Personal Perspective: "Come Back When You're Dressed Like a Man"
I am a 26-year-old Latina transgender woman. I was mostly raised by my aunt after I was taken away from my mom and dad due to their drug use and street lifestyle. Things were hard because there were seven children in the house and a lack of love and attention. My father was constantly in and out of prison, died at the age of 28 from the AIDS virus, and infected my mom. Once she found out, she totally gave up. After that, I was sexually abused by my grandmother's boyfriend. But when I told my grandmother she didn't believe me. Instead, she told her boyfriend and he went into the bathroom, filled the tub with freezing cold water and threw me in. I couldn't do anything but cry.
At the age of ten I began to notice that I was different from other boys. I would play with dolls and play house, fashion show, and talent show. I always played the girl, dressing up in my aunt's clothes, shoes, and makeup. And when I looked at boys, I found them attractive.
In the seventh grade I began to get into fights when people called me names because of the way I acted. After a while I got tired of fighting so I began to cut school. My aunt was notified and I was punished and beaten with belts. She sat me down and asked me what was wrong, but I felt she wouldn't understand so I kept my mouth shut. I told her I didn't want to be there anymore, so I was put in group homes. I felt I was alone and like I was the only person who felt his way. I even cut my arms up and wanted to die. That led to me being put in the hospital for suicidal thoughts and depression. I was given medication, but to me it didn't work so I stopped it.
I finally told my social worker what I was going through. She was understanding and placed me in a home with all gay people where I felt better because I met people I could relate to. But one day I was dressed as a girl and the staff told me that if I was going to dress as a girl I had to leave. I felt like I still couldn't be myself.
Then I met another resident there and we got cool. He introduced me to Greenwich Village and I fell in love with it. For once I felt accepted and like I wasn't the only one going through this. Once he asked me if I wanted to make money. I said yes, so he introduced me to "the stroll." I began to work the streets every night. It was exciting, because I was wanted by guys and I got a lot of attention and money. I liked the Village and prostituting so much that I left the group home and ended up homeless.
I started drugs for the first time at the age of 16. My habit got so bad I was using every night, robbing people, and doing unprotected sex for drugs and money. I would be on the stroll and "boosting" stores for days at a time without eating or sleeping. I would get locked up and come back out and go right back to the same things -- drinking and drugging and sleeping in the streets.
One night people from Housing Works came and told me that I should get tested for HIV. I really didn't want to, but I went to take a shower and get something to eat and while I was there I took the test. I was HIV positive. So I said to myself, if I was gonna die anyway I might as well continue to do what I'd been doing. And that's what I did for four years -- drug, sleep in the street, rob, and steal.
I finally decided it was time for a change and went into the transgender housing program at Housing Works. I stopped the drugs and got medical care there. But after a while I started the drugs again and ran from parole. Fortunately I went back to jail. They weren't giving me hormone therapy or my HIV medications, so I went to sick call. I explained to the doctor that I was a transgender woman and I would like to get back on my medication. I gave him verification of my hormone therapy and HIV meds from Housing Works. But then he told me he wasn't going to give me hormones because he didn't condone it. We argued about the situation, but for nine months I went without my hormone therapy or HIV meds. Things like that discourage transgender people from getting health care because we feel that we should be treated equally and respected for who we are, not what we are.
I told the city worker that I was a transgender woman, but he said I was a man and that the next time I should dress like a man or I would not get services.
When I was released I had to get housing and emergency services, so I went to a city agency for help. Mind you I wasn't dressed like I usually do because I was just out. I was told to come back in a week and came back dressed as a girl. The worker called my name but when I sat down he asked me why I was dressed like I was. I told him that I was a transgender woman, but he said I was a man and that the next time I should dress like a man or I would not get services. You would think the people who work for the city would understand that all kinds of people come for services. So I said I wanted to see his supervisor, and she was very understanding. She helped me with what I was there for and assigned me to another worker who assisted me with everything I needed. But there still is a need for more education. For example, it would help if workers were able to refer transgender clients to specialized service providers, like they would for a woman who was a domestic violence victim.
Some providers wonder why a person would want to be transgender. But being transgender is not something we choose. It's something we feel inside -- something so overwhelming that no matter what we choose we would still need to do it. Many providers treat us poorly based on what they deem morally right and wrong. More education is needed -- the more providers know about us the better they'll be to provide effective services. There should also be more laws that focus specifically on gender identity. Most, if not all, legislation ignores transgender people.
Accessing social services and medical care was hard for me because I didn't like the fact that I was called by my boy name and "him" or "sir." No matter how pretty or passable you are, they still call you what's on your I.D. They don't stop to ask you what you would like to be called. That's embarrassing, because there I am in women's clothes and they're calling me all types of "hims" and "sirs." City policies should be changed to allow transgender people to identify by their chosen name, especially when they are being addressed in front of other clients. If the worker calls the transgender person by their legal name in the waiting area they are outing that person and opening them up for ridicule. So I'm seeing an attorney about getting my I.D. changed.
I've had gay friends who just didn't get what I was going through and would ask why I couldn't just be a "regular" gay guy.
Our lives are much harder than anyone else's. Even gay men are more accepted in society than trans people -- people feel we're going too far. Even some gay men think that we're embarrassing the gay community. I've had gay friends who just didn't get what I was going through and would ask why I couldn't just be a "regular" gay guy. In addition, gays have rights that protect them from discrimination while there are no laws that protect transgender people.
Many people think we are mentally ill or only see the ridiculous transgender people on Jerry Springer and that's how they view all of us. Because of these stereotypes many transgender people are never able to live fulfilling lives. And since our access to health care, education, and employment are hampered we often are forced to turn to prostitution.
I still have people who say things when I walk the streets, but I've learned to deal with it. I know what I am and I'm secure with who I am. I take my meds now and get my monthly checkups. I am currently clean off the drugs and alcohol and I don't go out prostituting. I have a safe apartment and I go to groups where I learn a lot about health, substance use, and harm reduction. My mind is in a totally different place now. I guess as you get older things change, especially your mental aspect. You want more out of life. You don't want to die a junkie and you don't want to be known as one. You want to be known as a somebody. Someone who went from a zero to a ten. Someone who succeeded.
Want to read more articles in the Spring 2009 issue of Achieve? Click here.
This article was provided by ACRIA and GMHC. It is a part of the publication Achieve. Visit ACRIA's website and GMHC's website to find out more about their activities, publications and services.
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