As I sit here in my room in Springfield, MA, typing these words, I have tears running down my face. It’s the week when we observe the Transgender Day Of Remembrance and I’ve just read another news story about a transgender woman who was murdered. Honestly, I read a lot of these types of stories. Not just this week, but all year. I’m an activist, a speaker on transgender issues and I write a regular column (and this blog) about transgender lives and people. These stories are always sad to me, but some very specific stories always hit me particularly hard because they bring the horror so very close to home for me.
I wouldn’t say I’m jaded, I’m not. But you read so many stories of horror and violence and even for someone constantly reminding others that we are human, other people with lives and loves; there is a distance to the stories that necessarily desensitizes them. An intentional distance that makes it possible sometimes to simply get through the day and do the work that needs doing.
But every so often, like just now, I read a story of violence committed against a transgender woman in Hollywood. Specifically the strip of Santa Monica from Crescent Heights Boulevard in West Hollywood to Vermont Avenue in East Hollywood. And it tears my heart out.
Because this was my neighborhood. 90% of my life in Hollywood was lived out against the backdrop of this very strip.
I worked, played, performed and drank at The Improv and The Second City in West Hollywood and lived for several years, first by the intersection of Highland and Santa Monica, a block or so from, what some locals refer to as, “The Tranny Taco Stand” (and the LA Gay and Lesbian Center) where Transgender Sex Workers would often congregate at night. Then by the intersection of Santa Monica and Normandie, which roughly bracketed the other end of the stroll informally/formally designated by the LAPD as the Trans Sex Worker Strip.
I was not an average Angeleno by a lot of respects. For one thing, besides my ethnically Irish disdain for the sun, I lived in LA for 8 years without a car. I walked, biked and took the bus everywhere I needed to go. I was also very good at “scamming rides”, sometimes with virtual strangers.
I did not, as many Angelenos do, see the city as a blur through the car window. I knew it from close up, the pavement under my feet. The people I passed by, aware of me, as I was aware of them. I closely interacted with the city, I knew it’s smells and patterns and the other denizens. It is how I prefer to know the world. I’m a writer and a storyteller, I live for and actively soak up the details.
And it was also during this period that the man I was still trying to be was actively ripping apart at the seams and I finally began my own transition. It was where I went, in a very short span, from actively repressing my gender issues to occasional cross-dresser to part-time, transitioning transwoman to “Full-Time” Me.
And so very much of that journey was so intimately tied to this strip of geography.
For one thing, I have always been fascinated by the underbelly of The City. The red-light, sex worker districts, the ghettoes and the decaying downtowns. The City that lives when all the “good, decent folks” have gone home to their houses in the suburbs. The City of Night, to borrow a phrase from John Rechy.
I’ve wandered the “Combat Zone” in Boston at the very end of it’s days. Known the darkened streets of some of Chicago’s more ill-advised neighborhoods. Lived in a dilapidated Movie Studio at the very boundaries of New Orleans Lower 9th Ward, after Katrina.
So it should be little surprise that I was drawn to Santa Monica Boulevard running through Hollywood, like a moth to a flame. Even before I found myself living in that area, I would walk the strip from West Hollywood to Highland late at night. Fascinated, wanting desperately to figure a way to talk to the transwomen I saw there. To connect with them somehow. Or as I later discovered, really to connect with myself.
I had the oblivious attitude of a very tall, white skinned person, used to being perceived as male. And also, a definite disregard/active neglect for my safety. I carried so much guilt for so very long, I think sometimes I wanted to be punished, to be hurt. To commit a sort of a “soft-suicide”.
Let me be very clear, I do not/did not actively believe there was/is anything wrong or in need of “punishment” about being trans. And I am extremely fortunate to have been able to come out the other side of these feelings to a bright new world, physically unhurt, if a little bruised and battered psychologically. But intellectual belief and subconscious fucked-up-edness can be two totally different things.
As I passed through my own journey, finally accepting myself, deciding to do something about it and then breaking through my own self-imposed barriers of identity, Santa Monica Boulevard in Hollywood was my backdrop.
I went from being a furtive tourist to a part of the landscape. Though I had little direct interaction with these transwomen who were also living out their lives in this same geography, when I began transitioning myself, I came to greatly value the little nods of recognition. The eye contact we would make in passing that said, “I know”.
As I began to recognize specific people, transwomen who lived in my neighborhood, who waited for the same bus with me, those little acknowledgements where the first time I began to feel myself part of a community. Part of a family. These were my sisters.
I don’t want to appear to place myself all that far apart from them either. I was not merely a tourist. I did my own small share of sex work. Not much, as I was always skittish of sex work and extremely fortunate to have a network of support and people who took care of me. I never had to work the street. I did a little as a dominatrix and mostly as a dominatrix’s assistant. But don’t let anyone’s semantics fool you, it was sex work nonetheless.
And though I had to work through a lot of repressively puritan issues myself (I am a Yankee Girl from Cape Cod…), I have neither regret, nor shame. It was part of my own journey and I have many friends who are proud to be sex workers and own it as their profession of choice.
I also know that, while some actively choose it, sex work is often the last option left between starvation and survival for many women, especially transgender women. It baffles me when I hear folks in my community expressing disdain for our sex worker sisters. When I know they know as well as I do, the massively institutional discrimination we face. How much harder it is for us to find employment, housing and support, just to live our lives.
And I well understand the fetishization of trans bodies . The cold looks that turn us all into sex objects, that imagines there must be an access price for our sexuality, whether we have done/are doing sex work or not. I will readily admit, I have been guilty of the same.
But these are our sisters. These trans women I came to noddingly know, the community of the streets. The trans women who lived and worked in and around my old neighborhood through Hollywood, on Santa Monica Boulevard were the first to acknowledge me as ME. They accepted me far more readily and unquestioningly, on the basis of little more than a nod and a glance, than did many more “respectable” members of our community, by whom I often felt judged.
So, this is why, when I read these stories of violence, it is the ones from my old neighborhood, East to West Hollwood; Santa Monica Boulevard; South of Sunset and North of Melrose, that are the stories that tear me apart.
Every murdered trans woman I see on the news from that area, every time I hear about another attack, I look at the picture and I think, “Did I know her?” “Was she the woman who would smile at me when I would ride the #4 bus home from work late at night?”
These are not just stories. Not merely news items or statistics. These are our sisters.
There, but for nothing more than blind good luck, go I.
Here is the post I was reading when I began this piece, from the excellent blog, Planetransgender: “LAPD Task Force Looking For The Western Transgender Murderer“