Vanessa: "We all leave a legacy, no matter how big or small."

Vanessa: "We all leave a legacy, no matter how big or small."
Vanessa for The Girls Book issue 01 (photography by Texas Isaiah)

Vanessa has always stayed true to herself, even if that cost her everything. The Perris, California native started transitioning early because if she was going to die - based on the statistics on trans women of color - she would die herself. Fortunately, Vanessa hasn't died yet. She's taken all her struggles, from homelessness to sexual assault, and transformed her life into gold. Now, she's the one that younger trans girls are inspired by. She's leaving a legacy of authenticity and tenacity. To close out issue 01 of The Girls Book, we chatted with Vanessa about taking birth control pills at 14, working with America's Next Top Model, and why we should be dating our friends. Read our chat below.

Kai: Can you tell us a little about who you are, how you identify, and anything else you want to share with our readers?

Vanessa: My name is Vanessa. My pronouns are she/her. I am an empowered trans woman of color with a multitude of ethnicities. I’m a fashion girl, model, and actress. I went to school at FIDM for fashion design and costume design, and I’m currently there again for my bachelor’s in business. I used to do more community organizing programs for nonprofits, creating trans healthcare programs that provide hormones or support groups.

I was also part of an initiative a few years ago called Midnight Stroll. We would go into homeless encampments in Hollywood and provide resources directly to trans and LGBTQ folks seeking services, but wouldn't have the capacity or accessibility to get them directly.

Kai: A jill of all trades, if you will. I would love to know how you fell into community and activist work. It’s incredible to see someone doing actual boots-on-the-ground efforts.

Vanessa: I started my transition at 14 and came out to my parents closer to 15. And throughout my transition, I've always had to advocate for myself. Where I come from is a small town called Perris, California, and a lot things weren't accessible or existed for trans folks. But at the time, they had just passed laws that trans-identified students have rights essentially. When I had transitioned, I had to advocate for the right to wear the girls' uniform as a cheerleader, and as a swimmer. I was also on the track team and ASB. I was involved with my school despite having a love-hate relationship with it. I was thrown an orange to my face, and the school did nothing. I had to go to the hospital.

But my senior year, I was crowned winter formal queen.

Once I moved to Los Angeles to pursue my fashion design career at FIDM, I wanted to reinvent myself. I changed my name. I didn't disclose that I was trans. I was trying to live a normal passing life. In that process, I made a lot of friends, but I found myself really lonely because I wasn't able, to be honest, and I had to lie. I had to carry tampons in my purse and say that for my period.

I was in situations where we would go to college parties. I'd meet guys, and you do what college girls do. Then, I would have to bounce before anything happened because I wasn't going to disclose and be outed right in front of my friend groups. One time that did happen. It was embarrassing. I essentially came out to my friends, and they were really receptive at the time.

That's what sparked my wanting to disclose. At that time, I had built such a lie about being a woman or not being trans. I felt so depressed because I wasn't being able to be authentic. I was denying the truth of what gave me part of my sparkle or what made me magical. Despite going to college and being a good person, wanting to be wifey material or girlfriend material, the world still saw me as a trans person or as a freak.

One day I did a presentation for my effective speaking class, and my topic was trans people. We were asked to bring a live representation and so after I presented I did a full-on spin and was like, “I am transgender.”

Kai: Yes.

Vanessa: Awkward as fu*k. I outed myself, and people were shocked. The guy I had a crush on looked at me like, what the fu*k? But it was fine. It was a relief for me to come out, and from then on, people were aware of who I was.

I wasn’t the only trans person there, but it’s hard to miss a tall, tan girl with long, curly hair down to her butt. I used to go to a lot of internships being a dresser for fashion shows. I worked with some of America’s Next Top Model designers or Paramount fashion shows.

After graduating college and going into the fashion world as an assistant designer I experienced one of many traumatic experiences of sexual assault. I told my employer at the time what had happened to me, and they essentially told me not to return to work. I told them no, I need to work. I went to work, and they told me to go home and that they would let me know where there was work. They fired me without technically firing me to avoid a lawsuit. During that time, I was lost.

Throughout high school, college, and even my professional life, I had a lot of internalized transphobia. I would clock other trans women to my friends to detract from myself. It was a hate-fueled mindset. I was doing that to people in my community, and others were doing that to me. When I moved to LA, I had gone to a lot of support groups.

