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Trans People in Los Angeles Face Intense Violence and Discrimination Despite Legal Protections

During a time of increased anti-trans legislation across the country, the legal protections California offers for trans people do little to protect them from discrimination and violence in everyday life.

Portrait of Halcyone Selfmade in front of a blurred background.
Halcyon Selfmade. (Photo: Levi Meir Clancy | Knock LA)

A record-breaking amount of anti-trans legislation has been introduced throughout the country this year, making 2023 the fourth consecutive year that legalized attacks on trans people have dramatically increased from the year before.

As of June 2023, 79 anti-trans bills have passed out of the unprecedented 556 proposed ones across the United States. Eighteen states now prohibit minors from accessing gender-affirming care, a form of treatment that a plethora of studies show reduces depression and suicidality rates among trans youth. Florida has passed so many anti-trans laws that locals have canceled Pride events, and Equality Florida has issued a travel advisory against the state.

In response to this wave of transphobic legislation, Governor Newsom signed a bill in 2022 to make California a sanctuary state for trans children and families fleeing hostile states like Florida. California continues to have some of the best legal protections for trans students, trans workers, and trans healthcare recipients in the country, making it seem like the state would be a haven for its trans citizens.

The reality on the ground tells a different story.

Life at the Intersection of Houselessness, Trauma, and Violence

“Being obviously transgender in a world designed for cis-heteronormativity is to value one’s authenticity over one’s safety,” said Halcyon Selfmade, a white disabled trans man. “When I was unhoused, I lived in Hollywood between Selma Avenue and Schrader Boulevard, and Sunset Boulevard and Cherokee Avenue. Those were the two main campsites where I had my tents. After that it was some kind of hotel with Project Roomkey. They had zero protocols in place for [compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)]. Zero. When I tried to invoke my ADA rights because I have PTSD and autism, they treated my rights as privileges to be revoked.”

“They would wellness check you at any time, and if you were asleep and didn’t answer the door, they had a master key so they would just walk in on you,” Selfmade continued. “I don’t get to sleep until four or six in the morning with my particular set of disabilities. They regularly woke me and triggered my PTSD and autism meltdowns. I’d start cussing them out, slamming doors, and I was the ‘bad guy’ for this. I gave them every bit of information they needed, not only to respect my ADA rights but to respect my right to rest in what was supposed to be a safe haven.”

The carceral conditions that plagued Project Roomkey were widely reported, but they disproportionately impacted disabled trans people like Halcyon Selfmade. In California, trans people are more than twice as likely to live with a disability as cis people. According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, 50% of all trans Americans who are unhoused live in California, and Los Angeles County has the highest concentration. This means that Project Roomkey’s oppressive environment affected a much larger percentage of unhoused trans people than their cis counterparts.

“I was homeless when I started working for [then Los Angeles City Councilmember] Mike Bonin,” said anniejump vicente, a white trans woman who was violently arrested by the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department (LASD) last year when she refused to let them enter her apartment building without a warrant. “They made me schedule the [homeless] sweeps because it was my job as Venice constituent advocate. So every week I cried. They forced me to go to one at seven in the morning to witness other homeless people have their shit pulled. We woke them up, they’re crying, and then their shit is thrown in the dumpster. I got scolded because I wouldn’t stand next to my team because I had to go around the corner and fucking cry so hard. I got reprimanded for that.”

Sweeps, or the forced removal of unhoused people and their property from public spaces, have been found to worsen mental illness, destroy life-saving medications, contribute to drug overdoses, and cause several other negative health outcomes. According to a report from the Los Angeles LGBT Center, trans people already face much higher rates of mental health burdens than cis people in Los Angeles, making sweeps another city-funded excursion that disproportionately harms trans Angelenos.

“I started going to [West Hollywood] City Council meetings very frequently, nearly every single meeting for months, and I would speak about trans rights and against the sheriffs [both before and after they violently arrested me].” vicente continued, “I scheduled a meeting [with Councilmember Chelsea Byers] and told her that we need to make WeHo a trans sanctuary city. She said she agreed and that she would have her staff write it up. Well, fast forward to the very last WeHo City Council meeting I went to. I’m going there expecting to talk about this one issue, and then I see on the agenda — the same one where they denounced Tennessee’s bill banning drag — an agenda item to approve spending $15,000 on an ‘appreciation luncheon’ for the sheriffs and LAFD.”

“I’m sitting there enraged,” vicente said. “I got up for Public Comment and said, ‘I don’t understand why you’re gonna have zero dollars funding trans safety, yet you’re gonna throw $15,000 at the police, those that enact violence constantly on the LGBTQ+ community.’”

The Incompatibility of Trans Rights and Policing

vicente is not alone in her assertion that queer and trans safety is inherently incompatible with policing. As of 2013, trans people were nearly four times more likely to experience police violence than their cis counterparts. BIPOC trans people endure the highest rates of police abuse, with 61% of Black trans people and 66% Latinx trans women experiencing verbal harassment, physical assault, and/or sexual assault by law enforcement.

The West Hollywood City Council, which later did decide to make the city a trans sanctuary, voted to approve the budget for the LASD and LAFD appreciation luncheon and then voted to increase the size of West Hollywood’s sheriff’s station.

On June 3, LASD brutally arrested two LGBTQ+ volunteers at West Hollywood Pride. While the Sheriff’s department stated that their actions were in response to an outstanding warrant for the arrest of trans volunteer Xodiak Rose, evidence has come to light that challenges the legitimacy of the original police report.

