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Three Stories of Personal Survival and Growth From People Living With HIV

July 30, 2012

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Gigi's Story -- On Her Way to Becoming a Woman, Looking for Love on the Street

Miss GiGi Thomas.

Miss GiGi Thomas.

Miss GiGi Thomas joined Positive Voice's special World AIDS Day edition, December 1, 2010, to talk about the special HIV experience and needs of transgendered people. She transitioned from man to woman the hard way -- and came back from it strong, focused, determined to serve her community. After years serving clients at HIPS -- a Washington, DC organization working to end violence against sex workers and helping them improve their lives -- she's now a medical case manager at DC's Family and Medical Counseling Services.

GiGi's interview is a jaw dropper. She doesn't hold things back, she's made mistakes and learned from them, and she wants us to know exactly what they were. But there are plenty of take-aways here besides what GiGi did or didn't get right the first time around. All of us who have had to access HIV healthcare and support services know how difficult it can be to get what we need and deserve. It's even harder for marginalized people like transgendered "girls" on the street, and the problems are all connected. Police protection, not persecution, is HIV prevention. Stable housing is HIV prevention. Emergency shelters that welcome the girls and don't mock them are HIV prevention. Here's what GiGi had to tell us....

Positive Voice: GiGi, tell us about transitioning. What made you want to transition from a man to a woman, and what was the experience like?

Well, first, I never expected to transition. But the one thing I always realized was that I was different. At the age of eight I was doing it with my brother's best friend, he was sixteen, and basically he didn't assault me, I attacked him. I was always attracted to men, I liked the way a man walks, I liked the muscles. But I was raised in the church, and I didn't understand why I was the way I was, I felt like this weird person, I felt all alone. I was walking the streets at night at twelve, my family didn't know, I was trying to find out who I was. Guys used to pick me up and give me drugs and buy me sweatsuits, give me money. And I really liked it, because I'm the baby of five and my mom she always did her best as a single parent, but there was a lot that I wanted and needed. I was looking for love. And my family didn't know about my sexuality, I didn't know how to bring it up to them, my biggest fear was that I was going to lose their love.


I have a best friend who's now my daughter, and she was making her transition from a male to a female. At first I couldn't stand transsexuals, transgenders, I thought that was the worst thing in the universe -- you're already African-American and gay, and why in the world would a man want to dress up in women's clothes? So I didn't like transgenders. I won't use the word hate, but I despised them. I wasn't educated then, I didn't know a lot of what I know now. My girlfriend Sheila asked me to go out with her for Halloween and I dressed up as a female, miniskirt, cute wig, cut all the hair off my face -- and when I went out it was so exciting. Wow, guys were coming up to me, getting my phone number, and this was really cool. I started doing it once or twice a week. But I was still sneaking around, I got on drugs at the age of fifteen, I didn't know how to deal with coming out. I heard in church, God created Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve, I heard all this stuff about Sodom and Gomorrah. I knew I was a good person, I was a loving person, and I was going to Hell and I didn't choose this, this was who I am. Why didn't I have a chance like everyone else?

And growing up in the Southeast, DC area, it was truly hard to be identified as a homosexual or a gay person. I was going out twice a week, my drug progression started going up more and more, because I was meeting more guys that were giving me drugs. I was meeting transgenders with problems in their lives like being homeless, not having a good support system, not having family, dropped out of school, on drugs real heavy, doing sex work and everything else, and I became part of the crew. Started doing drugs very heavily, drugs every day, lost my job at the Washington Post, I was there for six and a half years. I didn't actually do my first dress up until I was twenty-one, I actually didn't start transitioning until was twenty-six, because when I lost my job at the Post I became a full-time sex worker. I came out to the family at twenty-one, and I'm smiling now, but it was all like, it's just a phase, he's such a sissy, it was the most hurtful thing in the world. I was so lost, because my family was all I thought I had for a support system. And it made me do some hurtful things to myself, drugs, sometimes it was a 500 to a 1000 dollar habit a day, and I started transitioning because I thought, you're better than this. I decided to go to a program, because I had to make a decision about who I wanted to be, I still had one foot in being a male-to-female and one foot in being a gay male. And I talked to my Higher Power, my God, and I said, you go into this program as GiGi, this is who you want to be. That's when I made my decision that was going to be a gender queer. I never wanted to be a female, because I knew I'm not a female, I just knew that I was different. And because I like the opposite sex, straight men, I had to dress and express myself as a female.

