On Surviving When It Doesn’t Get Better: Poverty, Food Stamps, and Transness

Trigger warning: poverty, bureaucracy, depression, and transphobia.

I wrote a few pages about the day I applied for food stamps from the vantage point of a trans woman, sex worker, burnt-out activist, and crazy person. It is an autobiographical reflection on what it means to struggle not only against unjust social conditions and poverty, but also against complex internal forces we call “mental illness” for simplicity. (And how the two reinforce one another.)

But first, some context.

Over the past few months, the media and hordes of my Facebook-friends have focused an usually high amount of attention on the suicides of LGBTQ young folks. I lost count of the stories, because sometimes I protect myself by not paying attention.

It’s not like stories about death are new to us, especially trans women. Another trans woman’s brutal murder is reported in the news, and my Facebook feed, every few days. So I’m glad we’re talking about it. Acknowledging the problem is the first (small) step toward change.

Then, there’s the “It Gets Better” campaign. A mainstream white gay male advice columnist made a website in response to LGBTQ teen suicide. He posts user-created videos encouraging youth with positive messages of success and survival. Even Obama made one. George Takei reminded us not to listen to homophobic douchebags.

This effort has engendered a number of criticisms. Some say it’s unfair to tell kids to “wait it out.” We should be organizing to make it better right now. Others point out that the message is centered around white gay male narratives. For a lot of other queer people (especially people of color, trans, rural and working class ones), life doesn’t get better. It often gets worse. When we come out, we might lose our families and support networks. And there is no “gay community” waiting with open arms to accept us. (See more response: here and here.)

Personally, I don’t hate this project. It may be helpful for some people who really need to hear this message. (I really don’t like the creator, Dan Savage. He has a history of saying transphobic things. But that is another story.) However, I also agree with the critiques. My life has, in a lot of ways, gotten harder since high school. I lost my family and my home. I went through extreme poverty, violence, and mental illnesses.

For some of us, we don’t need to hear that it will get better, because it might not. We need to hear: “From now on, you will have to fight to survive every day. But you will get stronger. And it will be worth it.” So, let Dan Savage keep making videos. I hope it helps some of us who are struggling to survive in a world that does not accept us. But for the other folks, I wrote this. It is about surviving, even when you aren’t sure that you (or the world you live in) will ever get better.

Here’s the story.

——————————————————-

On Surviving When It Doesn’t Get Better

I lost my job one month before I was scheduled to discuss “unemployment in the transgender community” with the Director of the Department of Employment Services for the District of Columbia.

At the meeting, the suits-and-ties talk too highly of themselves and make promises they will not keep. Two weeks later, the Department of Employment Services denies my request for unemployment compensation. The irony is not lost on me. They will invite Sadie The Community Activist to speak in their fancy board rooms, even pretend to listen to her. But to Sadie The Poor Umemployed Woman, they have only faceless forms marked with denial.

Technically, they say, I left my job voluntarily. At-the-time-undocumented mental illnesses and veiled transphobic threats from co-workers are not real to them because they cannot be measured, and therefore cannot justify my reasons for “voluntarily” leaving. Never mind that the job itself was like a toxin to my delicate body. My best days were the ones when I could maintain at least a facade of emotionless detachment.

As a case manager for low-income people who were pregnant and seeking abortions, I spent day-in and day-out absorbing stories of abuse, sexual violence, rape, incest, family rejection, poverty, hunger, unpaid light bills. Mix this with weekly conversations with trans women who were beaten by police and tricks and ex-lovers and everyone else around them. Stir with an assigned-at-birth family that abandoned me, vivid images of getting hit in the back of the head, and an already-unbalanced disposition for madness.

My life is engulfed by violence. It’s hard not to run away. Now I’m broke (in more ways than one) and unemployed.

I need food and medicine. So I visit the bureaucrats. They will send me to three separate offices and each office will tell me what I need is at the other office. I ride my bike to each bland government building, arriving with a sweaty brow and leaving with tearful eyelashes. In the lineup for food stamps, there are four other trans women. These are only the ones I know. Two of them I’d met before at a trans sex worker’s support group. The others speak Spanish and cannot understand that the people next to them are laughing at their wigs.

