If she’s not working on fixing computers, Jennifer Lopez can usually be found at the Church of the Village helping Pastor Vicki with the sound system, or at home in the Bronx working on New York City’s first transgender magazine for transgender people, by transgender people.
When I first met Jennifer, there was a modesty—a shyness even—that belied her strength and years of fierce advocacy on behalf of the transgender community. She spoke matter-of-factly about the deep discrimination transgender people face in their daily lives, as well as her triumphs over a personal history laden with fear, rejection, and adversity.
Her story is a chronicle of fighting for herself, and consequently, a community of people that continue to face discrimination in housing, employment, education and public accommodations across New York and the country at large.
I sat down with Jennifer to talk about advocacy, the evolution of transgender advocacy, and the revolution in recognition and respect she is beginning to lead.
Housing Works’ Communications Manager
Sunny Bjerk: Why don’t we begin with a little bit of your background, where you’re from and how long you’ve been in New York?
Jennifer Lopez: I grew up in Northern Connecticut, but recently moved to New York City because I thought there would be more employment opportunities here. Prior to moving to New York I had been living in West Haven, CT where I owned a computer company that specialized in computer repair, upgrades, and sales.
SB: What was it like moving from Connecticut to New York City?
JL: Well on the one hand, things were great because I felt like I could be me for the first time—a transwoman—but on the other hand, I encountered a lot of obstacles because I was transgender. When I first came to the city I had a hard time finding shelter, and it was only after I visited the LGBT Center and they referred me to an alcohol dependency center that I was able to secure a place to live.
Unfortunately though, the stay was only for twenty-eight days, and so after my stay I was left homeless. After that, my day-to-day goal was to stay somewhere safe. That was the goal.
SB: What were your impressions of your treatment at these facilities? Did you experience discrimination because you were transgender?
JL: Well some services and organizations are just better at understanding transgender needs than others. For instance, one organization put all transgender people into single rooms rather than rooming them with their identified gender, which meant that if there weren’t any single beds open, transgender people in needs of services were turned away, even though there might be plenty of room in the men’s or women’s dorm.
What I found most frustrating was that the people working in these facilities either didn’t know about New York City’s gender expression or identity non-discrimination protections (GENDA), or that if they did, there was no one there to enforce them.
SB: I understand that you have become quite the transgender rights activist, advocating for the rights and recognition for the city’s transgender and gender non-conforming community. Can you tell us a little bit about how you became such a fierce advocate?
JL: Well, it probably started when I first came out to my family as transgender. It was just a few years ago and when I was living in West Haven. They did not accept me, then or now. I never expected my family to reject me.
I had always been a good “son,” I guess. After I graduated from high school, I enrolled in the Navy and then applied and was accepted to Harvard’s Extension School’s Cyber Law program. At that time, I was around 19 years old and I knew I was a woman—but with all of the success I was having at the time, I didn’t want to interfere with that by beginning to transition.
So I continued to live as a man, trying on dresses and having my makeup done at department stores, but nothing much further than that. I dated women and was engaged to two of them actually, but around the time I turned 31, I realized that I just couldn’t do it anymore.
SB: What was the spark that moved you to transition?
JL: Well, I felt that there was a societal change and that transgender people were being accepted more and more, and that it wouldn’t interfere with my life’s successes. Boy, was I wrong!
When I first came out as transgender, I didn’t want to be labeled as transgender, I just wanted to be seen and recognized as a woman. But after I came out I experienced so much discrimination that I realized, “Man. Here is a problem that needs fixing.”
SB: Can you describe how it felt to you once you finally began to transition?
JL: There was a lot of fear, a lot of relief, and a sense of being able to relax because I was finally the person I wanted to be. Soon I started to go to gay clubs dressed as a woman, but even then I remembered being nervous about being harassed.
One night I got dressed, wearing a woman’s blouse, jeans, and some make-up. It marked the first time I dressed in public as a woman, and I was so nervous I ended up calling the bar—Partners—beforehand. I got on the phone and asked, “Is it okay to come in dressed in as a woman?” And the bartender said back to me, “Sure! People do it all the time!” So I went and ended up sitting next to this gay man at the bar, and I asked him, “How do I look?” And he looked me straight in the eye and he said, “You look wonderful. You like you. You like who you are.” He bought me all of my drinks and treated me to a taxi ride home.
SB: How has being a part of the Housing Works’ Transgender Evening Program (TEP) aided your transgender advocacy?
JL: When I was homeless, TEP was my family. When you see the door slammed in your face all the time, you need a strong support system to withstand that. And being able to talk about the issues that matter to you and that are relevant to the transgender community is so important to one’s emotional well-being, and I have found that at TEP.
SB: Can you tell us about your latest project for the transgender community?
JL: Yes! I am working on a magazine for New York City’s transgender community. It’s titled, Everything Transgender in New York City: The News by Transgender People for ALL Transgender People. My goal for the publication is to empower and motivate transgender people to do better for themselves, and to set and accomplish goals for their lives.
SB: That’s really wonderful. What prompted you to start this magazine for the trans community?
JL: When I first moved to the city, I found that there weren’t very many trans-specific resources available, and that newcomers to the city might have a hard time finding services or even places to make friends. And I started finding these groups, such as TEP, and found that these people wanted to help others in the trans community in the same way that I did, and so I thought having a publication where all of this information could be centralized and available to people would be great way to take out the legwork for other people in the trans community or their friends and family.
I’m still developing it, but I hope to get the funding to have feature stories, an events calendar, health tips, and a directory of resources that are culturally competent or have strong experience working with the transgender community. I’d also really like to have the magazine address issues that affect the transgender community, such as homelessness, violence, and suicide.
Housing Works has been a longtime advocate of transgender and gender non-conforming rights in New York and across the country. For over 11 years, Housing Works’ has met with legislators in Albany, NY about the discrimination transgender and gender non-conforming people face and the need to pass GENDA (the gender expression non-discrimination act). This year will be no different. On February 26th, Housing Works’ staff and clients will begin their season of advocacy by meeting with legislators about the need to pass GENDA to ensure that all of New York State’s residents are treated equally and fairly under the law.
Want to know more about our GENDA advocacy or join us on a trip to Albany? Email Housing Works’ Director of New York State Advocacy & Organizing Carmelita Cruz at email@example.com to learn more.blog comments powered by Disqus