Through these programs, I was doing internships to provide HIV education and awareness to other trans folks. I did a leadership program that got me a job working for The Wall-Las Memorias Project. I built an entire trans program there from nothing. We got funding from the county to create Transcending Systems, a program to build leadership amongst the trans community, educating them on our trans history, and providing professional skills, tools, and how to advocate and speak in public settings.

From there, I went to the Trans Wellness Center and was involved in counseling and connecting girls to support for mental health and hormones.

I'm on the LA Pride Board of Directors. A lot of the trans programming is because of the work that other trans members and I have done to ensure visibility and accessibility to the festival.

Vanessa posing on LA rooftop
Vanessa for The Girls Book issue 01 (photography by Texas Isaiah)

Kai: What a preview into your life. So many good things. Did you have people that you looked to as you were growing up?

Vanessa: I was the only one that had transitioned publicly in my hometown. I grew up with the majority of my high school classmates since I was like five, seven-ish. There was only one person that I knew was trans in my town, and she was the cousin to a girl in my high school named Valerie. Me and Valerie were not cool.

Outside of that, my role models were Maria Roman, who I saw on the Tyra Banks show and on Trantasia back in the day, which was a televised beauty pageant in Las Vegas. Even historical figures like the Danish girl. She was the first trans woman to get a sex change and uterus transplant, and then later passed because of complications.

A lot of my role models were women, trans women that I found through Google. That’s all I had. In sixth grade, I started Googling “I’m a girl trapped in a boy’s body.” And then the word trans came up. Doing more research and watching a show called Taboo, I realized that’s what I am. And I’ve always felt this way.

I walked out of the house, not knowing if I was going to have a dad to come home to.

Kai: The girl trapped in a boy’s body is so real. I remember drawing that in my journal, but not knowing what to do with it. How was it with your family?

Vanessa: I came out as bi, and then as gay, but that didn’t fit right. I knew who I was. I remember I was watching a show that featured Kim Petras, and I wanted to be a teenage dream. I wanted to experience what it’s like just to be a normal high school girl.

And so one day, I woke up, put on my makeup, and put on my little padded sports bra that I stole from my sister's closet years ago. I watched RuPaul when they first came out, so I was like, “Okay, I'm gonna be fierce.”

My dad saw me. He was like, “what are you doing? Go back and take that stuff off.” This is all in Spanish. I said no and that I wanted to live my life. If I die tomorrow, I want to die myself. I walked out of the house, not knowing if I was going to have a dad to come home to. Even a home to come home to. They come from a Hispanic family, not super religious, but very macho. We had uncles who would say, “I would prefer my sons to be a murderer or robber than to be gay.”

When I came back home, we didn’t talk. I saw the movie A Girl Like Me on Lifetime that night. It inspired me to want to transition. If I were going to die when I was 18, like Gwen Araujo, I would die. I told my dad to watch the movie if he wants to understand me. He came into my room that night, tucked me in, and told me,” I love you. I just want you to be happy and safe.” From then on, I went full transition.

Kai: Wow. It makes me think if all of us were together in high school, that could be such an amazing experience. So many of us were the only trans person, the only queer person.

What you mentioned about you being the trailblazer for your small community and for your school, makes it so much easier for the girls and the boys who are coming up. I wish I had someone who came before me that showed me that I could be trans.

I didn't think I was gonna make it to 30. I was depressed and suicidal. Now that I’m here, I’m like, “oh shit. I have the rest of my life to live.”

How has dreaming for the future changed for you?

Vanessa: I’ve also struggled with suicidal ideation and tried to commit suicide multiple times. The majority of my twenties are filled with overdosing. The irony is that throughout high school, college, and my career, I was very into the whole D.A.R.E. thing. It took one last final attempt that landed me in jail that made me realize I need to figure something out.

After that, I got sober for four years and started therapy. Where I'm at today now, is a way different mindset than when I was 25, 26, 27. Because even through that journey of sobriety and therapy, and redefining my lived experience in the narrative, I still had my ups and downs. I still do.

But it's moments when I get people that I didn't even know that I've impacted reach out to me and say, “I watch your videos on YouTube when I was growing up.” One girl I went to a trans support group with said, “You had a talk with me, my mom, and you inspired me and motivated me to go out and become the girl I wanted to be.”

