Aria Sa’id a force for change among trans women of color

“The Trump administration has been very vocal about stripping away rights and laws that affirm trans people — and it’s very odd, because 10 years ago, no one even mentioned the word ‘transgender’ at all,” Aria Sa’id says. “So now that the word is banned at the CDC, and people are actually uttering the word, it feels like progress. Even if they are stripping away rights legislatively, socially there’s much more progress.”

That’s the upside-down, George Carlin-esque state of public health in America, where the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention banned words like “diversity,” “fetus” and “science-based” last year. But Sa’id, founder and director of the Kween Culture Initiative, knows from experience that progress is not linear.

The LGBT policy advisor for San Francisco’s Human Rights Commission, Sa’id is an out trans woman who’s been active in the forthcoming Compton’s TLGB District, legislative fights on behalf of intersex children in California, and in the general push for gender-neutral public restrooms.

But just as a well-publicized pushback against transphobia at the federal level indicates a growing recognition of the difficulties transgender Americans face in their lives, small successes at the local level can have consequences, too.

Sa’id, who is candid about her struggles with depression, says that achieving the positive sometimes requires emphasizing the negative.

“I was doing these empowerment speeches and keynotes,” she says, “and every time, I have to bring up violence, stigma, unemployment, harassment, and the fact that trans women are disenfranchised and marginalized. I feel like I have to do that every day, in order to get people’s attention.”

It started to feel as though hammering the point home had the unfortunate byproduct of discouragement among her peers.

“I was sharing it with other trans people: ‘Who wants to own that, every single day?’ That’s a reality that we face, but that’s not who we are,” she says. “I was never in spaces where I heard that trans women were beautiful or resilient or powerful; I was just hearing sort of the highlights of our despair.”

So Sa’id created the Kween Culture Initiative, a peer-led group dedicated to cultural enrichment and health equity. The idea is for trans women to show each other the way — especially people who may not know much about trans history. But the organization punches above its weight, too.

“Many of the surgeons that operate on trans women are not formally trained” in the specifics of transgender health care, Sa’id says. “How you learn, in theory, is you shadow a surgeon — and so many surgeons are shadowing for a couple of weeks, then doing surgeries. So many girls are having to have four or five revision surgeries to correct mistakes.

“Currently,” she adds, “the powers that be that oversee standardization of transgender medicine and health care are all cisgender white men who are surgeons themselves.”

So rather than wait for the World Professional Association of Transgender Health to intervene, they’re rallying to take action.

“When I had my surgery, they were kind of like, ‘Oh, you’re cured, goodbye!’ There’s no actual support and no education around being healthy.”

Ten years after her own transition — when she was still in high school — SF Pride has recognized Sa’id’s decade of work, which began when the only possibility models were on shows like Jerry Springer.

“Don’t get me wrong, I love Jerry Springer,” Sa’id says. “But that was the only narrative we saw. Now, you see trans women on social media.

“At the federal level, there has been a reversal of the few rights that we’ve already sort of developed during the Obama administration,” she continues. “But there’s also been state legislation that’s affirmed people different ways, and socially we’re more empowered. We have more jobs and employment and housing than I ever did 11 or 12 years ago. It’s tricky.”

Peter Lawrence Kane
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Peter Lawrence Kane

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