Deer, Unleashed: An Interview with Bamby Salcedo

By Andrea Gutierrez

» Orig­i­nal­ly pub­lished in make/shift (Win­ter 2015/2016, no. 18)


Bam­by Sal­cedo is not afraid of her pow­er. The first time I crossed paths with the trans Lati­na activist was this past March in Los Ange­les at the annu­al live art show and fundrais­er host­ed by Mujeres de Maiz, an art and activist col­lec­tive for women of col­or. Bam­by was one of the fea­tured speak­ers, and I walked into the venue just as she was fin­ish­ing up. I don’t remem­ber much, only that she spoke with con­vic­tion and pur­pose, and that she held the rapt atten­tion of the entire audi­to­ri­um, her fist aloft in the air.

The sec­ond time we crossed paths, Bam­by stum­bled into my office at Cal State LA. She was run­ning late to class—as a stu­dent, as a guest speak­er, I didn’t know—and she want­ed to know where in the maze-like build­ing she could find the room. I gave her direc­tions, and she was on her way.

The third time we crossed paths was more drawn out. Bam­by had to can­cel our inter­view at the last minute because she was held up in Wash­ing­ton, D.C., after attend­ing the U.S. Con­fer­ence on AIDS. What I didn’t know was that she had made some waves that week­end after tak­ing over the stage in protest with a group of trans activists demand­ing to be heard and for their issues to be rec­og­nized. Always busy and nev­er com­pla­cent, Bam­by gra­cious­ly made time to sit down with me in Octo­ber.

AG: I under­stand that there’s a sto­ry behind your name.

BS: The name Bam­by is from my child­hood. I was a fast run­ner. Peo­ple said, “Que corre como venado”—that I ran like a deer. Even­tu­al­ly I asso­ci­at­ed the venado—or the venada—with the name Bam­bi, like the movie. That’s how Bam­by came to be my name, but with a y. It start­ed as a nick­name, but it has become part of my iden­ti­ty. Some­one once made a mean com­ment, and a friend said, “Unleash the deer!” So some­times when things hap­pen, I say to myself, Oh moth­er­fuck­er, you don’t want me to unleash the deer!

What first politi­cized you and drove you to take action?

For a large part of my life, I was liv­ing in a fog. I didn’t have a clear sense of who I was, or what my pur­pose was. I was even­tu­al­ly able to reform myself, get clean from drugs, and get away from street life. Then [trans teen] Gwen Arau­jo was mur­dered in 2002. That was the tip­ping point for me—to get angry and out­raged with what was hap­pen­ing. It real­ly spoke to me. It was a bridge for me to get involved and to con­tribute to cre­at­ing a bet­ter place.

Her mur­der was like a call to action. She could be you.

Not only could she be me, but the same things that had hap­pened to me in the past were still hap­pen­ing to my sis­ters. Even though I was in a bet­ter place—because I wasn’t on the streets, and I wasn’t into drugs—some of my friends were still expe­ri­enc­ing all of that. That’s how I start­ed get­ting involved, start­ed learn­ing from a lot of peo­ple. They men­tored me. I didn’t real­ly know any­thing about how to orga­nize. I had to learn every­thing.

This year you made waves by lead­ing protests at the Nation­al LGBTQ Task Force’s Cre­at­ing Change con­fer­ence in Den­ver in Feb­ru­ary, and in Sep­tem­ber you were at the U.S. Con­fer­ence on AIDS in Wash­ing­ton, D.C. You took over the stage at both con­fer­ences. Why these events? Why these protests?

Cre­at­ing Change is a nation­al con­fer­ence that many influ­en­tial LGBT lead­ers, fun­ders, pol­i­cy mak­ers, and gov­ern­ment offi­cials attend. The idea was to call them out, to let them know that it is time for them to inten­tion­al­ly invest in trans peo­ple. Not only that, but Jessie Her­nan­dez, anoth­er trans teen, had recent­ly been bru­tal­ly mur­dered by the Den­ver Police Depart­ment, and the chief of police was sched­uled to give the wel­come at the con­fer­ence. We orga­nized the local com­mu­ni­ty there and took the stage dur­ing the ple­nary ses­sion. We thought it was a great oppor­tu­ni­ty to make the LGB com­mu­ni­ty see who we are as a trans com­mu­ni­ty, and what they need to do to sup­port us. This was a way to tell them, “Stop bull­shit­ting. This is real. These are our lives.” Since then there have been sev­er­al ini­tia­tives with dif­fer­ent foun­da­tions, so I think there is a new wave of inten­tion­al­i­ty in terms of sup­port­ing trans peo­ple. In my opin­ion, the protest was effec­tive to make things hap­pen.

