Queen of the Night: A Latina Advocacy Worker Fights To Destigmatize a Community & Its Identity
Warning: explicit language and graphic content
11:30 p.m. Many cars on a balmy summer Monday night in Chicago have the windows down. And coming out of car radios? In Pilsen, it’s norteño music. It’s hip- hop. It’s where I meet Reyna Ortiz before she goes off to work. We make our way to a doughnut shop a few miles east not far from the lakeshore to the South Loop to get coffee before her work begins.
Ortiz tells me she’s already put in a 12 hour day as an outreach worker, meeting with people who are transitioning. They have questions about everything from hormones to housing. Tonight’s once-a-week extension of her job is about 20% of Ortiz’s outreach work. It takes place on “the stroll” on Chicago’s south side. Ortiz says reaching out to young trans women with information she wished she had when she was younger is so important.
“We’ve gone through a spectacular life, good or bad,” says Ortiz, 37. “But only a chosen few want to pass on our experiences to other girls and do the work and talk and teach.” That work, and Reyna’s life story, intersect with fear, frustration and the hope for change.
Ortiz’s dark eyes match her long black hair, which is straight and shiny. Her skin is dewy and spotless. She credits lemon water she carries with her all the time. Ortiz says growing up, she knew she wasn’t a boy.
“My childhood was really kind of sweet. My parents never treated me different because I didn’t really know I was different,” says Ortiz whose mother and father are of Mexican and Puerto Rican descent. As her brothers were signed up for baseball and basketball, Ortiz took salsa classes. “My mother never made me feel bad about being an effeminate boy. She never questioned it.”
The negative experiences began when Ortiz went to elementary school. “The snickering. (People saying) you’re not a girl, you’re a boy!” Ortiz says. Her first sexual experience was with another teenage boy. Ortiz was 13, he was 15. Despite the bullying Ortiz was approached by other guys in the neighborhood.
“Boys would be like ‘suck my dick, suck my dick’ wherever I’d go. As teen, I was like ‘wow everybody must like me. I must be a beautiful woman.’ That’s how I perceived all that sexual energy,” says Ortiz. She says they validated her femininity, but she had to keep it a secret.
“I couldn’t say shit because they were going to fucking kill me. Or I could’ve gotten my ass whipped. And their friends are going to beat the shit out of me so I just shut up. I never said a word,” says Ortiz.
Going into high school, she was known as ‘Gay Ray’ and the insults continued. But Ortiz developed a new strategy to block out the negative.
“I said to myself ‘you are going to make friends with the most beautiful girls in the school, you’re going to befriend them and tell them how stunning they are,” says Ortiz. “And it was like a magnet. I was a beautiful, feminine androgynous boy in a time where that shit was not popular.” Ortiz started growing out her hair, wearing stylish platforms and the bell bottoms. Capping off her final year at Morton East in Cicero was being crowned prom queen.
“Everybody went crazy, erupting into applause,” says Ortiz, who remembers that the prom king not wanting to share his first dance to the person being called Ray, but other boys stepped up and did. “My friends were in (happy) tears.”
High schoolers typically spend their teen years figuring out what they want to be when they grow up. Many start looking for a university to continue their studies for a future career. For Ortiz, this time was all about figuring out who she was and how to fully transition. At 18, Ortiz met for the first time a trans woman named Miss Kitty.
“She said you need to take hormones, you need to do this, you need to do that. Mind you my family was so poor, I couldn’t even imagine. But at least I got an understanding,” says Ortiz. “I wanted to be a woman. It was my absolute obsession. For me it was like a masters degree. I didn’t envision myself any other way. ”
Ortiz pushed back when others suggested she seek a career in the fashion or beauty industry. “Nobody ever said maybe you should take your pre-recs (requirements) and find out later on what you like,” says Ortiz. “I’m like bitch no! They just put you in this one thing just because you’re trans, that you’re just capable of one thing.”
After high school, Ortiz worked various jobs as a cashier, giving some of the money to her mother. By this time Ortiz’s parents were divorced and she felt the need to help, while at the same time saving for a physical transition.
The idea of paying for laser hair removal and implants seemed distant. While working at a bank Ortiz says trouble began that would change everything. Ortiz says she was involved in a theft and was arrested. To pay back her mother and the attorney, she needed money. Fast.
“I found myself unemployed and fighting the case. I was sitting with the girls and we had a motto: when there is no solution, there is always prostitution,” says Ortiz with a laugh.
“I fell from grace and now two months later I was on the ‘ho stroll.’ The majority of the queens I hung out with were already prostitutes, escorts. So I was already understanding it. I said, I’m ready. Teach me how to do this. Where do I go? How do I make my money?”
According to the National Center for Transgender Equality, at least one in eight transgender individuals become involved in underground economies, including sex work, in order to survive. Barely in her 20’s Ortiz began her life as a sex worker, first on the north side of the city, then through back page print ads and eventually, on the internet. The advice she got from other sex workers: make sure hair was always clean and makeup was flawless; to always use condoms; and do nothing for less than $100. A slow night would yield $300. A busy one? $700 to $800. Ortiz worked a few days a week, from 12 a.m. until 6:00. It didn’t matter where.
“You were hoping to get it done in an alley, you were hoping to get it done in a car, somewhere and be done and go back on the stroll to turn another client,” says Ortiz. “The clients were just as scared as I was.” Scared of the police that is, in an area dedicated to transsexual prostitutes. Ortiz tells stories of how they were verbally and at times physically harassed. Ortiz says things were a little safer when she got off the stroll and worked out of a private residence with other girls. But she says it wasn’t enough. “I was so ashamed that my life had fallen apart so terribly.” says Ortiz. “ I committed a terrible crime and prostitution was my punishment.”
Even though she made enough to pay everyone back thousands of dollars, Ortiz still wanted to complete her transition. Ortiz was getting her hormones from other trans women, not a medical doctor. Those same people suggested she get breast augmentation surgery from a doctor in Mexico specializing in trans women. With $5000 cash Ortiz traveled to get 40DD implants.
“Even though surgery doesn’t define me as a trans person, it’s part of the process. We transition because we want to project our image of what we think womanhood is. My genitalia does not define me me as a person. I’m a trans identified woman. What I have between my legs is what I have between my legs,” says Ortiz, who is castrated (the removal of testicles to reduce testosterone in the system) but still has a penis. “In sex work, a lot of clients want you if you have your dick. A lot of clients don’t want you if you had a sex change. It’s the balance between the masculine and the feminine. We can be both.”
The idea of getting a full sex change doesn’t interest Ortiz, who says some girls get a lot of work done in an attempt to erase their pasts, which may have included abandonment, ridicule or abuse.
“A lot of girls, when they get to a level of transition in their lives and they realize it doesn’t change anything, you’re still going to be trans, you’re still going to be discriminated against. That’s when the depression hits. The first step is being comfortable enough to call yourself a transsexual in this fucking world. You have to be comfortable.”
I ask Reyna how comfortable she is.
“I’m like 85% comfortable and I love myself. 15% of the time, I’m nervous, scared and vulnerable,” says Ortiz. “It’s like being the only Latina and you’re in this all white, pretty kind of place and you’re out of place. You’re the oddity. And that’s how it is when you’re trans.”
Coming soon, Part 2 of Reyna's story and how her night on "the stroll" evolved, including an encounter with the Chicago Police Department.
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