Julisa Abad was was never kicked out of her home. She was never in the child welfare system. But her dad stopped talking to her years ago. We spoke to her and her friend, Ashley Avery, as part of our Family Values documentary about the ways in which family rejection and acceptance impacts health outcomes for LGBTQ youth.
“To this day, I still don’t think he knows what transgender means,” Julisa Abad explained, sitting in her modest apartment in Detroit. “To him, I’m just gay, and that was not something that we discussed and if you discuss, 'I’m going to beat the gay out of you.' I have not spoken to my dad since I was 15. I’m 31.”
Abad says she always felt love from her mom. But at the same time, when she wanted to transition, from male to female, at age 15, her mom said no. "Wait until you’re 18," she said.
“In the beginning it was hard for her to accept it," Abad said. "I had a younger sibling, so it would always be like, 'OK, love you, but don’t do that if your little brother is around,' or, 'Tone that down, 'cause I don’t want him to be confused,' or, 'I don’t want him to ask questions on why his brother paints her nails, has long nails and looks like a girl.' So yeah, you love me, but at the same time, I felt like there was sometimes where I had to stifle myself and take away from me just to make other people comfortable."
So Abad left her home in Florida when she was 17, and struck out on her own. Five years ago, she moved to Detroit, and since then she’s become one of most outspoken advocates for transgender issues in the area.
Sitting next to Abad in her living room is Ashley Avery, a transgender woman who refers to Julisa as her “mom.”
“In the gay world, you have your 'gay family.' You have your mom, your brother, your sister, your cousin, your dad. You make your own family out of the streets,” said Avery.
Abad and Avery became close after landing jobs at a local non-profit. Avery no longer works there, but Abad does. Only part time, though, and for minimum wage.
“I am very grateful for the employment that I have, but working part-time at only 20 hours at minimum wage, unfortunately, is not conducive to be able to live,” said Abad.
Between living in one of the poorest cities in the country, and being transgender, it’s been extraordinarily difficult for both of them to find steady work. According to a study from a few years ago, joblessness among transgender people was at 14%, double the national average at the time.
“People always say this is the life that we chose. I didn’t choose this,” Abad said. “At six years old, I knew that something was different. I just didn’t know how to articulate it.
"If we as a community are open-minded and are logical about a lot of situations, you would clearly know that I am not going to pick to put myself in danger when I leave the house every day, just because I want to live my authentic self. You have to worry about having bottles thrown at you. We don’t get respect from police. Who in their right mind would want to pick that for themselves?
"If there was some magic pill that I could swallow to where I would be what society deems as normal, I would have popped those pills a long time ago, just like I’m popping the hormones that I pop every day to live my true, authentic self.”
On a Thursday night, Abad and Avery drive around Palmer Park, near Six Mile and Woodward in Detroit. It’s a site where both woman have done what they refer to as “survival sex work.”
“I want it to be where my transgender sisters on Six and Woodward, there will be a point in time where you’re out there because you’re just freaky and that’s what you feel like doing for the night, not because you don’t have a choice and that is what you have to do in order to survive,” said Abad.
According to The Detroit Metro Times, in the last four years, seven transgender or gender-nonconforming people have been killed in Detroit, and all of them were involved in sex work.
“In the summertime, when the weather’s really good, they’ll slow creep.” explained Abad as she peers out the car window. “They’ll drive by when you’re standing on the corner and throw a bottle and keep it moving. They know the police aren’t stopping, so now you have to stand there with your girls and hope that they’ll just throw the bottle and keep it moving, as opposed to get out the car and now you have to fight grown men. And let’s not play pretend, everybody in Detroit has a weapon.”
When asked how she protects herself, Avery said, “I have a couple of weapons. I’m not going to mention what I have. I pray. Before I go to the stroll, I just watch my back.”
Julisa Abad's is on twitter @Julisa_abad