Words by Ceyenne Doroshow (as told to WilliOW Defebaugh)
PHOTOGRAPHS BY KRISTIN POWELL
As the founder and executive director of GLITS—that’s Gays and Lesbians Living in a Transgender Society—Ceyenne Doroshow is here to bring sustainable and holistic care to LGBTQ sex workers through community empowerment, stable housing, health care, education, and advocacy. As a mother, she’s here to embrace you.
It’s a lot of pressure to be a mother to a whole community. I’m a no-bullshit kind of person. I embrace all; I don’t have any hang-ups about where you come from. What I care about is: How do we make this world a better place so this shit stops, when most of the focus is on this horrible person we have leading us? What we’re watching is the rebirth of rednecks, the rebirth of hate crimes, the rebirth of so much shit that people are missing the larger point.
The part that people are missing is that not only are our children being murdered—actual babies being caught in the crossfires of life—but parents are being caught, too. There’s a disconnect happening when it comes to parenting, and this is where some of this hate comes from. Some of this starts with the head and neck, and it goes all the way down. There are generations of hate still perpetuated into society. We have to change that. We’re a nonviolent group of people, but we’ve had to suffer so much violence.
The masculine dominance in our world has created a lot of this hate, a lot of the reasons why trans women are being murdered. It’s the leadership of a nation that needs to change all the way around. People were so scared that Hillary Clinton would become president because she’s a lady—not because she could get the work done, because she’s a lady. I really wish—and I swear to God—I wish Oprah would use her power to be president because I think we would have something good there. Michelle Obama could damn well run this country with a clear mind and class and dignity.
Being a mom and embracing everybody is what this is about. I’ve done two marches during the pandemic, and I’ve had so many people around me try to shelter me from everybody. And to be honest, I don’t know how not to hug everybody, especially when they’re queer babies that want to hug me. I’m going to hug them. I know they could kill me, but that’s what all this comes down to: embracing and touching people when they need it. Sometimes you can change someone’s path just by touching it. That’s how powerful life is.
You never know if that connection to that human that wanted to hug you might change their life. The same thing goes when I go to schools and colleges: I don’t want to just be there for that one class to teach them about human sexuality and gender identity; I want to follow them. I want them to know that they can always count on me. I also want them to look to becoming lawyers and doctors and judges, especially if they’re trans or queer. We need our community to do exactly what I’m doing: embracing it all.
Being a mom is scary. It’s a deep breath and a lot of sighs and sometimes a lot of tears, but there’s joy on the other side. And that’s something that I got from my own mom. I can’t speak for everybody else, but for me, I can talk about the humanity that I got. My mom and I were good throughout my younger teenage years, till about 20-something—then we were bad. Gender identity back then wasn’t something that was discussed. Do I think my parents loved me? Yes. Do I think they knew how to love me being transgender? No. They didn’t have a tool for that. But it was clear at an early age, I was just not a boy. I was this force as a child, and it spilled over into adulthood.
So, I would say that before I was trans, I was a lady. Before I got the word trans, I was taught to be a lady, even though they didn’t see it. These things that I got—the feeling that I’ve gotten was from my mom being an educator, having a whole community love her, that trickled down to me. And now, I have a family of my own, and I need to mother them and be here for them. Till the day I die, I’m here for them.
I’ve had many mothers: Flawless Sabrina, who was brave enough to go and to have conversations with my mom, was one of them. To have those two in a room in the early years, and then to have them in a room before Sabrina had died, having tea, eating, and having cocktails, talking about the progression of my life, that was full circle.
I met Flawless Sabrina at Bentley’s nightclub. I saw this old white woman with the most perfect silver bob I had ever seen on the dance floor, swinging and carrying. I was like, “Who is this old queen?” And she danced for about four hours straight. But I noticed that all the people in the club were gravitating around this woman. At the end of the night, she came to me and my girlfriend Ronnie and she said, “What do we do after this?”
We went back to Ronnie’s house, we got high, we drank, we partied until about six in the morning. She says, “So, listen, I want you all to get dressed, you’re going to come to my house.” I still knew nothing about Flawless, other than that her name was Jack. She says, “You’re going to come to my house. I have an international call that I have to be on. And it’s at eight o’clock in the morning.” So, we went to her house.
