Voices in the Night
For young transgender runaways in Detroit, sex buys both survival and despair.
In a quadrant of Detroit near Six Mile and Woodward, which is known for gay prostitution, one crumbling, filthy motel in particular houses a number of transgender sex workers, most of them in their teens and early 20s. They have one thing in common: They all use the Ruth Ellis Center in nearby Highland Park for some type of refuge. For some, it’s their only refuge.
The Ruth Ellis Center is the only center in the Midwest dedicated to serving the physical and mental health needs of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning (LGBTQ) youth (more information at right).
The sex workers at the motel near Six Mile and Woodward have, in some ways, disappeared from the rolls, having fallen through every safety net for runaway youth. Not all are homeless now, but many are or are “couch surfing,” which is just one locked door away from homeless. Others live and work right at the hotel as prostitutes.
While this quadrant of Detroit may seem like a small corner of the city—a place where most of us will never venture—these runaways represent a significant public health challenge. Nationwide, some 1.7 million people experience at least one night of homelessness every year. Of those, an estimated 40 percent are LGBTQ. This often-overlooked population, says Ruth Ellis Center Director and SPH alumna Laura Hughes, MPH ‘04, is “very much at the intersection of race, gender, poverty, and sex.” Homeless youth who identify as LGBTQ have little access to health care and health-related resources, including prevention services. “Where do they go to get primary care or to prevent sexually transmitted diseases?” Hughes asks.
Many of the kids who work at the motel were born with male genitals, but they identify as women (and are therefore referred to as women throughout this article). When these transgender youth finally get the nerve to come out as transgender and dress as women (a double whammy), employers and even foster care providers often force them to head straight back into the closet by making them dress and act as men. They feel that the only way left for them to earn money, while at the same time staying true to their own female identity, is prostitution. Also, for some of these women, it’s the first time they’ve ever felt attractive to a member of the opposite sex. Ever.
Cars drive in past a Plexiglas money booth which sells items for criminally high markups—for example, condoms at $1.25 each. The narrow drive opens into a courtyard/parking lot with the motel rooms facing into the courtyard. At night the prostitutes stand in the lighted windows trying to lure clients.
Around 3:30 p.m., a client arrives, a professional-looking man looking out of place in a crew sweater and thick, side-parted silver hair. He heads toward a room at the end of the courtyard, where he’s greeted by one of the girls. Another worker spies him and comes out of her room to compete for him. This is a violation of etiquette, says April Summers, a street outreach worker for the Ruth Ellis Center. Summers keeps an eye on as many of the girls as she can. She routinely visits, bringing food, condoms, safe-sex kits—anything that will help make their very lonely, dangerous existence more livable.
Below are profiles of five gay black males who identify as women. Those who can afford it take female hormones, and all dress full-time as women. They all use the motel as a home base for prostitution. All of them hate the life, and all of them feel helpless and trapped into staying.
“I hate it. I hate it. I want to be a girl but I hate prostituting,” says Donna, 22, of Detroit, who’s been at the motel for two months. Her voice is the kind of hopelessness for which there’s no response.
Donna’s situation is particularly difficult because she dropped out of high school, so even if she weren’t dressing as a woman it would be impossible to find employment without a diploma, she says.
“I have to find someone who will accept me for who I am and give me a job,” she says. “I was an effeminate gay boy and had plenty of jobs, but as soon as you put the hair and the makeup on it’s like … the only place that will hire someone like that is a hair salon, and not everyone can work there.”
Donna came out at 15. Her dad was hostile, and despite her mother’s support, Donna ran away at 16 and started dressing as a woman. Without a job or money, she began stealing. She bounced between Flint and Detroit, then settled permanently in Detroit. At some point she began making money by placing ads for sex on the Internet or in the Metro Times and dressing as a woman full-time.
“It started like that,” she says of the ads. “And then everybody knows about Six Mile and Woodward”—the quadrant known for gay prostitution.
“At the beginning of the month you can make up to $800 (a night) but then it slows down,” as the pay checks dry up, Donna says. But it’s dangerous work, and her stress and anxiety make her appear egg-shell frail. “I worry every day about my health. I actually have clients try to pay me not to use a condom.”
The rooms in the hotel are horrible, Donna says. None of the girls can have company unless it’s a client, the heat hardly works, the rooms are filthy and don’t have mirrors.
During the day Donna wakes around 10 a.m. and leaves the motel until 8 p.m. or so, when she starts working again.
“I’ll be here the rest of the night, or walking around,” she says. On a decent night she might be up all night, seeing five to ten clients. “You work until you can’t take it or you feel like you’ve made enough,” she says.
At 27, Kelly, of Detroit, says she had a solid family and church upbringing. “I got started (prostituting) late,” she says. “Growing up I did kid things. I had a mother and father who loved me dearly.” She kept a 3.2 grade point, sang in choir, played three sports.
