Caitlyn Jenner's recent transformation and Vanity Fair cover changes everything -- and it changes nothing.
As an African-American transgender woman, I've experienced all sorts of emotions following the avalanche of media coverage since Caitlyn announced she is a woman.
I support Caitlyn's courage and am happy that she is liberating herself to be who she is. I also appreciate how her celebrity is generating enormous attention and bringing awareness to millions of people for the first time.
That said, it stings when I think of the fashion shoots and the millions she is making from her reality show, and then I think of what my friends, community and I have lived through. Most of us risked our lives to be who we are. We were kicked out of our homes, ostracized from our communities, and forced to hustle on the streets to take care of ourselves.
I hope Caitlyn appreciates that she stands on the shoulders of people who paved the way for her. How much does she know or care about our daily struggles? Does she grasp what it means that so many people in our community have HIV, either from the sex work we did to survive or from drugs that we used to self-medicate? Can she imagine what it's like to struggle for a job or a safe place to sleep? Has she experienced the daily threats of violence simply walking down the streets? Does she realize that many people are sick or even dying from the unhealthy silicone injections that we bought because it was all we could afford?
Well, now that Caitlyn has shared her story. I would like to share mine.
I was born in Brooklyn and now live in the Bronx. I knew at the age of eight that I was a girl and I began my transition as a transgender woman. It wasn't an easy thing to do. I never could have known that my journey of self-discovery would lead me to where I am today, 30 years later, as a leader helping those from my community who need the most compassion.
When I became a teenager, I began to accept myself, my sexual identity, and who I wanted to be. I started spending time in Greenwich Village, where I discovered I could be myself and meet people like me having fun and living freely.
The world back then was a cruel place for people who were gay, and especially for transgender women. The Village was our comfort zone.
The life my friends and I led at that time, while transformational and liberating, included risks that made our lives harder in the long run. There was the glamor of the house/ball scene, but also unsafe sex, drugs and prostitution.
A couple of years after my 21st birthday, I gained custody of my niece, Lady Keyanta, and she became a daughter to me. She was the best thing that ever happened in my life, and becoming a parent was the jolt I needed to change my life. I wanted to be a stronger woman, a good mother, and a leader in my community.
When I eventually discovered the community-based harm reduction and drug treatment group Exponents in 2013, I found my home. I found a place that could help me make the most of my whole life experience, both the positive and the difficult, to be a support to others and follow my passion as a humanitarian. Exponents has an atmosphere of inclusion, which made me feel affirmed, embraced and welcome.
In 2012, Exponents launched a new program to increase their outreach and recruitment efforts within the LGBTQ community. Exponents started hosting events in the House/Ball community, reaching hundreds of people -- including me.
I started taking classes at Exponents and I dedicated my time to learning more about myself and helping others struggling with similar issues.
Before I knew it, I found myself accepting a position with Exponents to do outreach and peer support. Last year we started the Transformation Support Group, a weekly gathering of trans-identified women who discuss issues ranging from community organizing to intimate partner violence.
I also recruited ladies to Exponents' trauma intervention program for trans women. Our program boasts an 89 percent retention rate -- which is critically important given the staggering rate of violence committed against trans people.
In 2015, I founded Sister 2 Sister, a major expansion of the transformation support group. I plan to continue growing in this work, and giving people like myself a chance to become who they were born to be.
As a result of our continued work, Exponents was hand-picked by the NYCDOC Director of Health Affairs to provide services at the newly-designated Transgender Housing Unit on Rikers Island. Along with transitional counselors, who provide one-on-one support, I conduct weekly support and discussion groups with the ladies detained in the unit.
Working in my community hasn't been easy. We're survivors -- but we have to make sure that all of us, not only the luckiest and the strongest, are able to survive. I have witnessed myself change and the times change enough to know that compassion and love are possible in any situation. And I will share anything I have, if it can give others hope.
So as Caitlyn Jenner takes Middle America on this educational journey, let's remember that most people going through transition don't have her privilege and resources. That's why we need to fight for safety, protection and dignity for all.
Nicole S. Bowles is the founder of Sister 2 Sister, a transformation support group within Exponents.