by Monica F. Helms
I stared at the television screen in disbelief as one of the World Trade Center buildings crumbled into dust, then the next one. The horror I witnessed would haunt me for the rest of my life and the news estimated that over 3000 people lost their lives that day. What they didn’t say – or know – was how many more lives would become impacted by that fatal day. I would soon find out that I, Alice Johnston, would be one of them.
A few weeks after September 11, 2001, the reality of a less secure world and a devastating disaster hit home for me. My boss told us all that he would have to close the doors and let us all go. Business had dropped to near zero and his small company couldn’t absorb the loss. My roommate also worked there with me.
This news scared both my roommate and me because we’re both pre-operative transsexuals. The prospect of finding a job for many people after 9/11 looked grim at best, but for two transsexuals in Georgia, prospects looked grim even in the best of times. Discrimination runs ramped and is even seen as acceptable by most politicians and employers in the state when it comes to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people. They would rather have us on the welfare rolls putting a drain on the state’s treasury than to have us as employed, tax-paying citizens. Drawing unemployment was how my roommate and I had to survive over the next several weeks. I have learned over the years that out of the entire human race, transgender people seem to be considered the most disposable in society. And yet, we have a lot to offer if people would only give us a chance to prove it.
Both my roommate and I had marketable skills to offer potential employers. She has training in computer repair and has extensive experience in warehouse management and I am a computer technician and programmer, plus I have a degree in Library Science. On top of that, I’m a decorated Army veteran of two wars. Someone was bound to hire me, or so I thought.
Over the next several months, my roommate and I applied for hundreds of jobs, but as soon as they found out – or guessed – that we were transsexuals, all bets were off. No one would call us back for a second interview. Even when we got that sacred second interview, we would be told things like, “You’re over-qualified,” or, “We’ll call you,” or, “We have other applicants to interview.” What they really wanted to say was, “Get yer sorry faggot ass out of my office!” I would have accepted that much better than their lies and deceit.
The time came when my roommate and I had to move out of our apartment and put our things in storage. We still had some weeks left on our unemployment, so that would help a little. I planned on moving in with a friend and my roommate decided to see if Iowa would provide her better opportunities than Georgia. I love Georgia too much to want to move.
Packing my things was a terrible time for me. I enjoyed my video collection and my music, but I wouldn’t be able to take them to my friend’s house. When my roommate and I finished packing and moving everything into the storage unit, we shut the door and locked it. I had a strange feeling that I would never see my things again. Sadness came over me and I began to cry. People I helped in the past rejected helping me. The transgender community of Georgia turned their backs on me. I lost my job and had no prospects and I would have to rely on the kindness of a person I hadn’t known very long. My roommate and I hugged, then parted ways.
The woman I moved in with had a very interesting profession. She was a Madam at an established bordello in the Atlanta area. One wouldn’t think a bordello could survive in the heart of the Bible Belt. But, since hypocrisy abounds in police departments throughout the South, the concept becomes a bit more plausible. The Madam probably paid protection money to keep her business open.
At first, I survived by doing side computer work for several people and to help keep the bordello’s computer system running. I also helped them maintain their security system and elaborate camera setups. It felt satisfying for a while, but I wasn’t making enough money to get out on my own. Something else needed to be done.
I continued applying for jobs in the computer industry, but they were getting harder to find, even a year after 9/11. The odd jobs I did couldn’t keep me in money, so I began doing something I never thought I would ever do. I started working at the bordello as a hooker. At first, the customers found it intriguing to have sex with a real live transsexual. I didn’t enjoy it, but the money was better than nothing. However, the novelty of having sex with a transsexual soon wore off with the regulars and the men stopped asking for me.
My personal relationships with the Madam also began to deteriorate. I really liked her, but she stopped finding me interesting any longer. One day, after a heated argument, she threw me out of the house. Luckily, another friend took me in and he tried to help me find a job. That never went anywhere. I began feeling helpless and alone. Many of my friends had either stopped calling or turned their backs on me. I heard from my old roommate that she got training as a truck driver and found work with one of the large carriers. She tried to talk me into going into the same business, but I could never picture myself as a truck driver.
Not too long after moving in with my friend, he had to move and I couldn’t stay with him. In December 2002, I realized I would soon become homeless for the first time in my life. The prospect of being homeless frightened me. “Why is this happening to me?” I asked myself. “I didn’t ask to be a transsexual. If I didn’t have a choice then why are people treating me so badly?”
I felt truly alone. No place to go. No friends to turn to. No hope. Only despair. I can do many jobs, but no one will hire me because I’m a transsexual. Where can I turn to?
The last chance I had was to see if a homeless shelter would take me. I began calling around to all the women’s shelters in Atlanta, but I had to be up front with them. Each time I told them that I was a pre-op transsexual they would tell me I wouldn’t be accepted in their facility. I called a few men’s shelters to see what they could tell me and they said they would accept me only if I presented as a man. They wanted me to deny my identity and lie to them and myself before I would be accepted. Even then, I could easily become a victim of rape or violence once they found out I was a transsexual. My options had run out.
My friend gave me access to his computer one last time, so I put an automatic message on my Yahoo E-mail address. The message said, “I will soon become homeless and since homeless shelters won’t take in transsexuals, I’m a goner.”
Where is my family? They have all abandoned me. Where are all my friends? What friends? The transgender community here in Georgia never wanted to help me. I didn’t fit their narrow viewpoint of what a transsexual is supposed to “properly” do to transition. Others who still say they’re my friends are either gone or in a situation no better than mine. Is this what I have left after all the things I’ve been through? Nothing? I was safer in Iraq during Desert Storm. At least I was treated better there.
My car still worked, just barely. I have only one thing to do. Time for a road trip. After driving for 45 minutes I arrived at my destination, the Chattahoochee River. My jacket kept me from freezing. I could hear the water moving and the moonlight reflected off of the ripples. No one else would have dared to be out on a night like this. But, I had a plan.
As I unwrapped the towel, I revealed my one last true friend, my trusty .357 Smith and Wesson. I felt its cold steel and its well-balanced weight in my hands. Out of everything I gave up in the last fifteen months, I could never part with my .357. Now, it has become my last piece of pleasure in my lonely, miserable life.
“Why am I a transsexual?” I screamed. The trees dampened my voice. “Why am I a transsexual?” I whispered. I got no answers. Tears flowed from my eyes as I cocked the hammer. “All I wanted to do was to live my life as me.” My .357 seemed lighter somehow. “I didn’t ask for this life.” I lifted the gun. “I just wanted to live.” I felt the cold steel barrel pressing against my temple. “But, they wouldn’t let me.” My hand shook and I lowered the pistol. “This is what they wanted me to do.” I raised the .357 once more. “They’re getting their wish.” My finger tightened around the trigger. “They got what they wanted.” I pulled my finger back. “They got me . . .”
On December 17, 2002, Alice was found along the Chattahoochee River, a .357 slug had shattered her skull. This happened two years after the City of Atlanta passed a non-discrimination law that covered transgender people and included public accommodations, such as homeless shelters. Not only did homeless shelters break the law and failed to help her, but so did the rest of society.
Alice was my friend and I failed her, too.