Presented by IDEA: A Conversation with Diana Oliva.
As part of Clyde Group’s observance of Hispanic Heritage Month, the company’s IDEA (Inclusivity, Diversity, Equity, and Accountability) Working Group hosted a conversation—inspired by the success of last year’s Hispanic Heritage Month panel—with Diana Feliz Oliva, the Associate Director of Public Affairs, Community Engagement and Advocacy at Gilead Sciences.
Diana has worked in the field of LGBTQ+ social services and public health for more than 25 years. A 2005 graduate of Columbia University with a master’s degree in Social Work, her particular interest has been advancing the development of public policy that addresses community-level health and social problems. In 2017, Diana became an HIV Community Liaison at Gilead Sciences, making her the first openly transgender person hired by Gilead in its 30-year history. Because of her unique and valuable expertise on transgender and HIV issues, Diana was promoted to Senior Manager in Public Affairs in 2019.
In her conversation with the team, she shared best practices and wisdom on the many intersecting issues her life has touched and her own journey to where she is today—revealing how she turned her daunting barriers and challenges into the basis of her activism.
The conversation began with Diana sharing how she identifies and what those identities mean to her. She noted that she strongly disliked the term “Hispanic” in Hispanic Heritage Month due to it being a direct byproduct of the Reagan administration’s attempt in the 1980s to lump ethnic groups together. “When it comes to race, we are still considered white, but ethnically, we must identify as ‘Hispanic’,” she said. Instead, she identifies as a first-generation Mexican American Chicana or Latina.
“There is interchangeable language to describe us,” she said. However, Diana made clear that decisions on this language should come from within the community, not outside of it.
Diana then shared her experience growing up in a small, conservative town outside Fresno, Calif.—illuminating how machismo in the Latino community and her religious upbringing impacted her coming out experience.
“Being brown is an innate experience,” she noted, as she began explaining how machismo translates into the patriarchy and misogyny seen in American culture.
“Machismo comes from the colonial days,” she said. “The European invasion and its religious propaganda led to a loss of culture, and with that, came a lot of binary social constructs. Because of this, I missed out on a lot of Mexican culture and rites of passage, like a quinceañera.”
From a young age, Diana knew that her gender was different than the sex assigned to her at birth, and she attributed much of her experience being tortured throughout elementary, middle, and high school to socially constructed gender roles.
“I was criticized because I “carried my books like a girl”, and my family back then constantly corrected my speech and mannerisms. I never developed a positive sense of self or self-esteem because I was always harassed for my femininity.”
Diana’s mother, a single parent of five, rejected her coming out because she worried about her religious salvation. Diana shared the pain of growing up with a single parent—her sole defender and protector—who didn’t support her, often deadnaming and misgendering her.
“Every time she would say male pronouns or deadname me, she was putting my life at risk. I never knew who was going to attack me if they found out.”
A self-identified late bloomer, Diana transitioned in 1998 at 26 years old. However, it was ultimately because of this lack of support, the pervasive stigma in her town, and an HIV diagnosis in January of 2000, that she moved to LA for treatment. It was a number of years before she felt safe enough to return.
Despite what she endured, Diana explained that she has been able to channel her trauma—or adverse childhood experiences, as she referred to them from her social work training—into action and advocacy by turning her pain into power. “My foundation has always been my faith and family support,” she said. “I surround myself with a chosen family that uplifts and supports me.”
Now, she channels the bullying, torture, and harassment she suffered into her work, developing initiatives like the first-ever TRANScend Community Impact Fund, which is the number one funding initiative for trans-led organizations in the U.S.
“When you’re able to be your true self at work, you’re more productive,” she said. “Innovation happens by being bold and fearless.”
As the conversation wrapped up, she shared her recommendations for how people can approach allyship.
“People are scared to ask questions because they worry they will say the wrong thing, but they don’t realize that it’s okay to say the wrong thing if it comes from a place of not knowing.” She explained that the responsibility of education should not fall on those who are in the minority and she advised everyone to be proactive in their allyship for communities they may not be a part of.
“Do research on your own—the work begins with you and how you show up for people who may be different from you.”
These days, Diana’s relationship with her mother has improved tremendously since her time growing up outside Fresno, evidenced by the 49th birthday party her mother threw for her that Diana described as one of the best nights of her life. As she spoke of plans for her self-coined “cincuentañera” to celebrate the love she has for her life and the huge—and heartbreakingly difficult to reach—milestone of making it to 50 as a trans woman in this country, her confidence, resilience, and gratitude were palpable.
Before signing off, she shared that even when she sometimes worries if she should “tone down her trans-ness,” the challenges she has overcome to make space for herself and build the support network she now has remind her that the answer to her worry is always a resounding never.
To learn more about how our IDEA Working Group is advancing DE&I at Clyde Group, read the 2021 IDEA report on our website.