Deja Lynn Alvarez: Building inclusion through activism and policy
Deja Lynn Alvarez's work as an activist and politician has lead her to be considered a hero by the people she fights to give a voice to.
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I was born in Chicago, Illinois, and moved to Delaware when I was five years old. My favorite thing to do is to spend time with my family and go on our traditional trip to New Orleans. One of my guilty pleasures? I love all the Real Housewives, every one of them: Atlanta, Beverly Hills, Orange County, Dallas. Every single one of them.
There are only two things that top that, my family and my work. Besides being an activist and advocate, I am the co-president of the Women's March, former co-chair of the annual Trans March in Philadelphia, chair of the annual Philadelphia Trans Day of Remembrance, on the board of directs of the William Way LGBT Community Center, and co-chair of the Philadelphia LGBTQ+ Police Liaison Committee.
But getting to this point in my life wasn’t easy.
My mom, my three sisters and I are all super close, even through all of the tragedies and everything we have faced. It has been like that since I was young and now as adults, I think it's our favorite thing. Anytime I can be with my mom and my sisters is always good.
When I think about my mom, I think of love; I think of always knowing that no matter what, my mom loved me and still does love me. However, there are some things that not even those who love us the most can shield us from.
I'm always very hesitant to talk about abuse, whether it's sexual, mental, emotional or physical. Because you get a lot of folks that then weaponize that to say: “Oh, see, it's because they were abused, that's why they're trans.” Me being abused as a child has nothing to do with my identity as far as who I am at my core.
Oh! it took years. It took a long time. I was always very, very feminine, and that was difficult to deal with all my life. My Latinx father really conflicted with that.
One time we were at a lake, I was swimming like everybody else. But when I came back up onto the beach area, he snatched me up and got really angry with me.
“Boys don't swim like that!” he screamed.
He would stay on my case about everything. If I was running, he would holler at me, “Stop running like that.” The way I walked, the way I talked, everything I did would get me in trouble. It came to a point where I was actually terrified to be around him.
I had a hard time enjoying any activity because I was always making sure that no one would pay attention to me, because I was afraid I was going to get in trouble for not being able to change who I was.
He had a version of how boys should be, based on the Latino culture. I grew up with that— even when people question my Latino identity because of the color of my skin, is my heritage. My last name is Alvarez, that is my culture. But as a kid, you don't think about it.
A couple of times my father had arguments with people and I didn't necessarily understand what the argument was about. People would often mistake me for a girl, and I think that offended him.
After my parents’ divorce, my stepfather also found himself in the same situation. Both ended up getting into arguments with people for who I was. But in the big scale of things that was more bearable than my stepmother’s “approach.”
One night she caught me playing with Barbies, so she decided beating the sh*t out of me was the way to address the situation. I knew when my father got home she was going to tell him. So I was laying in bed, terrified, pretending to be asleep.
Imagine a tiny little body hiding behind the sheets. I heard him coming up the stairs. One. Two. Three. The door cracked wide open, and I just knew that it was going to happen. He beat me up.
When my father beat you, it was not a smack, or a belt. You got tossed around like he was in a barroom brawl. That scenario repeated itself many times.
Through it all, my mom was like my light. She always knew I was different. It was a little difficult for her to necessarily completely understand I was transgender, but she certainly didn't turn her back on me.
She had her own struggle, trying to figure out exactly what my young self meant because we weren't sure back then. I grew up in Delaware. There weren't really any resources out there about transgender individuals.
There was no one else in our lives that was like, ‘This is what’s happening,’ so my mom dealt with it, I think the best that she could. But she never turned her back and never stopped showing me love and support.
It was hard being a kid. I wanted to be like everybody else, you know. Just like all the other little girls who were flirting with the little boys, holding hands and all of that. But I couldn't do any of that.
It was very, very hard to grow up having to literally keep yourself a secret, enough for the memory to still bring pain to the eyes of my adult self.
It led to a few suicide attempts that were almost successful. I was 13 to 14 years old, and I went into a place called the Rockford Center in Delaware.
Oddly enough, my teacher was Jill Biden—Joe Biden’s wife. I will always remember her because she knew, she recognized that I was different and she knew I was struggling in a way that was different from the other kids that were in there.
