Op-ed: 72, Transgender, and Finally Myself

One transgender activist remembers the moments when she was forced to hide who she was to simply survive.

BY Rosie Del Mar

August 28 2013 5:00 AM ET

Rosie Del Mar at the L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center's Senior Prom in June

I quit school and joined the Army at 18, hiding my sexuality for a long time, until I learned there were other G.I.’s just like me. By 1964, I was living fully as a woman and having therapy for a sex change that never happened. I was threatened with guns, knives, and fists by other men once they discovered I was not a woman, including being knocked down, kicked, and abused by the very police department that should have protected me.

During the 1960s, while in Ohio, I found out I was transgender. I discovered Rocco’s Skid Row Emporium, a club featuring go-go girls who, as it turned out, were all men in female attire. It was something I had never seen before. The transgender bartender took me home and dressed me up in full female attire with makeup. When I looked in the mirror, I said, "Oh, my God, this is really me." And for six months I worked as a go-go-girl there. Later, at a straight club, I joined a chorus line of 20 girls, five of whom were actually men. I loved it and said, "This is it for me!"

At the time, living as a woman made it impossible to obtain a regular job, so I turned to the streets for survival, at times succumbing to the worst of street life, a condition not uncommon in the transgender community. At one point, I even made an unsuccessful attempt at going back to straight life.

A failed love affair, followed by a suicide attempt, led me to the L.A. Gay and Lesbian Center in 1969. The center was run out of an old two-story house on Wilshire Boulevard by Morris Kight. Kight put me up in a gay halfway house where I learned of the Metropolitan Community Church. I sang in the choir as a female until six of us, including a minister, quit MCC and started our own church at the Villa Elaine Apartments on Vine Street as part of Universal Life Church. We improvised a chapel and neighborhood gays began showing up. Later, I was ordained a minister. When the other minister ran off, taking everything, I vowed to never step inside another church. Still dressing as a man, I did security guard work and other jobs to survive.

I did fund-raising and was involved with the first Pride parade when it ran down Hollywood Boulevard, and I raised money for the originator of Pets Are Wonderful Support as well as to start support groups for gay students at Fairfax High School.

I entered a beauty pageant for the International Court System wearing a homemade dress in 1970. Slowly, I began dressing openly as a woman again, if only those for events. Being heavy then, I started the first Big, Bold, and Beautiful Pageant in 1973 for men weighing 200 pounds or more. Over the years, I graduated from princess to queen mother, eventually being elected Empress Rosie XXII, the Rainbow Rose Angel Empress, in 1992. Our fund-raising shows provided scholarships for gay kids who wanted to go to college. This continues to this day.

Following a near-death experience from pneumocystis pneumonia in 2001, I was diagnosed with HIV. Despite fears of desertion, my lover, Bobby, remained with me and has cared for me for 39 years. I withdrew considerably following my HIV diagnosis, but an HIV support group at the Minority AIDS Project put me back on track. And after I heard the choir singing while volunteering at Unity Fellowship Christ Church, it wasn’t long before I was singing alongside them. Unity Fellowship Christ Church is a predominantly black gay church started by Rev. Carl Bean. Five years ago, the bishop suggested I become a deacon. "We like what we see and we think you would be a good candidate," the church leaders said. I never knew a transgender person could be looked upon as somewhat valuable within a church.

I attend a transgender a group meeting weekly, doing outreach and educating others so that people will start recognizing the transgender community and help us integrate into mainstream society, because people forget about us. As more transgender people accept themselves, progress will come.

Since 2007, I have lived at Triangle Square, the first affordable housing complex for seniors with in-house services provided by Gay and Lesbian Elder Housing for the gay, lesbian, and transgender community in a supportive environment. GLEH allows me to host Drag Queen Bingo every Saturday night, and residents and all in the community are welcome. Remaining active in the community, I encourage transgender persons, young and old, in seeking out support groups and in building a strong network that will continue opening doors for themselves and the generations to come. We deserve everything good that life has to offer.

AS TOLD TO YANNEK AGAKHAN-CARRINO

ROSIE DEL MAR, 72, is a transgender activist living in Los Angeles.

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