The Unit­ed States Con­fer­ence on AIDS is a nation­al con­fer­ence. It was an oppor­tu­ni­ty to call out the Office of Nation­al AIDS Pol­i­cy, because they had just launched a new nation­al HIV/AIDS strat­e­gy. With their first strat­e­gy in 2010, there was men­tion of the trans com­mu­ni­ty, and there were some things that they were sup­posed to imple­ment, but they nev­er did. This time, five years lat­er, with the new strat­e­gy, we took some steps back, because the Office of Nation­al AIDS Pol­i­cy hadn’t real­ly addressed the needs of trans peo­ple and HIV.

They’re hav­ing the Nation­al HIV Pre­ven­tion Con­fer­ence in Decem­ber, and they invit­ed me to be one of their keynote speak­ers. I thought they were going to hate me. But it means our protests are work­ing. We’re bring­ing aware­ness.

What do you say to detrac­tors who don’t under­stand why you would protest at an event where the atten­dees con­sid­er them­selves allies? Peo­ple who think, “This isn’t the time or place for that,” like you’re being ungrate­ful.

Peo­ple who are not trans will nev­er expe­ri­ence the life of a trans per­son, espe­cial­ly a trans woman of col­or. When we say that we’re allies, what does that mean? When those issues are not affect­ing us per­son­al­ly, they are not impor­tant to us. They are sec­ondary. But how can we empathize and how can we show sup­port? Sup­port could be as sim­ple as, “Shut up and lis­ten.” And if you have resources, put your mon­ey where your mouth is. Being an ally is not just, “Yes, I sup­port you, I sup­port you.” You have to actu­al­ly do it.

There are a lot of gay, cis white men who have a lot of resources, and they don’t put their mon­ey where their mouth is. We still need to get them to understand—and a lot of soci­ety in general—that we are not men in dress­es, and that we’re not try­ing to get their boyfriends. Trans­pho­bia is real.

Even with­in gay and les­bian com­mu­ni­ties.

Right. All of that is real. It’s a col­lec­tive effort, but it’s not going to hap­pen if we don’t open our minds, if we don’t open up our hearts, and if we don’t open up our pock­ets. Because the trans move­ment is poor. And if there’s no eco­nom­ic pow­er, we have no pow­er. We’ve got to build that, and we can build it faster if those gay, cis white men con­tribute to the cause. Not only eco­nom­i­cal­ly, but also polit­i­cal­ly, to sup­port us and to advance our move­ment.

When [trans activist] Jen­nicet Gutiér­rez heck­led Pres­i­dent Oba­ma dur­ing a Pride event at the White House this year, she was booed by those in atten­dance, and the way peo­ple react­ed to it was like, “Hey, we’re here already, so just chill.”

And who has access to those events? A lot of those events are just props for peo­ple. But how many of the peo­ple are actu­al­ly doing the work? They may have the mon­ey, but they’re not doing the work. I’ve gone to fundrais­ers where they’ve raised hun­dreds of thou­sands of dol­lars in one sit­ting, in one din­ner. I wish the trans com­mu­ni­ty could have some­thing like that. I wish I could do some­thing like that.

You’re the founder of the Coali­ción TransLatin@. It’s a net­work with lead­ers across the coun­try. Are they work­ing in their own loca­tions?

The TransLatin@ Coali­tion is a nation­al orga­ni­za­tion formed by lead­ers in dif­fer­ent regions. We have rep­re­sen­ta­tion in eleven states, with sev­en active chap­ters. We’re an orga­ni­za­tion that’s by us, for us. Our mis­sion is to address the spe­cif­ic needs of trans Latin@ indi­vid­u­als who live in the Unit­ed States and to pro­vide lead­er­ship devel­op­ment to all of the trans com­mu­ni­ty.

What have you all been work­ing on late­ly and what do you have com­ing up?

We’re devel­op­ing a pro­gram that’s called the Cen­ter for Vio­lence Pre­ven­tion and Trans­gen­der Well­ness. It’s a mul­ti­pur­pose, mul­ti­ser­vice space for trans peo­ple, specif­i­cal­ly to address both the struc­tur­al changes that need to hap­pen in our com­mu­ni­ty, as well as com­mu­ni­ty empow­er­ment. This includes not only pro­vid­ing ser­vices, but also lead­er­ship devel­op­ment, pro­fes­sion­al devel­op­ment, work­ing to low­er the recidi­vism of incar­cer­a­tion, entre­pre­neur­ship, eco­nom­ic empowerment—all of those things that we need as a com­mu­ni­ty, for us to get to the next lev­el. We’re start­ing the mod­el here in Los Ange­les and will even­tu­al­ly repli­cate it.

