A Life Out Loud: An Interview with Portland Trans Activist Natalie Marie

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 Natalie Mayoraga, AKA Natalie Marie is a prominent voice for the Trans community co-hosting the weekly Out Loud on Portland's own community radio station, KBOO.  She is also active with Portland Collective Housing, and in January, she was named "Volunteer of the Year" by the Q Center.  Despite all this, the State of Oregon, in all its wisdom, has decided that Natalie is a person from whom the community served by the Q center need to be protected.  After she submitted to a newly-required background check, staff was informed that her past precluded her from serving in any capacity at the center.

 
Natalie, most people know you as one of the voices for Queer Out Loud Radio on KBOO, but you're also a board member of Portland Collective Housing. 
 
Portland Collective Housing (PCH) is a 501(c)3 non-profit organization providing housing for low-income individuals.  I'm a member owner in the organization and pay a monthly share.  What this means is that as a member of the organization I technically own the property that we live on since PCH owns the property.  All members are owners actually the only difference being is that we don't build individual equity.  So anyway it's co-op living.  There are 9 other housemates in my house on Mississippi and about 8 in the other house we own in Southeast Portland.
 
My role on the Board of directors, who basically are the custodians of the property and direct operations, is Property Management and Development Director.  What it looks like is, we have a building space on our Mississippi property that we are currently in the process of leasing.  My job as Director is to find a tenant or business to utilize the space in a way that contributes to our overall mission and values.  Additionally any other issues that arise regarding leasing, mortgaging, or future acquisition are my responsibility as well.  In addition to these responsibilities I am also in charge of identifying possible sources of funding and partnering organizations.
 
How did you get involved with PCH?
 
I saw an ad on Craigslist and I was looking for housing.  I researched the organization a bit and felt that it was the ideal living situation for me.  So I contacted the person who was setting up interviews and met with all the house members and we all basically fell in love with each other.  The rest is history as they say.
 
I know that housing is a major issue for trans people.  Is helping the community an explicit part of PCH's mission?
 
Helping trans people in particular is not. We are of course open to helping anyone regardless of how they identify. I will say this though, we currently have at least 2 members that self identity as trans and the majority of both houses are folks that identify at various points along the LGBTQQIA spectrum. As housing difficulties affect many folks in our community we are especially concerned with helping any who have barriers to affordable housing or face discrimination.
 
How long have been with KBOO?
 
Seems like about March or April I started at KBOO.  I was in a situation where most of my living expenses were paid for and I was going to school full time.  I was getting bored and felt like I needed to get connected with the community.  Out Loud Radio on KBOO was a program I'd listened to for years and had heard them call out for volunteers and contributors from time to time.  It sounded like a great way to get involved and help be an advocate for local issues so I went down to the studio attended the orientation and started learning how to produce radio.  I began with writing for the PM news and then got interested and involved with the Out Loud Collective.  All the classes and training are free and as a regular contributor I'm also a member and have a say in the decision making process and the format of the station.  I would strongly encourage anyone who wants to be involved and have a voice in their own community to come down and attend the next volunteer orientation.
 
When I last saw you, I think you were coming from the Marriage Equality event.  How does this issue affect the trans community?
 
Well for me personally, I never really considered it until recently.  I'm not interested in getting married at this time or any in the foreseeable future but I feel that I still deserve the same rights as anyone else, should I change my mind.  I identify as gender queer but I also identify with aspects of the trans community since technically speaking I am transitioning with hormones, etc.  The gender marker on my ID says Female and I also happen to date a lot of trans people.  So this presents an interesting conundrum.  If I end up wanting to marry a trans woman pre or post op, our genders are the same and we would probably not be allowed to marry.  In addition to that in some circumstances our assigned sex would be the same as well, and we would not be allowed to marry.  Conversely I also date a lot of cisgendered women, and having the same gender marker could complicate this as well.  I'm not really sure historically what has happened in cases like this but I garner there is usually a big debate whenever anyone of the same gender tries to marry.  The bottom line is that I would probably face discrimination and be held to different standards no matter who I chose to marry.  And that sucks.  Regardless of who you are, what you look like, or what sort plumbing you got between your legs, everyone deserves equal treatment under the law.  Marriage equality is a no-brainer but since we are still having these conversations as a society, something has to be changed about it.  That's why I support Oregon United for Marriage.
 
A lot of people don't know what gender queer means.  Can you explain a little?  And to those outside the community, what can they do to be supportive? 
 
