On March 30, during the initial COVID-19 surge in New York City, trans activist Lorena Borjas died in the Coney Island Hospital, at age 59. Eulogies came from far and wide, including from public figures like US Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, honoring Borjas’s life of advocacy, which persisted even through the pandemic that killed her—two weeks before her death, Borjas launched a popular GoFundMe for trans people who were economically affected by COVID shutdowns.
“Her loss has underscored the need for access to COVID testing and the need for us to address the barriers that trans folks face,” says Portland community organizer Sharli Love. “She was connected very well in the community, she actually ran an HIV clinic in her own home, and she sadly passed away.”
As a volunteer with the Oregon Health Authority’s SERV-OR project (a registry of health professionals and others ready to be called upon in emergencies), Love has participated in events designed to increase access to COVID testing for Black Portlanders. Inspired by those events, she’s spearheaded the Queer and Trans Day of COVID Testing, which will provide free COVID-19 tests to queer and trans Portlanders from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Sunday, November 22, at the Quest Center for Integrative Health on East Burnside.
“It is very difficult not to draw the parallels between 30 years ago and what was happening at the time with the HIV pandemic that was ravaging the LGBTQ+ community,” says Jenya Gluzberg, an HIV services manager at the Quest Center who connects HIV+ people with mental health and substance use treatment resources. The Quest Center began more than 30 years ago as an HIV services organization, and its roots in the LGBTQ+ community run deep—Love came to Gluzberg through the Queer Resource Center at Portland Community College (where Love is a student), and, with help from OHA’s mobile response team, the Queer and Trans Day of Testing was born.
The event will take place in the Quest Center’s parking lot, with two lanes of drive-up testing and a walk-up line with eight-foot markers to ensure social distancing. Anyone is welcome, but the event specifically prioritizes and encourages queer or trans-identified to utilize the tests for free, with or without symptoms, with no ID or proof of citizenship required. The tests will be self-administered nasal swabs, and local food organizations like Esther’s Pantry, Alberta Co-op, and the People’s Food Co-op will provide food bags and boxes.
On top of issues like the LGBTQ+ community’s high burden of chronic illness and socioeconomic disadvantages, which make its members especially vulnerable to COVID, Love hopes the event underlines the importance of collecting health data from trans people.
“Up until very recently, most state data collection did not capture transgender identities, so we don’t even know [how COVID-19 is affecting trans folks],” Love says. “Anecdotally, within the community, we do know that people are worse off. We do know that people are having worsening mental health issues. People have faced barriers in accessing gender-affirming care.”
In planning the event, Love has successfully lobbied OHA to make its data more inclusive of various gender identities. “They’re not necessarily ideal,” she says of the agency’s new policies and options, “but they’re a step in the right direction.”
Gluzberg calls her own access to COVID testing, as an “incredibly privileged, white, cis, heterosexual, full-time-employed, fully insured” individual, “extremely limited.” She’s successfully been tested once, and not for a lack of trying. “And of course, knowing the statistics, the way that COVID ravages Native and Indigenous communities, BIPOC communities, queer and trans communities,” she says, “makes this event so much more needed and real.”
The timing was no accident. Falling at the end of Transgender Awareness Week, and two days after the Transgender Day of Remembrance, the Queer and Trans Day of COVID Testing is designed as a deliberate call to action to improve health outcomes for LGBTQ+ people. Gluzberg is on the planning committee for the National Transgender HIV Testing Day and says the lessons she’s learned from working with Love will carry through to that event, including a push for its umbrella to include COVID and hepatitis C tests.
“We’ve lost people to violence, we’ve lost people to suicide, and this year we’ve lost people to COVID. And it is sad. And as part of this event, we want to remember those who have passed,” Love says. Then, invoking legendary 20th-century union organizer Mother Jones, she adds: “We want to remember the dead and fight like hell for the living.”
10 a.m.–4 p.m. Sunday, November 22, Quest Center for Integrative Health, 2901 E Burnside St. #1831. Register in person or online at labdash.net