1980s: Seeing Trans Women For The First Time: “I Felt Welcomed.”
I grew up in a town in Long Island called Freeport. And I grew up basically in a middle-class home. My parents grew us up as Catholics, going to church, going to school.
Growing up, trying to live the way my parents wanted me to live, it was kind of difficult because I knew there was something different. The clothes, trying to get me to get these girlfriends and all that stuff, it just didn’t fit right with me. Didn’t know what it was, but I knew it was something.
One day, I went to the city for a school outing and we went to see the Statue of Liberty. And this is in the early eighties. So when I went to the city for the school trip, I disappeared into an area, just because I didn’t want to be with anybody else. And I saw trans women. It was intriguing for me because I saw something that I felt was where I was supposed to be but just didn’t know.
Back in those days, in the early eighties, trans women – trans people of experience was not a word. You either called a drag queen, transvestite, crossdresser. I didn’t know exactly the terminology for what it was, but I just knew that this is where I needed to be. They intrigued me. They showed me that there – that I wasn’t alone. That the way I felt inside, there were other people. Not just one or two, there was a whole community of them. So that’s what made me decide at that moment that I need to explore this and get more in depth about who they are, how they did it, and why they did it.
During the process of going back to Long Island, I kept thinking about it. And would sneak to the city, like twice a week, to go see where these trans women were doing, where they were hanging out. But I would always stay in the background because I know them. I didn’t know if they were going to hurt me.
So I stayed quiet until one day, one of them actually says something to me. She says, “We see all the time and you don’t speak. Who are you? What’s your name? Where are you from?” So I felt welcomed. They said to me that this is a life decision. It’s not something that you should take lightly. This choice is yours to make whether this is where you want to be.
So I would sneak to the city and get dressed up on the Long Island Rail Road, in the bathroom, to go to the city. During this process, I decided to start taking hormones and my parents found out. So they told me I had to stop doing I was doing because it just wasn’t right. It was basically like, “You can’t do this. This is wrong. We didn’t bring you up like this.” Because I was sheltered as a child. At that time, I really hated him because I felt that they didn’t really understand me, which they didn’t. So I tried to stop but it just didn’t work.
Then they found all my stuff that I had hidden – my girl clothes. So one day, they gave me an ultimatum. “Either you stop doing what you’re doing or you’ll have to leave.” So I decided to leave because I knew living there would not be comfortable for me. So I packed up and I headed to New York City. It was a struggle, trying to find a place to live, trying to find work, to survive.
Comfort is not where you are, it’s who you are. Yes, I had a beautiful home that I grew up in and I had a beautiful family, and it’s not like I wanted for anything. It’s just that I wasn’t happy. Being unhappy in a place where you stay is worse than anything, because what happens is you start to regret yourself. I was not happy in Long Island because that’s not who I was, living in their cisgender life. And it made me miserable. So when they gave me an ultimatum, it was an easy is an easy choice to just get up and go.
Late 1980s: Overcoming Homelessness, Joblessness And Abuse: “There’s Always a Way Out Of A Bad Situation If You Want A Way Out.”
In the late eighties, when I finally left my parents’ house, I came to New York City with nowhere to go. So I ran into some people that I had met previously coming back and forth to the city. So I wound up going to this place called Under 21, which is a youth shelter. It was very scary because they put you in this big dorm with all of these people. But at this point, it was better than sleeping on the street or in Port Authority or something like that, because I refused to go home.
I stayed there for about four months. But in the process of staying there, I was meeting different people that were opening my eyes to the trans world. Wind up getting getting some fake ID and I wind up getting a job. So you only can work a job for a certain amount of time because they digging into your background. So you go from one little job to another little job to another little job, just to keep yourself safe.
Then I couldn’t get another job so it didn’t – hanging out with certain people, they introduced me to a world that I will never forget. It’s part of my life. I had to go out and do street work, sex work, which is not – I’m not proud of it, but I’m not ashamed of it. I talk about it because it was part of my life where I had to survive.
During the course of doing all that, that’s when I met some people who protected me, who taught me how to survive in this type of environment. I remember the first time I did it, I cried because I felt violated. Because I was letting some man touch me for money and I had to sit there and deal with it. Actually, he threw me out of the car because I wouldn’t stop crying because it just didn’t feel right to me. But you have to do what you have to do to survive and back in those days, you didn’t have laws to protect you from certain things.
So I tried to go back to Long Island to reconcile with my parents but that just didn’t work because they were still stuck in their ways. “You can’t come around here dressed like this or you looking like that.” And at this point in my life, there was no turning back.
