By Jeff Taylor and Kate Sosin
Relentless. That is how friends and activists in New York describe transgender activist Lorena Borjas.
With a grocery cart full of papers and a hand full of metro cards, 59-year-old Borjas irrevocably changed queer New York and LGBTQ organizations throughout the nation. On Monday, March 30, she died due to complications of COVID-19.
“She was the embodiment of systems of love and mutual aid, and she just knew how to take care of people,” Chase Strangio, a trans attorney with the ACLU, tells NewNowNext. “She was everywhere.”
Borjas migrated to the U.S. from Mexico in 1981 while in her early 20s. In the U.S., she came into her gender identity and found a community. But in 1990, she was arrested for prostitution and human trafficking, charges she says that were false. The convictions blocked her from renewing her permanent residency or becoming a U.S. citizen.
Despite this precarious legal status, Borjas fought ceaselessly for her trans Latinx peers, hounding local LGBTQ organizations into doing more and better for the clients they served.
Strangio likens Borjas to a modern-day Marsha P. Johnson or Sylvia Rivera, not because of the speeches she made, but due to her on-the-ground organizing brilliance, the way she shepherded countless trans people through a criminal legal system built to punish them. He recalls meeting her in 2010 when he was still a law intern at the Sylvia Rivera Law Project (SRLP).
“She was just relentless about how we weren’t doing enough and people were getting arrested,” he says.
Strangio credits Borjas with launching his career, which has included some of the most high-profile transgender legal battles in history. Strangio says it was Borjas who educated him on the law and how it could crush marginalized people and be used as a tool to liberate.
There was no one like Lorena. We really screwed this all up not protecting and saving our beloved heroes. Please know all of this about her. Please remember her. Please fight in her memory. pic.twitter.com/kyQsdtucXF
— Chase Strangio (@chasestrangio) March 30, 2020
Borjas regularly arrived at the doorstep of SLRP, the New York City Anti-Violence Project, the Transgender Law Center and other local organizations with with new clients, insisting they be seen. Her grocery cart contained the multitudes of papers, cases she was working on for different people in the community.
Cecilia Gentili, a personal friend of Borjas and the founder of Transgender Equity Consulting, formerly the Director of Policy at GMHC, said she met the longtime advocate through her work handing out condoms to sex workers. At the time, the NYPD would confiscate them and use them as evidence, so Borjas would make sure anyone who needed access to a couple of condoms at a time knew they could come to her and avoid having too many on their person if stopped.
We’re devastated by the passing of Lorena Borjas this morning. Lorena saved so many lives from state violence, neglect, and abuse, and she fought tirelessly for trans migrants, people living with HIV, and sex workers. Lorena should still be with us. pic.twitter.com/KLUVhEZCNY
— TransgenderLawCenter (@TransLawCenter) March 30, 2020
“And then I started learning more and more, like girls would come out of immigration detention and she would have them in her house,” Gentili tells NewNowNext. “Mind you, she lives in a studio.”
“And then, if one of the girls would get arrested, they would give her a call at three in the morning, and Lorena would answer, and first thing in the morning she’d be in court, with a lawyer, and with money to bail them out, because she knew that it was so important for the girls to avoid going to Rikers [especially with fears of ending up in ICE custody].”
It is with a heavy heart I have to inform that this morning at 5:22 AM. Lorena Borjas, mother of the Trans latinx community of Queens passed away. Rest in peace. pic.twitter.com/LvuPJfH3iF
— Cecilia Gentili (@CeciliaGentili) March 30, 2020
“Most of her most significant work was unpaid work, she had a full-time job, but when she would finish working, she would go to the clubs, and to the street, and she had groups, and she was the point person in Queens. If you needed something, you asked Lorena.”
Gentili says she would help people find doctors, lawyers, get their names changed, find housing, and whatever else was needed where she could help.
“I can talk about her for hours,” she says, cutting herself off. “She was such a force for the community, and this is just so terrible for all of us.”
“She was really the most kindhearted person in the world,” New York City Councilmember Daniel Dromm, a friend of Borjas for 20 years, tells NewNowNext. “There wasn’t a thing that she wouldn’t do to help someone.”
Heartbroken to share that #LorenaBorjas, a prolific trans organizer & Queens activist, passed away from COVID-19.
— Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (@AOC) March 30, 2020
But her own legal status complicated her advocacy, Dromm says. For years, she carried the burden of her convictions and the fact that they prevented her from becoming a citizen.
“We pleaded with Governor [Andrew] Cuomo to grant her a pardon so that she could get her citizenship,” says Dromm. “And in fact, it happened to work.”
On December 26, 2017, Cuomo called Borjas and told her he had noticed her work in the community for over 25 years and was pardoning her.
“She finally felt like, I think, a complete human being,” says Dromm. “After all those years of struggle. It was an incredible moment.”
Gentili says she was in contact with Borjas a few times a week by phone and would meet with her once a week in person. The pair had plans to meet up on March 14 to do some work together, when she got a call from Borjas, who complained of a fever and cough.
Gentili told Borjas she needed to go to the hospital, but she was initially resistant to the idea.
She says they were able to bring Borjas’ temperature down and sent her home with Tylenol, while awaiting results from a test to determine if she did indeed have COVID-19.
Lorena Borjas, known as the "Mother of the Trans Latinx" community in Queens, has passed away. She will be greatly missed but never forgotten. Her spirit will live on among those she loved and influenced. May she rest in power. https://t.co/x0CfeMs7Ly pic.twitter.com/H0rLL4q9RC
— NYC Council Speaker Corey Johnson (@NYCSpeakerCoJo) March 30, 2020
She appeared to be on the mend but quickly took a turn for the worse, according to Gentili, at which time she was taken to the hospital once more, this time to Coney Island Hospital, where she was “intubated, and sedated, and medicated,” Gentili reports.
“It was hard because we are her family of choice, you know, and doctors didn’t want to share things with us, but it was good that she had a proxy, and we were able to…make some decisions for her. It was really hard, though. Really, really hard,” she adds.
Gentili says she wants people to know how much her friend survived, including violence in Mexico as well as in the United States, working as a sex worker, addiction, and jail, and that it is “unfair” that she should be taken by “a virus, which everybody should have the chance to survive.”
But she also wants them to remember how “she found her calling in community, and she helped the community so much that it’s really hard to even explain the immensity of her work.”
“Her legacy will continue,” she adds, “and we’ll continue to do the work that she started.”