“I’m very intelligent,” she says matter-of-factly. In the beginning, prostitution was fun: Money, parties, men liking her for the first time, being surrounded by others like her. But “the life I thought I wanted to be a part of has now become a way of life.” And she hates it.
Says Kelly: “I lost a lot.” She’s hoping to save for an apartment because “stability is key.”
Like all the girls, her earliest memories are of questions and confusion, denial and rejection. Why do I feel like a girl when I have boy genitals? Am I the only one like this? Why do I want soft skin, feminine clothes?
“I knew I felt different,” says Kelly, who at 6’2” isn’t “passable” like some of the others, though her face is soft and feminine. Like all the girls, she lights up at any compliment about her womanhood or femininity.
“I knew I wanted to be a girl, but being raised in the church, I tried to make myself believe that things would change.” Things did change—they got worse.
As a boy, she was effeminate and teased constantly. “I wanted to be a cheerleader but they didn’t have a place for me.” Her dad forced her to play high school football, and she became a coach.
Miserable, she graduated from Detroit’s McKinley High School and attended college in South Dakota, as a man, on a football and cheerleading scholarship. Word got out she was sleeping with her male teammates and all hell broke loose, so she transferred to a university in Chicago.
There her eyes opened: Transvestites and drag queens paraded openly, and she tried it. Dressing and acting as a woman was a liberation.
“Finally how I acted, my feelings and emotions and how I carried myself, matched up with how I felt,” she recalls, her face shining. “I kinda went stone cold crazy.”
Now revulsion has replaced the thrill, but she believes it’s the only employment open to her. She starts her shift at 6 or 7 p.m., and her quota is $200 a night. Kelly glances at the window; the slice of sky visible from the room has started to dim. It’s almost time to go to work. The manager comes and orders the shades down—he says he doesn’t want anyone driving through to know what happens in the rooms.
Everything about Kim, 19, is quiet and reserved and controlled. She’s petite and feminine. It’s obvious she’s been “moaning”—taking hormones either from a doctor or purchased on the street— for a while.
Kim was born and raised in Detroit and has been on her own since about age 13, when she “really became flamboyant.” Like the rest, she didn’t have much choice. Neither her stepfather nor her real father—who had just gotten out of prison—could handle her sexuality, so she left home. She says she met some folks from Saginaw on the Internet through a chat room aimed at gay blacks. They drove to get her, and she stayed at one of their homes for a while, learning about the gay life.
After a couple months she returned to Detroit and put herself back in school. “Education is key,” says Kim firmly. She says she’s in school during the day and works at night.
“When I wake up I have to be ready to hit the streets to make enough money to survive,” she says. Clients can be anyone—married, professional, white, black, male, female—but there’s one constant: When any of the girls picks up a client, there’s the constant terror of how that client will react when they find out she has male genitals, Kim says. Even though this part of Detroit is known for gay sex, you cannot assume clients know that under the female hair and makeup is male anatomy. Kim says she is feminine and petite enough to be able to undress in front of a man without him knowing. “I get in and I get out.”
“It’s all about the money,” says Kim. “Our main focus is to get the money.”
Kim doesn’t live at the motel but rents a place outside Detroit. She says she can make a few thousand a week. Some of her family knows, and some don’t. When she was about 17, Kim started to reunite with her family. She wound up in the hospital one night, and her mom turned up at her side, seeing her for the first time as a girl, Kim chuckles.
“My mother told me no one would ever love you like your mother.” Kim told her mother she didn’t want to go back “out there” to prostituting, and her mother invited her home. It lasted two months before the fighting with her mother got so bad Kim left again. They love each other, but can’t live together.
“I went straight to Woodward and got me some deals and got me a room,” she recalls. You develop a sixth sense, but not armor. Once she got into a car, and a man crawled out from the back seat, clocked her in the head, and robbed her of at least $600, plus a new purse. “It’s not my type of life,” Kim says. “I was raised in a nice home, in a nice environment.”
Her rent is $650 a month, plus the $45 she has to give the motel per night, which comes to about $900 a month on top of the $650. Her car is broken, so she takes a cab to the motel. She hopes to become an accountant one day.
Karyn, 21, hasn’t seen her extended family since she began her life as a girl four years ago. She came out at 14 and stayed at home, though the situation wasn’t great. “My mother didn’t put me out, but she never let me go anywhere,” she says.
Karyn spent time at Palmer Park, which was like a “little gay park,” she recalls. She moved out at 18 and met and befriended an older transgender girl. Karyn says she was staying at a Motel Six on 14 and John R when the woman insisted on doing her hair and makeup.
When they’d finished, Karyn looked in the mirror and felt as if she’d finally come home. “I felt like a different person. I thought, what am I supposed to do now? Where can I go, what can I say?”