She showed me some extra attention that will always stand out to me, because it was someone who didn't know me. It was an adult who could see in me something that was different and was letting me know it was going to be okay, without me coming out and verbalizing it.
It’s little moments in life that will almost recharge you to be able to keep going until the next time you can find some sort of happiness. Because as a transgender child, the happy times in your life are more distant than for the average child. It’s like a switch, you get caught up in the moments that you're playing, but then you have to turn it back on and remember to continue hiding who you are.
It was even harder because I had no way to know why I felt the way I felt. My mom was always there, to the point where my sisters still jokingly say, ‘Mom always saw you through rose-colored glasses,’ but so did they.
But no amount of love in the world can protect you from life.
At 15, I was still being bullied at school, and it was horrible, there were constant fights. I was going to fight or I was going to be beaten and picked on. It was hard. I started getting high, running away from home, and messing with older men.
In one of those times, someone brought me from Delaware to the Gayborhood in downtown Philadelphia, on an hour-long drive.
It was like magic! Like the first time you go to Times Square at night in New York City. For the first time in my life, I was seeing people like me. I didn't even know people like me existed! I always thought I was alone.
There they were, women like me, up and down the streets and corners. At the time I didn't realize they were doing survival sex work, all I cared about was how cool it was that they were all hanging out with each other.
After that, I couldn’t take Philly out of my mind. I would sneak out my bedroom window at night, and make my way up here.
All my life I thought I was alone. So when I finally found other people like me, every waking moment I was planning, how do I get back there? How do I get back to where I belong?
The urge became so big that I ended up dropping out of high school, and leaving home. It was by no means easy, I had to do whatever I had to do to keep a roof over my head and make sure that I could eat. That's how I learned about, what would become, survival sex work.
As dangerous as that life was, because it puts you into a whole underground culture, I knew that I needed to get away from my town. At least I would find some community.
And it wasn’t like I could have gotten a job anywhere else, because of a society that doesn’t understand transgender people and is way less likely to hire them. If we do get hired, are you going to be the person that picks on us and gives us bad comments and dirty looks?
By that point, I was no longer in touch with my father—although to this day I talk to his sisters. Meanwhile, my mom was trying to understand it the best she could. But I think she realized very quickly that for the first time in my life, I really truly knew who I was, and was around other people like me.
I think she saw happiness in me. I was no longer suicidal. Of course she wasn't happy or excited about the way that all may have been done, but she could see a difference in me and realized that I was going to have to make my own way.
However, my happiness had a price. I wasn't even old enough to drink, but I knew that I needed the money to survive. It sickened and grossed me out. But you learn to shift your thinking and concentrate on the money you need to survive another day. You learn to separate yourself from your body in a manner of speaking.
One winter, I was really cold and there was an officer who was always very, very nice to me—he was the only one that was nice, because the officers were absolutely horrible to us back then.
“What are you doing?” he said, looking at my cold self.
“I don't have a coat. Hopefully I'm going to make some money so I can get one,” I replied.
“Listen, if you don't make the money to get a coat tonight,” he gave me his card, “You call me and I'll get you a coat.”
That always stayed with me. He didn't ask for anything. He wasn't trying to pick me up. Literally, he just wanted to make sure that I was okay. It was just a moment of kindness, but I think it prevented me from totally giving up and turning bitter and jaded because of who I was.
You see up to that point and even after, police officers would roll up on you, beat you up, and arrest you without even catching you doing anything.
One year for my birthday, a bunch of my girlfriends and I were getting together to go downtown and have drinks. We pulled up in three different cars and as soon as we got out, the cops came running, snatched us all up and threw us in jail.
Later, we learned they were claiming that they caught us for “obstruction of a highway,” or something like that.
There was so much police abuse in my case. False arrest, sexual abuse, physical abuse—like walking up, hitting me, slamming into me with their bike, pushing me into the wall, and name calling.
At one point, I was in a relationship with a man with two very young children. A lot of my days were spent with the kids, and a specific police officer would come up and start harassing me, calling me “sir,” or saying “that’s a f*cking man” in front of crowds of people with the kids crying.
