When you meet Tasha Ortiz, the first thing that you notice is her smile. It’s huge and perfect, and it wells up often, eclipsing half her face. You see the sparkle in her eyes as she embraces you and gives you a friendly peck on the cheek. And then you notice her Adam’s apple, her square jaw, her makeup — caked heavy to conceal freshly shaved stubble that strains toward the surface of her skin. Tasha is transgendered and is accustomed to the confusion her appearance causes in others.
“The 2 train is used to me,” Ortiz said as she and her friend Dada walked to her neighborhood subway stop. “But, if I get on the Q train, they’re like, ‘Oh my God, that’s a man!’” She and Dada laughed. When you’re Tasha Ortiz, causing confusion in bystanders is a cakewalk compared to what’s come before.
Growing up in Albany, N.Y., she was known as Lordell Quebal, a boy. Her parents drank and fought, and at an early age she was taken from her home and placed into a merry-go-round of foster homes — first in Albany, then in Brooklyn. She was athletic and dated girls, then boys.
“But on the inside, I [still] felt very trapped, I felt very isolated,” she said. “When I came out [as transgendered], there were a lot of doubts, not only in my immediate family, but in my gay family. … I was so manly-acting that it was a surprise for everyone. It was something that I kept quiet for a very long time.”
The definition of “transgender” is a thing in flux. Currently, the most agreed-upon representation is, “People who were assigned a gender, usually at birth and based on their genitals, but who feel that this is a false or incomplete description of themselves.” The National Transgender Advocacy Coalition website claims that between 2 and 3 percent of the U.S. population is transgendered. Transgendered people can be gay, straight, or bisexual — “transgender” is an umbrella term that addresses gender identity, not sexuality. Ortiz happens to be attracted to men, and often, but not always, wishes to express herself as a woman.
“I love being who I am. I love that some days I wake up, and I want to do drag,” she said. “Some days I want to dress as a boy, and I have that option. But for the most part, I’m Tasha.”
Though Western society has begun to accept gay people, acceptance of trans-people is slower to come.
“In the workplace, I’ve seen people get fired because of their gender identity,” said Asia Lyons, Outreach Coordinator at the Bronx Community Pride Center (BCPC), which offers outreach services to the Bronx LGBT community. “There are many studies that show that once you disclose your gender identity, or if it’s obvious, violence or discrimination in the workplace increases.”
Richard Juang, a scholar and activist, conducted a non-scientific survey in the San Francisco area in 2006 and found that the unemployment rate for trans-people was 35 percent, as opposed to 4.5 percent in the general U.S. population. Because trans-people find it difficult to keep jobs due to discrimination, 60 percent earn less than $15,300 a year, a poverty rate that is three to five times higher than that of the general U.S. population. If it is hard to maintain legal employment, “a lot of trans-folks end up engaging into sex work,” Lyons said. And with the U.S. recession in full swing and jobs scarce, Lyons predicts that even more trans-people will turn to the streets for income.
Ortiz, 23, is a former prostitute — she only recently gave up “the stroll” after three years of it being her sole source of income. “With the stroll comes a lot,” Ortiz said. “Comes substance abuse, comes so much. And I was blind to that, at first.”
She sat in the Bronx Community Pride Center reception area with two other former prostitutes, Inkara Jones, Ortiz’ de-facto “aunt,” and Ginelle Patterson. “The outside world, when they perceive us as transgenders, they automatically think, ‘sex,’ they don’t perceive us as a person,” said Patterson, waving her long-nailed hand through the air in anger. The others nodded in agreement, the curls of their wigs bouncing, earrings clinking. “A good friend once told me, ‘stop trying to run away from the stroll and know that you are the stroll. … You remove yourself from the stroll by changing you.’”
That is exactly what Ortiz did. She began volunteering at the Bronx Community Pride Center over a year ago, and found that the kids gravitated toward her: She was a natural leader. A paid position at BCPC recently opened up, and she was offered her first “real” job. And with that reliable paycheck comes the promise of better health care, another issue of particular importance to trans-people.
“Health care is very different for a trans-person for the simple reason that their insurance may not identify with their gender identity,” said Lyons. “As a result of that, it is really hard for a person to get services.”
Trans-people take hormones — estrogen and anti-androgens for male-to-females, and testosterone for female-to-males — so that their bodies more accurately match their gender identities. Hormones can cause serious internal damage if not monitored properly, but many trans-people refuse to go to a doctor due to lack of funds or out of fear of being stigmatized when their legal names are called out in the waiting room. This leads to black market hormones, shots sold on the streets that are often cut with baby oil or water. Needles are even reused, putting users at high risk for HIV/AIDS.
Ortiz has her first ever doctor’s appointment for legal hormone monitoring next week. She just moved into a Bronx apartment with a friend from BCPC, and received her first paycheck last Friday. She is excited about the future, but appreciates her past.
“It’s been rocky. But looking back, I wouldn’t change anything. I had experiences that will help me, and I know I’m on a road to greatness. I really do.”