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Transgender pride festival celebrates freedoms but isn't carefree

Last month's attack on a transgender woman in Hollywood serves as a reminder of ongoing discrimination and dangers. Still, 'we've come a long way,' an attendee says.

June 22, 2013|By Kurt Streeter, Los Angeles Times
  • People compete in a hula hoop contest at the 14th annual Trans Pride L.A. festival in Hollywood.
People compete in a hula hoop contest at the 14th annual Trans Pride L.A.… (Luis Sinco, Los Angeles…)

In late May, a transgender woman named Vivian was viciously attacked while walking on Hollywood Boulevard, a reminder of the sharp-edged danger still facing the transgender community.

"As much progress as there has been, we have to live with one eye open, always looking over our shoulders," Rodrigo Lehtinen, 27, said Saturday afternoon as he stood in a courtyard a few blocks from the near-fatal beating. Lehtinen surveyed the scene before him: a lively group of about 400 transgender men and women gathered for the 14th annual Trans Pride L.A. festival. "There are still terrible reminders of the problems we face, like the attack on Vivian," he said. "There are also more moments like this, where we can come together, openly, without living in fear."

Lehtinen's sentiments, echoed repeatedly at the festival, highlight the nuanced struggle for a community reveling in new freedoms while still facing an uphill battle against discrimination. The two-day event ended Saturday and featured music and art, as well as booths run by advocacy groups. There was also a clinic on health insurance, a sign-up for applicants interested in legally changing their names and genders and a moderated conversation with Laverne Cox, a transgender actress with a role in an upcoming Netflix series, "Orange Is the New Black."

"The light and relaxed mood here is something a lot of us couldn't imagine until very recently," said Isabella McGrath, a 34-year-old art historian who said she began hormone replacement therapy to help her become a woman three years ago. McGrath smiled, reflecting on recent shifts in how her community views itself and is viewed by others. (Polls show Americans growing more accepting of transgender people.)

Seeing large groups of transgender people gathering in open, daytime celebration is still rare but becoming more common, McGrath said. "We've come a long way, but we're at the beginning, and there's still a long way to go.… We worry about our jobs and where we live. I worry a lot about being attacked."

A few feet behind McGrath, on a piece of orange fabric that festival-goers were adorning with hand-written messages, three words were penned in black ink: "Justice for Vivian."

The note referred to the brazen May 31 attack by a group of four men on the transgender restaurant worker. The woman, identified by authorities only as Vivian, was knocked to the ground, stomped and kicked repeatedly, an attack that left her hospitalized with broken bones and once again galvanized a community that has long lived with the fear of deadly hate crimes.

Last week the Los Angeles Police Department announced the arrest of one of the four wanted in the attack. Many at the festival saw that as a hopeful sign, simply because relations between police and the transgender community have often been tense. "The police are finally taking us seriously," one man, who didn't want to be identified, said as he looked at a pamphlet about spirituality and sexual identity. "Before, it felt like we didn't matter."

Added Jake Finney, a 42-year-old who works on anti-violence campaigns for the gay and lesbian center: "What happened to Vivian is one side of our lives, but this is just as important. I look up at the people here — a diverse group of people, all races and backgrounds, people who might not usually interact — it's amazing for us to feel this free ... this empowered and affirmed."

In the courtyard, a woman slung a hula hoop around her hips and danced beside a smiling man. People mingled and chatted and met for the first time. A singer stood on a stage, strumming a guitar and belting out a Christina Aguilera song: "I am beautiful, no matter what they say. Words can't bring me down. I am beautiful in every single way."

kurt.streeter@latimes.com

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