Lorena Borjas, a Queens-based transgender activist and community leader who provided unstinting social support to trans folks, sex workers, and others, died early in the morning of March 30 after suffering from coronavirus.
A native of Mexico, Borjas, 59, became a revered figure in her neighborhood of Jackson Heights — but her impact extended far beyond the confines of Queens. Borjas emerged as an icon for the broader transgender community thanks to her dedication to uplift generations of marginalized folks through her deep compassion for others.
“It is such a dark day for all of us,” said Borjas’ close friend Cecilia Gentili, a trans leader who has played a key role in local advocacy work. In a phone interview, Gentili, who was meeting with Borjas weekly up until she became ill, explained that she helped usher a reluctant Borjas to the hospital by calling 911 when she was feeling sick. Borjas was first hospitalized at Long Island Jewish Medical Center for a couple of days as she awaited her COVID-19 test results, but she was discharged before the results arrived.
“They sent her back home, where she really declined,” said Gentili, who added that Borjas was soon hospitalized again, this time at Elmhurst Hospital — one of the most overburdened hospitals during the crisis. Borjas was subsequently transferred to Coney Island Hospital, where she died.
“It was hard to find information because we are not blood family,” Gentili added. “As a family of choice, we don’t have rights. We had to find her proxies.”
Borjas, who moved to the US in her early 20s, became an unwavering advocate for others while facing steep hurdles in her own life. Her legal status here was in jeopardy due to decades-old offenses stemming from when she was a human trafficking victim — particularly when she faced the threat of deportation for those charges during the early years of the Trump administration. However, she found relief in December 2017 when she became one of 61 people pardoned by Governor Andrew Cuomo.
Borjas was extremely active in helping trans women, sex workers, and others get HIV testing, necessary supplies to practice safe sex, emergency funds, and legal representation to help buffer the interactions of these marginalized folks with the criminal justice system.
Gentili elaborated on Borjas’ profound, years-long impact on the lives of trans folks and sex workers. She remembered her friend as an individual who would consistently remind sex workers to carry condoms and keep them informed about the legal ramifications of their work.
“I remember going with Lorena in the middle of the night,” Gentili recalled. “She would walk with a bag full of condoms. She would educate people not to have more than two condoms because police could use them as evidence and charge them with prostitution. At the same time, she would walk back and forth to make sure girls had the condoms to do their work.”
That was only a small slice of the tireless volunteer services Borjas offered day in and day out without pay, even as she juggled a full-time job.
“Needed a lawyer? Doctor? Housing? A job? She was there,” Gentili, expressing raw emotion, said as she reflected back on Borjas’ life. ”Lorena was that person who, if you got arrested, you called her at three in the morning and she would answer. First thing in the morning she would be in court with a lawyer to get you out of jail.”
Borjas spearheaded a fund that was used to bail folks out of jail to help them avoid deportation and further criminalization. Her far-reaching support network was evident in the hours following her death when numerous members of the community expressed grief on social media.
Bianey Garcia, a trans activist who has helped shine a light on anti-LGBTQ violence in Jackson Heights and is an influential voice in the fight to decriminalize sex work, said in a tweet that she was “very sad to wake up this morning and know that one of the TRANS rights activists in NYC has lost the battle against #Coronavirus. I am speechless, #LorenaBorjas, thank u for everything u did for the community & for the impact u have had on the lives of many, including me.”
Chase Strangio, the deputy director for transgender justice with the American Civil Liberties Union’s LGBT and HIV Project, also took to Twitter to react to Borjas’ passing, writing, “Lorena saved more people than almost anyone I have ever known. She was relentless in her fight for her community. I am so sorry we couldn’t protect you from this.”
Samy Nemir-Olivares, a Latinx queer activist and district leader candidate in Brooklyn, tweeted, “COMPLETELY HEARTBROKEN… one of the pioneer transgender advocates in the country, who helped thousand of undocumented people, sex workers, transgender people — ALL in Spanish only. Her legacy will live on.
Elected officials such as Queens Assemblymember Catalina Cruz, out gay City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, and Queens Councilmember Daniel Dromm also expressed their condolences. Dromm, who knew Borjas and represents the area where she was based, told Gay City News in a written statement that he “can’t believe she is gone.”
“I am saddened by the tragic loss of my dear friend, Lorena Borjas,” said Dromm, who chairs the City Council’s LGBT Caucus. “Lorena was a superstar in the movement for transgender equality and justice. She helped so many immigrants gain a stable footing here in their new country. Lorena worked tirelessly to ensure that the needs of her community members were met. She touched the lives of so many people here in Queens and will be sorely missed. Her work will live on.”
As Gentili looked back on her time with Borjas, she fought back tears. She grew emotional as she spoke about the struggles Borjas endured to make sure others would have a better life and thrive in their communities.
“People looked up to her,” Gentili said. “Lorena survived migrating to the United States. She survived violence in the United States and in New York, she survived drugs, she survived many health conditions. She was unstoppable.”
[Editor’s note: On March 31, Councilmember Dromm circulated an Emmy-nominated 10-minute documentary on the life of Lorena Borjas produced by the “Queens Stories” series of Queens Public Television.]