said. “And this is simply a way that we can tell them.”
Trans-rights cases in PA
ACLU Intake Attorney Michelin Cahill also outlined related lawsuits the ACLU PA is undertaking. This included a case in which the organization is defending the Boyertown Area School District, which is protecting the rights of trans students. In March, a cisgender student sued the school after claiming his privacy was violated while in a locker room with a trans male student. Another case involved Niara Burton, a transgender woman who is suing to be transferred to a women’s prison after experiencing harassment for four years in men’s prisons.
Sanchez spoke on personal experiences related to themes in both cases.
“I was incarcerated for 18 months and for nine months of those 18 months, I was sexually assaulted and raped by the same person that was paid to protect me,” Sanchez said. “Me looking like this inside a male’s prison is not helpful for myself. I was a victim of verbal harassment, sexual assault, physical assault and mental assault. If I were to have it my way, I would have been put in a female facility.”
She also noted her experiences as a trans student in 2000.
“I was suffering failing grades because I was not allowed to use the female restroom on my side of the school,” Sanchez said, noting that class would often end before she had the chance to walk to the bathroom and back to class. “The male restroom was on the other side and, also, the nurse’s restroom was on the other side.”
Event staff provided postcards with messages urging senators to support the LGBT-inclusive Pennsylvania Fairness Act. Sanchez encouraged the audience to fill them out before leaving.
Additionally, she noted that the ACLU is taking on cases of individuals who have been detained.
“Court fees are so high and people are being detained because they cannot make these fees,” Sanchez said. “The ACLU is taking on cases of individuals who have court fees and costs and [who] have been detained or threatened to be re-arrested for not making those fees.”
Sanchez also said she will host an ACLU of Pennsylvania Storytelling workshop July 26 at the William Way LGBT Community Center, which will only be open to trans individuals to share their experiences. She also requested people of trans experience to contact her so their stories can be shared on the upcoming web page.
“Do me a favor,” Sanchez said. “Tell people that the ACLU has trans representation on the board and on staff and that we are dedicated to fighting for freedom, equality and liberation for all.”