For me, gender queer is simply a term that means I do not fit into an either/or category, as far as gender is concerned.  I am outside of the binary classifications of male or female.  Gender queer reflects an identity that is a) an identity that encompasses both genders and/or b) an identity or expression that is not static.  My gender expression can change from day to day and minute to minute.
 
One way for those outside of that community to be supportive is to educate yourselves.  Do not rely on those that do identify as gender queer to educate you.  It is not their responsibility to explain who or how they are to anyone.  That being said I am personally one person who believes that it is better to have these discussions with people and feel empowered and engaged in community and understanding when people have questions.  If you have questions I would encourage seeking out people who are comfortable talking with you about their identity, expressions, and experiences.
 
Lastly, the first step in being supportive is to ask someone how you can do that.  Don't assume that you know what is best for them or what support would look for them.
 
Apart from the program and the Collective, what other things are you working on?
 
I volunteer regularly at Basic Rights Oregon and was recently a Volunteer Coordinator at Q Center.
 
I know that changed recently, what happened?
 
I'm assuming that you are referring to the PQ Monthly article that came out regarding my exclusion from volunteering/working at Q Center because of the background check denial.  My criminal history started when I was 18.  I was young and experimented with the wrong drugs.  I struggled with addiction for several years as a result of it and was convicted several times of various drug-related property offences.  I served some time in prison and got out with a new lease on life and started making changes to ensure that I wouldn't make the same mistakes again.  Part of this included volunteering and community service through the Q Center.  I've worked there for over 14 months, volunteering my time and energy. The PQ Monthly article highlights many of the various activities and duties for which I was responsible.  In a sense, I paid my debt, I learned my lesson and I was working towards giving back to my community.
 
Last year SMYRC (The Sexual Minority and Youth Resource Center) became a part of Q Center in order to ensure its survival as an organization.  Q Center also became more concerned with addressing the needs of the aging community and around this time acknowledged that Oregon state law required some accountability for organizations working with and serving so-called "vulnerable" communities.  It was then announced that in order to be in compliance with state law and the policies of our revenue sources, all Q Center volunteers and staff would have to submit to and pass a background check as spelled out by Department of Human Services guidelines.  
 
Being open about my past, I volunteered to do the background check early since I had invested so much time at the center and was in the process of establishing a paid position for myself.  As you have read, the result of the check was a denial and DHS informed me that I would no longer be allowed to participate at the center in any capacity.  At that time, I met with staff and it was decided that I would appeal the board decision.  They agreed that they would support me in the appeal process to the extent allowed by law and they have to this day. I am in the process of gathering references and testimonials to my work and fitness for continued involvement to submit to the Criminal Background Check Unit Board of Review at DHS along with my appeal to overturn their decision.
 
So, you were never convicted of a crime of violence, and you've been clean for quite some time, but DHS still decided you weren't fit to help people in the community?
 
I was disqualified for a list of prior offenses, including theft and possession of a controlled substance.  The only crime that may be considered violent is a 2005 conviction for bank robbery.  It was an unarmed robbery and non-violent in nature but the Federal statute for the crime reads: "by force, violence, or intimidation."  It's a catch-all for anytime a person steals money from the Federal Government.  So they may consider this a violent offense but nowhere in my history is there any person-to-person related charge.
 
The specifics for my denial were not qualified, only a list of past charges that permanently disqualify me.  So I have no idea what they were considering.
 
When is the appeal?
 
I have until the middle of May (45 days after denial) to request a hearing. After I make the request there is a process of pulling my file, reviewing, requesting more information and then scheduling a hearing.  The hearing will be a phone conference which will probably take place at the Q Center, and will be with someone from the Background Check Unit and a Judge.
I have not gotten any legal help at this point, though I wouldn't refuse it. I'm not certain how helpful an attorney would be for something like this.  Let's be clear: I'm not challenging the record or my past charges in any way. I'm challenging their decision based on what those charges are and the circumstances that have led up to my community work and involvement.  I guess, from a legal standpoint, I'm not saying that they made the "wrong" decision but rather they made a "bad" decision, and the process they went about doing it is wrong, flawed.
 
How has the Q Center responded?
 
I would say that Q Center's response has been mostly disappointment.  The staff have all expressed their dissatisfaction with the process and my denial.  To that end Q Center staff have also been very supportive and are helping me to the extent allowed by law. 
 
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