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Hidden in the shadows of West Hollywood's vibrant gay scene, Angeline, a transgender woman, is getting a manicure at one of the few nail shops willing to serve transgender clients. In the meantime, she is on the phone talking about the best places for clothes shopping, where she will actually be allowed to use the women's dressing room. All of this is in preparation for a night out of dancing with her transgender girlfriends at downtown nightclub.
Angeline is an undocumented immigrant who has lived in L.A. for the past six years. She fled her home in Honduras in order to save her life. As a child she saw her gay uncle brutally beaten in the street by the other men in their town. As she grew into a young adult, her mother feared an even worse fate for her transgender daughter and gave her a small amount of money and told her to leave the country. She did not want to see her transgender daughter murdered, like so many of the other transgender women in Latin America, at the hands of their neighbors or the local police. Angeline's only hope for survival was to move to the United States and apply for political asylum.
Once she arrived in the U.S., it took a while for her to find support and resources. She needs to save several thousand dollars to hire a new immigration lawyer. The last one she had ended up being a con artist who promised to help her apply for asylum but instead took all her cash and changed his phone number.
Unable to find work, she ended up homeless, and most homeless shelters are unwilling to accommodate a transgender woman. She spent a lot of time on the streets, where men frequently pressure her for sex. Eventually, like many of her friends, she found that the only way she is going to be able to provide for her basic needs and hire a new immigration lawyer is to start engaging in sex work.
Despite antidiscrimination laws, finding jobs can be extremely difficult for transgender women. Being undocumented only makes things more complicated. Recent studies published in Injustice at Every Turn: A Report of the National Transgender Discrimination Survey by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and National Center for Transgender Equality showed that unemployment among transgender people is double the rate of the general population and more than 15% of trans individuals have been compelled to engage in the street economy for survival (such as doing sex work or selling drugs).
Still, Angeline dreams of becoming a fashion designer; she studied design back home. She hopes she will not become a victim of a hate crime or sexual assault, as are so many other transgender sex workers. Outrageously, those crimes are rarely prosecuted or reported, even when -- or perhaps especially when -- the perpetrator is a high-profile celebrity known for his abuse of transgender sex workers (which has happened more than once, though the media rarely reports on it as well).
As she walks to catch the Metro Line, police stop and harass her, asking her if she is a man or a woman. The youths on the street point at her and yell "tranny hooker" and "she-male" as she passes them by. She does her best to hold her head high and ignore their taunts, holding on to her dream of becoming a fashion designer in Hollywood -- the American dream.
There are thousands, probably hundreds of thousands, of transgender women like Angeline living in the U.S., many of them in Hollywood, which is supposed to be a bastion of liberal tolerance. Their bravery for being true to themselves (and, in some cases, coming to the U.S. for their own survival) is constantly overlooked, not just by mainstream society, but also within the LGBTQ community. Slurs like "tranny" are all too common among the gay community, even though the gay community was in the same shoes as transgender folks just a few short decades ago. Even celebrities who would be scolded by the media watchdogs for using terms like "fag" can still get away with calling a transgender woman a "chick with a dick."
When the LGBTQ community breeds internalized homophobia and transphobia, everyone gets left behind, and the scores of transgender women who are commemorated each year at the Transgender Day of Remembrance, many of whom were sex workers, provide solid proof. Yet, while 41% of adult transgender people report to having attempted suicide at least once in their life, there is a great deal of resilience, determination, and perseverance, making transgender people the greatest warriors of all in the movement for LGBTQ equality.
Jake Finney is the antiviolence project manager for the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Center.