Mariah López, the Afro-Latina Trans Activist Fighting for the Right of Trans Homelessness in New York City

Mariah López BELatina Latinx
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The holiday season is not the most joyous time of year for everyone. For people who are homeless and without family, it’s one of the saddest and most difficult times of the year.

No one knows this better than Mariah López, an Afro-Latina trans activist who has led a years-long legal fight against New York City for the rights of trans and gender non-conforming people who are unhoused.

Now, Mariah López’s fight appears to have come to an end, having won a key legal victory.

As Xtra reported, New York City must establish shelters dedicated to serving trans and gender non-conforming people in Brooklyn, Manhattan, the Bronx, and Queens by the end of 2022. The units must also include accommodations for disabilities, such as service animals and medication access needs.

“For TGNC [trans and gender nonconforming] individuals and those living with disabilities, navigating the homeless shelter system can be a matter of life or death,” López told Xtra. “Everyone deserves safe, dignified housing options.”

López has also been awarded damages for the verbal and sexual abuse she suffered during her stay at a city shelter.

Born in 1985, the transgender and Afro-Latina activist was arrested in 2006 on charges of “loitering with intent to prostitute” by the New York Police Department. Unable to post $1,500 bail, López was incarcerated in a women’s jail where officers ordered a genital check to determine if she should remain in the cellblock. When she refused, López was transferred to a men’s jail where she was denied clothing and underwear. López was sexually harassed and assaulted by inmates and police officers alike.

Once released, López turned to activism. In 2012, she pushed to have Marsha P. Johnson‘s 1992 death re-examined and ruled a homicide. That’s when Mariah López joined the Strategic Trans Alliance for Radical Reform (STARR), a transgender rights advocacy group.

In 2014, López helped open the first transgender housing unit at the largest prison in the United States, Rikers Island.

The same year, López acted as STARR’s publicist when New York City’s Administration for Children’s Services (ACS) offered gender reassignment surgery for a 21-year-old former foster child. The city paid for the surgery.

In 2017, López filed a lawsuit against New York City after being a victim of transphobia and harassment in homeless shelters.

As Xtra recalls, at the time, López attempted to seek shelter at Marsha’s House, the city’s only designated LGBTQ+ shelter but was initially prevented from entering with her service dog. After a federal judge ordered the shelter to admit her with her dog, she reportedly faced verbal and sexual abuse from staff.

When she complained to the city about the abuse, López was moved to shelters that were not equipped to meet the needs of trans people, ultimately forcing her to live on the street once again.

“I was struggling to survive day to day,” she said. “I was in a desperate situation. And so I learned as I went, but I was not approaching this as someone who knew that I would force the city to somehow reform the entire system. A lot of what I was doing in the very beginning was trying to blow the whistle. I knew that I wasn’t the only one experiencing this.”

López continued to argue the case, acting as her own attorney while living on the street, doing survival sex work.

With her legal victory, López keeps the legacy of Johnson and her mother, Sylvia Rivera, alive as STARR’s executive director, ensuring that the homeless trans community has a safe place where their rights are respected.

“We are lucky to be heard where Sylvia wasn’t heard, and to have our voices acted upon where Marsha didn’t have her voice acted upon,” she says. “This work is really, to me, the legacy of Stonewall.”