When we got there, I knew I landed right. I landed in the right place at the right time. And when she got off the call, the first thing we addressed was all the white hair on the floor, because we were high, and we were like, “Where is all this white hair coming from?” She said, “Oh, it’s from my wigs.” Then I said, “Wigs?” And—remember I said her bob was perfect? She started ripping it off her head. One thing a lot of people don’t know is that she cement glued all her hair pieces to her head. Every baby hair, all of it was cement glue. That way she could spend the whole night swinging it. When she went to take it off, I thought I was going to faint. And she was like, “No, no, no, I just rip it out, and then I clean it off, and I wash it, and I hang it. Go look in the bathroom.” And she had all this hair hanging there. I was stunned. And then she said, “So, what’s your deal?” I told her, “Well, I’m going to run away.” And she said, “Then we need to fix it. You have to go back home.” So I said, “I don’t think that’s going to work.” She said, “What you’re going to do is get a good night’s sleep. And in the morning, I’m going to call your mom.” And that was scary.
I thought my mom was going to shoot me, but they had a conversation about gender identity. My mom did let me back in the house. It did not work. I was only there for a couple of weeks, and it was back to being called faggot and shit like that. And there was no way to stop it. And I didn’t know how to turn it off. Gender identity is not something you turn off.
I had gotten to the point of not being able to hide it anymore, nor did I want to hide it. And I couldn’t give a damn what anybody thought. It was time. It was either that or commit suicide. I chose to live. I chose to fight for myself, and if that meant being homeless, then God damn it, I’ll be homeless. That’s partially why Flawless took me home: because she didn’t want me on the streets. But as life would have it, I wound up on the streets again, and again, and again.
I became part of the nightlife scene. I lived in the Chelsea Hotel for about two weeks. I saw Debbie Harry, Susanne Bartsch. I saw all the party kids in the beginning stages of party kids. And I was blessed to be in that company because these were the people that told me, “There’s another way. Turn to your community at this time in your life.” And it helped. Oh my God, it changed my life, but it changed my views and my fears of being around the wrong company, because they were guiding me away from the whole ballroom scene and all of that. It wasn’t sustainable, so they didn’t want me involved.
It’s nothing against the ballroom scene; I just needed sustainability. My queerness was different, because I had middle-class parents. There was a lot I didn’t know, so I was vulnerable when I was homeless. I was in Covenant House for a little while and all the places where queer kids were all worrying about the wrong things and not worrying about going back to school. But I had Flawless telling me, “No, you will go, because I will go to your school and embarrass you. Back to school until you’re finished.” It was because of somebody like Flawless that said, “No, this is unacceptable.”
When I got my first job, I was still going through stuff. I was going through addiction and everything, and Flawless said, “I’m going to give you a retreat. You need to heal.” And she sent me to the person that gave Michael Jackson massages and healing ceremonies. I spent the night there, and then was up at Flawless’s mom’s house in Nyack, where I slept for what seemed like 48 hours. My body was tired, my mind was tired, my spirit was tired. And Flawless was with me and just took care of me, and I detoxed and all of that. Her mom rubbed my head, wiped my face, gave me pajamas. That’s family: when people take you in and not only give you the encouragement to be a better person but shelter you. I had a fever, I went through the shakes and everything. My addiction was crack by then. I went through it, and I came out on the other side clear. I was foggy going all the way up to Nyack. And two days later, I had a purpose. And four days after that, I applied for a job at the Human Resources Administration for a shelter and became an institutional aide. I went from being homeless and in a shelter to actually becoming an aide in a shelter. So, I knew I was on the right path for helping people at a very young age. I knew I was going to start somewhere.
I want them to know that they can always count on me. I also want them to look to becoming lawyers and doctors and judges, especially if they’re trans or queer. We need our community to do exactly what I’m doing: embracing it all.
Hiding my gender identity was the biggest challenge I faced in starting my job. When I passed my evaluation, I decided to transition because I knew I could get fired, but I had wanted to pass my evaluation first. So then, I went to work fully transitioned. And my boss came downstairs, looked at me, called me to the office, and said, “I knew it was something. I knew you were not comfortable in your skin. Why didn’t you tell me?” I said, “Because I didn’t want to be fired.” And he said, “Okay, go back to your post. But you should let everyone here know that this is you.”
