By Stacy Nguyen
Northwest Asian Weekly
“In my mind as a child, I knew that I was not like the other kids,” said Alexander Lee, 42. “I always had a sense of feeling out of place. There were a number of reasons for that. I grew up in a really white place. The first school I went to was a Lutheran school [in the 1980s], and my brothers and I were the only Asians in the whole school.”
The part of Orange County, California where Lee grew up wasn’t yet developed—though later it would become home to a robust, though mostly Christian, Asian community. Growing up in a Taiwanese and Chinese family among lots of white people, he and his brothers were constantly racially teased. “And usually, white kids didn’t even know they were doing it,” he said. “It was so pernicious, woven in the fabric of everything.”
Lee, who is trans, is the founder of the TGI Justice Project (TGIJP), a San Francisco Bay Area-based nonprofit that is currently Black trans women-led, fighting against human rights abuses, imprisonment, police violence, racism, poverty, and societal pressures. While its focus is on human rights abuses committed against transgender, gender variant, and intersex people (TGI) in California prisons, jails, and detention centers, its reach is becoming increasingly national, with it also doing some partnership work in Seattle.
Finding a place
Lee finished his undergrad at University of California, Berkeley in the late 1990s, at the same time he was coming out as trans. After years of being gender non-conforming, wearing male clothes, presenting masculine and identifying as lesbian, things still didn’t feel settled or at peace.
“I was still really unhappy, and there was something going on,” he said.
Lee hated when his appearance got pointed out by others—it made him really angry, so much so that he was getting into fights. He lost a lot of friends in the process.
“After graduating from college, I decided I needed to do something about this. So I started going to trans youth support groups. And that’s when things really started to crack open for me.”
Lee met new people. His world, which had broadened immensely in college, became even more expansive. He started contextualizing his own problems and issues within a broader movement. He started to understand that he had privilege.
In the late 1990s, in the San Francisco area, being trans meant being political.
There was little non-political or neutral identity for trans folks because their very existence prompted these political questions everywhere they went.
At the time, organizations like GLBT Historical Society still hadn’t put the T in their name. Transgender folks were largely isolated and invisible—the small community itself splintered and not yet organized. Lee said that, at the time, the San Francisco Police Department itself was responsible for 50% of hate crimes against trans people. (As recently as in 2018 though, FBI figures showed that the trans community saw a general hate crime increase of 42% over the previous year in San Francisco.)
Through trans support groups at LYRIC, Lee eventually got linked up volunteering at TransAction, a group that has sinced closed, but was dedicated to combatting police violence against the transgender community.
“These [kinds of] organizations at the time were collecting statistics, tracking hate violence, and putting money and time toward that effort,” said Lee. “My experience with TransAction informed my wanting to go to law school. Through them, I met lawyers and was really inspired by what they were doing. I really liked how they were very strategic and deliberate in moving power and confronting power. I liked how they actually created leverage working with community members, across different communities, to broad-based coalitions to get policy wins.”
Lee soaked up the information and the mentorship, finding TransAction’s approach to often be very smart.
But other times, it was often very white.
Also, in the beginning days of the group, Lee said that about 75% of group members were not trans. Members were part of the larger queer community, mostly LGB (lesbian, gay, bisexual), thus came from a particular political and social point of view.
“These were people who cared about the issues and sort of understood these things in an abstract, academic way—but not in a personal way.”
Lee’s parents are unique in that they are older than a lot of his peers’ parents. His parents are not baby boomers, but pre-boomers. They lived in Taiwan while it was still under Japanese colonization and militarization. During World War II, Taiwanese suffered mass casualties while serving in the Japanese armed forces as well as economic crisis as a result of Allied bomb raids. After the war, Taiwan’s industrial and agricultural output dropped severely.
Lee’s parents were war refugees, coming to the United States in the early 1960s, among some of the earliest of second wave immigrants. They settled in Orange County, in what is, today, an upper-middle class and politically conservative part of Southern California.
“My parents are Christians and very proud of talking about being Christians,” said Lee. “Because of their experience of World War II and coming from humble backgrounds, they have this mentality that has an incredible emphasis on material success.”
From the beginning, Lee and his brothers were told they were all going to be doctors, they were all going to play the piano, and they were all going to Chinese school on the weekends.