There are maybe one hundred people in the room. I think to myself: “Trans women are not five percent of the population. Why are we five percent of the lineup for food stamps?”

I know the statistics all by heart. But still, the moment is surreal: the trans women and their finger-pointing neighbors, the bumbling social workers, the crying children, and the TV that only plays telenovelas. I haven’t eaten anything all day; my behind goes numb from the uncomfortable chair; my eyes burn from staring at my phone.

***

Five hours after I arrived and took a number, I go to see a case worker. Her cube is a jumbled mess of undecipherable memos and government-mandated non-discrimination policies. She can’t find my file. “Have you ever had any other names, Miss?”

“Yes,” and I told her what my name used to be. I spell it out instead of just saying it, as though I am under some evil spell.

“Oh -” I recognize that look of shock. Despite this, she is kind and never once questions my gender. “Where did I put this woman’s ID?” she wonders aloud to herself as she looks for the papers I had just handed her.

The social worker wants to change the gender marker on my file, but she doesn’t think she can. I tell her, you’re required by law to let me change it. It even says so right here — I point to the Non-Discrimination Policy. My friends wrote that policy. I’ve been an activist for years,  trying to enforce that policy. I audibly sigh, because, on top of all that, it has been years since I changed my gender legally. I have the passport and the Social Security card and the driver’s license. I thought I was past this.

“I know,” she says. “But the last time I changed it for someone, I got in trouble.”

She brings over her boss and asks whether she can change my gender marker, as though the green lettering on that black screen had the power to confer some horrible authenticity to my life. To me, it is just another arbitrary barrier to my basic living necessities. It seems trivial compared to the indignity of the entire situation. It is the insult added to injury.

I hold my breathe, waiting to take notes for the lawsuit I may later have to make. Her boss exclaims, “She looks like a woman to me!” and storms away, annoyed to have wasted thirty seconds.

I think to myself: What about the other woman with the cheap wig sitting in the cubicle next to us — the one the case worker keeps referring to as “the client” in order to avoid using a pronoun?

The incompetent but kind-hearted social worker marks down an F and we move on. I get 200 dollars a month and free medical care. Sign here. Let us know if your employment status changes. Have a nice day.

***

When I get home, I realize I haven’t eaten in over 24 hours. The hunger pains are incapacitating. I am triggered by memories of near-starvation.

On this day, it has been almost five years since I had fled the torture of my old home in search of safety and community. In that time, I had fought hard to keep myself alive. Finally, after so many nights sleeping under the stars, I had grown comfortable in my own bed. I no longer worry about paying for groceries or going to jail for shoplifting. I pay for my hormones with my own money, I pass as cis, and finally the threats shouted to me at night had mostly stopped.

I wear my new-found status with victorious pride: I am a survivor, I often say to myself.

The key here is that these things are now in the past: I am a survivor, I think, because I survived something that happened to me in the past. It was over, or so I wanted to believe.

But, now jobless, I am terrified of losing all this. I cannot go back to the constant fear of rape and violence, the listless lack of stability or the dumpster-dived stale bagels. I have a beautiful family to create, full of chosen family and houses out of the city and trips to the lake and a kitchen where drying herbs and flowers hang from the ceiling. And that fantasy — the only thing I have ever wanted more than the right to be called by my chosen name — requires money. The money, and the dream future, will never come.

It’s not that I can’t find work to do. I am writing a chapter for a book. I’m writing an op-ed, preparing for a workshop. I’m organizing to-do lists and drafting membership guidelines and forgetting about conference calls and waking up extra early so I can have coffee with beautiful, passionate, dedicated people.

There is plenty of work to be done, but it’s not the kind of work that makes money. Some of us might carve out a space for our work in the world of nonprofits, and there’s no shame in this. But that just burns us out faster.

The other struggles, the ones that don’t come with a paycheck, may make the world a better place. And that in and of itself is something worth living to do. But I cannot store my love for my community in a savings account. And in that sense, activism is just another way to hurt myself.

