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Center on Halsted Celebrates “Human First”

Editor’s Take: Why Ramona’s Story Needs to Be Heard

Since the election of our 45th President, hate crimes are on the rise. And one group facing the brunt of much of that hate is the transgender community. According to the Alabama-based Southern Poverty Law Center’s (SPLC) recent report, “Violence against trans people hit a new high last year, with at least 26 apparent murder victims, surpassing the 23 killed in 2015. The SPLC has found trans women of color are the minority most victimized by violent hate crimes.”

The Center goes on to frame the hostile climate this way: “After years of defeats on issues like same-sex marriage and gays in the military, anti-LGBT groups last year were thrilled by the election of Trump, who lost little time in naming advisers and others with virulently homophobic views. Trump’s selection as his vice president of Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, a longtime opponent of LGBT rights, was a real victory for the anti-LGBT movement.”

This reporter has a cousin who fits into every group facing backlash during the Trumpocalyspe. Ramona Hernandez-Perez, 65, is a Black-Mexican-transgender rabbi and native Chicagoan. “I’m a mixture of everything,” she says. “I’m all of America, I guess.”

But all of America still doesn’t recognize her as such.

“Without a doubt, Trump appealed to garden-variety racists, xenophobes, religious bigots and misogynists — people not necessarily in any hate or related kind of group, but who still were antagonistic toward multiculturalism,” said the Center’s Intelligence report.

Hernandez-Perez, who grew up during the civil rights movement and lived right around the corner from Martin Luther King, Jr. [deleted comma] when he had an apartment on the West Side, says nothing is new. We’ve seen the bathroom issues for transgender people and hate crimes before. “Trans issues, trans rights and LGBT rights are in the news now; it’s nothing new. It’s been around for a long time. It’s all the circle of life, how things come around,” she says.

So, how does Hernandez-Perez respond to the trying times we are facing? She shares her story in a new documentary produced by Columbia College’s Doc Unit. The rainbow coalition documentary teaser premieres on the Chicago Defender’s website along with text of her story and pictures.  Additionally, Hernandez-Perez is expected to speak at “The Doc Show,” Thursday, May 25, 7 p.m. to 10 p.m., at Uncommon Ground, 3800 N. Clark, where the video will be screened in front of its first live audience. Given the historical and hysterical homophobia in the Black and Brown communities as well as in the mainstream White communities, we’re expecting blowback from a few fearful of her story.

But, it’s Hernandez-Perez’s way of sharing clarity in an increasingly cloudy political environment where anyone deemed different is painted as “the other.”

In the teaser, Hernandez-Perez’s definition of trans is – “a person transitioning from one point to another.” And the dreadlocked rabbi refers to historical interpretations of the creation story to address gender issues in the Old Testament differently than many traditional interpretations. She also discusses how spirituality is queer, how it is different for “you to be in touch with the spiritual world.” 

Hernandez-Perez is retired now, but her life has taken interesting turns. She served four years in the Navy, stationed in Long Island and Brooklyn, NY. Then, for more than 15 years, she worked at the University of Illinois at Chicago cataloging books. That’s when she first came out.

“They were very supportive,” said Hernandez-Perez. “I didn’t think I was gay, per se. I knew I was different. I always wanted to be on the side of justice, the human rights thing. If you would have asked me as a kid before I knew anything about sexuality or anything like that, I knew exactly how I felt.”

Hernandez-Perez, who also was a researcher at Northwestern University, had side gigs as a freelance photographer for Ebony, Jet, the Windy City Times, and the Chicago Defender, often taking pictures of civil rights demonstrations. Her work now as a rabbi is accomplished through a mission she started called the Abyssinian Reform Hebrew Congregations.

“I came up with ‘reform’ as a word meaning liberal, not so much the position of reform Judaism. I’m more like an independent scholar. I’ve been a second-class citizen in all kinds of aspects. For me, it’s different from what others had to go through. You know how hard it is for women and especially women of color and trans women. So I had to forge my own path to ordination,” says Hernandez-Perez, who studied in Jerusalem for six months through a joint effort by the Leo Baeck Institute and Hebrew Union College. She has certificates in Jewish spiritual healing, is a para-chaplain, and was ordained by Universal Ministries so that she can perform marriages.

As part of her mission, she serves as an advisory board member for the Howard Brown Health Center, which exists to eliminate the disparities in health care experienced by lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people through research, education and the provision of services that promote health and wellness.

“I try to minister to LGBTQ people and say you’re not a mistake because God doesn’t make mistakes,” said Hernandez-Perez.

