Their Stories: In vulnerable communities, Lorena Borjas was who you turned to for help
The transgender activist died at 59 at Coney Island hospital from COVID-19
Cecilia Gentili had a lot in common with Lorena Borjas. Both were trans women, both Latinas, both former sex workers who’d been victims of human trafficking and battled addictions. But when they met in 2005 at a club in the Jackson Heights neighborhood of Queens, where Borjas was handing out condoms and had arranged for free HIV testing, they were at different places in their lives.
Gentili was a decade younger than Borjas, working as an escort out of her apartment in Manhattan’s SoHo neighborhood, and saw herself as being in a different class than the people Borjas had already devoted her life to helping.
But according to Gentili, three years later she was on the streets near the same club looking for gigs, addictions having robbed her of the stability she briefly had. Borjas was at the club again, and this time, Gentili needed those condoms.
Borjas started showing symptoms of COVID-19 in February, before there had been any confirmed cases in New York. Though friends encouraged her to get checked out, she didn’t seek medical attention until the third week of March, by which time she needed to be admitted. After being put on a ventilator, Borjas died at Coney Island Hospital on March 30. She was 59. It’s unknown whether she had any pre-existing conditions.
“I wish we had more time to hang out on a personal level,” Gentili said. “But that was the thing about her. It was really difficult to distinguish the line between life and work, because she was always working.”
Borjas understood how fragile circumstances could be for many in her communities—she’d been tossed around the justice and immigration systems herself over the years—and through her fundraising, community outreach, and the Lorena Borjas Community Fund, which she started in 2011 with fellow trans activist Chase Strangio, she spent the last decades of her life trying to break what she saw as the arrest-jail-deportation cycle.
Through her fund, Borjas was able to put up bail for roughly 50 people, and Strangio figures she helped at least 100 trans people with their immigration status and other legal problems. In certain circles, according to Gentili, Borjas was the person to call when you got in trouble, the person who’d show up for your court appearance, lawyer in tow.
Despite recent cultural affirmations, there was still a lot for Borjas to do, and the results were not always happy. But Gentili said Borjas was able to maintain her sense of humor throughout.
“It takes someone with a lot of commitment to recovery to be able to joke about her drug use,” Gentili said. “She would tell stories about when she was using and the crazy stuff she would do. We would share stories about sex work and our interactions with clients, and we would laugh. We would talk a lot about how difficult it was in our countries of origin to be queer.”
Borjas was from Mexico, Gentili from Argentina. “Everything was always with an aura of laughing and happiness. Lorena had a great quality of being able to tell you a terrible story about herself but with splashes of humor. At the same time, she had the capacity to listen to terrible stories.”
Though already sick for several weeks, she started a GoFundMe for trans people who’d lost their incomes as a result of the shutdowns and social distancing on March 17, days before she would enter the hospital.
“During the current COVID-19 outbreak in New York, many transgender people are experiencing a loss of income that, over the next few days, may increase dramatically,” she wrote in her appeal. “Many transgender people live on a daily income, but due to the crisis many transgender people are well affected and in precarious and poverty situations.”
Borjas was born in Mexico City in 1960. She is survived by her partner, who prefers not to be identified, as well as family in Mexico. She became a U.S. citizen last year.