“When We Don’t Back Down, We Win”

a Q&A with Serena Sojic-Borne from Real Name Campaign

I first had the opportunity to hear Serena Sojic-Borne speak at the “NO Anti-LGBT+ Bills! March of Visibility & Resistance” that began in front of City Hall prior to taking to the streets on March 25. At this protest, Sojic-Borne and other organizers from the Real Name Campaign spoke about their work in defeating anti-trans bills in 2021 through organizing and shedding light on transphobic legislation. The bills in question for this protest were: SB 44 (trans sports ban) brought by Sen. Beth Mizell, HB 570 (trans health care ban) brought by Rep. Gabe Firment, and HB 837 (“Don’t Say Gay” bill) brought by Rep. Dodie Horton. As we continue to see legislation mount around reproductive rights and personal freedoms, I wanted to sit down with Sojic-Borne and clarify how all these issues around personal autonomy intersect and why it’s so vital for organizers to address these intersectional oppressive laws with a continued, unified front. Sojic-Borne and I agreed to discuss this via email and in-person following a protest in front of Jackson Square on May 7 that addressed new legislation to deny abortion access to people in Louisiana. Sojic-Borne is from New Orleans and began organizing while a student at Ben Franklin High School by leading protests and community meetings with classmates in response to the Trump election.

Let’s start by first outlining the history of Real Name Campaign and some of the work that RNC has accomplished.

In 2019, I helped start Real Name Campaign with the mission of fighting for accessible name and gender marker changes. My comrades Toni Jones and Quest Riggs co-founded it, and we got invaluable organizing guidance as members of the Freedom Road Socialist Organization. In July 2020, we led a push to eliminate the costs of name changes so that trans people could have an easier time avoiding job discrimination. At that time, pandemic unemployment benefits were about to expire, and two Black trans women were murdered in Louisiana: Shaki Peters and Draya McCarty. The hundreds of community members who came out for protests and made phone calls together got the cost cut by more than half, from $506 to $250. Mar Ehrlich joined our group around then. They’re an incredible, tenacious organizer.

In 2021, we felt confident we could take on the Louisiana legislature too. We fought against the trans sports ban and trans health care ban, alongside organizations like Louisiana Trans Advocates, Forum for Equality, and the Louisiana Coalition for Reproductive Freedom. We won by bringing out as many people to the streets as possible. That year, we also started a name change fund that Mar Ehrlich spearheads. Ed Abraham, another organizer who joined us, was fundamental to the legislative work, and now he and Mar are still leading that charge this year. We’re struggling alongside other groups in Legislative Organizing Coalition for All LGBTQ+ Louisianans (locALL). Above all, we’re fighting arm-in-arm with high school students, teachers, parents, social workers, and ordinary LGBTQ+ community members.

I want to talk about the bills that prompted the March 25 protest in front of City Hall, but first can you bring us back to last July when Real Name Campaign addressed these issues helping to defeat SB 156 (Fairness in Women’s Sports Act) authored by Sen. Beth Mizell, and can you clarify for readers the work you did then and speak to why similar legislation is now returning?

Last year, what really defeated the trans sports ban and trans medical ban was the strong showing of people at the Capitol, on these politicians’ phone lines, and in the streets. We proved that when we don’t back down, we win. To offer some context: The transgender sports ban tries to ban kindergarten through college trans girls from playing sports, and the transgender medical ban prevents minors from accessing gender-affirming medical care. After Trump lost, the evangelical right doubled down on us. A national, billionaire-funded network came out to push anti-trans bills in 2021 to scapegoat transgender people, especially transgender kids. It was basically a redirect to distract from the pandemic, economic crisis, and Republican political defeat. Constituents didn’t have a say. It was also a way of shoring up “traditional family values” so that capitalists could get heterosexual nuclear families to keep reproducing their workforce as much as possible.

It’s also worth pointing out that transgender people got very little from the Democrats in all of this. While the Republicans have a corporate-backed political machine and a real interest in punching down on us, Democrats don’t have much incentive to take a strong stand. The biggest push against them last year came from the National Collegiate Athletic Association. This only happened because trans athletes pressured the NCAA to make a statement. Now, it’s not even standing by its word to pull athletic events out of states with transphobic laws. The reason this context is important is that it informed our strategy last year: We relied on the mass movement to put our demands on the legislature. We were grateful for some politicians’ support, but we didn’t plea[d] for help from any of them. On Trans Day of Visibility, we marched through the French Quarter and then made dozens of phone calls to oppose the sports ban and the medical ban. At first, the movement had a lot of luck stopping these bills in committee. Louisiana Trans Advocates were instrumental here; they brought people out to testify in front of legislators in committee and lobby them in the Capitol hallways. But the sports ban got through both the House and Senate with a majority of Democrats abandoning us. Democratic Party Vice Chair C. Travis Johnson actually co-authored the sports ban!

