The Justice Department's National Crime Victim Service Award honors individuals and programs that provide services to victims of crime. Many of the service providers were at one time victims themselves.
Such is the case of Victoria Cruz, a transgender activist and counselor for domestic abuse, who was a recipient of the 2012 award.
Cruz first made headlines back in 1997 when she was working at Cobble Hill Nursing Home and she accused four female co-workers of harassing her and calling her names such as "Anti-man" and "Battyman,” pejorative sexual slurs used by West Indians for homosexuals. Two of her coworkers were found guilty of harassment and the two others were acquitted by the court. At the time of the assault, Cruz was still waiting to get her surgical operation.
She sought out support from New York City's Anti-Violence Project (AVP) an organization founded in 1980 in reaction to incidents of anti-LGBT violence and the failure of the criminal legal system to respond. AVP works to empower the LGBT community and support survivors through counseling and advocacy, according to their mission statement.
In AVP, Cruz found the support that she needed during her case. She started working with the organization in 1997 and has since dedicated her life to helping other victims of domestic violence, police violence and rape in the LGBT community.
Cruz came out at a very young age. And while she found rejection from many of her peers, her family always stood by her side.
"I was born different and I always acted as a female. And even doing my primary schooling, they would call me ‘queer’," Cruz said to The Huffington Post. "‘Gay’ at the time meant a jovial person.”
"But I always had the support of my family and that is so important and some transgender people don't get the support of their family for whatever reason."
Originally born in Puerto Rico, Cruz moved to New York with her family at the age of 4. She grew up in Red Hook, Brooklyn and is now a resident of East Flatbush. She is one of the oldest of 11 siblings.
"When you come from a modest family you learn to raise your younger siblings,” said Cruz to The Huffington Post. “It taught me about how to be a counselor, but, more importantly, it taught me about human nature. It taught me to be fair in life."
Everyday she brings the lessons she learned from her family to her work at AVP.
"Sometimes we speak of the most intimate things in people’s lives,” said Cruz. "We make sure the client safe, heard and respected. We present avenues and services for their cases but they decide what's best for them. But the most important thing is that we know they're safe."
Alongside 11 others, Cruz was awarded the national honor by Attorney General Eric Holder on Friday in the National Crime Victims’ Service Awards ceremony in Washington D.C.
All the people honored transformed “their own experiences into a positive force for sweeping change,” Holder said in a statement according to the NY Daily News.
"For me it's very humbling [to win this award] and I'm honored, but to me all of this is also very healing,” said Cruz. "When I see someone get the help that they need, I also get the help and I'm always glad that I'm able to help someone."
"This award is very positive. It makes the invisible, very visible. It allows our community to know the services that are there for them, to show our community that when they are in darkness they can always come to light."