Previously published at Common Dreams
A Mexican transgender activist and pageant winner denied a U.S. visa to participate in San Francisco’s Pride parade during former President Donald Trump’s transphobic tenure is hopeful that policy changes implemented by the Biden administration will allow her to return to the United States, a country she once called home.
After four years of overt hostility toward the queer community—and especially transgender people—during the Trump era, and amid mounting attacks on trans rights in Republican-controlled states, the Biden administration quickly moved to restore and expand LGBTQ+ rights.
In language unimaginable until recently, President Joe Biden celebrated this year’s Transgender Day of Visibility by hailing the “achievements and resiliency” of the trans community, praising its “generations of struggle, activism, and courage” and vowing a commitment to “fulfilling the promise of America for all Americans by stamping out discrimination and delivering freedom and equality for all.”
Trans activists around the world have taken notice of the White House’s new tone.
“I feel like the times are changing,” Lorena Amor Barajas, a pioneering LGBTQ+ rights advocate and reigning Miss Trans Global Mexico, told Common Dreams in a weekend phone interview. “I really hope it’s true.”
In the spring of 2019, Barajas, then recently crowned Miss Trans Jalisco, was invited to participate in San Francisco Pride, marching in the parade and mentoring transgender Latinx youth.
“I was only going to stay three days in San Francisco,” she explained, sharing a glowing letter of recommendation from Jalisco’s state tourism director that cited her activism and the achievement of being the first transgender member of Mexico’s National Chamber of Commerce.
With her home city of Puerto Vallarta and San Francisco—both known for their dynamic queer populations—being newly twinned sister cities, Barajas, who has nearly a million social media followers and hosts a popular late-night LGBTQ+ television talk show, was selected as an emissary to represent both her hometown and its LGBTQ+ community at SF Pride 2019. The Jalisco tourism bureau paid her airfare, accommodation, and other expenses and sent her on her way to Guadalajara for what she thought would be an easy visa approval.
There was very little risk of Barajas remaining in the United States. In addition to her activism and her burgeoning modeling career, she is also a renowned hairstylist who owns a successful salon in tony Marina Vallarta. She was sure she would get her visa.
But after Barajas placed her finger on a biometric scanner at the U.S. consulate, the young officer questioned why the name on his computer screen did not match the one on her identification documents. She explained that she successfully fought to become one of the first trans people in Mexico to legally amend their identification to match their gender identity.
“He didn’t believe me,” she said. “He said, ‘You’re a man, not a woman.’ He called me Antonio, my old name. He said I was not fit to travel to the United States.”
“I was so excited for an amazing experience in my life, but they cut my wings,” lamented Barajas. “I lost so many opportunities, not only for my career, but for the young trans people I want to help, for all the amazing activists in the LGBT community.”
Barajas’ denial came as the Trump administration waged what the Human Rights Campaign called “a reign of hate” against LGBTQ+ people.
From banning trans people from serving in the military to stripping trans workers, students, patients, unhoused people, prisoners, and others of their civil rights, Trump’s war on gender-nonconforming people culminated in a bid to literally define transgender people out of existence by narrowly defining gender as a fixed biological condition determined by a person’s genitals at birth. The administration even tried to export its bigotry abroad by removing the word “gender” from United Nations human rights documents.
After being denied a U.S. visa, Barajas focused on her activism and growing her business and modeling career. Last year, she was selected from a pool of 50 nationwide contestants to represent Mexico in the Miss Trans Global pageant in the United Kingdom.
“I had no trouble getting into the country,” she said.
Robyn McCutcheon, who was the first openly transgender career U.S. foreign service officer, told Common Dreams that discriminatory visa denials happened “fairly often” during the Trump era.
“It does not surprise me at all, but it saddens me greatly,” McCutcheon—who transitioned while serving in Romania during the supportive Obama administration—said of Barajas’ experience trying to enter the United States.
McCutcheon explained that non-immigrant visa applicants are usually only afforded a few minutes to present their papers—and their cases—at an officer’s window.
Some consular officers, she said, “are making decisions willy-nilly based on notions they brought with them from home.”
“Mostly entry-level foreign service officers work at consular visa windows,” McCutcheon continued. “Younger people looking to make a career in the foreign service are much more attuned to what’s going to please the consular chief, or which way the political winds are currently blowing in Washington.”
“In order to move their own careers forward,” she added, “there might be some who, either subconsciously or due to their preconceived notions,” engage in discriminatory behavior.
McCutcheon saw it herself while serving as an officer at the U.S. Embassy in Astana, Kazakhstan during the Obama and Trump administrations. In August 2017 she filed a dissent cable decrying what she alleged was a “lack of understanding of LGBTQI issues” among in-country U.S. consular officials after two well-qualified transgender visa applicants were denied visas.
One of these was a young woman named Sultana Kali who, after being expelled from her school in 2015 due to her gender identity, was set to attend Lane Community College in Eugene, Oregon. Of the 15 Kazakh applicants accepted into Lane since 2010, only Kali—who appeared in the U.S. Embassy’s 2016 Human Rights Day video—was denied a visa. “This fact,” McCutcheon wrote in her dissent, “raises the question” of whether consular officers are “expressing latent transphobia.”
Speaking now, McCutcheon dispenses with diplomatic delicacy: Kali “was denied simply because she was trans,” she said.
Discriminatory denials happened even during the Obama administration. Central American trans rights activists Mixair Nolasco, Stacy Vásquez Velásquez, and Ambar Alvarado Alfaro were invited to attend the 2015 Organization of American States General Assembly in Washington, D.C. Despite having all their documentation in order, the women were denied visas.
So, has the Biden administration lived up to its lofty pro-trans rhetoric when it comes to transgender people outside the United States—especially from the Global South—trying to enter the country?
For trans people without permission to enter the U.S., the answer largely remains no. Undocumented asylum-seeking trans immigrants still report physical, psychological, and sexual abuse while in U.S. immigration lockups.
But for others, especially those with the means and privilege to travel abroad, there have been noticeable improvements. When asked if things have changed for the better internally at the State Department, McCutcheon—who retired in 2019—replied affirmatively.
For one thing, “there are now more trans foreign service officers,” she said. “Still less than 10, but an order-of-magnitude improvement.”
McCutcheon relates that Kali gave up on trying to come to the U.S. and is now living in Europe.
“I don’t know if she’ll ever want to visit the United States after her experience,” she added.
Barajas would like to return to the U.S. to finish what she was unable to start.
“We are all together in the same world” she said. “We are all only human and we all deserve to have the same opportunities in life.”
“I still want to go to Pride in San Francisco. I want to work with Latino LGBT and trans activists there,” she added. “Many Latino trans people live in the U.S. I want to show them my life, to give them an example of what they can do in their lives if they want it. I want my wings back.”