Meet Isa Noyola, the Women's March board member shining light on trans immigrant issues
The momentum behind the first annual Women’s March was historic. Taking place on January 21st, 2017, the day after an alleged sexual predator who’s bragged about grabbing women “by the pussy” was sworn into the Oval Office, the march helped turn the resulting grief and rage into an organized movement that’s estimated to be the largest single-day protest in U.S. history. The estimated four-million-people-strong protest didn’t provide a specific answer to the question of where we would go next or how we would do it, but it showed that millions of people wanted to at least move forward.
However, even with a record turnout of people in a seemingly unanimous fight, there were still so many voices missing. The march received criticism for centering too much on white women and promoting a white feminist agenda rather than an intersectional one. Many people felt marginalized communities weren’t getting a megaphone to their experiences. And there’s one statistic among all of this that can’t be ignored: More than half of the white women who voted in the 2016 presidential election cast their ballot for Trump.
So while the first Women’s March was an undoubtedly historic moment for the women’s movement, we weren’t, and still aren’t, as unified as it seemed. Three years later, with the 2020 Women’s March occurring on Saturday, January 18th, it’s clear there’s still work to do. The annual protest is still facing criticism for its focus on cisgender, able-bodied, white women and for allegations of being anti-Semitic.
Isa Noyola, a translatina activist and member of the Women’s March board, tells HelloGiggles that while the movement certainly has its issues, it’s not unique in those shortfalls.
As Noyola explains it, “everything has always been on fire.” Whitewashing is nothing new, so it’s not particularly surprising that it shows up even within progressive movements.
But Noyola doesn’t think pushing back against the critiques is the answer. Instead, she encourages inquiry and analysis, like asking, “How does white supremacy end up in an organization?” and then working toward “understanding racism, classism, and the different levels of oppression.”
Before the fall of 2019, Noyola hadn’t previously participated in the Women’s March and she says she had concerns about joining because of the criticisms the movement has received. But she didn’t want to be a part of that criticism without trying to figure out how to also be a part of the solution. So Noyola joined the board with a hopeful approach.
“Let me see what I can add in terms of my experience,” Noyola recalls thinking.
And that experience is extensive. Noyola is from the San Francisco Bay Area, where her activism took its roots. Her work started local, assessing all the small details that can make a big difference in the quality of life for trans immigrants.
“In the very beginning it was about [asking], ‘What are the local conditions and what do we need to keep our folks safe?'” Noyola says.
She worked to engage the community in support groups and provide access to mental health services, food, and stable housing. Noyola also served as deputy director at the Transgender Law Center, where she campaigned to release transgender women from ICE detention. Now she holds the same title at Mijente, a political, digital, and grassroots hub for Latinx and Chicanx organizing and movement building.
So the voice Noyola is adding to the Women’s March is not just her own; it’s the collective voice of everyone she’s worked with and served, and the many people she’s lost along the way.
“I came into this work out of sheer need of survival for our community who is being murdered at alarming rates,” Noyola says.
Like many others who spend their lives doing social justice work, Noyola has experienced a heartbreaking, fuel-to-the-fire moment—the moment that simultaneously broke her and made her promise to never quit fighting. It was when a trans woman she had worked closely with was brutally murdered.
“I couldn’t just mourn her death,” Noyola recalls, “and since then, I’ve been to funerals and vigils for trans women who’ve been murdered every year. I can’t escape that.”
With all of these intersections at play, trans immigrants are especially vulnerable. The National Center for Transgender Equality estimates that there are between 15,000 and 50,000 undocumented transgender immigrants living in the U.S. Often, trans asylum seekers leave their home countries to escape persecution, but they come face to face with it again in the ICE detention centers.
As reported by the Center for American Progress, ICE currently “detains transgender women in 17 facilities. Four are all-male facilities.” Trans women are also particularly vulnerable to abuse and harassment in detainment, and reports have found that this population was detained on average more than twice the length of detainment of all immigrants held in ICE custody during 2017.
“These are feminist issues,” Noyola explains. And the Women’s March has been listening.
After polling a community of those who have engaged with the march in the past and listening to voices like Noyola’s, the Women’s March has chosen immigration as one of its three focus areas this year, along with reproductive justice and climate change. As Noyola explains, the resources that are poured into “violent institutions” like ICE could make a monumental change if they were allocated toward healthy causes.
Despite the reality of violence Noyola faces in her community, she clings to hope. The Women’s March offers a global platform for her to bring these intersections of violence to light and work on solutions for change with a motivated audience. And while she may or may not be carrying a sign at this year’s protest, this is what it would read: “They tried to bury us, but they didn’t know we were seeds.” The common quote used in social justice work comes from Dinos Christianopoulos, a gay Greek poet who faced discrimination in the ’70s, and Noyola says it represents the resiliency of her community.
“Our communities endure so much violence and oppression and yet we continue to show up in powerful ways,” Noyola explains.