Lorena was a pillar for all three communities in Queens and became one of the first victims of the virus. She was hospitalized in mid-March with some respiratory issues and died two weeks later on March 30th. COVID-19 has taken a tremendous toll on the Jackson Heights Hispanic neighborhood (62.5% of the neighborhood identifies as Hispanic). As the New York Times, recently pointed out: “A group of adjoining neighborhoods — Corona, Elmhurst, East Elmhurst and Jackson Heights — have emerged as the epicenter of New York’s raging outbreak.” Queens currently has 32,749 confirmed cases and nearly 2,000 deaths.
Right before her passing, Lorena worked with her organizations Colectivo Intercultural TRANSgrediendo and the Lorena Borjas Community Fund to launch an initiative for trans people – particularly sex workers – affected by COVID-19 in the neighborhood.
I briefly met Lorena at the International AIDS conference in 2012 in Washington when I was working for the World Bank and remember a charming and tireless fighter. Lorena was an immigrant from Mexico – she came to the US in 1981 seeking to transition – and a trans activist who devoted her life to help the LGBTQ immigrant community members to find safety in New York. She was a warrior and a mother figure in Queens’ LGBT+ community who brought supportive legal, immigration, and housing services to vulnerable LGBT+ people.
You can watch this moving interview on Vimeo from 7 years ago titled Lucharé como una perra (I will fight like a bitch). The activist Cecilia Gentili also authored an inspiring NYTimes oped titled “What Lorena Borjas Did for the Trans Girls of Queens. She pushed us to shine authentically, to become a scream of subversion that says, “I am here, and I deserve happiness, too” on April 11, 2020. She ends with that beautiful sentence: “Without her we are a motherless brood, but we will thrive nonetheless. In the end, she gave us the greatest gift of all — she taught us how to fend for ourselves.”
Lorena’s life – which included a stint in jail and a pardon from Governor Cuomo – spoke of infinite resilience, the exact quality that Madeleine Albright wrote this morning – in a must-read oped in the New York Times – which will allow us to overcome this disaster. [Read: Opinion “The Best Response to Disaster Is Resilience”]. In that sense, Lorena’s passing is a tragedy for our community.
Rest in power, Lorena Borjas! You will not be forgotten. May your legacy live on long and strong!
Consider remembering Lorena’s dedication and selflessness by making a donation to Immigration Equality which fights for LGBT+ and HIV-positive immigrants, or the Sex Workers Emergency Fund 101 Fundraiser by Colectivo Intercultural TRANSgrediendo.
You can also read previous obituaries of leading NYC LGBT lives lost to the pandemic on the following links:
April 6 Remembering Irish American LGBT rights activist Tarlach MacNiallais
March 25 Broadway goes dark twice over in one month (Terrence McNally)