Joanna Cifredo on Structural Victimization of Trans People
By Joanna Cifredo
In my early teens I started to become aware of transsexuality. I finally had terminology to describe this feeling that had been growing within me, this overwhelming feeling of despair and hopelessness. And in my lament I would retreat to the safe and hopeful mental state of the “one day”: “one day I’ll have breasts”, “one day I’ll be free to be me”, “one day”. So for many years in my youthfulness I believed that the world was my oyster; that all my dreams were just 18 candles away. I believed then, that I’d move to a big city and have my own apartment and become the woman I knew myself to be. With this idea in mind I went on a journey to South Florida, 300 miles away from my friends, family and people throwing passive bible verses in my face.
Like most youth in discovery there is that moment when you realize the world is not what you thought it was. Life was not a Cinderella story. Where you just show up at the club, dance with the man of your dreams that’s all sorts of fine and whose complexion can only be described as caramel macchiato; you forget your pump—as if you wouldn’t notice you’re missing a 5 inch stiletto. A week later he finds you on facebook or as was popular at the time, Myspace. He hits you up to return your shoe and professes his undying love for you with his deep baritone voice and because he just happens to have good credit, he’s willing to pay for your whole transition (yes, this was a reoccurring dream). I look back on my youthful ignorance with a simple “bitch please”.
I realize that life wasn’t any different then when I was back home. Sure I did not have to deal with the constantly having to explain things to mother or deal with the persistent gaze of people who knew me. I could get all fished out for the gawds in my own place and feel my trans but life did not get any easier. Instead it got harder. The more I tried to take steps in transitioning; the more the world around me pushed back. The more I began to express my femininity; the more I was ostracized. At first I lost my job. Finding new employment became a challenge. I eventually found a second home at the Boardwalk—a gay strip club. I began to sell jello shots in my underwear. However the money wasn’t enough. I was barely making enough to pay my rent. Forget about hormones, clothes and surgery. All of which began to seem further and further out of reach. Trying to capitalize on all the daddies in Fort Lauderdale I eventually began to dance; because private dances paid more I began to do those too.
One evening a client from the club asked me to go home with him, he flashed a few twenties in my face and before I knew it I was in his car. The thing about South Florida is there were always young people like myself with these dreams of moving to the city and living the night life. Being the new trade in town quickly wore off. I tell my younger kids who I know are in the sex trade, have a plan because every day there is a whole new batch of 18 year olds and they are cuter and tighter than you are. Once the mystic of being the new trade wore off I was back to square one. Each day began to feel more and more like a struggle. Money was never enough. I was eventually evicted. Seeing everything I had come to South Florida with on the curb for the entire world to see was one of the most painful experiences of my life. It was visual confirmation that I was a failure.
I loaded up my car with as much as I could and lived out of my car for a few nights parking it in a super Wal-Mart that wouldn’t take notice. I went to a shelter and was placed with a bunch of men who did not take to effeminate young boys that easily. Every night something would go missing, first it was my hair gel, then my deodorant. That shelter was not a temporary place while you got back on your feet. It was a cot nothing more. A week later I went back to sleeping at that Wal-mart. Hooking up was no longer something I did for fun. It was now something I had to do if I wanted a shower. Eventually I bounced from couch to couch with friends that took pity on me. Everywhere I turned I couldn’t escape people’s judgmental eyes. I began to rediscover that state of despair that had imprisoned me for so many years, only now I did not have that “one day” to escape to. I was a prisoner with no release date. The anguish that was caused by what I deemed as “my failure” broke me, and, I only saw one way out. When I left the hospital a few days later, I found my car in the parking lot with a full tank of gas and a note on the dash. “We think you should move back home”.
Although, I never came back home, I came back to “my mother’s house”. There is an air of entitlement you have over your parent’s house before you ever move out it’s “your house” after you move out and move back in, it’s no longer your house it’s your “parents house” you simply live with them. That sense of despair accompanied my trip back on I-95, the same Highway that I once viewed as the road to freedom. That sense of despair paralyzed me and robbed me of two years of my life. I eventually gave in to the pressure and cut off all my hair, getting in line as I was told to do and in that time hashed out a plan birthed out of trial and error, of moving to a big city and starting again. Years later I’d move to DC to carry out that plan.
Looking back on my experience I now have the language to contextualize my experiences. I am now able to feel the emotions that my younger self did not have space to feel. I am now able to see and call out this greater system that I was too busy navigating and surviving through. And although I have since developed enough agency to advocate for myself and have access. I still have to deal with victimization and violence. They’ve taken on a different form today. I no longer have to fight for a place to live, but I have to fight for medical coverage. I no longer have to deal with the physical and sexual violence of clients who feel that they own me, but I have to deal with the administrative violence of having to argue for my medical needs. I’ve since developed a voice to advocate for myself but every so often just as it was last Friday at Five-Guys with a simple “here you go sir” a cashier can cut me down to size and tell me to get in place.
Furthermore I am still a victim to myself. Although I am able to realize I am the survivor of a broken system and multiple system failures. I have been conditioned to blame myself for the things I went through. Victim blaming is something so pervasive in our society that we train the survivors to do it themselves and worst of all we train them to believe it. It’s taken me years to come to terms with owning the totality of my experiences, a process that I’m still learning to do. Very few people know about this chapter of my life. For a long time I have kept quiet and tried to erase this chapter of my life out of fear of being re-victimized or seen as less than.
My experiences are not uncommon for girls like me. My silence about my experiences have fed into this false narrative that I am somehow the exception I am often showcased as the example—the one to emulate. Another fear I’ve had about coming forward with experiences from my past is perpetuating this false narrative that you can have anything you want if you just “try hard enough and pull yourself up by your boot straps”. That the things I have been able to achieve are accessible to all trans girls. Let me channel the words of Janet Mock when she said. Let me be clear: It is not. For as much as I’ve gone through I also experienced my fair share of privilege. I am articulate, English proficient; I was born documented and have the full love and support of my family but most importantly I was lucky.
As service providers recognizing these systems is crucial but recognizing our role in the continuation of administrative victimization is essential. We must be proactive in addressing these systems as a broad network and be intentional in creating safe spaces for people of trans experience to be able to let their guard down. It’s not enough to say “I know twoc have it harder” we need to address the disparities and not just respond to the outcomes. As service providers we need to do the work to meet our clients where they are and view them as whole beings deserving of the right to be heard, affirmed, validated and served. To do otherwise would be to perpetuate a culture of victimization and violence against trans people.