photo: iStock

Drian Juarez is one busy lady. As the director of the Transgender Economic Empowerment Project for the Los Angeles LGBT center, she assists the local trans community in finding employment. She’s also assisted in the training of the LAPD with regards to the transgender community. If that wasn’t enough, she’s the board president of Gender Justice Los Angeles, which deals with trans issues and public policies. So how does a little Mexican girl, born into a little boy’s body, wind up here? Let her tell you.

LS: When were you first aware that your body didn’t match how you felt inside?

DJ: My grandmother raised me for the first five years of my life in Mexico and my grandmother just let me be. She let me play with dolls. She loved and embraced me for who I was.  But I started noticing the difference around four or five. I noticed my mother had long hair and wore heels and my stepfather wore flat shoes and had short hair. But for me, it was never a choice. It was just what came naturally. I just thought I would be like my mother.

Related from Vivala: Transgender Model Gisele Alicea Is Changing the Face of Fashion

I wanted to play with dolls and wasn’t able to and I wanted to wear dresses and was told I couldn’t, so social conditioning definitely kicked in. I was told that the way as I was feeling as a child was not correct and I needed to act more like a boy. This was when I first got clues that it wasn’t appropriate to be how I felt myself to be.

LS: You moved to East L.A. and went to school in the 90’s. Did you experience a lot of bullying?

DJ: In Mexico, because it was a small pueblo, the bullying was not that bad. The families all knew each other. It wasn’t until I got to the states the bullying became severe. Kids would throw food at me, I would be tripped, boys would wait after school to beat me up. Being constantly harassed, it wasn’t even called bullying. It was just “Toughen up, be a man, don’t be a sissy.”

LS: Can you tell me what it was like when you were ready to transition?

DJ: I had just graduated from college and had a job working in the fashion industry. This whole time I had been very androgynous. I thought this is it, I’m going to transition and I can’t live like this anymore. I want to be myself. When I looked at my insurance through my employer, back then the insurance company had a clause that said we do not cover transsexual related care.  So even though I had a job, I was not making enough to pay for endocrinologist visits and hormones.

LS: So what did you do?

DJ: For me, the only option was sex work. It becomes the only way so many of us can earn a high income to pay for those things. It’s very high paying, the younger you are, the newer you are and the money becomes very enticing. And the other thing was, I hadn’t really dated before and I was being thought of as beautiful and attractive. Those are things I had never heard throughout my life. Men treat you like a goddess, you’re like this fetish. And they were paying me a lot of money. You’re a combination of everything they’re been curious about.

Related from Vivala: Transgender Teen Makes History on High School

LS: So what was the turning point?

In 2005, I was the victim of a hate crime in the Bay Area. I was shot in the face and lost my right eye. At that point, I had been a sex worker for a number of years. I had no money saved up. I thought, Oh my God.  What am I going to do. The way that I earned money was my looks and that was impacted.

It forced me to look at my life and what I wanted to do with my life and what I wanted to be. So I started going to support groups and meeting other trans women. I found that I really enjoyed being in the community. I found that a lot of these women had had the same experiences I had.

It motivated me to do more. So I found out about a health educator position with a local non-profit working with women on the street about sexually transmitted diseases and interestingly because I had been a sex worker, it kind of made me the perfect candidate for the job and that’s what started me on my path.

LS: So, you’ve been a part of this community for quite some time now. What are you most proud of, in terms of growth?

DJ: I think we’re expanding the understanding of gender and how we assign gender. The system is very antiquated. Simply assigning identity by your genitalia is really antiquated and people are starting to see that, especially the next generation, the 13-20 year olds. Their world is very gender fluid, non-conforming, gender queer.  The world they’re coming into is really going to be transformed.

LS: When you see these laws against the LBGTQ community pop up in states like North Carolina, do you feel like we’ve taken a step back or it’s just another challenge?

DJ: No, It feels like the last gasps of very antiquated thinking. The last ditch efforts from people with really rigid ideas of gender. They’re just people who are afraid of the diversity of humanity. That’s really what we are talking about.

LS: One last thought: What do you think the transgender community wants most from the rest of the world?

DJ: I think what trans people are fighting for is to “let me tell you what my identity is, don’t you tell me what my identity is.”