Where they went was out on the strip to pick up clients, but Karyn had no idea what she was in for. The girl gave her a few quick instructions, then left.
“A man pulled up on me and said ‘I’ve got $60, what’s your name?’” She gave him the first female name that came to her. “I got in. I kind of knew that I was going to be OK. Now when I think about it, it’s scary,” Karyn says. “I’ve been out of town and everything.” In fact, Karyn is planning to leave soon for a few weeks to make enough money to save for an apartment. Traveling to other cities is a good way to make money fast, if you know someone with a car, Karyn says. “You go where they haven’t seen you, and you are the new face.”
Unlike many of the girls, she has a great relationship with her mother, and they talk daily. Rarely do any of the girls mention fathers, including Karyn.
Her dream? Social work, some kind of mentoring. Like all of them, her dream is anything but this. Yet Karyn hasn’t graduated from high school either, and it seems that prostituting is a sure way to make money in the foreseeable future.
She desperately wants to avoid “old-timer” status. “I don’t want to be one of the girls who the younger girls come to ask, ‘Where do I go to make the most money?’”
“I think there’s something about us in a dress—they just say, ‘I don’t want that in my house,’” says Danielle, 25, whose mother caught her sneaking into the house in girls’ clothes one night in 2002. Danielle left the next day and moved to Southfield with her best friend and another woman, who took Danielle under her wing. Danielle quit her job as a janitor and started prostituting. She didn’t speak to her mother for two years.
“I was so surprised,” says Danielle, who assumed her mother would understand, because Danielle was already so feminine. “I’d wanted to be a girl since I was in third grade.” She is very feminine and pays for hormones.
Danielle was still in high school when she started prostituting.
“I was so scared, I would try to basically follow what the other girls were doing but once you get approached, it’s up to you. You go with your instincts. Then after so long you learn the ropes.”
She too hates the life. “When I first started coming out, I didn’t go home with less than $300. They didn’t tell me it wasn’t going to last. I don’t want to be a prostitute for the rest of my life,” says Danielle, who says she once attended what is now the College for Creative Studies. “Eventually I want to have my own fashion company—that and do makeup. I love to do makeup.”
She reconnected with her family when a sibling called and invited Danielle to a holiday dinner, and she went. She and her mother chatted as if nothing had happened. That’s how it happens sometimes, love overrules pride and disappointment.
She doesn’t like it. “It’s always a possibility I’ll end up in jail,” Danielle says. “I didn’t even want to tell her, but I’ve seen so much bad stuff happen to girls where they couldn’t even identify the body. If anything were to happen to me, I don’t want her to be surprised.”
By Laura Bailey
A Refuge from the Streets
Laura Hughes, MPH ’04, executive director of the Ruth Ellis Center, says she knows you can teach safe-sex interventions all day long, but if a kid is broke and starving, they won’t wear a condom if it means they’ll earn more money without one.
Sometimes it takes working in the trenches to understand the gulf between health and behavior theory and gritty reality, says Hughes, who took the executive director position in August 2009. In some ways the job couldn’t be further from where she thought she’d end up. In other ways, it is the essence of public health and defines why she entered the field.
Ruth Ellis is the only center in the Midwest dedicated to serving the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning (LGBTQ) youth population. Named for the late Ruth Ellis—a Detroit resident who opened her home as a safe space for the city’s gay African-American community—the center runs three programs: Street outreach and a drop-in center for kids 14–24, and two residential programs. Nationally, 40 percent of the nation’s runaway or homeless youth identify as LGBTQ, and the center estimates that 800 homeless LGBTQ youth are struggling to survive in Detroit daily.
Anecdotally, about half the kids served at Ruth Ellis are HIV-positive, and 97 percent are black, hailing mainly from Detroit, Highland Park, or surrounding areas. Hughes and her staff provide AIDS-awareness and HIV-prevention programs and help HIV-positive kids get treatment and navigate the health system. Hughes says it’s a powerful experience “working with our youth, meeting them where they are at and working to improve their health outcomes.”
Her job is not an easy one, and it’s made tougher by program cuts. The need is overwhelming—11,000 requests for assistance in 2008 on a $900,000 budget. Despite strong support from several large donors in the community, the center must raise $300,000 annually for the drop-in program alone—the lifeblood of the center. Drop-in provides meals, computers, recreation space, counseling, clothing (including interview suits), small housewares, showers, safe-sex kits, and other necessities. The goal is for kids to make contact with staff through drop-in, and then transition off the streets and into a residential facility or program, with Ruth Ellis or a referred program that staffers know understands LGBTQ issues.
Hughes counts her experience at SPH among the best in her life, and keeps close contact with her graduating class. The difference now is that her academic-heavy world view has veered toward the pragmatic. “If you don’t have a place to stay,” she says, “it’s going to have an impact on the decisions you make, and no health behavior theory is going to change that.”