Me and my roommate decided to go to Philly to visit, but we didn’t come back. We wound up renting a house because he met these two brothers who were suppose to be our boyfriends, who just used us and we didn’t know it.
It got to the point where I was actually being pimped and did not realize it until the end. I got hit because I didn’t make money – enough money. When I feel threatened, I have to escape. So I had to figure out my best exit without being harmed. So I said, “Yes, I’ll go out and get you anything you want. You know, I love you.” You have to – I had to tell him what he wanted to hear. So when I went out, I just never came back. I completely disappeared. I got on the next train – I made money and I got on the next train to New York.
I wound up meeting some other people who decided to show me other options, instead of being out there on the street. It was a program called Streetworks, and how I met them – found out about them, it was a friend of mine that I – it was in midtown and a friend of mine said, “Oh, you can go there to take a shower and get some new clothes and all this other stuff.” So I said, “Okay, let’s go.” So when I went there – and this time, they were on 10th Avenue in 40-something street. It was a really small place, really, really small. And I get introduced to my caseworker, who told me I can, you know, do steps to get myself better. And at this point, I was homeless so I was going from this shelter to that shelter to this shelter to that shelter to try to survive.
Being a trans woman, certain shelters would not allow you to come in because it was a quote-unquote a “men’s shelter” and you’re supposed to look like a man, and when you have certain aspects, they’re like, “Oh, you can’t come here because we can’t be responsible for what happens to you.” So it was kind of hard bouncing from place to place, but ultimately I wound up getting a room, and from a room, I got an apartment. And that’s when I started a brand new life.
There’s always a way out of a bad situation if you want a way out. There are people that I know that stay in the predicaments that they’re in because they want to stay there. When I was in all of those predicaments, where I was – the prosecution and this and that. I wanted to be there because I thought the people that I was with were helping me, so I wanted to be there. But when I realized that what they were doing, it wasn’t from me, it was more or less for them, is when I got out. So people have to realize that if someone is not there for you, they’re there against you. Open your eyes and listen and if it’s something that can be harmful to you, run. Just run.
Late 1990s: From Walking Balls To Mentoring Youth: “It Taught Me That You Have To Step Outside The Box.”
In the late nineties is when I went to my first ball. It was interesting to see the LGBT community in one room, that they’re having a competition with each other on who can vogue the best, who can model the best, who’s prettier, whose body is better. So we kept going periodically to the ballroom scene, and then I was asked to walk a ball.
When you walk a ball, just, you know, to clarify what it is is you’re walking in a house. So a house is like a clique and every house has different names. I am in the House of La Beija today, but at that point, I was in the House the Pendarvis. So when you go out to walk in a competition, you pick the category that you think you fit best in. At that time, I was a model so I used to do runway. I didn’t get a lot of trophies. In beginning, I got none, so I said I don’t want to do this anymore because I didn’t feel that I was being appreciated. I would still go, but I would never enter the competition. And then I just faded out completely.
I went to a drag show. When I saw these girls on stage with these outfits and the hair and the gowns, it was so intriguing that I used to go all the time. Until one day, one of the hosts asked me to get on stage because she needed another contestant to do her contests. I said to her, “I can’t do that because I don’t have clothes the way you guys have clothes.” She said, “It doesn’t matter, it’s just a contest.” So we went in the DJ booth, I picked the song, I did the show and I won. It was the best feeling in the world where I’m standing up here and I have all these people clapping for me and I can get money for it. So that’s when I decided to do the showgirl thing and I pushed the ballroom aside.
I got so wrapped up in it that – it’s like any show business, because this is a show business, entertainment business, and then you get caught up in the drug thing. So I faded out of the showgirl scene and I was just doing anything I could possibly do to survive. Just being on public assistance and trying to survive off of that is not a good thing because you, you know – if you had an apartment, which I did, it wasn’t easy to sustain it because of the drug addiction, trying to maintain everything. Until one day, I just got sick and tired. It’s hard to explain how I stopped because I didn’t go to a program – I just decided enough was enough. I lost too much.
2007 is when I realized that I had to get me back. So I met these people with this organization and they put me in a rooming house. And there is where I met the man that I’m married to today. He’s the one who actually made me call my parents. Because he gave me – he gave me an ultimatum. “Either call your family and see how they’re doing or we can’t work.” I hadn’t talked to my family in over 10 years prior to that. I was reluctant. By I actually called. And my parents are so happy to hear from me.