It was challenging because my first job as an institutional aide was as a bathroom monitor, which I always felt uneasy about—but I never looked at the guys’ junk. I never looked at their privates. I was around hundreds of men in a bathroom for 12 hours a day and respected all of them. So, the fact that I transitioned—some of them were a little weirded out, but the ones that were not weirded out, they hopped right on the ones that were weirded out and told them, “No, no, no. Think about it, she did not disrespect us. So, you don’t get to do it either.”
That changed my life to have these other homeless people step up and step out for me. My transition became so easy. It was okay for me to let them know that my name was not Edward Morales. I could actually use my real name. And that was something I had to work out with the HR department. Because I was trying to hide from my father by having this alter ego that I was fully prepared for. She had a social security card and everything. It was okay to live in my truth and no longer live in fear of my dad, because I never had to go home. I had earned my respect and a paycheck. So, I had a home.
And thank God, I have had a home now for almost 40 years. I have been independently trans, living on my own, not relying on anybody but myself. It feels good, but it’s come with some hard knocks. Having landlords when you’re transgender is fucking hell. It’s horrible. Having to share your gender identity with somebody that didn’t understand what they were getting in the beginning—they’re able to use that against you. “Oh, you lied to me. I didn’t know that this was what I was getting in my building.” So, the next thing you know, you’re in court. And anything the landlord says can actually be taken seriously.
Fast-forward a few years. GLITS came to be because a young woman from Uganda asked if I could help her. She was being hunted. She was put in a paper in Uganda called the Red Pepper. I got proof that this was actually going on: I got a screenshot of the actual newspaper. I immediately jumped into saving her. She’s here in America now, she’s thriving. She’s gone to school to be a nurse practitioner. And that’s what we want.
She went from survival sex work and running for her life. That started GLITS. That gave me the chance to not only help her but also her friends and people from all around the world. They called me and said, “I need help.” And I’ve traveled a lot and embraced so many people from so many countries with that one tool: being able to help. Even if I come back home, I have not forgotten you. And I did this for five years, unsupported, unfinanced. I got tired of begging people for funds, even though I was a founder and created and kept the work sustainable with my funds. That’s brave and stupid at the same time, but people need help. They don’t need to hear, “Oh, I can’t help you because I don’t have funding.” So, that is my reward, that I was able to do that. I don’t need people’s awards and bullshit.
My reward is somebody sustaining, somebody living, somebody that can breathe, somebody that’s not going to be chased, somebody that’s not going to be homeless, somebody that’s not going to be beat. That’s a reward, but also graduates: The best present in the whole world for me is one of these kids getting a college fucking degree—that makes me wet and happy at the same time. That turns me all the way out. I want to see that for our community.
This work is about pushing young people to be their best and do their best. And I have everybody around me. I don’t just have queer kids around me. My boys are straight boys, and they are my assistants. They help me in my day-to-day grind. And what an honor it is for me to train them and have them in my spirit, with them not judging me. But they’re also learning how not to hate. They’re learning how to respect a trans woman, and they can teach their friends this. So, this is what this work is about. It’s about building community, and not just the queer community but pushing all community to get to a place of peace and understanding. But most of all, sustainability.
Sustainability is a powerful word that people take for granted. People that have sustainability, people that have the right to an education, and to get it with no fear of prejudice, they don’t understand. They don’t understand that it can be hard even being accepted in a classroom. My niece has gone to school for her PhD and masters. She’s trans and Black and powerful and young, and has the drive and the fight to do it. My son is now going for their third degree. They are gender nonconforming and they went to Columbia University. A Black queer person. This is what I want. If anything gives me pride, it’s knowing these kids are getting it done. Because when I’m dead and gone, they’re going to be the people to pick this work up.
And the fact that it’s Black people, the fact that my program coordinator is a Black queer person, doing the work with me, helping me see my vision through and push this. Flayr is the most amazing person that has been tokenized by a lot of people and never given a chance like we’re actually doing right now. This is sustainability because I’m literally networking with the people that make sense to me.
I think a lot of why we raised so much money so quickly was because society finally saw that this work saves lives. It’s actually doing something to save lives, and it’s done in such a holistic way. I don’t know how much stress Flayr carries because Flayr does it all. Our people that get out of Rikers Island all have specific needs. And not just Rikers Island, jails and prisons—they all need to be held in a different way, and Flayr has been there.
