31 March 2012

For Alexis Rivera

Just before I started my transition, I attended the wake and funeral of Sylvia Rivera.  (I can't believe a decade has passed since then!) She died at the same age at which I had my gender-reassignment surgery.  At the time, I remember thinking that she had died (relatively) young but had accomplished--and lived through--so much.

That seems to be the story for so many trans people who manage to find the strength of their voices.  I am going to talk about one such person in a moment. However, there are far too many others who, for various reasons, simply die young--like the person I'm going to mention.

Alexis Rivera (no relation to Sylvia, to my knowledge) was only 34 years old when she died on Wednesday, 28 March.  She'd become a grandmother only a month before her death.  In California, she  was one of the leaders of the transgender community, fighting for our equality.  She also worked on issues relating to AIDS.  According to reports, complications from that disease resulted in her death.

Now, I have had people in my life die that way.  Even though treatments have improved, and the length and quality of the lives of those affected have improved, it's still a terrible way to die.  On the other hand, the fact that people do live longer (I remember when people lived no more than a year after being diagnosed.) and can spend at least some of that time in much the same ways as people who aren't infected has much to do with the work of Ms. Rivera, not to mention any number of dedicated scientists and medical professionals.

Still, I couldn't help but to think about things that I didn't understand when Sylvia Rivera died.  For one thing, the fact that both she and Alexis died relatively young had, ironically and sadly, much to do with the fact that they  "came out" and transitionsed (at least in Alexis' case) at a young age.  Sylvia, from what I know about her, seemed not to have a choice; somehow I think the same was true of Alexis.  What that meant for Sylvia--and I susupect, for Alexis--is that they didn't have access to some of the care and support we can find (even if we are of modest means) when we're in our 40's and 50's.  Plus, more people are more aware of what it means to be trans now than when we were young.   

Also, I suspect that being leaders of the activist movements for transgenders and people afflicted with HIV/AIDS made it more difficult for Sylvia and Alexis to care, or get care, for themselves.  People like them feel--rightly, I believe--the need to be strong and to seem brave for us, and to the rest of the world.  Part of that has to do with not wanting others to see chinks in the armor.  People like the Riveras--especially Alexis--do not want our detractors to see their (and, by extension, our) vulnerabilities.  

Plus, I think having to overcome the adversities they experienced may have led both of them to trivialize whatever medical or other problems they may have had.  I think now of an activist who is a dear friend:  Jay Toole.  He has had various health problems which, I suspect, are due to having lived a more stressful life (a family situation so terrible I can scarcely imagine it, and having to live in a world even more hostile to "butches" than the one I have experienced as a trans woman) and to his attempts to be strong for all of those for whom he is working.  There is also, of course, the issue of getting health care that is appropriate for his physical needs as well as sensitive toward the ways in which he differs from most people.  

In the end, though, I believe the most important parallel between Jay's and Alexis' health problems is this:  They put others before themselves.  Alexis said that everything she did was motivated by love; knowing Jay, I believe that he has similar, if not identical, motivations.  He never demeans those against whom he has to fight; instead, he sees them as people who can be educated and won over.  From what I've heard about Alexis, she had a similar way of seeing her opponents, whom neither she nor Jay would label as enemies.

Although I never had the opportunity to meet Alexis Rivera and have only heard and read about her work, I feel I owe her a debt of gratitude.  We may have lost her "too soon," but wherever she is going will be better for her energy and spirit.