I work and work and work myself as hard as I can. On some days, the good ones, it feels like the world is getting closer to my idea of justice and health. But it’s still only a distraction from the near-constant panic attacks, a stress disorder, recurring nightmares, and a voice in my head that pops up suddenly on lonely mornings and convinces me that there is someone waiting to kill me on the other side of my bedroom door.

The voice tells me that the world probably isn’t worth saving, anyway. Luckily, I don’t listen to it for very long, because it obviously tells me lies. But it’s still there, whispering threats and falsehoods.

On the day my food stamps are approved, it seems that all my struggles were for nothing. I am hopeless. On this day, I am constantly popping pills and sucking on bitter tablets. I know they don’t help, but the taste reminds me of friends. Still, I am no closer to the goal of rebuilding a family. I cannot even buy my own food any more. I have applied to dozens of jobs, and only one had even bothered to call me back.

Next month’s rent is coming from porn. I have fun at the photo shoots, and I enjoy the sense of solidarity and camaraderie I share with the other girls. We feast like real queens in a hotel far fancier than anything we would ever sleep in alone.

But I hate being offered extra money to perform acts my body was not designed to do. I hate being called a shemale and a tranny whore. And even this does not pay enough to survive. I get tired of explaining to friends: “Sorry, I can’t cover dinner tonight because all of my money is in one hundred dollar bills. But yes, I really am poor.”

On the day I applied for food stamps, I make a mental list of all the things that are trying to kill me:

  • hunger
  • transphobia
  • my “unbalanced chemicals”
  • lingering cigarette cravings
  • capitalism
  • angry motorists who don’t see the bike lane
  • regret.

I call myself a fool for “voluntarily” quitting my old job. I can’t decide which is worse: to suffer daily panic attacks from job-related trauma, or to suffer daily panic attacks from going hungry. It is a horrible question that no one should ever have to ask.

For hours, I weep giant streaks of warm tears. Two of those hours are spent in the arms of my fiancee who guides me through the end of another panic attack with a grace I’ve come to rely upon. During the rest, I listen to blisteringly loud music and just sulk.

That night, I eventually gain the courage to go to a women’s poetry night. My partner tells the room, “this poem is for that beautiful girl sitting right there,” and she points at my blushing face. I sit there and think about the future.

Riding my bike on the way home, the freshly cold autumn air whisks my hair around. A cat tries to run across the busy road but never makes it. I scream out loud when she is hit by a car going forty miles per hour.

***

We get home and the soft, warm tickling fur of our own cats has never been so important. She purrs while I make a mental list of the things that keep me alive:

  • sex work
  • public assistance
  • sentimental hardcore records
  • tinctures full of herbs prepared by my friends
  • a blank notebook
  • other people’s melodramatic poetry (I can write only prose)
  • my queer family.

Not all of these are worth living for, but nevertheless each contributes something to keeping me on this earth.

These days, a dog bark can send me into emotional shock. The slightest heartbreak will throw me into an altered, dangerous state. I lament every moment that I spend curled up in a ball on the couch or on the floor or under the sheets; the moments I stare off into space and speak nonsense out loud; the moments when I feel nothing except my skin go cold.

Sometimes I worry that sounds and feelings could kill me before a transphobe even has the chance.

There is only one thing worse than this feeling: Feeling the same way while hungry. I can’t fix the whole world. I can’t even stop the anxiety that keeps me from leaving my house after dark. But I can apply for food stamps.

***

This is how I learned an important lesson: survival is not past-tense. It’s not something that a steady paycheck or a lifetime of struggle (against poverty, against the dominant social order) can put behind me. It is something on-going, it is in my heart and soul and flesh and tears.

It is the mornings I wake up and am not myself, the times I fight for control of my own body against some ineffable thing that tries to posses it. It is the moments when I laugh until my ribs hurt even though I don’t know why I started laughing. It is the family I lost and the one I will someday build.

We are impressionable creatures. We are touched, scared, and transformed by every decision we ever make. Every thing that is ever said to us changes us. Every violence done to us, every word we write and every embrace we share creates us. Our history is always with our present.

I am not a survivor because of something that happened to me, something that I did and am finished with. Surviving is what I do, and therefore it is who I am.

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