Editor’s note: This is one of an occasional series of pieces about grassroots leaders in Milwaukee.
Livia Rowell-Ortiz was about to do an on-camera interview with a reporter at an outdoor location when a man in an electric scooter chair emerged from the building. Puzzled, he approached Rowell-Ortiz, who explained that she is a member of Genderqueer Milwaukee, a group that works for transgender rights in Milwaukee. He seemed startled and began to motor away.
“Queer is such a loaded word,” Rowell-Ortiz remarked after the man left.
That loaded word is just a small part of the complexity around transgender rights, but despite the struggles, Rowell-Ortiz, 26, has decided to dedicate her life to fighting for those rights.
Activism has always been a part of Rowell-Ortiz’s life. Her mom, Christine Neumann-Ortiz, is the founder of the Latino rights group Voces de la Frontera. Some of Rowell-Ortiz’s early memories are of going to rallies with her parents. She has also worked in varying capacities for Voces. Activism, however, took on a different meaning about four years ago.
Rowell-Ortiz always felt something was different about her.
“I certainly knew I wasn’t a guy, but I was a little more uncertain about what I was when I was younger,” Rowell-Ortiz said.
She ran from this feeling of difference. She tried a change of scenery, first at college and then by living abroad, but none of that worked, she said, so four and a half years ago she began taking hormones to transition to a woman.
To help with the process of coming out as transgender, Rowell-Ortiz began going to discussion groups at Genderqueer Milwaukee, where she talked with people who were going through similar experiences.
Rowell-Ortiz described first joining the organization as a form of self-preservation, but that quickly changed.
“It grew into much more than that,” she said. “It was easier to navigate life as a trans person knowing your experiences aren’t so unique. I mean they are, but your suffering isn’t something that you are doing alone.”
Rowell-Ortiz, a South Side resident, rose within the organization and is now a board member at Genderqueer Milwaukee. The group recently worked to help pass city legislation that allows people to identify themselves as transgender on their identification cards.
“For many trans folks getting an ID is very difficult and often the ID won’t match who you are, match your presentation, match the name you use, match your gender and that can be very dangerous,” Rowell-Ortiz said. “If an officer asks for your ID and your ID doesn’t look like you, you can be arrested and finger printed.”
Since helping to get the ID law passed, Rowell-Ortiz, currently between jobs, has shifted focus to working with the Milwaukee Police Department to change its policy on how it handles arresting and jailing trans individuals.
Rowell-Ortiz has become more comfortable being a visible transgender activist.
“There are so many falsehoods around being trans and what it means. I think the thing that gets overlooked in many struggles and movements is what they have to offer to people —what’s worth being celebrated. I think gender diversity is really cool,” Rowell-Ortiz said.
“When I got more comfortable being visible I thought that was something worth fighting for.”