The Transgender Experience: Aryah Lester
TransAction Florida Advisory Council Member
Sometimes, privilege is a state one doesn't recognize until it is stripped from you. In the last decade of the 20th century, information was lacking on the state of the average transgender person, particularly a transgender woman of color. Stereotypes and blanket 'cookie-cutter' perceptions were all a person had as introspect into a trans* life. I, myself, had no idea how public perception would change regarding my identity.
In adopting a public persona of my trans* identity, I felt nothing would change outside of my exterior. I was still myself, the same person who was born in Queens and spent my teens in rural Georgia. I had the same mindset, skills, and education which allowed me to be given an acceptance letter at Harvard University, and the attempts of recruitment from the Navy to engage in atomic research before I even graduated from high school. Of course, I expected my going-ons in everyday life to be affected by blatant discrimination. However, professionally, I was the same person with talent and potential.
The first clue which exposed me to truths beyond my expectation was when I was summarily kicked out of the private Christian college which had given me a full scholarship. Apparently, my increasing gender nonconformity and psychological issues stemming from living in a gender binary environment was not a life which the conservative college wanted to co-sign. Neither did my place of employment afterwards in the same North Georgian town at a catering and restaurant business (at first I was disallowed to have customers see me, and then let go). I withdrew with my pride somewhat lessened and ended up in the more liberal society of NYC, otherwise known as Manhattan. Surely, the environment of the Big Apple would be more conducive to my new life as a transwoman.
Finding a new job in the gay and largely LGBT center of Chelsea, I was disillusioned with acceptance from a closed community into thinking employment was still something I could both easily acquire and maintain. I faced the real brick wall of employment after the gourmet coffee shop went out-of-business. Unemployment benefits and temporary jobs kept me afloat until I was able to change my identification to match my identity. I finally took a few steps back up towards slight privilege.
Working under a contract with the Lower Manhattan Project to assist displaced workers from the 9/11 tragedy, I thought I had finally found the stability I deserved. The thought shattered after I was promoted thrice, worked for over a couple of years, and felt comfortable enough to talk with someone at HR regarding my gender identity. The very next day, I was told to leave work and go into psychotherapy because my presence made the work environment unsafe. While I left work to find a psychiatrist, which wasn't covered under our insurance, I received a letter stating I had been dismissed for not coming into work. Unemployment became a standard state in my life, with difficulty after difficulty arising after every job was lost.
Living in Florida, even the more liberal Miami, I have experienced chronic unemployment, for years, even in recent times due to circumstances not unlike those described above. Eventually, my only option came from uplifting both myself and my community by working to make these issues more visible. I worked at branding myself and my skills/experience in instituting a local program, Trans-Miami. I have sacrificed my energy and spirit to help create more local programming for the transgender community. I helped to create programs such as TransArt, and continue to work with government agencies in education. I found the strength to work for me, for my fellow brothers and sisters, and somehow has made the struggle more palpable in striving for a better future for those who may come after me.