It was just too much. I was sexually assaulted at gunpoint. I was sexually assaulted at knifepoint. I was sexually assaulted without any weapons. I had a detective at one point show up at my place responding to an ad and told me that if I didn't do what he wanted me to do, he was going to take me in.
For so long it was just too much, and I thought it was just one more thing that I have to deal with because of who I am.
I lived like that for almost 20 years, until the last attack filled my cup and I couldn’t take it anymore. I joined forces and began protesting the police treatment of the transgender community, asking for a change, and suing the police department.
I was called into City Hall to one of the big meeting rooms, and there are all these people sitting at the table. They tried to scare me out of the lawsuit by saying they were going to pull my financial records for the last several years and contact the IRS.
But at that point, I didn't care anymore. You had already done everything you were going to do to me. I was not going to allow myself to be treated as inhuman anymore. In that moment I stood up, pounded my hand on the table and said:
“If you brought me here to intimidate me, you picked the wrong one. I'm not scared anymore. I don't care what you do. I don't care what you throw at me, it doesn't change what happened that night or what happened for the last several years to people like me, and what you're doing isn't right.”
Then I walked out and slowly from that point on started building and building and building and getting my foot into different doors and different positions to be able to try and finally get myself into a position where I could really make a difference.
I became the chairwoman for the Philadelphia Police LGBTQ+ Liaison Committee. But picture this, when I first got invited to join it, I was so excited sitting in the meeting and there was this one cop, sitting across, that just seemed so familiar.
But my mind couldn't quite place it, I brushed it off and went to the next meeting. We're sitting there and all of a sudden it came back to me. I knew who this man was!
This man was my biggest mental, emotional and physical abuser, for years. Oh my! My body temperature changed. My head felt weird. It took my absolute everything to not lash out at him in that moment.
Here I am, as a member of a committee that is about figuring out how the Philadelphia police department can do better by LGBTQ individuals. And one of the members of this committee is a police officer, who happened to be my biggest abuser and the one of many of the other people I knew.
I wanted to react, I wanted to scream and lose it. But I had to make a decision. Am I going to lash out on him or am I going to stop and think about what's the best way to deal with this?
I remember getting control of my emotions after a minute or two, but I was raging inside.
I realized, I was finally able to make my way into some places and do something to protect and help people like me, and I was not about to lose it for him.
After the meeting, I called a friend of mine that also had many issues with that person, and let it all out. It was a pivotal moment for me.
You stop thinking about yourself. There's a bigger picture and the bigger picture are the other people that are still affected by this. I'm now sitting in this room across the table, they can't hurt me anymore. They can't.
But they can hurt someone else who's on the street or who's trying to survive or who has to call 911 because they've just been attacked. I’ve made it my job ever since to prevent that from happening.
I have worked very hard for many, many years to make a difference.
In 2019, I ran for office and didn't win, but I did very well. I did way better than anybody expected me to do. I'm very proud of that.
It was a humbling moment, like the time I went to Save-A-Lot on Lehigh Ave. and saw my face on the cover of AL DÍA, and a couple of days later at Five Below, a lady in front of me was reading the magazine and she recognized me, for my work—if that doesn’t keep you grounded nothing ever will.
I grabbed an edition, went in the car and took pictures for my mom and my sisters. But in all seriousness, I had a deep desire to keep doing this work, and always to continue to try and grow to get a seat at bigger tables and change things for the better.
I don’t know if I will run again, I am not opposed to [it], but we will see. We are slowly starting to see that change. Like if you look at the House [of Representatives] 10 years ago it was a sea of white, like the Senate. Now, there are women and there are some dots of color spread throughout. So I think slowly we are starting to change.
It is still harder for us [transgender people] to stay in school, go into higher education institutions, get a job, move in next door, get an apartment, apply for food stamps or go to a hospital and get medical care.
But I don't ever go to any of my bosses with a problem without having a solution already in place. So as long as I can, I will continue to work on HIV prevention and treatment for LGBTQ+ people of color and I will continue helping folks in hopes that they will not have to go through the same I did.
If you are trans, gay, non-binary, straight, and you are reading this, just know there's some hope.