The wide scar that runs the length of Vivi Lozoya’s abdomen is a daily reminder of the brutal attack that almost took her life.
She constantly replays the incident in her mind.
It was May 2011, and Lozoya, a transgender prostitute, had recently run away from the pimp she says had abused her and held her captive for two years.
One day while she was out with friends, Lozoya says a man working for her pimp and his associates came up to her on the street, tapped her on the shoulder, and stabbed her in the stomach - she can't remember if it was three or four times. She does remember what the man said before sticking the knife in: "They sent me to wish you sweet dreams."
The recovery was grueling. To this day, Lozoya says, when she drinks water, it sometimes feels as if it’s seeping out of her digestive tract.
"And I still dream about being chased," she recounts one recent afternoon, sitting in her apartment in a working-class Los Angeles neighborhood. She says she doesn’t know if her attacker was ever caught.
Violence is common
Lozoya’s experience was extreme in its brutality. But advocates say violence against transgender women, specifically transgender immigrants like Lozoya who are in the U.S. illegally, is all too common.
In response, immigrant rights groups are beginning to expand the scope of their work to raise awareness about the discrimination and abuse that gay, and specifically transgender, immigrants often face.
Zizi Bandera, an organizer with the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles, says the impetus to address these issues was the realization that the broader LGBT movement - with its emphasis on marriage equality - has not embraced the cause of gay immigrants.
"It’s led by gay white men and it hasn’t centered the lives of immigrants that are also LGBT, and particularly transgender," Bandera maintains.
A 2011 study by the National Center for Transgender Equality found that 26 percent of transgender people had experienced either physical or sexual abuse. But advocates believe the number is much higher among transgender immigrants, because of intolerant families or because those in the country illegally are much more likely to engage in prostitution to survive, or both. What drives those high rates of abuse, Bandera asserts, is the belief by some people that transgender lives are expendable.
Abuse from an early age
For Lozoya, the abuse began early, even before she arrived in the U.S. at 19 and began the transition from man to woman. She says it began when Vivi Lozoya was Jose Lozoya, a 12-year-old gay boy living in the Mexican state of Guanajuato. Beatings from homophobic family members were common, Lozoya remembers.
Once in the U.S., Lozoya decided to become a woman physically, and paid for the surgeries with the money earned from prostitution. Always trusting and, she admits, a bit naïve, Lozoya says she welcomed an offer by a man she met on the street to help her earn more money by placing ads for her services.
Before long, she says, the man was driving her from one hotel to another across northern California, beating her and forcing her to have sex with up to 30 men a day.
When she finally ran away, she filed a restraining order against him, she recalls. She thought that would keep him away; she hadn’t expected him to send someone to kill her.
Lozoya only recently started sharing her story. One afternoon in mid-April, she stands before a crowd of people near downtown L.A. and lifts her blouse to show the gruesome scar.
The first "Day of Transgender Survivors"
The event, called the First International Day of Transgender Survivors, is a resource fair organized by the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights. About 200 transgender people and their allies show up to tell stories of violence and survival.
When Banderas began working with transgender immigrants about two years ago, she noticed that many of those who came to the Coalition for immigration help - especially the transgender women - had stories of being attacked.
"I can’t think of one transgender woman here that I’ve worked with that hasn’t faced some kind of severe physical violence in her life," she says.
And yet many of the women no longer seem fazed by the violence, as if they are used to it, she adds. Banderas says she’s spending a lot of time trying to get transgender women to understand that such violence isn’t normal - and that it should be reported to the police.
Those in the country illegally resist going to the authorities "out of fear of deportation," Bandera says. Others hesitate "out of fear that their abuser or the person that attacked them will find them later on if the police [don't] follow up the way they should."
The Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights is beginning to work with police to sensitize them to the issues that transgender people face and to encourage them to investigate attacks against transgender people as hate crimes, Bandera says. Though she acknowledges that a hate motive isn’t always apparent in such crimes, she's convinced that "their transgender identity has everything to do with the violence they experience."
A stark reminder
The resource fair culminates with a noisy march to nearby MacArthur Park, with transgender men and women and their supporters chanting and carrying signs declaring, "Trans Lives Matter" and "Trans Lives Are Beautiful."
As she marches, Vivi Lozoya says being so visible and open about her story gives her a sense of empowerment unlike any she’s felt before.
But that mood is quickly spoiled. As the rally’s participants head back to their cars, three transgender women are assaulted in two separate attacks.
Organizer Zizi Bandera says the attacks are a reminder: While transgender people want to make themselves more visible to the world, doing so still isn’t completely safe.
She says the coalition plans to increase security at next year’s event.