Jada Mercedes Cardona, left, leads a town hall meeting March 10 with New Orleans City Councilmembers Jason Williams and LaToya Canttell with NOPD's LGBT liaison Frank Robertson.
Jada Mercedes Cardona knew at 4 years old. "It felt right. I ran to my mom to tell her what I discovered, and what was going to happen now?" Cardona told a crowd at First Unitarian Universalist Church. "Instead of being received with hugs, kisses, understanding and love, I got beaten, and made to proclaim, several times, that I would never repeat those words to anyone again."
Cardona began transitioning at age 35, after living as a gay man, and was tortured by low self-esteem and "a cycle of hate I still struggle with today" — an "internalized oppression," she said, "so much so that you can't see anything good about yourself."
"Living in one's truth isn't easy," Cardona said. "I lost everything from living in my truth."
Cardona founded the transgender advocacy group Transitions Louisiana, which hosted a town hall meeting March 10 following the recent deaths of three transgender women in Louisiana
— including two people in New Orleans — after one of the most deadly years for transgender people in the U.S.
The town hall is likely the first public meeting organized entirely by transgender women of color to have the attention of both New Orleans Police Department (NOPD) brass and members of the City Council, with at least one running for mayor. At-Large Councilman Jason Williams and District B Councilmember (and likely mayoral candidate) LaToya Cantrell, as well as staff from the offices of councilmembers Nadine Ramsey and Stacy Head, were present, joined by several NOPD officers, including the department's LGBT liaison Sgt. Frank Robertson.
The meeting not only had councilmembers and NOPD taking notes on potential policy but also inclusive language and pronoun use. Cardona told Gambit last week
that the meeting's "overarching goals, in addition to visibility, is to show that transgender people are capable of movement building, mobilizing and that our work is worthy of respect from our colleagues."
"When people are afraid, ignorance can get the best of them," Cardona told the crowd. "Xenophobia, the fear of the unknown, can cause people to ostracize others and may cause good people to, say, not hire transgender people or people who may be different. That leaves a whole sector of society not only unemployed but in a desperate condition."
Cardona said she lost her job and savings when she began transitioning, then wasn't able to get a job, even at fast food restaurants, and experienced homelessness. It wasn't until she could "pass" as a woman that she felt accepted, barely, and "that's when they eased up off me a little bit, when it came time to trust me with something."
"That's real," Cardona said. "That's so real."
But, Cardona said, "today is a brand new day, if you are transgender in the state of Louisiana. Today we break the chains of invisibility and proclaim our existence. We take away the cloak of indignity and bear the truth to the entire world.
"We're real people, we are present, and we are life."
Williams said it's on the rest of the city to work to end that cycle of violence, which extends beyond the deaths of transgender people to include economic vulnerability, over-prosecution and lack of access to health care and housing. "All of these things are the insidious violence affecting people of the city and state, especially transgender and gender-queer people," Williams said. "We need to stand up for them if we're gonna stand up for everybody."
"These violent deaths mean so much more when you look at the big picture," he said. "If we're not fighting for all of us, we're not fighting for any of us."
Cantrell said the city and state should look to find ways to lower fees for name and gender changes on driver's licenses, or consider municipal ID cards, and create an employment office within city government to help end workplace discrimination. Cantrell said raising the issues doesn't have anything to do with her running for mayor, "but everything to do with being a citizen of New Orleans."
Speakers in the crowd frequently circled back to what Cantrell called the "low-hanging fruit" for policy changes — what city officials could do immediately or address in legislation to be more inclusive to transgender and gender-noncomforming people. First, they said, officials should reach out more often beyond requisite town halls that shouldn't only come after murders of vulnerable people, and officials should use more inclusive language — both in person and in policy — that doesn't "erase" nonbinary people (using they or them in place of he or she, or siblings in place of brothers and sisters, for example.)
Williams invited groups to speak to the City Council, and Cantrell said there should be more LGBT representation on city boards and commissions.
But progressive policies locally may be met with conservative platforms in Baton Rouge, particularly Attorney General Jeff Landry's challenges
to Gov. John Bel Edwards' anti-discrimination orders.
"There's no way we're going to let the attorney general from Louisiana treat transgender people as if they aren't part of the fabric of this city and state," she said. "We're going to resist, every step of the way."
Cantrell said that working on local legislation within a red state also is likely to face "preemptive legislation" to counter it. "We're in this red state, and our efforts seem to get dumbed down," she said.
Speakers also urged officials to prevent health care systems from misgendering at hospitals, which could be solved by more accessible ways to change names and gender on IDs. Cardona said Transitions Louisiana hopes to create a low- or no-cost clinic to help people change their names and correct their gender identities on IDs.
Speakers also asked whether the city had plans for gender neutral bathrooms in public buildings, how a planned low-barrier homeless shelter will accommodate LGBT people, and if public resources typically marked for gay men can be accessible for transgender people who are transitioning. One speaker also asked whether the city's all-charter school system will support queer and trans students.
NOPD's Robertson said he's three things that carry social stigmas: "I'm black, I'm gay, and I'm a police officer."
Robertson said his role is to "bridge that alliance together" between law enforcement and LGBT people, who are disproportionately targeted by police in addition to more likely being a victim of violent crime, particularly for transgender people of color. The NOPD has set out to change its "community policing" policies following its consent decree with the Department of Justice and ongoing reforms under Superintendent Michael Harrison.
"We are listening to you," Robertson said. "We are your family ... The only thing I need you to do is work with us." Robertson pointed out several NOPD brass at the meeting: "We're here."
But, according to Jai Shavers with LGBT advocacy group BreakOUT!, that relationship isn't a "family" until NOPD has established trust with the community, not the other way around. "We're often not treated like human beings, let alone family," said Shavers, who pressed NOPD to listen, seek people out who are afraid to speak with police rather than expect them to come to them, and find ways to reach out to people who don't feel safe.
Robertson also was criticized for saying he understands the "lifestyle," with members of the crowd arguing he shouldn't represent LGBT people within NOPD if he's unable to understand the difference between a chosen "lifestyle" and the realities of being LGBT.
Robertson says NOPD is "making significant progress" on the cases of Ciara McElveen and Chyna Gibson, the two transgender woman killed in New Orleans, though he couldn't address the specifics of the investigation. "We're not letting this go," he said. "We're going to have both of these cases solved."
Cardona said she sees the town hall as momentum for a citywide "task force" organized by ward. People signed up to join on clipboards asking whether they believe in transgender liberation.
"If you have transgender children, and you don't understand what's going on, don't worry — just deal with it together," Cardona told the crowd at the start of the meeting. "Together is how we survive."