They decided to invite us for Thanksgiving. “Please come to Thanksgiving and please bring him with you.” My family actually changed at that moment because I didn’t get the same response that I got before. Before I felt like I was an outcast to go see them. Now it was more open, like, “Oh, please, we love you. You know, this is what’s happened between this and between that. It was different this time when I went back because I felt loved and appreciated.
Then I decided at this point that I needed to make a difference. I was introduced to an organization called The Audre Lorde Project. They were offering a school which is called Trans Justice Community School, which taught you how to look outside the box and show you that trans people had rights, that we have a voice, do not be afraid to speak out about things that are wrong.
After I finished school, I became the coordinator for Trans Justice for two years. Then I had to fade out of that because that’s when I was offered the position to do shows at the church on Christopher Street as well as doing shows at Boots and Saddles on Christopher Street, so it was a lot to handle. So I had to make a choice in the show business or being the coordinator.
During the course of me doing these shows and the shows at Boots and Saddles, that’s when I was introduced to the House of LaBeija, who is actually the first original house to throw a ball. I’ve been in the house now for five years. I am like the aunt, the godmother, all that wrapped up into one.
There are no coincidences. Doing these gospel shows at the church across the street from Boots and Saddles, doing shows there, being in the house of LaBeija and mentoring the younger generation, it taught me that you have to step outside the box. It showed me that I can make a difference. Because the things that I have done, no matter how low you are no matter how hard it might get, if you believe in yourself, then all it can do is go up.
2010s: Giving Back To The Community. “I Am Here Today To Let People Know That They Are Somebody.”
So in 2015 is when I was asked to be in the House of LaBeija. It was intense because that wasn’t sure if this is what I wanted to do. But it was also an honor because it is a prestigious house, one of the first houses of ballroom. When I went to the meeting, I was voted in. And I was there for a reason because. The younger generation needed guidance. Yes, I still walk balls, but my main focus is on mentoring the younger generation on ballroom, but also education and job ready, because without either one of those, how can you walk a ball? Because you need to have a foundation in order to get to a ball. And I’m happy and proud of all the kids, because they’re going to school, they have jobs, they have their own apartments. So they’re doing good.
I am a part of Gino Entertainment LLC and I am the ambassador of the White Shirt Project. Instead of verbally talking about mental illness, it’s visual It’s photos taking of people who deal with mental health issues. A lot of times what people do when they say mental health, they push it under the rug. And because of that and me loving myself, it’s given me the strength to be who I am today. Because I don’t have to hide behind my transition, I don’t have to hide behind my mental illness, I do not have to hide behind anything any longer. I can just open my mouth and speak. If people don’t like who I am or what I represent, then they’re not supposed to be in my life.
I am here today to let people know that they are somebody. Everyone should be able to get what they are supposed to get in this life without discrimination, of this sexual orientation or their lifestyle or their age or their color or their gender. Things like that are not necessary when it comes to, if I need to eat, if I need a job, if I need a place to stay, if I need medical care. So when people discriminate against anyone, whether you’re cis gender, male or female, or in the LGBT community, everyone deserves what they need.
So today I am a coordinator for a program called Destination Tomorrow, which is now the Bronx LBGTQ Center. I facilitate a group they are called RealTalk.com, where we talk about every day situations and it’s real talk. And my group is nondenominational, there’s no age, there’s no preference whether you’re straight, gay, bisexual. It doesn’t matter.
I am still doing shows all over the place. Florida. Vermont. Aruba. Atlanta. New Jersey. Philly. Wherever they send me, I go. When people think of me and when they say my name, a lot of times a lot of people just put me in certain categories. “Oh she’s a ballroom girl. Oh, she’s a pageant girl. Oh she’s an entertainer. When I’m more than just that. There are people that’s not in those aspects that know me for doing the advocacy work, my lobbying work, my tabling work, because there’s more to me than just pageants, ballrooms and shows. I am so rounded that I want people to see all of me and not just the glamorous part.
I never forget where I come from and who I used to be. And growing up in this small town as a young child, as the image of a boy that I did not feel who I was, and the struggles that I had to go through to get to where I am today – I have to say that I am proud that I made the choices that I made and I wouldn’t change a thing. I wouldn’t change anything because if I could change something, I wouldn’t be who I am today.
When I leave this body, I want to leave behind a legacy that people are going to always remember, that she did this and she did that, she made a difference in this world. And that’s the legacy I want to leave behind.