We all leave a legacy, no matter how big or small. We inspire people whether we know it or not. And if you're able to transition, you can literally do whatever you want in this life. That is what motivates me. I want to be a beacon of hope for other folks. Because I know that I'm not the only one going through things in life. I know that the people that have motivated me, who are either still here or no longer with us, are the reason why I'm here. Because they motivated me. They inspired me, and they showed me that, they were able to accomplish what they wanted.

And if they can do it, why can't I?

Vanessa posing on LA rooftop and photographed by Texas Isaiah
Vanessa for The Girls Book issue 01 (photography by Texas Isaiah)

Kai: Yeah, a hundred percent. Outside our community, there are only certain narratives around trans people, but I think the stories like yours still include the hardships and closeness with death. You came out the other end, and now you're giving back to the community. And giving these kids a possibility model to look up to because of who you are and what you went through is such an important story

Ok, switching directions a little bit. How have you navigated love and dating as a trans person? I feel like it’s way harder to date as a trans woman.

It doesn't change the fact that we're still human at the end of the day.

Vanessa: There are some men and women out there who are worthy of a trans person's love and dedication, and loyalty. But what I've learned through dating is, and the message I wish every trans girl knows, is: You are worth so much more than wanting to be so desperate for love.

Regardless of what people have told us, or what society says that we're never going to be lovable. It’s not true. It's not true because if we have friends, chosen family, or family that are blood-related, who still accept and love us, who is to say that, a man or a partner, a romantic partner, cannot love us just the same if not more?

I always tell my girlfriends that are trans, “date your friends.” We have such high standards for our friendships. We establish boundaries. We have uncomfortable conversations when our friends somehow hurt us, and we have that open dialogue, right?

We empower each other. We motivate each other. We challenge each other. "Girl, you're doing something wrong. Do better." "Okay, girl, I'm gonna do better." We do all these things for our friends. But when it comes to dating boys or dating a romantic partner, we put up with abuse, both physical and emotional.

Kai: I love your perspective on love, and it’s capacity. It just shows how we put romantic love on a pedestal. Plus, the weird relationship of these grown men who are just big babies, and we’re on the other side being moms. I didn’t sign up to be anyone’s mom.

Vanessa: A friend doesn’t get sex, money, or anything. They're investing their energy and time into someone that they genuinely love and care for because, throughout the years, we've cultivated a genuine relationship, unconditional love. Because we are deserving of that.

And so if my friends are doing all these things for me, why am I gonna now date someone that is not even giving me money to get my nails done?

Date your friends. I open the car door for my friends. When we go out to eat after hiking, either they'll spot the meal, or I'll spot it. It's always a give-and-take like that. And it's not a tit-for-tat. That is the relationship that we cultivate. If my friends do that, when I date you if you don't open the car door, if you don't bring me flowers, if you don't pay the bill, if you're not telling me you're amazing, why am I going to waste my time? Why would I waste my time on someone that is not at my level and is not treating me the way that I deserve when my friends are doing that?

Vanessa posing on LA rooftop and photographed by Texas Isaiah
Vanessa for The Girls Book issue 01 (photography by Texas Isaiah)

Kai: Things have shifted for me. I'm gonna see all my friendships differently. As you said, go that extra mile for your friends because they deserve it.

Regarding romantic partners, I’ve been with cis men, and then I recently had some experiences with trans men. That’s a whole thing because I'm like, “is it love? Or are we just affirming each other's gender?” I'm still trying to tease that part out.

Vanessa: The most beautiful part about dating someone that's trans is there is this immense instant connection. We walk a similar life path, although it's completely different because I will never know what it's like to be a trans man.

I've learned to enjoy a trans man’s body to affirm them and feel more connected. Because as someone who has trauma from sexual assault, there is also a level of empowerment being in a trans relationship versus a cis relationship.

But dating trans men has also taught me that there are also pieces of shit. I've dated trans men who have cheated on me with a cis woman or who chose a cis woman to then later regret their decision and want to come back. Someone being trans doesn't change the fact that they can still be shitty human pieces of garbage.

There are some trans men out there that are great just as there are some trans women that are shit. It doesn't change the fact that we're still human at the end of the day.

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