“There was the line of, ‘We’re gonna tell you what to do because we know best, and this is how to be successful in America when you start with very little.’”
Back then, Lee was seen as and presenting as female. So during a time when his parents were telling him who and what he had to be, he was contending with a fundamental discomfort of being in his body.
“The school I went to had a very strict dress code. Girls had to wear dresses. And I remember just hating every minute of being in these dresses, every single day. I would get them dirty, rip them off. I just hated it all the time—and that constant feeling of, ‘This is wrong, this is wrong,’ all the time, was wearing on me quite a bit.”
From a young age, Lee identified as lesbian, initially having a limited concept of being trans. His adolescence was isolating. In his community, there were no groups, no other kids or adults to talk to.
“So it was lonely, and I didn’t have guidance or insight into how to come out [as a lesbian] to my parents,” he said. “So I did it in a very messy way. I wrote about it in a college entrance essay. My mom found it.”
His mom also read it, which led to a huge argument in the household.
“I screamed at them, for a long time. My mom was crying. My dad was like, ‘I’m not having this,’ and he left the room.”
And the family just didn’t talk about it anymore for a while after that.
“Classic Asian fashion. Huge blow up—and then tension that no one talked about.”
As TransAction became more influential in its work, its members were getting more and more into the daily lives of trans women of color—Black women. Its work was concentrated in San Francisco’s Tenderloin District, downtown.
The Tenderloin is 50 square blocks, with housing almost entirely made up of single-room occupancy studios and one-bedrooms—former hotels.
In 1966, the area was wracked by the Compton’s Cafeteria Riot, the genesis of which stemmed from Compton’s Cafeteria staff calling the police on the trans women of color who tended to congregate in the cafeterias in evenings because they were banned from gay bars due to transphobia. The Compton’s Cafeteria Riot preceded Stonewall by three years and kicked off transgender activism in San Francisco.
In the late 1970s, scores of Southeast Asian refugees from Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos would stuff families of four or more into Tenderloin studios.
“[The Tenderloin is] extremely racially diverse—it’s incredibly gender identity and sexually diverse,” said Lee. “However, it is not income diverse. People tend to be low-income. That is where the heart of the trans community still is.”
As Lee did more and more work in the Tenderloin with TransAction, he met more and more Black trans women who lived there, worked there, and did all sorts of community and advocacy work for decades there. Lee started to understand that, in some ways, TransAction’s approach to advocacy work was backwards.
“We were coming in with a certain political agenda,” said Lee. “But didn’t necessarily help trans folks with what they were experiencing, with the police force.”
Lee grew up with his parents constantly telling him to never marry a person with darker skin—a Black person.
“In terms of anti-Blackness in the API community, I really want to connect with people on this,” said Lee. “Because so many of us cannot talk about this. We have a really hard time talking about this.”
In the video depicting the murder of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police on May 25, Hmong American police officer Tou Thao stood guard as Floyd’s neck was knelt on for nearly eight minutes.
In 2014, New York City police officer Peter Liang fired his gun, which hit Akai Gurley, a Black man walking down the stairs, and killed him.
In 1991, 15-year-old Latasha Harlins was shot and killed by Soon Ja Du, a Korean woman who owned a South Los Angeles liquor store—over a $1.79 bottle of orange juice. (Police later determined there was no attempt at shoplifting.)
In 1999, researcher Claire Jean Kim published, “The Racial Triangulation of Asian Americans,” which posits that white superiority and supremacy in America is created through the racializing and racial positioning of Blacks and Asians—pitting them against each other, basically.
There are two types of racial positions: superior/inferior and insider/outsider.
These are the points of the triangle:
Asians are positioned (under white supremacy) as superior to Blacks (reinforcing the totally erroneous model minority myth) while also being positioned as perpetual outsiders (permanent foreigners in America).
Blacks are positioned as inferior to whites and Asians (wielding less economic influence) while also being positioned as insiders (Americans).
Whites are positioned as superior to all, and are fully American.
White supremacy upholds itself by not only continually blocking and excluding one race from prospering due to its position on the triangle, but by also by forcing races to be in conflict with each other, with the false idea that resources and influence is limited.
This accounts for a lot of simmering, often unsaid and untouched racial tensions between Asians and Blacks. It is a root of a lot of anti-Blackness and colorism in the API community.
