This is a mostly true story of a person whose life though short continues to keep the fire in my belly burning.
I was the new Baptist preacher come to town to help run the HIV/AIDS program. I had been reared by a Marine Drill Sargent, and was entering into a world I vaguely knew. The community saw a straight Baptist minister who had come to town to 'work' with Persons Living With AIDS to say the least there was sincere skepticism if I was up to the job. My first call was from a sister homeless shelter asking me to come down and help them with this new resident at the shelter. It was the early nineties and the word AIDS scared people. So I waited in my office for the new client. The door opened and my heart sank; before me was a kid. He was sixteen years old. He was being kicked out of a government program called Job Corps. Job Corps was a program where you lived a semi military existence while you worked and gained employable skills. As far as Job Corps was concerned, he was gay and had another problem--AIDS. He was capable of infecting the whole Job Corps unit they proclaimed. I tried to explain AIDS was only contracted through sex and blood to blood contact. Regretfully, the social worker explained that he was sexually active. ‘”Very,” the young kid in front of me spoke with a huge smile on his face. The expression and his general demeanor told me he could have all the sex he wanted. “I do tell them I have AIDS and insist on protected sex but they do not seem able to resist me,” he continued with a sultry grin.
I would discover through many conversations that he had been abused as a child and thrown out of the house at eleven because he was exhibiting gay behavior. Along the way someone thought Job Corps could correct his wayward path. He was black, poor and abandoned at an early age, first by his family now by the government. I told the social worker we did not take minors. In saying that, I knew there was nowhere else in the state that would take him either. He looked at me and said, “I will be real good.” I thought that is just the problem I am afraid of.
Despite my misgivings we took him in. There was nowhere else and I would be damned if I rejected him too. The next day I went to my office in our group home. A young attractive woman in a pretty dress came up to me and said, “Hey Dad.” I looked at the woman closer and then my jaw dropped. It was JJ, the youth we had taken in yesterday. He started, “So yesterday you said you wanted to have a father-daughter talk with me.” I replied sternly, “That was not exactly what I said.” “But Dad, if you ask to talk that means we are going to have a father-daughter talk,” he nonchalantly said. “I prefer you did not call me Dad,” I answered, trying not to be charmed. But I knew this moniker would stick. She saw how uncomfortable it was making me. For her part she said, “If you insist, Dad,” she giggled. So we continued with the father-daughter talk about what was expected of her while she lived at our group home.
Talking about house rules to someone who had been living on the street since they were eleven was not the most fruitful conversation I have ever had. Curfews were missed, clubs were attended, but everyone loved her. I tried to counsel her about her anger with what God and life had given. At least I did until I realized she did not have anger. She only wanted to enjoy life; she didn’t have time for anger and hate. We were constantly at odds because there was no rule she would not break. Despite liking her I was slowly being forced to evict her. By now the staff and other residents loved her. But the choice was becoming clearer every day. My criticism of the government program that had rejected her was true but now it was seeming a little hypocritical. To my relief she came into my office with one of her other transgender friends. She started, “Dad I want you to meet my new roommate.” I looked at her quizzically. I knew there were no new residents moving in. She continued, “You and I both know you are going to have to kick me out of here. A girl’s just gotta have her fun,” she offered. “So I am moving in with Jill and a couple of other friends.” Somewhere inside I felt a sigh of relief. But my heart broke. The only place she could find acceptance was with other marginalized people. I knew that was why she attended the clubs. It was the one place on earth she felt comfortable and was totally accepted. Our house was filled with older gay men who too often felt uncomfortable being in close proximity to transgender people in those days. I, “her ‘father” was older and just now figuring out the variety of gender issues. She was sixteen and moving out on her own.
JJ did not become a stranger. She continued to come to us for other services and to say hi. It was quite the scene as she came to see my colleague and me, dressed to a T. The jaws of the men at the shelter would drop and eyes would bulge out at the sight of this beautiful woman. As her “father,” I did not appreciate the looks and murmurings of lust they whispered to each other. I received some consolation with the thought, if they only knew where their testosterone was taking them they would be questioning their sexual identity. JJ still addressed me as Dad to see my discomfort. There was less discomfort now; I looked forward to her visits.
She broke her probation, they told me over the phone. She was carrying a gun. I thought of course she was, do you know how dangerous the streets can be for a transgender person? The threat of assault from local soldiers or rednecks was a fact of life. You would be unwise not to have a gun. Yet I could never see JJ using it. The judge showed no mercy and sentenced her to a year and a half in jail. The perfect place for a transgender youth. We tried desperately to get her out. And then we tried even harder to get her the medicines she needed. We visited her but she did not want visitors. It was beyond my imagination what she must have gone through but she never complained. Her spirit stayed intact. Finally after a year we were able to get her out on early probation.
When I saw her, my whole being was filled with anger. She looked almost anorexic. Her face was worn with wrinkles at seventeen. She had a cough. We took her to the group home. I was not sure if that was going to work out but was determined to make it so. She again told me she would be good; now the sass in the tone was gone. The first time she saw me after coming out of jail she called me Dad but never again. She was older than me now, at only seventeen years of age.
JJ became the mother of the house--checking on the other residents and even staff, and giving advice about how to handle situations. The other residents teased her by calling her mom. She still had fire but less now. The rules were not as easy to break. Her hair began to fall out. She either had a scarf or a wig on when you saw her. The slow process of death was coming. Still she had no anger. Still she was full of confidence in who she was. She had dignity about it all beyond her years.
One day she broke curfew. She had not broken curfew during this stay. I fretted, pacing the hall. Finally, a car drove up; I went outside as the worried parent ready to chastise yet so grateful she was safe. She got out with her dress disheveled. Looked at me, shrugged her shoulders and smiled. She showed no evidence of alcohol or drug use. “Momma just needed a night out on the town.” After all it was her eighteenth birthday. JJ died two months later. She died happy and content. She was mourned by all of her children in the house.
Sometimes when I feel like justice is too hard to fight for and I want to bail on life, I remember JJ, my daughter and mother, and a fire reignites in my soul. But mostly I long to hear those uncomfortable words “Hey Dad.”