My current foray into a stable identity started back in 1997, when I began transitioning while attending a private college in Rome, Georgia. I was studying psychology and computer science, dealing with the inner turmoil between my thoughts and paradoxical spiritual upbringing. Mandated by the college to regularly attend psychological sessions on-campus, my therapy was slowly leaving me frustrated and more confused.
Eventually, I attempted suicide and was unceremoniously kicked out of college.
After being told at that point that my life would consist of receiving checks from disability, I rebelled and moved in with friends in my college town. Soon, I started work as an apprentice chef with a local company. Feeling the need to better express my gender, my outward appearance started to ‘offend’ my bosses, and I was barred from appearing anywhere near the front of the restaurant when guests were there. When I got sick for a couple of days and had to call out, I was told to not come back to work at all.
Making due, one weekend I decided to test my options in another locality, one that was more liberal and accepting than conservative Georgia. Hitchhiking brought me back to my birthplace of New York City, beginning a serious transition in Manhattan at a youth shelter. It was during that time that I found one of the most memorable jobs of my career, working at a gourmet coffee shop in Chelsea. I met many people, including celebrities, and was allowed to be myself, fully, while working. (During this time, I also dabbled in sex work, stripping at a local trans club and participating in street sex work in the Meatpacking District.) Unfortunately, the shop closed down suddenly and I was again without a job.
I began working a few other jobs that matched my experience, like being a sign-language interpreter at a catalog company. Finally, in 2002, I got a coveted office position with a multi-million dollar non-profit in Manhattan. Working there, I got promoted three times in my first 90 days, and was lauded for my work and ability.
Working as a woman, I felt accepted and a part of the world.
One day, after about a year and half of work, my grandfather died, throwing me into a spiral of deep mourning and distress. We had bereavement benefits at work, and I sat down with someone from HR to get some days off. It was then that I officially told the company about my gender identity. I was told to take off as many days necessary to attend the funeral in Georgia, with no issues. Upon my return, however, I was told that I needed a psychiatric evaluation to continue working. Unfortunately, our benefits did not cover the sessions and I couldn’t afford to pay on my own. So, a couple of weeks later, and I receive a letter in the mail saying I was fired for not coming in to work.
Downtrodden and destitute, I followed my extended family to Virginia, where acceptance and freedom was at an all-time low. The only job I achieved was at MCI, a telecommunications company, which went bankrupt during my stay, leaving me without employment in an extremely conservative area. I could not find work at temp agencies, companies similar to my previous experience, and or even opportunities for ‘someone like me’ at Labor Ready.
In 2005, I moved to Miami, Florida without a home. Thankfully, the city of Miami Beach put me and my friend in a hotel in North Beach, since there were no accommodations for transgender individuals at shelters then. I applied up and down South Beach to no avail, because no one wanted to hire a black trans woman. Stereotyped left and right, I eventually found a local non-profit where I could seek assistance. There, I was offered a small outreach position with an air of wariness, despite my resume.
I worked my butt off at the community organization, helping my own community and becoming an HIV counselor, data manager, supervisor of counseling and testing, program coordinator, and mentor during my six years there. All good things end, however, and, once again, I found myself without a job. Though my fellow co-workers all managed to get something else, I was still without, besides two contract opportunities that fell through.
Tired, angry, and motivated, I focused all my efforts in establishing local programming that could assist me and those like me. I wanted my transgender community to have the same access to life that those around me seemed to have little issue achieving.
Thus, Trans-Miami was born.
Using the networks and contacts I had acquired, I was able to create an organization that could have helped me at any of my earlier stages of life, focusing on empowerment, employment, health, transitioning, and equality.
Yet, even this venture faces the same obstacles that I myself have faced, and still do. We opened Miami-Dade’s first center for transgender individuals. We brought together information on numerous services and programs that could benefit the community. We train and educate program staff, health professionals, and college grads on transgender sensitivity and competency.
All of this without ONE CENT of funding.
The efforts and successes of Trans-Miami has solely been built on my own blood, sweat, and tears. However, transgender programs and organizations the world over all suffer from an extreme lack of funding.
Thus, I now find myself putting in an application for the Lotus House shelter, after a year and a half of sleeping on a friend’s couch. I attend meetings, am available at the center, and dabble socially solely on the charity of my friends, who help me with transportation and food. I get my clothes from my friends’ closets, to keep a professional appearance at committees and boards despite my situation. Still, I preach about the state of our community, and search for any avenue of assistance. I’ve received much support from allies and friends, and truly have hope that the climate in a historically unaccepting locality can change within my own lifetime.
I will fight for what is right.
I will fight for my community.
I will fight for myself.
I will not give up.
Aryah reminds me that our journeys matter. Our stories matter. Our fight matters.