Victoria Rodriguez-Roldan has been told she is the LGBTQ movement's only transgender Latina lawyer. But she hopes that's not the case.
"I feel that if I am the only one in the movement, that that is a very depressing thought. Because it's saying something about just how excluded the transgender Hispanic and Latino community is from the world of political activism," she told NBC OUT.
Rodriguez-Roldan is the justice project director for the National LGBTQ Task Force's Trans/Gender Non-Conforming Justice Project. She's fighting to secure basic rights and protections for LGBTQ people and those with disabilities. And as a transgender woman who lives openly with bipolar disorder, she's in a unique position to do just that.
"Disabilities are used as a constant act of invalidating LGBTQ identities," Rodriguez-Roldan said. "And I mean it, for example, as a way to say [to a disabled person]: 'You couldn't possibly know that you are LGBTQ, especially that you are trans.'"
LGBTQ people living with disabilities, she said, face unique challenges. She said health care providers may blame a patient's gender identity on their mental illness, when the two are unrelated. Family members of transgender people with disabilities may prevent access to transition-related care, according to Rodriguez-Roldan.
And even within the LGBTQ community, the disabled population is often viewed as separate from other identities, when in reality, "all those identities can exist at once," Rodriguez-Roldan said. "We are extremely complex people," she added.
Rodriguez-Roldan is also working hard to make the workplace a friendlier environment for transgender people. In the United States, 90 percent of transgender people reported harassment, discrimination and mistreatment in the workplace, according to the 2011 National Transgender Discrimination Survey report. Rodriguez-Roldan wrote a set of guidelines to help employers better understand and work respectfully with their transgender employees.
"Writing it and getting it enacted is the easy part. Getting it applied, getting it implemented, getting it to mean something more than a lot of wasted ink and paper, is the tough task," she said.
Activism is hard work, according to Rodriguez-Roldan. She joked it can feel like being "a lion tamer while wearing the Lady Gaga meat dress." She said it's easy to burn out in her line of work, but it's important to keep going.
"Our duty as activists is to keep moving and moving, and fighting and fighting," she said.
The 27-year-old activist grew up in Puerto Rico and now lives in Washington D.C. She spends her days working on policy advocacy and lobbying, running between countless meetings, and at the same time, listening to and hearing from the transgender community. She keeps "an open inbox" policy so she can constantly respond to questions from activists all over the world. What's her advice to younger transgender activists? Not to limit themselves.
"The world is constantly telling them, and telling us as transgender people, 'You will never go anywhere.' So that is sometimes part of my day, is constantly encouraging people to do what they want to do," she said.
Rodriguez-Roldan wants transgender people to be able to participate in the American dream. It's one of the reasons she went into law and political activism.
"I do believe very firmly in the constitutional system ... in the American experiment and legal and political system," she said. "And for all its flaws, I do believe the solution is to make it work for the transgender community, rather than somehow tear it down. I think America works. I think our task is to make it work for the transgender community."