Irma Bajar honored with Stonewall award for her LGBT activism

She identifies as queer.

She identifies as queer.

By Cristina DC Pastor

In the summer of 2011, a young man put a gun to Irma Bajar’s head as she was walking to her home in Brooklyn. The man seemed angry and shouted slurs at her gender after he grabbed her phone. Irma went home shaken, but did not report the incident to the police.

When I first heard this story, I asked Irma why she didn’t go to the cops. Her reply, which I thought then was a little stupid yet astonishing in its Christian-like faith in humanity: She didn’t want to send the young man to jail. He could be undocumented, and a police record might get him deported. What he did could just be a case of one trying to survive.

Reconnecting with Irma a year later, I found out more about this 36-year-old queer Filipina and LGBT activist who was a recent recipient of a Stonewall Community Foundation award named in memory of the 1969 Greenwich Village riots that paved the way for the advent of the gay rights movement. Last year, she was named one of The Outstanding Filipino Americans of New York.

Irma is program coordinator of the Audre Lorde Project (ALP), a community organizing center for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Gender Non-Conforming people of color. She is in charge of growing the membership and facilitating workshops.

Irma‘s gender was a thorny issue in her church in Hawaii where she was born. She was practically ostracized and told to stop serving the Eucharist for following the “devil’s way.” Ultimately she also stopped being a member of the Junior Catholic Club and teaching Sunday school.

“I was having a hard time in my church,” she told The FilAm. “I felt like my church was telling me I couldn’t be who I was.”

She moved to Seattle, determined to come out and spare her family the shame of having a gay daughter. Her family was a pioneer in Hawaii’s remittance industry. Her parents and two older sisters had an inkling but did not fully understand what she was going through. In 2006, she completed her master’s degree in Mental Health Education at Seattle University. By this time, she was out as queer.

“Queer is more fluid, more political,” she said explaining why she thinks the label applies to her more than ‘lesbian.’ “It doesn’t put me in a box. We can love whoever we want — we’re not sexual-particular – it can be male it can also be trans.”

After seven years in Seattle, Irma relocated to New York and got involved with political organizing among FilAms for Gabriela USA and later among LGBT people of color for Audre Lorde.

“We at ALP organize members against hate and police violence,” she said. “We discuss collective strategies on how to combat homophobia and transphobia. We believe in transformative justice, not police justice.”

Memories of that 2011 incident resurfaced as we were talking. The mugging was not the first assault she has sustained. “I’ve been spat on, laughed at,” said Irma, experiences too often felt by people of non-traditional genders. Always with an open, comprehending mind, she explained them not as acts of hate but a lack of understanding of the LGBT as a community.

At ALP, many of their members are transgender people of color. Sadly, she noted, Filipinos are not better represented.

“Trans people are more marginalized, more discriminated because of their gender profile” said Irma.

With ALP’s TransJustice program, advocates like her assist members with survival issues, such as getting a job, finding housing and Trans-sensitive healthcare. They also educate members on how to deal with police and anti-immigrant violence.

Because of her work with ALP and also because of the instincts developed in resisting physical attacks, Irma said she has learned to devise a strategy for her own protection, such as walking in the middle of the road at night or bringing a companion when entering a public toilet. She has learned to ignore the hateful epithets and would never hurt anyone in retaliation.

“I just surround myself with people who love me and support me,” she said.

Today, her family has accepted who she wanted to be. It helped that her mother, especially, has been reading on celebrities, such as Ellen DeGeneres since Irma came out.

“I think she was worried people are going to hurt me,” she said. “She was just being overprotective.”

The Stonewall Community Foundation Award is a validation of Irma’s work. That it was named in memory of the 1969 police raid of the Stonewall Inn gay bar that sparked a series of riots and crystallized into a gay and lesbian rights movement was especially meaningful to Irma.

“I was crying (during the awarding ceremony). For me it’s such an honor.”

Irma at the April 11 ceremony for recipients of the Laurie Linton Memorial Award courtesy of the Stonewall Community Foundation: Sharon Day, Barbara Hammer, Joan Nestle, and Yoruba Richen

Irma at the April 11 ceremony for recipients of the Laurie Linton Memorial Award courtesy of the Stonewall Community Foundation: Sharon Day, Barbara Hammer, Joan Nestle, and Yoruba Richen

One Comment

  1. Tony wrote:

    Extremely very happy for this. Congrats Irma.

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