It looked like the evangelical far right had enough support to override Gov. Edwards’ veto, so they called a special veto override session. So, we said enough waiting for Democratic politicians to save us; we’re gonna put their feet to the fire. We held another march in the Quarter for all the world’s tourists to see, and we kept going even when a thunderstorm started. We made mass phone calls to all Democrats in the House of Representatives. And when the legislators came together at the Capitol for the special session, we dropped a banner from the viewing balcony to disrupt it. We are confident this is why they turned in our favor. Almost every single Democrat finally took a firm stand against the sports ban, and even Johnson voted against his own bill.

This year, all the same legislation came back and more, with “Don’t Say Gay,” critical race theory, and abortion bans. It’s for all the same reasons. But Democrats are being even more wishy-washy. The NCAA isn’t following through on its threats to pull from anti-trans states, so go figure. Last year, it was good to have Gov. Edwards on our side, but he hasn’t come out with a strong stance like he did before. Same thing with some leading Democrats like Rep. Patrick Jefferson, who voted for the sports ban in committee this year. So, we need to double down and make them really hear what the people need.

At the protest in front of City Hall in March, we heard from speakers from several organizations including a local immigration rights organization. Why is it important to see this cross section of support, and what are some organizations that are leading the way for this collaborative effort?

That immigrant group is Unión Migrante, they’re some of the most dynamic and militant freedom fighters in this city. They know us through the work that Freedom Road Socialist Organization has done with them. United Teachers of New Orleans deserves a huge shout-out, and so does the Louisiana Coalition for Reproductive Freedom. Last year especially, Southern Workers Assembly was pivotal in giving us their logistical support and experience. Nathalie Nia Faulk from Southern Organizer Academy always comes through with grounding and healing work to keep our spirits high. It’s also very uplifting to see House of Tulip supporting community members while fighting for them at the same time.

I’m especially overjoyed to build connections with those resisting national oppression or racism. Immigrant leaders didn’t hesitate to come out and back us up, even though our struggles have never really crossed paths before. Black trans liberation leaders are some of the most consistent organizers in this fight. More and more people are talking about how we need to take this fight to the racist police. Cops let cases of Black trans murders go cold.

I’ve also truly appreciated the contributions that organized labor has made. They struggle against hospitality industry bosses and crooked charter school administrations, and that goes hand-in-hand with our fight against the corporate-backed right-wing evangelicals. We can’t let capitalists exploit us in the workplace or oppress us in the Capitol.

The students at Frederick Douglass, Ben Franklin, and Lusher really played a decisive role, especially against the “Don’t Say Gay” bill. Parents, teachers, and social workers too. What this really proves is that broad masses of people are recognizing they need to fight together. The groups that came out to that protest also brought their friends and their allies, which was super powerful. I’m all for getting a bunch of organizations on board in coalition, but just having a long list of groups sign onto demands isn’t enough. You really need the masses of ordinary community members out in the streets, showing their defiance. That’s what scares politicians into doing the right thing.

Abortion rights rally across from Jackson Square on May 7

The ban on gender affirming care that recently passed in Alabama makes it a felony to provide gender affirming care to minors. The mental health research is clear that gender affirming care aids in lowering teen suicide, depression, anxiety, as well as mental health issues. So, we know these laws make people unsafe. Can you tell us why this impacts everyone?

Absolutely. Gender affirming care is a reproductive right, because it prioritizes your gender identity over your biological or social capacity to reproduce. That’s what really threatens the ruling class. Like I mentioned, these are capitalist and racist attacks, coming after us for capitalist and racist reasons. The point is to salvage “traditional family values,” which safeguard property rights for the rich, like land ownership and inheritance, but also force gender oppressed workers to keep replenishing the labor force. The point is also to make oppressed nationalities, like Black or Chicano people, suffer the most. These are the workers with the lowest wages, so capitalists can extract the biggest superprofits from them.

And many of these new laws we’ve discussed come with punitive felony charges: What is the end game for voter rights?

This is another aspect of the racist and political repression that I mentioned earlier. Slapping felonies on abortions, child abuse charges on supportive parents of trans kids—all of this is aiming at stripping people’s ability to vote. Most people who obtain abortions are from oppressed nationalities, so they’re the ones who have the most democratic rights to lose. It’s also worth pointing out that you can’t get your legal name changed in Louisiana if you have a felony charge. They might angle against Black voting rights one day, or trans kids on another, or abortion rights next, but the goal is to go after all our democratic rights. We can’t drop out because we’re not affected this one time. We’ve seen in every case when we give up an inch they reach for a mile. We’ve only ever had these rights because we fought for them with mass action, civil disobedience, and even militant uprisings, especially for oppressed nationalities like Black and Chicano people. We must keep defending our rights the same way we won them in the first place.

Now once again this trans sports bill is being voted on in 2022 even after the work done in 2021 to have this bill vetoed. Can you talk about how vulnerable trans youth are and why understanding intersectionality in regard to oppression is so imperative when we see these dehumanizing tactics in our legislation?