So I transitioned, got myself into a drug program, got a sponsor, that was in 1999, and it's been like going up the hill ever since. That's how my transition worked for me, I don't regret it at all, all that experience, it's been a wonderful life. I'm able to talk to others. I have a relationship with my family now. Some of my sisters don't accept me, but my mom and I are best friends. Some of them started saying, you need to go to a men's retreat, but I was getting my breasts enhanced, and then they were saying, well, we could deal with you being a gay man ... But I had made my decision. People in the program told me, maybe you should think about becoming female, it's going to be hard for you to get a job, things like that, pushing back at me, and I started having depression but I didn't give up. I got a job, even though they discriminated against me when I first went to work there, I tried to dress down, not be openly female, but I couldn't take off my nails, they saw them and said, we don't need you, we already have someone transgendered.

So it's been difficult. Today when I do trainings I share about my experience, what I was doing at eight years old, I want people to know that their grandchildren, their nieces and nephews may be out there having sex. So watch your children and know what going on with them, and don't beat them up with judgment, but give them support and love. My transition could have been so much better if I had had some support from my family about what was going on with me. I had mental problems. I never wanted to commit suicide, but there were times I wanted to give up, because if I didn't have my family I didn't have no one. In my trainings, I have grandmothers come up to me and say, thank for sharing your experience, because I have a grandchild who's going through the same thing, I love him but I don't know what to do with him. I say, make a safe place for him, because you can put yourself at risk. I could have had someone cut my throat when I was twelve -- there are some psychos out there , maniacs, people who want to hurt you -- and my family didn't even know what was going on with me. It would have saved me a lot of trauma in my if I had been able to express myself, to say, Mom, I am who I am. Because when they did find out they turned their back on me, and it made me do things even worse. I'm a loving person, a giving person, even if I'm feeling bad I'll try to put a smile on your face, but I wasn't doing good things for me. I was helping people get into programs, get help for themselves, and basically I needed help for myself.

So you made mistakes, but it sounds like they led you somewhere. How did past mistakes become empowerment for you? How did you get into the business of serving other transgendered people?

We all make mistakes in life. None of us are perfect, and you can't judge a person on a mistake or put them down, because we'll all be put down. Sometimes the trials and tribulations we go through in life make us the outstanding people we are today. Picking up drugs at a very young age, looking for love in all the wrong places, has made me so much stronger and independent and able to find help.

When I was a sex worker on the street, getting my life together and going through drug treatment, I saw that to stop one addiction you have stop all your addictions. Because I stopped doing drugs, but I was still addicted to the lifestyle, doing sex work. When I saw the HIPS van, I was so discombobulated I didn't know what they really stand for. I saw a bunch of Caucasian persons on the van, I thought one of their family members had passed away from HIV and AIDS, and they had all this money and were just handing out condoms because they wanted to save someone's life, they missed their family member so much. One day I went up to the van and thanked them for passing out condoms, and I was feeling sorry for them. And this young lady told me, we need someone to come onto our advisory board so we can meet the needs of the sex workers out here. And I said, OK. And I told them about being clean and being in a drug recovery program, and they were just so happy for me. So the love, the caring. . . them wanting to support me, I wanted to support them. There were five or six on the advisory committee, but for the first six months I was the only one showing up, bring them information about the street. I started learning about the organization learning they were trying to intervene, not just to get people off the streets, but portecting them from HIV and STDs and helping them get relocated back with their families. I was like, wow, this is really great. And I started doing volunteer work with them, and then I worked with the case manager, Patricia Novinsky, we had a lot in common at heart. She was like in her sixties, we had this relationship, and she would tell me how she loved how I worked with the clients. If we had a client out there and she was busy, I was the one who worked with them, and she was like, wow, you are the best. It really empowered me, taking my experience and my mistakes, being able to share with others how I had turned my life around. I was touching their lives, it wasn't something I planned to do, it was just the spirit that was in me. And they opened up this position for office manager, sixteen or seventeen people applied for it and I ended up getting the postion, and they told me, GiGi, we didn't just pick you for this because you've been doing volunteer work with us, you blew that interview out of the frame. And when I became the office manager, I also became the case manager assistant, because they loved how I interacted with the clients. A lot of them were coming in on drugs, homelessness, and I could give them information. In the two years I was there, we started with seven staff members, we had to downsize to two because we had lost a lot of funding, they were keeping the executive director and outreach manager, and they told me they were keeping me too. Sometimes you don't see the good things about yourself, but they told me, girl, you wear too many hats around here, you can do too many things, outreach case management, get ready for the audit. Some of us started another organization called Different Avenues for people getting out of prison, and they wanted me to come on board as a deputy director, but the funding wasn't really there, and I was loving the work I was doing at HIPS too much to leave. I went on their board, and I was always very supportive of them, going over there to see how they were doing.

