My name is Sha’Nyia Baltimore. I’m from New Orleans, Louisiana.
In 1995, I graduated high school. My best friend takes me to a gay bar for the first time. I see drag. I’m completely in love with drag. I started doing drag. I became very popular. That’s where the name Sha’Nyia comes from. I stole it from Shania Twain.
I guess, about 19 years ago, I was on the verge of turning 22 or fresh after turning 22 years old, and I decided I wanted to start transitioning from a boy into a female. I remember going to my family – my mom always knew that I was gay, my grandmother always knew that I was gay – and kind of telling them that I was going to the next step. And I can just remember distinctly one day, my grandmother telling me that there’s no reason anyone else should be worried about who I love other than the person that I love. So I kind of, like, just let that be something that I motivated myself to keep going. And any other aspect of how I live my life, I thought, was irrelevant to other people.
I move forward. I transition. My friends made a very easy transition from calling me Sha’Nyia to calling me Sha’Nyia. I guess, like, all the time, I was always Shanaya. And then along comes the world once the transgender being is released more into the public eye, then that, like, needs to be a certain amount of feminine started to enter my life.
In 2004, after visiting Dallas a lot, maybe the last two years prior to that, helping them open some bars, hosting some events, things like that, just visiting Dallas. I got a really good job offer to move down and work with a production company. So it was just, it was like a Drag Mecca and it was somewhere where I know I would be able to find like a stage to call home.
For a large time in Dallas, sex work was definitely paying my bills and then some. Hell, a lot of my friends bills, too. Like, I had friends that were, like, kind of ridiculing sex work, you know, but then coming to me and asking me for money to pay their bills. A lot of those moments combined, and then the mixture of the fact that like so many people love me, but I was, like, not in a happy place, and like, so many of those people were loving… loving being able to keep me in an unhappy place.
I hated what I had let sex work do to me, you know, into my mind and into my sense of self-worth and the building of inadequacies. It probably was like a moment where, like, I woke up with all of those things combined, but there was definitely just, like, a moment where, like… like, if they want to live with Sha’Nyia, then I can leave Sha’Nyia out here with them and I can go live somewhere else… the way I want to live, you know?
As I got older and I started to realize that I was not being as much of me as I was being truthful about others, or forcing others to be for themselves, I started to say, Well, let’s see if I like maybe go back to living as a guy. I have a great resume. I can’t get a job as a girl.
I started visiting Austin. Austin looked like a very free place to live. A place where people could hold hands in public regardless of their race or size or color or gender or dress. So… ad that really, like, inspired me along with the beautiful days that the city has.
The day of my birthday, one of my roommate was giving me a party for my birthday. And I asked him would he bring me to Austin the next day.
And he says, “Well, what for?”
And I said, “Well, I’m going to move to Austin.”
So he was like, “You’re going to do what?”
And I was like, “Well, yeah, I’m going to move to Austin. I start school on Saturday, you know, at the Art Institute.” So I had like my whole life set up, I came to Austin. I started living as a boy again. It was a very effortless way to live. I, you know, I will say that I forgot the convenience of, like, not shaving today or the next day or the day after that and the day after that.
It kinda like brought me back to the middle, kind of like, it really helped me, like, downsize my life and get rid of the things that were, like, unnecessary and, like, fluff off the excess stuff. I went to the interviews, you know, that I chose. I got the jobs that I wanted. And mind you, I’m getting up every day and like binding my chest down like a lesbian, you know, that wants to be seen as a guy. So like, I’m kind of living a really different life now where I thought I had lived so many lives wore no more. I was living like I was wearing another pair of shoes every day.
At the same time, I still was doing a lot to be seen a certain way, you know, from the outside in. And I started dating this guy and we were crazy in love and happy and all of this. And I noticed that even when I was a guy, he would introduce me to people as his girlfriend.
He was like, “Well, I guess I kind of just want to make it easier for people to understand, like, if they ever see you on the show, or like, if we ever go swimming or something together, like, I just wouldn’t want them to be confused.” And in that moment, I was like, you know what? Well, I’m doing this too. Like, I’m doing this on the other side. Like, I’m making… I’m making sure that I look as much like a guy as I can to make it easier for them to call me “he”.
Yeah, it was effortless to live as a boy and it was fun and it was definitely like the real “me” on the inside, but still it was not comfortable in the way that I presented. I still felt a lot more comfortable presenting more of a feminine, you know, stature… stature, I guess.
I decided that I would just kind of like, I guess, live day to day and enjoy the advantages that Austin has to offer for someone that wants to live trans non-binary or trans non-gender conforming as myself. And I finally get the job that I had been applied for here since before I even moved here, which was to be an HIV prevention specialist with AIDS Services of Austin.
Right before my 42nd birthday, I go to my boss and I’m like, “So what happens if I want to, like, start coming to work as Sha’Nyia all the time?”
And she was like, “Do you…” She’s like, “Do you want to go home right now and change back? Do you want to just use your lunch hour to come back to Sha’Nyia?” She used to come to my shows and stuff. She was like, “Well, you know, I would absolutely love it.”
She was like, “But this is not about me. This is about you.” She was like, “You should feel… you should know that you would feel comfortable here. Like, that’s what we do. We meet people where they are. We provide face spaces for people.”
She said, “So you can come to work as Ivan tomorrow, if you want, you can come to work as Sha’Nyia, if you want. We can get you with two name tags, whichever one you want to wear on that day, you wear that name tag. We will call you that name. We will use those pronouns, and if anybody has a problem, you can just send them to my office. You don’t have to deal with any of the backlash. I’ll take it all.”
I didn’t have to make any adjustment. I didn’t have to keep correcting people. I didn’t have to not answer when they, you know, they addressed me as a boy. Those awkward moments, none of that happened.
Sha’Nyia today is just all about self-care and maintain that sense of self-worth. You just have to be very comfortable in self and knowing that if someone is not willing to get to know you, then like the… they’re not, they’re not worth your energy.
If I could grab Shanaya from New Orleans and Dallas, I would just tell her to be who she wants to be now, because she’s going to eventually push through all of the other bullshit and be that person anyway.