A year ago, Harmony Santana was 19, living in transitional housing in Harlem, and working as a peer educator at Bronx AIDS Services. She was still living as a boy and thinking about going into the medical field.
Now, she's starring as Michael/Vanessa in Gun Hill Road, a drama set in the Bronx about an ex-convict who returns from prison to discover his son, Michael, is transitioning into a woman. The film debuted at the Sundance Film Festival in January; created a buzz at Newfest in July; and opened in New York City on Friday.
Directed by Rashaad Ernesto Green, Gun Hill Road provides a rare cinematic glimpse into the complex relationship between a transgender person and her family. What's even rarer is that one of the lead actors, Santana, is also transitioning in real life and living many of the experiences seen on screen.
For Santana, there's a connection between her work handing out condoms and giving HIV tests and her new visibility on the red carpet (and in the pages of The New York Times). She's always been a loud, proud advocate for the underserved: marching with friends against homelessness, in favor of gay marriage, and for programs for transgender youth. Her film debut simply allows her to use her voice to reach a broader audience.
"After I got the part ... I read the script, and I cried," she said last week after a discussion about the movie hosted by the LGBT Community Center in Manhattan. "And I was just like, 'I really want to do this.' You know, I'm this activist person, and I want to change things, so I accepted the role, because I really wanted to change how people view transgender [people]."
Like many transgender teens, Santana has traveled a rocky road to get where she is today. She became homeless after high school because her mother's live-in boyfriend wouldn't accept her as gay. She bounced between friends' places; lived in a shelter; struggled for money; and finally found a home at Green Chimneys, a transitional housing program for LGBT youth, a place she still lives.
AIDS prevention work became her passion because she found an accepting community at Bronx AIDS Services -- and because she realized that so many of her transgender friends were at risk of contracting HIV. "I fell in love with that place," she said. "I felt like I could be myself there, and I felt like I wanted to give back. I was like, 'I want to be one of these people.' And that's what I was doing until Rashaad found me."
Based on the reaction to the film so far -- from critics, from the 100-plus people who packed the LGBT Community Center last week -- Santana has stepped into a role many were hungry to see on the screen. At least half a dozen teens rose during the discussion to thank her for her performance. Some cried. "I forgot to breathe while watching it," gushed one woman.
So what's next for Santana? She's filmed two more movies and has a third lined up.
She's also pledged to continue fighting from the streets. For years, Housing Works has fought for passage of the Gender Expression Nondiscrimination Act, legislation that would make it illegal to discriminate against transgender people in areas such as housing, employment and education. When Santana learned about GENDA (from the Update blogger), she jumped at the chance to join our effort.
"If I can save a life," she said. "Then I'll put my life out there."