So that's how you got into the business of serving transgendered people.... It's quite a story! Can you tell us about the services themselves? What kinds of problems do the girls have to deal with, and what do you help them do it? What kinds of situations did you have to intervene in?

Well, the girls would come to me, not just because I was employed at HIPS, but because I had "one foot in and one foot out". HIPS is very non-judgmental, they don't judge you or discriminate against you because they know, if you're still working the street, it's part of your lifestyle. You can get arrested, and they say, heads up!, if you get arrested you can lose your job -- but they don't say you can't work here, because they aren't trying to be the police enforcing the law. They try to stay away from that.

And having first-hand experience, well ... We were seeing more and more young transgendered women coming out here on the street, homeless, no support from their families, and that was a major problem, because you had five or six, sometimes even ten girls sleeping in a one-bedroom hotel, trying to survive and trying to make it, because honestly and truly they had nowhere to go. Putting themselves at risk with a date, if you say you charge $75 for sex, the date may say I got $150 if you let me have sex with you without a condom. And they think, oh, $150, I can get me a hotel room, I can get me something to eat, I can buy me some makeup. Or maybe I can get out of the room with ten people and go in with three or four people. They wasn't looking at they was putting themselves at risk, they was looking at survival skills. You had a lot of transgendered women that were HIV-positive who weren't identified as positive because of the work they were doing, because they were afraid of how people would look at them or judge or tell -- because if you're dating and someone knows, the dates will know, the girls all know, and everyone else, you have to keep it closed.

Another thing was employment, it's extremely hard for transgenders to get employment unless you have a high school diploma, and a lot of them were dropping out of school, and then because of their sexuality, they didn't have a name change or still had "M" on the ID -- when you go to a job, they'll be like, Oh no, because they don't know how to deal with that.

And on the homeless thing again, a lot of them were having trouble getting into shelters. I would call around the DC area to the men's shelters and to the women's shelters, say, we have a transgendered woman who needs to get into a shelter, and they would say, what is that, we don't deal with that here. New York Avenue shelter was outstanding, they'd say, oh, we've already got some transgenders here, tell them come on over and we'll make them welcome. Not some others. It used to break my heart, because how can we meet the needs of our transgender community when we say we're a transgender resource and we can't even get them into emergency shelter? So me and Earlene Budd, what we did was meet up with Lisa Mottet, one of the lawyers for the transgender community, and we did a transgender training for the shelters. We did it for the women's shelters and the men's shelters, we had all the shelters in the Washington, DC area come together because we met with a Council member, it was a mandatory training, and we did the training. And as you see, the beautiful young lady that I am now, I was a little more beautiful then because I was a few years younger, I said, if I was to come to you, where would you house me? And a lot of them would say, you can be with the females. So I said, but if I want to send you a transgendered woman, you all say you don't want to deal with them. You say they have to go somewhere else, we won't allow them here. So a few of the women's shelters opened up their doors to transgendered women, but the waiting list was longer than the housing list, which is three years, so you still couldn't get them placed in women's shelters right away. So we're still sending transgendered women to men's shelters, but a lot of times they're kept close to staff for safety, not just from other clients, because some of the staff weren't sensitive and didn't understand the transgender community, they would say, you a man, you need to take that off and stop dressing like that, and other clients would start laughing at that. And it made them feel uncomfortable, so a lot of transgendered women wouldn't go to shelters. They would sleep in abandoned houses, put themselves at risk for more money not using a condom, they would sleep in abandoned cars, they would start doing drugs and go to these men's houses who were doing drugs all night long, and they were picking up more negative habits just trying to survive on the streets.

