Being Transgender Nearly Cost Me My Life
By: Erin Bried
Former sailor turned tech entrepreneur Angelica Ross, 34, shares the struggles she’s faced as a trans woman of color.
Growing up in Racine, Wisconsin, I always knew I was different, but I never had a word for it. I sang in the church choir, played piano and acted in local theater. At home, I’d drape blankets over my shoulders as if I was wearing haute couture gowns.
By eighth grade, the kids in school pegged me as “too feminine” and were picking on me for it. They thought I was gay, and honestly at the time, so did I. So, I’d pray to God a lot. I’m faithful, so why do I feel this way? What am I doing wrong? I felt so lonely, and eventually got so depressed that I went to my parents for help. They sent me to our pastor, who told me he’d pray for me, and later to a therapist, who told my mom that I was gay and no amount of prayer could change that.
I was 17 by this time. My mother didn’t take that news well, and before long, I considered ending my own life. One night, I actually tried. I swallowed a handful of pills. When I woke up a few hours later, vomiting on the bathroom floor, I had a realization: I don’t want to die. I want to live.
I graduated from high school a year early and moved to Rochester, New York to start a new life for myself. I waited tables at a chain restaurant by day and by night, I started doing drag in local clubs. It was in that club where I first met a transsexual. Her name was Miss Armani and as we were changing in the dressing room, I noticed that she had real breasts. Until that very moment, I had no idea I could actually change my body to match how I felt on the inside. It was a revelation, but not necessarily one I was ready to have.
"He hung me out of the third-story window."
Rather than accept myself, I enlisted in the Navy, hoping the military would toughen me up as a man or even turn me straight. I also dreamed of going to college, and the GI bill was also the only way I could ever afford it. This was 1999, when Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell was in full effect, and yet despite my bleached blonde hair and red toenails, they took me on and after basic training, stationed me in Japan. As you might imagine, no matter how hard I tried to fit in as “just one of the guys,” I never quite succeeded and rumors about me started swirling.
One night, a friend invited me to a party in the barracks. After I arrived, I remember hearing a “click.” He’d locked the door behind us. There, in the room, were about 15 enlisted guys and girls, all with beers in hand, and they sat me down in a chair and started asking me questions. “Are you really gay?” “We don’t care, we just want to know.” I was scared, so I kept denying it. Then one guy grabbed me by the shirt and said, “Admit you’re gay or I’m going to punch you in the face right now!” So, I did. Then he said, “Why do gay men hit on me if I’m not gay?” I said, “I don’t know.” Then he grabbed me, flipped me upside and hung me out of the third-story window, yelling over and over again, “But I’m not gay!” I was staring at the trees below me, sobbing and yelling, “No, you’re not gay!” When he pulled me back inside, I ran straight for the door.
The next day, I went to the captain’s office and said, “It’s time for me to go.” I’d been warned by my so-called friend not to tell him what had really happened, so instead, I signed a document saying that I’m “an admitted homosexual” and was discharged—not as honorable or dishonorable, but as “uncharacterized”—leaving me without benefits or access to the GI bill.
"I was fired from almost every job."
When I got back to the States, I had no money, education or support, but I did have a clearer understanding of who I really was. Soon after, I started my transition. I changed my name to Angelica, got a Whitney Houston-style weave in my hair and whenever I could afford it, I’d buy black-market hormones from friends.
Discrimination is a part of any trans person’s life. Ninety percent of us report workplace harassment or mistreatment and nearly half of us have been fired from, or passed over for, jobs because of our gender identity, according to a recent study. Trans people of color, in particular, are up to four times more likely to be unemployed than the general population. I can definitely attest to this. I was fired from almost every job I’d ever had. I managed a makeup counter at a mall, but once my co-workers found out that I was trans, they complained about me using the women’s bathroom and I was let go. Later, I worked as a waitress, but after I objected to the harassment I was getting in the kitchen and to being called by my male birth name, I got fired from that job, too.
Destitute and desperate, I moved to Florida, where a friend hooked me up with a job at an adult website in return for cash for hormones and implants. But after I got there, I quickly realized this wasn’t my path. I had more to offer. I ended up redesigning the entire website and eventually teaching myself code and graphic design. With my technological skills, I realized I didn’t have to sell my body.
"I'm no longer fighting for just survival."
Years later, that experience eventually led me to found TransTech Social Enterprises, a web development training academy and graphic design firm, which offers apprenticeships to trans people with drive but no skills. It’s one of the only sectors where a trans person can do business remotely, meaning we’ll be more likely to judged on the quality of our work rather than our gender identity. It’s a lifeboat for people who are drowning. For instance, I just spoke with a trans woman in Cincinnati who was shot in the face. “I just need an opportunity,” she pleaded. I cannot work fast enough.
My life has not been an easy one, and yet to have survived what I’ve survived and to still have love in my heart is a gift. To be a trans woman of color and even live to see 34 is a gift. Through my journey, I’ve realized that pain is inevitable, but suffering is a choice. I’ve even come to a place of love and understanding with my mom. In fact, now she’s the one raiding my closet for clothes. The biggest change in my life, though, is that I’m no longer fighting for just survival. Now, I’m fighting for so much more.
More From SELF:
• America’s Transgender Revolution
• How I Fight Through My Fears as a Transgender Woman
• I Transformed My Body in the Ultimate Way
• Caitlyn Jenner Most Definitely Earned Her Arthur Ashe Courage Award
Photo Credit: Courtsey of SELF