Clara went back to her workplace this week for the first time – as a woman.
For the 31-year-old, having lived her whole life as a man, this was a transformative moment. Because when she handles sales and other tasks, she deals with a variety of people every day. She did not know what to expect from her boss, her co-workers, or any of the people her job required her to meet.
A private person normally, Clara agreed to share her story, but not using her real name.
Clara works for a company with offices in Jersey City and Hoboken, and her job had required her to wear a business suit and tie as a man. But on her first day back, she dressed in female clothes.
“Pretty much nothing happened,” she said, sounding a bit relieved after her first day with her new public identity. “Nobody said anything negative to me, not the UPS driver, or even the people at the McDonald’s.”
She was never happy being a man or dressing like a man, or being expected to do and like the things men are supposed to do and like.
“I hated dressing in a button shirt,” she said. “I don’t like men’s shoes. They hurt.”
Going to work as a man always depressed her.
“I didn’t want to open my eyes in the morning,” she said.
Self-doubt and heartache
Clara moved around a lot as a kid, living in different parts of the state. Since moving to Hudson County, she has lived in North Hudson, including Union City, West New York, and North Bergen, and several places in Jersey City.
She was always plagued with doubts all of her life, partly because she could not figure how who she was.
“There were signs all my life,” she said. “In high school, I thought I was gay. But I didn’t know anybody who was gay or transgender.”
Many people, even those sympathetic to the LGBT community, do not know the distinction between gay and transgender — and early on, neither did Clara.
“I get a great feeling when people tell me how beautiful I am. It makes my day.” – Clara
So for a transgender person, finding love is difficult.
“Sometimes I’m daunted by how much work it is trying to find a guy who will treat me like a lady. I thought I met that guy, but we broke up.”
Over the last two years, Clara has been undergoing her transition. This, too, is a daunting task, since there are very few places to get the specific help she needs outside of New York City.
Until a clinic opened in Jersey City, Clara, like many transgender people, had to travel to New York or Toms River to get the necessary treatment. Self-medicating by purchasing these hormones on the internet poses health risks, Clara said. Estrogen treatments, testosterone reduction, and other drugs can have dangerous side effects unless administered by a doctor.
During an interview late last year, Clara described some of the health issues transgender people face.
“Most doctors are not trained in transgender medicine,” she said. She knows because she’s been to a number of local doctors.
For Clara, estrogen treatment poses yet another risk. “My grandmother had breast cancer. This increases my chances of getting breast cancer. I have to be monitored, something that does not happen with self treatment.”
She didn’t get personal health insurance until the federal Affordable Care Act began to offer it.
“I was one of the first to sign up for it,” Clara said. “I used to live paycheck to paycheck. But I’m very conscious about my credit.”
Stress over health issues can be overwhelming, she said, and transgender people have significant medical and financial issues that the extended insurance coverage would help resolve.
“I handle stress well, but many do not,” she said.
Nationwide, two in ten transgender Americans are denied health care because of who they are. One in three faces significant delays getting necessary medical attention. Jersey City last year announced that it would provide health coverage for transgender city workers.
This does not help Clara. But she said lack of health insurance for transgender people is a huge problem, partly because many face other health issues, and partly because many need guidance from a trained physician to get through the complicated regimen of hormones and other drugs.
Hormone treatments, she said, have made a huge difference in her life.
“Once I started taking hormones I felt good,” she said. “Before I got hormone treatments, I didn’t feel right. I felt unhealthy and miserable. But once I started, I felt I could do anything. I stopped bringing alcohol home at night. I still drink when I go out to dinner with friends, but not at home. I wasn’t a habitual drinker. I just didn’t like drinking that way.”
Although she has her condition under control, Clara has tested positive for HIV, complicating her life both in regard to paying for the drugs she needs as well as finding a partner.
Looking for love
Three days after St. Valentine’s Day, Clara was ready to go out on her first date in years.
“I’m still single and I haven’t been on a date in a long time,” she said. “I’ve tried meeting people on a dating site. My Cupid site got more than 300 likes. But I don’t think people read my profile carefully – especially the question about my HIV status. Still, a few people seem very sincere.”
Going to work as a woman became a significant moment in her life.
“As of today, I’m going to give up dressing up as a man,” she said. “I might do it when I go to court to change my name, but that’s it.”
The hormones are still working on her, and she still thinks her voice is too masculine.
“I’m accepting myself,” she said. “I talked about getting hormone treatments for a decade. I kept asking myself, do I want to do this? I made the decision one night not to let myself be discouraged. Once I started, I felt happy.”
After her first day at work as a woman, she said she felt supported.
“My bosses were fine with this and very supportive. Other people, including my landlord, didn’t say anything at all. But one girl said I looked great. I get a great feeling when people tell me how beautiful I am. It makes my day.”
Always something of a loner, Clara is also part of a support group, and her recent move to the Journal Square area has allowed her to go to their meetings more often.
“Can you imagine if you’re so miserable that you don’t want to open your eyes in the morning?” she said. “I used to pray to God for a miracle. I would see a happy couple and tell myself I’m not good enough for that. This is something that has been hanging over my head since puberty. It is something I needed to solve or it would destroy me. This is not a question of courage; it is a question of survival.”
Al Sullivan may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.