A Big, Bold Family

And while we hope Hernandez-Perez’s story opens others’ eyes to the humanity of those in different communities, I revel in my family’s unique and colorful story, which I’d like to share some parts with my reader. West/Hernandez/Ayala/ Dockery family is filled with differences. “The few Black Hispanics in our family have roots in Vera Cruz, Mexico” my late dad used to tell me. Most of the folks on my father’s side are preachers and teachers. I’m a journalist who teaches. First cousin Craig West, co-directing a doc teaser on our second cousin (Hernandez-Perez), is a deacon and a teacher who shoots documentaries and stills. We think Hernandez-Perez just might be the most interesting person in our big, bold family. We think you might, too. She is also mentioned in a creative nonfiction story on three generations of family guys and how they interacted with female relatives in the tumultuous period of the Occupy Movement through the Black Lives Movement in a piece called “Victor’s Retreat.”

Like this reporter, she spent quality time in Israel/Palestine, and in Chicago’s Black and Brown neighborhoods where she played drums like my dad, Jerry West Jr. and my twin sons – Amman and Jordan West. My dad and her late dad (Raymond) were first cousins and drinking buddies. They drank Scotch. We drink champagne, though she prefers tequila. Her late mom, Ethel, a classy pretty lady whom I met once, was Jewish. Hernandez-Perez has a picture of her mom near one of Rosa Parks in her modest Woodlawn apartment where cousin Michael “Juice” Scaife stays upstairs and other cousin Felicia “Ladyblue” Scaife says downstairs in this family-owned three-flat one-half mile from the proposed Obama Presidential Library site.

Hernandez-Perez and I share a great-grandmother, Guilia, (Julia) a Sicilian-Jewish woman we’re guessing originated from Sephardic North Africa before entering Siracusa, migrating to the U.S. and later marrying our Black Christian great-grandfather, Henry Jeremiah, in Alabama in the ‘20s. “They were given 24 hours to get out of town or be lynched. They left within 12, eventually settling in Chicago, founding the West homestead,” is how my dad told the story.  It was me posting this bilingual Italian/English story on social media a couple years ago that made Hernandez-Perez reach out to me and share hers. Apparently, my cousin had been following my reporting for years as she continued her scholarly research into Jewish spirituality. Hearing about Giulia’s Jewish roots moves her in “unbelievable ways,” my rabbi cousin said.

“We were in the same teenage club together called the Lochivars (named after the romantic character in Sir Walter Scott’s poem),” she reminded me after contacting me. “I was Don Hernandez then before I became Ramona. I remember you being cool — an old soul — a laid-back person that I trusted. I didn’t know you were my cousin then.”

“Wow! I didn’t either, though I always liked you and felt you seemed familiar like family, even looked like family members,” I responded. “Glad, we reconnected. It means a lot that you reached out.”

It was hard for Hernandez-Perez to reach out to me given her many transitions. She was unsure how I might respond (as many trans people are when telling family members about their transitions), though deep down I believe she figured I’d be rather open. And I am. She discovered we were related upon seeing my picture in our cousin Tyrone Jackson’s family album when she visited him a few years back in his Henderson, Nevada, home.

“Helluva a story,” she mused. “Should be in a film or an article or something,” she said, praising how my twins and I and my maternal Uncle Nathan – three generations of male family – produced a doc about my famous musician-Uncle Marshall called “Last Man Standing”because at 90 he was the only continuous member and the last of the original founding members of the avant-grade Sun Ra Arkestra. This month, Uncle Marshall will be 93. He’s still standing.

In the spring of 2015, Hernandez-Perez and I meet up at Havana, a swank River North Cuban restaurant where salsa music plays as the waiter pours pitchers of mojitos. Catching up on family stories as well as the national narratives amid this “Hands up/I can’t breathe” era where guys and girls of color are increasingly become targets for trigger-happy cops as well as increasing LGBTQ hate crimes, Hernandez-Perez tells me she had sex reassignment surgery in Brussels, Belgium, in 1996 — the first known woman of color to do so there. She said “trans stories matter!” Increasing news stories on hate crimes against trans citizens then and now confirm that there’s lots of interest in narratives about trans citizens.

When I introduced Hernandez-Perez to my twin sons, I introduced her as their “aunt” because pronouns are important to trans people.     

Only recently has it donned on me how timely it is for Hernandez-Perez to share her story. The day we photographed gender-neutral bathrooms for post-production tweaks in the documentary, President Trump announced aggressive new executive orders against gender non-binary citizens.

“Like before and after Trump, this, too, shall pass,” Hernandez-Perez concluded.

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