Coming Out, and into Her Own
A transplanted, transgendered Texan tries to recover from two suicide attempts, and reconcile to life with HIV
Deja Kelis Edwards checked in for a skin procedure at St. Vincent’s Hospital in New York City, offering only her surname to the receptionist. When asked for her first name, she hesitated before answering: “Clifton.”
The receptionist’s busy hands hovered momentarily over patients’ folders as she looked up at the very feminine Edwards. A surprised expression flashed across her face, but she quickly resumed her search for Edwards’ appointment information.
Edwards, 33, is accustomed to this reaction from people. She is tall and curvy, and pays special attention to her hair and make-up, using her skills as a certified cosmetologist. Her voice, which qualifies as a tenor, has a tinge of Southern attitude. Most people would never guess that she used to be a man, except for the fact that she has not legally changed her name.
Edwards and her transgender friends bond over common issues like this, such as telling potential partners about their “situation,” their sexual orientation and their sexual health status.
Deja Edwards, like many transgender women of color in the United States, is also HIV-positive.
It is estimated that 56 percent of African-American male-to-female transgendered people have tested positive for HIV, according to a review conducted for the HIV/AIDS Prevention Research Synthesis Team. That’s double the estimated rate of HIV infection in the general male-to-female transgender community.
Transgender women are especially at risk for HIV, because more participate in risky behaviors, the review said. Additionally, factors relating to mental health, physical abuse, social isolation, economic difficulties and poor transgender health care can increase HIV risk.
Edwards recently left her home in Houston and moved to New York, because of the better medical care she believed she would receive there.
“Houston is supposed to be the medical capital of the United States,” she said. “But far as in the care for women like me … it’s just not really something that people want to focus more on. The care and the attention is just not really there.”
Jae Sevelius, an assistant professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco’s Center for AIDS Prevention Studies, and co-principal investigator of the Center of Excellence for Transgender Health, said transgender women are highly vulnerable and marginalized.
“It comes as no surprise then, given the association of negative health outcomes with stigma and discrimination, that transgender women experience severe health disparities across a number of outcomes, including HIV,” she said.
HIV is especially prevalent among transgendered people from minority groups.
“Communities of color are disproportionately represented among people living with HIV, as well as new HIV cases, and this holds true among transgender women,” she said.
In Edwards’ circle of friends, for example, four out of the five transgender women who have HIV are black or Hispanic.
High rates of unemployment and poverty occur among transgender women of color, which correlates with a lack of standard health care that routinely screens for STDs and other health problems, such as high blood pressure and heart disease, Sevelius said.
Edwards realizes she is fortunate to have Medicaid, which pays for a number of her medical expenses. Although she contracted HIV in 2003, she only began receiving treatment over the past year.
“At the time … I wasn’t in need of medication,” she said. “Now that I got older and have other illnesses I have to deal with, my (T-cell) count went down.”
She has high blood pressure, high cholesterol, chest pain and depression. In addition to the pills she takes to maintain her physical and mental health, Edwards is on a bi-monthly regimen of hormone injections.
Mental health concerns, like depression or suicidal thoughts, according to the HIV/AIDS Prevention Research Synthesis team, have been identified as a factor that increases HIV risk.
“Depression can result from isolation due to rejection of the transgender person by family and friends, as well as violence and harassment they experience in society,” Sevelius said.
With the help of an anti-depressant drug, Wellbutrin, Edwards’ mental state is currently on the “up-and-up,” she said.
But it wasn’t always this way.
Two Suicide Attempts
Edwards said she tried to commit suicide twice - the first time in 1996, when she realized she was attracted to men, and worried she would disappoint her mom.
For most of her childhood, in Beaumont, Texas, she would play with dolls and girls instead of playing with Mack trucks and boys, she said. When she hit puberty at 11, and developed a womanly figure, friends and family were confused.
“I could hear people saying, ‘Why is your butt so big? Why do you have breasts like that?’ ” she said.
Edwards and her mother never talked about any of the physical changes, and though there were some discussions about sexuality, Edwards knew her mother wouldn’t approve of her sexual orientation. She was right.
“There’s the freedom of you rather not be here than deal with the issue at hand, which is discovering your sexuality or, you know, being shunned by family members or people who don’t understand you,” Edwards said.
When her mother realized why he daughter had attempted to overdose on drugs, she was devastated. She wouldn’t get out of bed for a week.
Edwards’ second suicide attempt was triggered by her mother’s death, by the end of a six-year relationship, and her subsequent HIV diagnosis.
Edwards started dating “Slim” in 1997, when she was attending Dolphin Technical Institute, a cosmetology school in Beaumont. At the beginning of their relationship, Edwards and Slim both tested negative for HIV. A year before they broke up, the test results were the same. But then Slim cheated on her, Edwards said, and left her for another transgender woman.
In 2003, Edwards fell ill. She said she was bedridden for two weeks with flu-like symptoms: night sweats, stomach pains, diarrhea and vomiting. This time, she tested positive for HIV.
She decided it was time for a change. She decamped for Houston, where she tried to cope with being single and alone while raising funds for a move to New York.
“(Slim) was the one who always told me that … I could become something,” Edwards said. “I wanted to prove to him, and to myself, that I could succeed.”
Edwards relied on her spirituality, and her pet cat, Papi, to help her get through those difficult times. She also settled on a new name, to symbolize a new beginning.
“Deja was something that I always fancied when I was coming out,” Edwards said. ‘Kelis’ came on later, after I broke up with my boyfriend, and it was like the new me.”
The “new” Edwards had two goals: to move to New York and to work toward the final transformation.
After reaching out to Housing Works, a non-profit organization in Brooklyn that helps homeless and low-income people living with HIV/AIDS, Edwards bought a one-way ticket to New York, where she hoped to become a consultant for makeup and hair in the entertainment industry. Housing Works was her first New York home.
Through Housing Works, she’s found good friends. She belongs to Housing Works gospel choir. Singing is therapeutic, she said. She has also met other transgender women with HIV.
Carol McCall, a case manager for the transgender transitional housing program at Housing Works, said that most of her clients are transgender women of color.
Housing Works provides housing to transgender individuals for up to two years.
“When Deja came here, I was very impressed with (her),” McCall said. “She always said that she came here with a purpose. … I think Deja is going to be one of our success stories.”
McCall also spoke highly of Edwards’ personality and talent as a make-up artist. While some transgender women resort to drugs or prostitution to make a living, Edwards has chosen to make an honest living.
Edwards’ ultimate goal is to undergo sex reassignment surgery. She wants to have the operation abroad; it is considered a common procedure in Thailand. At $45,000, including airfare and rehabilitation, it’s costly - but also top quality, Edwards said.
She has attempted to save money for the operation, but with the high living costs in New York City, hasn’t found it easy.
In the meantime, she’s taking a “peer education” course at Housing Works, where she hopes to become a case manager and role model.
“My field would be working with transgender women with HIV,” she said. “I think me, and we as a group, transgenders as a whole, need more positive role models — need more people to look up to.”
Sarah Tung is a graduate student at New York University’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute. This story was adapted from Pavement Pieces, the web magazine of the Institute’s Reporting the Nation concentration.