It was the early 1990s and I was doing volunteer work for an organization that provided services to people with HIV and AIDs. What we did was something called “emotional support,” which was pretty much just “being there” for the other person, our “client.” It wasn’t as easy as it sounds. In fact, volunteers went through a pretty heavy-duty two-weekend training that involved not only learning skills to help us be a support but also getting in touch with our own mortality. Not to mention setting limits so that we didn’t burn ourselves out. And lots about sex, sexual orientation, safer sex, sexuality. It was a powerful experience that did more for me than anything I’ve ever done.
Clients who needed emotional support were matched with volunteers and stuck together until death. After my first client died, I was assigned another. I’ll call her Maria, but that wasn’t her birth name or the name she went by.
She was the first transsexual I’d ever met.
Like many who have gender dysphoria, gender identity issues, she knew young that her soul didn’t match her body. For a child, it was confusing, especially one brought up in a narrow society. Maria’s family came from another culture, one that worshipped macho. In addition, the world was very different in the 1980s and those who came of age then had few resources. Parents knew little. Not knowing where to turn for help, transgender people struggled on their own.
When Bruce Jenner told Diane Sawyer that he “never fit in” it echoed what Maria told me. Jenner became uber-macho as compensation for how he felt, but Maria wasn’t inclined to it. She could only be feminine, but in a 6’4″ body that looked male.
No one really understood her. Was she gay? What was she? Her schoolmates didn’t know. SHE didn’t know. The term “gender identity disorder” wasn’t in the popular lexicon.
As I got to know her, I saw just how limited her options were. How could she make a living? Where could a tall, masculine-looking woman work? How couldn’t all eyes be on her?
It was understandable that she became a prostitute.
Does this statement shock you? Understanding has never required approval. It’s irrelevant. Situations and people are put into our lives so we can learn. And learn I did.
Part of our volunteer-client relationship included outings. Whether it was a trip to K-Mart or a coffee shop, Maria attracted quite a bit of attention wherever we went. When people would stare I’d feel very protective.
She continued to work the streets, even after becoming HIV+. While we did talk about safer sex, I wasn’t there to judge or moralize or teach her anything. I was there for emotional support. My own opinions and feelings were irrelevant to our relationship.
Back in those days, AIDS was a fact of life, especially in her business. I came to understand that it almost didn’t matter to her that she was so sick–what did life hold for her? Not much, in her opinion.
It was a felony to solicit sex if you had HIV, so it was inevitable that she’d go to prison. She died in a big, famous Bay area prison. She was in her early 20s.
Times have changed and are changing still. When I heard Jenner tell Diane Sawyer that he’d come to believe his purpose for being here was to bring transgender issues to the forefront it rang true to me. There is still so much ignorance around the subject but when a high-profile athlete who was once the greatest athlete in the world comes out as a woman? That’s big. When that famous person uses his celebrity to educate? It’s really big.
The time is finally right to help the general public understand this condition and to make sure that children who have gender identity issues get the support they need. Because that’s what it’s really about. Helping kids find their way in a super-confusing situation.