“We go to great lengths to put a new coat of paint on an old barn and call it ‘progressive,’” said Halcyon Selfmade. “It looks good on the surface. But you scratch the surface, and all the hate and bigotry is still there.”

“It’s the problem with Democrats and blue states, and the idea that this side of the aisle is more helpful and progressive,” said Paisley Mares, an Indigenous trans man who lives in an RV on the streets of Los Angeles. “They talk a big game without actually changing the problematic conditions or creating equitable spaces. Events like Trans Day of Vengeance are crucial because they actually provide what the city and state claim to, or only does very begrudgingly.”

Paisley wearing a jean jacked with applications and a pair of orange-colored glasses over another pair of glasses in front of their RV.
Paisley sits on the stairs of their RV. (Photo: Joey Scott | Knock LA)

The Power of Radical Resistance and Peer Advocacy

The Trans Day of Vengeance was a local protest organized by QueerXAct, an LGBTQ+ activist group spearheaded by the two West Hollywood Pride volunteers recently arrested by LASD. On March 31, hundreds of people gathered on the corners of Hollywood Boulevard and Highland Avenue in Hollywood demanding an end to attacks on the trans community, which have been on the rise in Los Angeles County. This passionate demonstration was held without a permit and protected by community-led security rather than police.

Activist with an orange N95 mask holding a sign with the trans flag saying "Trans Rights are Human Rights"
A trans rights activist blocks traffic during a “Trans Day of Vengeance” in Hollywood on March 31, 2023. (Photo: Jacob Green | Knock LA)

“There will always be a need for radical resistance and coming together,” Mares continued. “The most supportive environments I’ve experienced as a trans man have been in these queer event spaces. I think they’re critical because they’re good food for the soul, and you make connections to other trans people. You have strength in collectivizing your experiences, your knowledge. Those spaces help empower us to deal with the bullshit of the state and recover together, advocate for each other.”

Peer advocacy may prove to be imperative to the safety and success of trans people in Los Angeles.

“Karla Leiva, the person who brought me to organizing, is my dear friend and is a nonbinary peer support advocate,” said Ms. Italy, a Black trans woman and advocate for the unhoused. “They’re my watchdog, so my experiences [with the state and local nonprofits] have been positive recently. In the past, it’s been very negative. For five years, I was homeless around the Beverly Boulevard and Vermont Avenue area, and that’s exactly where PATH’s corporate office is. I literally slept under the PATH stairs begging to get into their building, and I would watch them admit other people and leave the trans community out there.”

Ms Italy in a colorful shirt in front of her home
Ms. Italy outside her home. (Photo: Ben Camacho | Knock LA)

“Agencies across the board are discriminatory against Black trans people, I’ve found,” Ms. Italy continued. “We are seen as the epitome of disgusting. Whatever their disgust is toward the LGBTQIA community, we are considered the absolute worst. They just subconsciously and innately discriminate; I don’t think most people are even consciously aware that they’re doing it for the reasons that they’re doing it. They just despise this,” she said, gesturing to herself, “and don’t even know why.”

“So I put a watchdog next to me, Karla, and I told Karla ‘we’re going to go into these agencies and play Good Cop/Bad Cop. And you’re gonna be the person that takes the role of holding them accountable, so that I can pour my soul out and beg for help,’” said Ms. Italy. “I have schizoaffective disorder, where when I get really depressed I hear my [late] sister telling me to ‘come here.’ I guess because she’s dead, I translate that into ‘kill yourself.’ So we went to the Department of Mental Health and asked for them to put me in the FSP, the Full Service Partnership program.”

“The social worker was immediately standoffish,” Ms. Italy continued. “She was so standoffish that Karla said ‘I think we should start this meeting again because you don’t seem too compelled to help us.’ So Karla stopped the interview, restarted the interview, and we got the lady to apply for FSP for me. She did not want to. So then me and Karla started emailing the directors at the Department of Mental Health telling them ‘hey, we’re trying to get into the FSP program, the social worker is creating a stonewall, and we need you guys to get into this.’ Karla had to go to their public hearing meetings and put them on blast on the record. And I got in!”

“Once they gave me the FSP program, they paired me with Enki Health that does intensive mental health case management.” Ms. Italy said. “At the same time, because I was living in my car and had an emergency voucher to move, they paired me with Alliance for Housing and Healing and Brilliant Corners. These agencies partner up and work together to place the clients in apartments and put them in situations where they’re not only in housing, but they can actually sustain the housing. They make sure the client is, y’know, getting up and cleaning their apartment, taking a shower, taking their meds, all that stuff. So what me and Karla did was make everybody give me documents of release of information so that everybody has authorization to communicate. So it was Karla always being the watchdog, and my new good case managers at Enki Health being willing to pay for me to stay in a motel while they nudge Alliance for Housing and Healing to hurry up and get me housed. Otherwise, I would have been homeless still. I would have been another transsexual that they don’t care about in Los Angeles.”

Ms. Italy currently resides in a cozy one-bedroom apartment with her dog, Honey.

“I asked the universe to put me in a situation where all I have to do is worry about going to school all day.” Ms. Italy continued. “My income is $121 on General Relief. This apartment complex based rent off your income, so my rent is only $36. I’m stabilized on my medication. Now I go to school six days a week, Monday through Saturday, from 7:45 AM to 2:45 PM for cybersecurity. I was able to go to school because the building has powerful Wi-Fi, and the Wi-Fi is included. I feel incredibly blessed. It took six case managers, but I pulled it off.”

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