Lee gathered the inklings of what would become TGIJP through TransAction community forums in partnership with HIV organizations (at the time, HIV organizations were the only organizations serving trans people). It was in these meetings, in which TransAction members did presentations on how cops treated trans people before community discussion, that Lee learned that the conversation needed to be opened up and that the problem was so much broader.
“Lack of housing, lack of jobs—total disrespect trans people felt just going on with their daily lives—feeling lack of support from the LGBQ community—feeling abandoned by lesbian and gay organizations—the racism—the segregation.”
“And while it was clear police violence was a clear problem,” he added, “it wasn’t the only problem. There were so many other things going on that were more pressing for people’s day to day. All those people at the forum were like, ‘If I didn’t have to go out and sell drugs, if I didn’t have to go out and be a sex worker—I wouldn’t have to deal with police at all.’”
TGIJP, as Lee envisioned it coming out of law school, was meant to be a project for a couple of years. He wanted to help people who were in California prisons—and quickly learned the need was enormous.
“People would write to me from prison, and nearly everyone writing to me was Black—not everyone—but about 90-something percent,” he said. “Almost all of them were trans women who were in some sort of men’s facility.”
In the United States, prisons overwhelmingly and rigidly house prisoners according to their birth-assigned gender or genitalia, regardless of gender identity. Trans women are often locked up with men, facing violence, sexual assault, and rape. Trans men housed in women’s prisons also face abuse, more often from guards.
“While I was doing this work, I figured out that legal work on its own will not address problems created by the law,” said Lee.
TGIJP was started in 2004, providing legal services to TGI people in California’s prisons, jails, and detention centers. Famed trans activist Miss Major Griffin-Gracy joined the organization in 2005 as its first staff organizer (and later became its executive director). Today, the organization is led by Janetta Louise Johnson.
Under the leadership of the latter two Black trans women, TGIJP grew to a nonprofit with a budget of $1 million annually, making it one of only a handful of trans-led groups in the country with that kind of budget.
Over the years TGIJP, often with staff of entirely trans people of color, expanded its impact into peer legal advocacy for currently and formerly incarcerated folks as well as programs and activities like Black Girlz Rulez, an annual and national Black trans convening, and the Melenie Eleneke Grassroots Re-Entry Program, which supports and connects TGI people with housing, mental, job training, medical health services, and more after they are released from prison.
“The current organization is so different now,” said Lee. “The current leadership has really moved TGIJP to, I would say, only what I had ever dreamed about. Like, it’s really blossomed into this amazing organization. Janetta and her leadership team are really thinking outside of the box. Janetta is doing things that I would be freaked out by! I wouldn’t have the backbone to do what she is doing!”
After five years starting up TGIJP, Lee left, having known from the beginning that the organization needed to be led by Black trans women.
“Trans women of color should be in leadership. That was one of the fundamental values that I learned from my time in TransAction—that the people most directly impacted must be the ones in charge of how to solve the problem. In this case, the problem was the ongoing abuse and discrimination of trans women of color, and so trans women of color must be the ones in leadership.”
Lee currently works in philanthropy, on the other side of the sector. He consults and helps funders understand why and how to set up and allocate grant money, particularly to and for LGBTQ-serving organizations.
Coming out, again
The second time Lee came out to his parents—as trans—it was more successful.
“I came out to my parents again once I started law school. Because I was going to start taking hormones. And I had been going to support groups. I had counselors. I had friends already who had come out to their parents. So I felt I had a lot more guidance, of what to do, what to say, how to have more control over the conversation. That was a much more smooth coming out conversation.”
“They were still really upset,” he added, laughing about it now. “But I was not.”
These days, he reports that his relationship with his parents is smoother. He reports that he has changed—and his parents have also changed some. Instead of calling his parents out and getting angry when they voice anti-Blackness or transphobia, he looks at instances as opportunities to try to have conversations with them.
“So now when I talk to them about Black Lives Matter and all the protests going on —well, my mom would call me and say, ‘So I see that Oakland is burning. Are you okay?’ And we’d start talking that way. That kind of thing is an opportunity to talk to her about what is going on.”
To learn more about or donate to TGIJP, visit tgijp.org.
Stacy Nguyen can be reached at email@example.com.