You’ve men­tioned that the trans com­mu­ni­ty is poor, with peo­ple not being able to get work or even a safe place to live.

That’s the com­mu­ni­ty involve­ment that we’re think­ing about. Fos­ter lead­ers, and then build it, build it, build it. That’s what we’re doing col­lec­tive­ly right now as an orga­ni­za­tion. But obvi­ous­ly, we’re con­tin­u­ing to col­lab­o­rate with oth­er orga­ni­za­tions and dif­fer­ent groups. We’re excit­ed for what’s hap­pen­ing right now, but we’re wait­ing for some mon­ey to come in.

We [held] a fundrais­er, GARRAS, on Novem­ber 22—a fash­ion show highlight[ing] trans and gen­der-non­con­form­ing peo­ple as high-fash­ion mod­els, as well as design­ers and styl­ists. GARRAS actu­al­ly means some­thing:

Ground­break­ing Activism Redi­rect­ing and Reform­ing All Sys­tems. Every­body who contribute[d] or participate[d] in the event is an activist. Through their col­lab­o­ra­tion, and through their sup­port, they change sys­tems.

Seems like it’s impor­tant to get that mes­sage out to peo­ple, the dif­fer­ent ways that you can be an activist.

Of course. You don’t nec­es­sar­i­ly have to be a Bam­by Sal­cedo.

Show­ing up on stage at a con­fer­ence!

You don’t have to do all of that. Some peo­ple have said to me, “I sup­port you, but I would nev­er do that.” Peo­ple have their own reser­va­tions, like they don’t have the guts.

Are you afraid when you get up there?

I just unleash the deer. [Laughs.] I don’t know, I just become the deer. Like every­body else, even when we do actions, I get ner­vous. That’s the process. But then it hap­pens, and I become anoth­er per­son. A pas­sion takes hold of me.

Do you feel like it gives you life?

[Eyes grow wide.] Yeah! It gives me life.

Your work explores the inter­sec­tion of many iden­ti­ties and expe­ri­ences. But at that inter­sec­tion is also vio­lence. A lot of the work that you deal with has to do with dif­fer­ent kinds of vio­lence that trans people—trans women of col­or, in particular—experience. I saw a pho­to of you recent­ly wear­ing a shirt that said, “Mi exi­s­tir es resistir”—“My exis­tence is resis­tance.” How do you deal with that vio­lence, not only on the macro level—you’re protest­ing at con­fer­ences, you’re doing work with the coalition—but also in your own life. What keeps you going and how do you take care of your­self?

The love and sup­port that I get from dif­fer­ent peo­ple, and the com­mu­ni­ty as a whole. Through­out the years they have lift­ed me up and give me love. Anoth­er thing that feeds my soul is when I see a young trans per­son who is shy at first, and then I see them devel­op­ing through the sup­port that I pro­vide, not nec­es­sar­i­ly mon­e­tar­i­ly, but through morale or con­nec­tions. And when a trans per­son in deten­tion is released and gets con­nect­ed into activism, into lead­er­ship development—these are some of the things that feed my soul.

Do you think things have got­ten bet­ter for trans women of col­or since you start­ed out as an activist?

There have been min­i­mal increas­es in dif­fer­ent things, but we are nowhere near where we should be. If we think back twen­ty-five years ago, there were no clin­ics in L.A. where peo­ple could access hor­mones. Now there are two clin­ics, but it’s not enough. They have long wait­lists, long lists of patients. I think the world of HIV fund­ing has sup­port­ed our com­mu­ni­ty in some ways. It is how I was able to get a job, the way that many trans women are able to get jobs. But there’s a lot of work that needs to be done, of course. Things are a lot bet­ter, but not where we should be.

Where do you think we should be?

Trans peo­ple should live in a soci­ety where our exis­tence is acknowl­edged and dig­ni­fied; where trans peo­ple do not feel afraid to walk down the street because they might be killed; where we can live our truths; where we can live authen­ti­cal­ly the way we are, as who we are, with­out fear. And we need to live in a soci­ety where there’s jus­tice for all of us—not only for those of us who are here, but also those who have gone, who have been killed because of igno­rance and stu­pid­i­ty.

What would you say to a young trans woman of col­or who is just try­ing to find her way? How does she get involved? How does she empow­er her­self?

I hope she under­stands the pow­er that she has. If she doesn’t have the resources, she needs to go get them. If it’s by ask­ing, by all means ask. If it’s by dig­ging, by all means dig—unapologetically and unafraid, because our lives are worth it. ☀

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