“Being transgender is always a part of my story.”
I didn’t have a traditional coming out experience. Instead of formally coming out to my friends and family, I just lived as the person I was happy being. And that person just happened to be a trans woman. When I became estranged from certain family members because of my identity, I formed a chosen family of allies who supported me along the way. By the time I transitioned in the early 80s, I had already graduated high school and college and began my career as a social worker. Growing up, my mother always made sure to remind me that education was the key to everything. So when I joined the workforce with a Bachelor’s degree, I was proud to have wielded my mother’s advice and felt ready to take on new goals.
My identity wasn’t necessarily something I disclosed with my coworkers, but that didn’t mean I was free from discrimination. It was especially difficult because there were hardly any transgender people working with me for the City of New York at the time, where I was a Child Protective Specialist Supervisor. Whenever I advanced in my career, it was met with resistance. People in my field didn’t like the fact that I was an educated, trans, and Puerto Rican woman. From the difficulties of my name change to false allegations of unprofessionalism made by cisgender co-workers, I faced plenty of transphobia throughout my career. But even so, I continued to motivate myself by remembering what I had overcome so far. I lost my mother at 16 years old, battled addiction in my family, and came out on the other side ready to make a life I was proud of. The hardships during that time in my life didn’t stop me from having a successful career as a social worker.
Unfortunately, these hardships continued beyond workplace discrimination.
I started having kidney problems around the time I retired in 2014. I received good medical care for the first few years. Most doctors were mindful to use my correct pronouns and defended me when other doctors were disrespectful. But when I needed to start dialysis in 2016 and my primary doctor left for a conference in Europe, things took a turn for the worst. From the moment one of the nurses made it known that the medication they were giving me was “specifically for males,” they all treated me differently. I was ignored, accused of lying about my illness, called “Mr. Salas,” and so on. At a time when I was so vulnerable and needed the most help, I felt as if I had lost my life. It was traumatizing.
In response to this poor care, I filed a complaint with the hospital. Unfortunately, this is something I’d been familiar with for years. When I was working for the city, I had to file multiple Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) charges against my coworkers for their continued discrimination. While I was able to leverage these legal protections, putting myself through this process was a lot of work – both physically and mentally. Pleading my case required telling my personal story to a group of straight and cisgender people, disclosing my identity, and offering my vulnerability, which is not something most people have to deal with in the workplace. I won my cases, but it didn’t lessen the hate.
I’ve since started the process of finding a kidney donor, which is again both physically and mentally tiring. Additionally, in 2020, I was diagnosed with cancer and had to undergo both surgery and 33 treatments of radiation. These parts of my journey are exacerbated by the health challenges and discrimination trans elders face. For us, no matter the issue, being transgender is always a part of our story. In addition to my busy schedule of appointments and the emotional tax of waiting to find a donor, there is the fear of once again experiencing the discrimination I faced from healthcare workers in the past. This fear never really goes away, but being part of the trans community reminds me that I am not alone in this fight.
My friends and I talk a lot about what it means to be a trailblazer in our community. Every year during Pride, we recognize the history of Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera and the uprising at Stonewall, but the quiet minority are often left out of the story. There were so many of us who contributed to the progress that we see today, and it’s important to highlight that our presence was just as powerful as the protestors on the streets. We trailblazed by getting a higher education, getting into the offices for our careers, and just existing in a world where people would tell us we weren’t real women. But I fought everything. All the adversity, all the hate, all the anger. And that’s what I continue to do today. I’ve made it this far in life overcoming the obstacles that come with being a trans woman, and I won’t stop now.