Absolutely. Trans youth are among the most vulnerable targets that the GOP could pick. They’re trying to use trans youth as a springboard for other attacks. Last year, they almost exclusively went after trans kids, not as much LGBs. This year, they’re upping the ante with “Don’t Say Gay.” They’re even trying to build on momentum from attacks on trans kids to expand attacks on abortion rights. But always keep in mind that LGBTQ+ kids aren’t just vulnerable victims, they’re fighters. We saw this at Lusher, Franklin, Douglass, ENCORE Academy… Students organized rallies, walkouts, rides, and letters to make their voices heard. They’ve shown that they won’t stand down, so we can’t either. They’ve taken personal risks and moved their lives around to struggle for their rights. We all must do the same.

Since you asked about intersectionality, the other important thing to remember here is where these attacks are coming from. The hate groups, the far right strategy hubs—like the Family Research Council, the Alliance Defending Freedom—billionaires and millionaires prop them all up. I’m talking DeVos and Prince dynasties, but also your less-known regional oil and gas barons.

Why put so much money into attacking trans kids? Capitalists depend on the straight, nuclear family to reproduce their workforce, generation after generation. Industries that are out in places like rural Louisiana care deeply about this because they can’t always easily just move to other places when their labor is running low. So, they attack reproductive rights and LGBTQ+ people in the same vein. Especially when they’re in crisis. This is equally a form of racist and political repression. Black, Mexican, Chicana, Central American, Indigenous, and Puerto Rican trans women face the most brutal anti-trans violence. That’s why the Black Belt South and Puerto Rico have such high murder rates for trans women, and that’s why Louisiana has the highest murder rate for Black trans women. This kind of violence gets a green light from bigots in the Louisiana legislature. It also helps these bigots stay politically afloat, because some of their biggest enemies are Black trans community organizers.

You are onsite in Baton Rouge with Real Name Campaign just this month as these bills are being decided upon, and Real Name is collecting testimony, delivering testimony, organizing emails and phone zaps, organizing ride shares and getting the information to the public. Can you tell people who are new to organizing or maybe who are interested to get involved: What does all this mean? And in your experience, how does life as an organizer dovetail with your life?

We’re also getting people out into the streets. We’re letting the whole state know we’re mad with one unified voice, that’s the most important thing. If you care about this issue and you jump into the fight, you’ll surprise yourself with how much you can do. We’re literally just ordinary trans people doing this work unpaid, outside our regular jobs. All the time, I feel like I’m shooting in the dark or grasping at straws. That’s 100% normal. It’s also normal to feel like you can’t change things because you’re not an expert. All of this is normal, but it’s also wrong.

When we first started Real Name, we wrote up a petition. How do you write up a petition? You type what you want on a sheet of paper, you enter a slot for name, phone, email, and zip. And then you go to a bar, club, your friends, and just ask them to sign. A lot of the time they’ll love you for it, especially older folks who appreciate seeing fresh energy in this city. Now, we thought it was the clerk of Civil District Court who had power over name changes. We were so sure of ourselves, we walked right up to her office to deliver it. We said, “We have over 1,000 signatures, drop the fee!” Her secretary took it. The next evening, I got a call from her. I felt so powerful that I could demand a call from an elected official just like that. Then she told me she had no authority over name changes, and cited statutes and everything. We were all so crushed and embarrassed.

I was 20, I didn’t know anything. None of us were legal experts, politicos, or anything like that. But then what? We did some more Googling, and figured things out. At one point I just called different judges’ offices until someone gave me a straight answer about who was in charge of name change fees (turned out to be Civil District Court judges). When we finally got the name change fee cut in half, we broke the camel’s back with a phone zap. People just typed 10 digits into their phones and left a 2-minute voicemail with all the judges, and enough of us did it that the courts lost two full business days’ worth of phone use. That came out of left field for them. Judges don’t expect to hear a peep from their constituents, so they caved quick. The ruling class and their agents are always more fragile than they seem.

Another point I want to address is about people who come into organizing, then leave. Exhaustion in this kind of work is very normal. About once a week, I go to sleep feeling like I’m not cut out for organizing work. Off the top of my head, I can think of two reasons for really bad burnout. One is there’s a big burst of energy, like the Black Lives Matter rebellion. And then out of excitement or activist guilt or whatever, you try to do every little thing you can. And then you’re like: I’m out, I have a life to get back to. Or, maybe there’s no uprising and you just want to commit to something. After about a year, you go to meeting after meeting or event after event and it all feels like a pointless chore. The reason why that happens is because no one stops to re-strategize, to say, “Hey, what’s working here, and what’s not? How can we figure out a way to get ourselves excited, and win a real gain from the ruling class?” And then you don’t feel like you have a stake in what’s happening, you don’t feel like you’re fighting a winning battle. Or even if you feel like you can win, you don’t know how you can plug in.

The important thing is to figure out what you can commit, get in a rhythm, stick with it, and regularly reflect on what’s effective and what’s not, what’s working for you and what’s not. That applies to individuals and groups. And the important thing is to have enough confidence in yourself and in your comrades to keep the ball rolling. No one will save us but ourselves. We just have to get together and make it happen. When we organize, we win, and we’ve proven that again and again.

For more information on Real Name Campaign, check out linktr.ee/realnamecampaignnola

photos by Megan Burns