And also, a lot of transgendered women was being victimized, the dates would date them, a lot of times they would they was females or even not knowing they was females, seeing being transgender or gay as "weak," and when they paid them the money they would rob them. And not just rob them for that date but for everything they earned that night. And a lot of the women, they weren't giving up their money that easy, because they wouldn't have nowhere else to go. So we had a lot of women that got stabbed, raped, beat up, killed. Me being the 24-hour crisis intervention hotline supervisor, they were calling us at any time, whether it was two o'clock in the morning or two o'clock in the afternoon. We had eight other volunteers that were trained on the hotline, and we had to meet caller wherever she was, so long as it was a safe place. If it wasn't, we would tell them, you can go to the nearest police station or hospital and we will meet you there. If I was asleep, I would have to get out of bed, go meet the person, find out what happened, what's going on, then usually get them relocated with their family or put them up into an emergency shelter -- an emergency hotel, because we had funding for hotels -- until we could work with them the next day and other organizations had opened up and we could get them into a safe place. But, yeah, we had so many women getting assaulted, you know, getting raped, and when you get raped you have to get the sex kit for the police, the detectives to be able to file any charges, and also to get victim compensation, because they wanted to have proof. And the detectives would come and say, oh, you a man, how did you get raped? Men don't get raped. And they would say, ooh, are you a prostitute, instead of asking about what happened in the incident. So a lot of times, if they was raped, robbed, beat up or whatever, they wouldn't even go and file a report, because of the harassment and how the detectives would treat them, even at the local hospitals, unless they was stabbed or shot and needing that medical attention right away. So a lot of the time they wouldn't follow up. But we would hear these stories doing outreach, ask them, did you file a report, and they would say, no, child, I didn't file a report ... They had police officers out here who would act like they was locking the girls up, take them down the street and say, either give me some head or let me have sex with you, or I'm locking you up. You have sex with that person or give him some head because you want to feel protected. So they did it with the police officers for protection, thinking, they'll allow me to be out here when they're telling everyone else to get off the street. It was chaos. Where we're sitting at now, 5th and K Streets, this used to be the stroll for the transgender community, but as they started putting up these hotels and condos, they started pushing them down the street toward North Capitol, darker areas where the young guys would just come and rob them or stab them. They wasn't worrying about, we're pushing these people into darker areas where it was harder for HIPS and other organizations to bring them what they need, where there was more drugs. You don't see as many transgenders out on the street as you did two or three years ago because a lot of them are doing internet, but you still have a lot of girls that's getting arrested, and when they get out of jail, there's no services for them, even a halfway house, we didn't have a halfway house for trangendered women. Sometimes they'd call me from the halfway house and say, hey, they want me to take off my girl's jeans and put on big boy jeans, stuff like that, they want me to wear my hair straight back, and a lot of girls would say, send me back to jail.

That's the kind of things the girls were facing around here. No kind of social support. I shared with HIPS, when I was out here with the girls, one of the things I felt was alone. Even though you saw other girls out here, everyone was for herself, trying to make it, trying to survive. You didn't have no friends, you could have your throat cut or get robbed and not have anyone to turn to help you out, because you was all alone. It was great seeing an organization like HIPS that was coming around giving you condoms, give you hot chocolate when it's cold, give you gloves and hats, because somebody actually cared, somebody actually understands what's going on with us.

GiGi, we've never done an interview quite like this one. Thank you so much.

But I want to tell you about what I'm doing now with Family and Medical Counseling Services!

Wonderful! You've moved on from HIPS?

Yes, I'm at FMCS now. I started going for my bachelor's degree at University of the District of Columbia, I'll be getting my dgree in May of 2011, I started my internship with FMCS in August of 2009, and they hired me as a medical case manager in October. I've been there a little over a year, and it's turned out extremely well. A lot of the girls are coming over to get help with housing services, getting hooked up with health insurance, we're able to help them out with food stamps, we're able to get them medical care, behavioral health services, substance abuse, it's like a one-stop program over there on Martin Luther King Avenue. Now that I'm a medical case manager, I'm able to do more services for them, help them get their names changed, helping them out with employment, helping a lot of the girls get jobs, which can be hard, but we've done very well providing a real depth of services. And I can't forget our Transgender Health Empowerment program, which has the first transgender housing support for the community, it's great, Miss Earlene Budd works there. And we just did a church training for Umbrella, a housing umbrella organization for transgendered women and young guys making the transition who have gotten kicked out of their homes.

So I must say, things aren't like they used to be, five and ten years ago, they are getting better. Some people might look at it as a slow change, but any change is a positive change, and I'm just so glad that I'm a part of the change.

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This article was provided by National Association of People With AIDS. It is a part of the publication Positive Voice.
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