There have been some days when Flayr has cried, because it’s a lot when people are coming home and they’re nervous, and they come home during a pandemic, they need to be held. You need to constantly reassure them that you’re not going to abandon them in this process of them coming home. By doing this, you’re actually on the forefront, making sure they don’t go back to jail, that there’s no recidivism, that they actually thrive and grow and maybe get into school, learn a trade, stay out of jail.
The pandemic broke my heart. I mentally thought I was going to lose it. The amount of pain that I have seen, the amount of work that I put on my own family mortician, taking care of community members that have died of COVID. Some of my friends are no longer here. They’re gone, and I can’t do anything about it. So, in my mind, the people in jail, they’re going to die. Those are members of the queer community in there with so much hate and this disease—it’s just a breeding ground of death, another form of slavery.
We had to do something, so we started the Emergency Relief Fund. All of these people pulled together with us, and saw the work, and applauded the work by pitching in and volunteering and helping.
I have seen way too many clips throughout the pandemic of parents finding out their children died in jail. And we don’t even know the numbers. I don’t think anybody’s really successfully done the numbers of how many people died in New York in Rikers Island or jails around New York. It sets the tone that we’re not human, we don’t deserve to be safe. We don’t deserve to live. So, this work pushed us harder, further. We were able to do what looked like grassroots and turn it into a real act of kindness.
And then there was the trans liberation march in Brooklyn—15,000 people. It broke my heart. It was one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen. It was a sea of people that were not standing for George Floyd or gay pride; they were standing for Black trans lives. I had goosebumps. I cried several times before it was my time to speak. I was so proud of the young people and the organizers, but I was more proud of society. On that day, I was held.
With all of the money we raised this year, we’re in the process of closing on a 12-unit building for our community. It’s across the street from a state park, two blocks from the train station, in a nice neighborhood. We’re building a solarium with a garden on the roof in the name of Layleen Polanco. With that money, the possibilities were endless, but I chose this: healing and sustainability for my community. I think next, my staff is going to need a retreat center, somewhere they can really take a deep breath. Because they’re going to need healing too. And it’s important to be able to step away and breathe.
I’ve never had that. I’ve tried to take vacations: My friends have gotten me plane tickets, but they know that I’m not going to be able to stop working. People recognize me in other countries. My friends have tried to be the shield in between. They say, “She can only talk to you for a minute, she’s on vacation.” But when I run into these people, it’s life-changing. I know I’m changing their lives, but it’s also them changing my life. Sometimes, all it takes is that hug to know that this is what I’m doing with my life.
And that’s healing. It’s healing for the reason of giving. Giving the gift of giving, the gift of love, the gift of humanity. They are not to be taken for granted. And people have taken my community for granted way too often. So, we are mechanisms for tomorrow. We are creating sustainability. That’s happening. That’s happening right now at this moment.
It’s also watching the privilege of today. Watching the organizers and youth that I find phenomenal. I am here for them. I am here for them in abundance. They can call me any time. People get mad at me because at nine o’clock, I don’t turn off my phone. I don’t disconnect, me nor my coordinator. We are here at the most ridiculous times for people, because during a pandemic, a world disorder—this is a disorder we’re going through—somebody has to answer the call. Somebody has to pick up to let people know, “It’s okay, I got you. I won’t let you fall.” That’s what this is about.
That’s what creating a home is: family, giving people the opportunity to go to school, to follow them into what looks like tomorrow.
Community is everybody. My community is especially near and dear to my heart, but I have been pleased and blessed to have all genders in my heart. It’s all colors, all races—all are near and dear to me. I don’t give a fuck where you’re from, you’re my child. I respect you. I embrace you.
TALENT Ceyenne Doroshow, Flayr Poppins, Mommie Velta, Harold Dent, Chandice, Sasha Washington Cohen, Rio Sofia, Cyd Nova, Dorcas Ade, Twinkle Aria, Lana Madison Labeija, Wally Rakin, Johnny Alvarez, Mya Gittings MAKEUP Erika Bealon PRODUCTION ASSISTANT Alejandro Ruiz
Cascade explores the notion that every action, including inaction, is a choice—and each choice we make has a series of consequences, cascading across time. The choices we make now in regards to the planet will determine the trajectory of the human race for generations to come. Water can conform to its container, or it can gather in force as whelming as a wave. What will you choose?