Sometimes I see the girl I used to be, standing under a bridge in Milwaukee, watching the cars drive by, waiting for one to slow down, roll down the window and ask me, "How much?"
I've come a long way from those uncertain and terrifying days.
The growth I have experienced over the past 15 years as a transgender woman has been painful, to say the least, but it has also provided me with purpose. While I don't necessarily believe the cliche that "everything happens for a reason," I do believe that every encounter, every situation, and every challenge I've experienced has shaped me into the woman I am today. And I am proud to say that I have never backed down from life's challenges.
I've always had big dreams, and very little means. After being kicked out of the house at 19 because of my gender identity, and fired from job after job - unable to gain traction in the workforce because of who I am -- I found myself on a fast track into the adult industry. Girls who had gone before me told me that posing for adult websites, doing sex work, or both, were the only paths that would allow me to pay for the medical transition I so desperately sought.
The palm trees and sunshine that greeted me when I got off the plane at the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport provided an ironic twist to my new life in the shadows. I was in. "The girls" and I would spend our days in our apartments waiting by the phone for clients to call, and our nights out at the clubs with unsuspecting straight men who validated our womanhood with their gazes and propositions.
I still think about those girls almost every day, and I am so thankful to the women who pulled me aside and told me, "this is not where you belong." In such a cut-throat and dangerous environment, when I was so used to being put down whenever I stood out, those women told me that I was meant to do more with my life.
Before even my first set of nude pictures was published, I had already started to help the adult website I posed for with the technical work of importing, rotating, and cropping photos. Soon, I advanced to redesigning the website. I acquired a client who hired me to provide website services.
As I became more involved in producing the website, I also starting meeting some of the girls whose pictures were featured on it. They told me how they were using this money to save up for breast implants, or facial feminization, or just to pay rent. They, too, had been told that this was the only way.
I decided to commit to deepening my technical skills by watching video tutorials on Lynda.com. They taught me the basics of html, css, photo-retouching and more. At first, my goal was to create a more successful adult website -- I even briefly ran my own. But I was beginning to realize that this was not where I was supposed to stay in my career. There was more out there for me.
That's when I began to focus more on web development and less on the adult industry. I created a profile on a freelancing website and began to offer my skills to clients who were willing to take a chance on someone new. Over the span of a decade, I worked with clients from all over the world, creating websites for their personal and professional brands. I would stay up until the wee hours of the morning, banging my head against my computer trying to figure out why some aspect of the code wasn't working. Eventually, I was able to recognize my strength in project management and being able to hire other freelancers from India, Pakistan, Thailand and elsewhere to do parts of a project that were outside of my skillset.
I discovered my path to independence through technology, as well as the potential for a global lifeline for trans people around the world who were looking for the same. In 2014, I left my job and launched TransTech Social Enterprises, a for-profit and nonprofit hybrid model focusing on the well-being of the trans community, not on external profits for shareholders.
As a creative agency, we provide services in web and app development, graphic design, social media management, marketing, multimedia production and more with a team of qualified lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) freelancers who typically have been locked out of the job market by discrimination and harassment. Our training academy, the part of TransTech funded by donations and grants, trains trans people of color and others in the LGBTQ community who have been marginalized to street economies in technical skills that will empower them to manifest a myriad of other possibilities for their lives.
The Human Rights Campaign, the nation's largest civil rights organization working on behalf of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community, has made office space available for me in their DC headquarters to help me and TransTech establish a presence in the nation's capital, deepen relationships with national LGBT organizations, and establish connections that will help advance my work in providing education, job skills training and employment assistance for transgender people.
HRC and I both believe this new relationship shows great promise, and that as I build my business, it could prove to be an important model for bridge-building between transgender people who need employment, and companies that are increasingly offering transgender-inclusive policies. I'm proud to continue my work with HRC, and speak out on transgender inclusion and about TransTech's model of "empower, educate and employ."
As trans communities in the U.S., South America, India, Paraguay, Thailand and elsewhere begin to stand up and fight for their rights, TransTech Social Enterprises will be able to offer learning and freelance working opportunities in-person and online for them to build their own bridges towards financial freedom while traditional forms of freedom are still unaccessible.
I hear words like "lucky" used when people describe my life and all the amazing things that are starting to happen for me. I reject that notion. To quote Oprah Winfrey, my definition of luck is "when preparation meets opportunity." The days, weeks, months, and years of rejection, harassment, and uncertainty, as well as the nights of studying, reading, and writing, prepared me for the opportunity I am taking advantage of this very moment: the opportunity to build relationships across barriers with the sole purpose of creating more space and opportunities for trans people to thrive.