In a recent performance, Natalie Isaac donned a huge white dress she sewed that fit nine members of her non-profit transgender advocacy group under it. To Rihanna’s song “Umbrella,” the group came out from under the gown and opened umbrellas that said “Transgender Umbrella” in red glitter. Isaac wore the same skimpy outifit, wig, fishnets, and enormous hoop earrings that she once wore to win transgender beauty pageants. But now she is dressing up to fundraise for New York Trans Empowerment (nyte), an organization she co-founded seven months ago to advocate for transgender rights.
The crowns that Isaac won in her days as a drag queen are stacked in the corner of her apartment in Queens. She considers them reminders of a life of drug abuse and prostitution. A floor to ceiling poster of Isaac made up as a very convincing Tina Turner adorns one wall. Isaac was born in Cuba in 1955 on a kitchen table. After the revolution, the penalty in Cuba for dressing in drag was six months in prison. But Isaac, who is biologically male, risked the punishment to dress as the female she identified as from childhood. She says she was desperate to get out of Cuba so she could live her life in the body she felt she was meant to have. “I knew if I could get to the United States, I could be the woman I wanted to be,” she says.
Isaac says she has become that woman, but it wasn’t instantaneous. She has experienced the drug abuse, discrimination, violence, and sex work that plague the trans community but has become one of the most active trans advocates in New York City. Through nyte, she hopes to change laws and the transgender community’s fate. Already, nyte has been actively petitioning against the non-trans inclusive Employment Non-Discrimination Act, participated in a discussion at the u.n. about transgender rights, and involved in outreach projects around the city. In November, they received a $22,000 grant from the Rappaport fund. Co-founders Isaac and Bellin Correa are hoping this will allow them to expand their operations and mentor male-to-female transgendered individuals. “I want a place where we can help the girls get training, start working, having a regular job,” says Isaac. “I don’t want to see new transgenders struggling, doing what I did for fifteen years just to survive.”
Before making it to the u.s., Isaac was kicked out of her military high school for having sex with a fellow student and ostracized by her community. Isaac decided to marry a woman in hopes of getting the government to remove her gay label and allow her to get a scholarship. It didn’t work, but when President Carter allowed 123,000 Cubans enter the u.s. in 1980, Isaac saw her way out. “I was one of them,” says Isaac.
Soon after arriving in the u.s., Isaac visited New York City where she met a transsexual performer at a club and asked her where she could get hormones to transition. Isaac moved to the city soon after where she became a famous trans pageant queen worked as a sex worker, and had a house for prostitutes in Queens. “I was making money to buy five, six thousand dollar gowns to look beautiful onstage. I only cared about my looks, clothes, pageants,” says Isaac. “That was my life.”
Ten years after she moved from Cuba to the u.s., Isaac’s mother came to visit her. The trip ended in a fight over her transition. Isaac said her mother told her, “I had a boy, you have a penis, take those titties out.” But as a woman, Isaac felt that she was finally able to express herself.
In 1995, she found out she had contracted hiv and moved to Miami. Soon after, a friend asked her to go to a lgbt conference in San Diego. “I said, ‘Please I’m not going to waste my time, I’m going to be dead in a year.’” But she went and her mind was opened, “1,000 people from the lgbt community showed up and they were talking about how to change our lives,” she said.
National Latino/a Lesbian and Gay Organization (llego), the first organization to get funding from the Center for Disease Control for the lgbt community, trained her to be a facilitator and speaker. When she talks about having a forum to talk about her experience, her eyes light up. Back in Miami, she got a job at an organization, was going to a doctor, and taking pills for hiv. “Suddenly, I felt healthier than ever,” she said. “Working allowed me to say, oh no, I’m not leaving this world yet.”
Later, Isaac accepted a job at the University of San Francisco at the Boys Progress program that helped iv drug users. Her job was to offer drug users, many who were transgender and homeless, a place in the program. “I found it was hard but it empowered me to do things for change,” Isaac says.
Isaac fidgets in her seat when she talks about how she got into drugs shortly after becoming involved in the outreach program. She says she needed a way to stay up and work, so she started taking meth. Eventually she got back into sex work where she could make as much in two hours as she could in two weeks at Boys Progress. She went from living in a two-bedroom apartment to living in a hotel with transgender drug users, doing drugs every day, and she quit her job. “I found myself involved in doing the same thing they were, but I was telling them not to,” says Isaac. One day she said to herself “this is not me” and moved to Miami. There, away from the friends who were also using, she says she was strong enough to stop her drug habit. Instead, she spent her time rollerblading, modeling, and she got back into outreach.
Now Isaac’s has made her way back to New York where she’s been an advocate for two and a half years. She was on a Maury episode where he asked the audience to figure out whether the guests were men or women, but now her focus is on advocacy, not performing. Isaac is determined to change the lives of other trans people because she knows what they go through. She recognizes that because she passes as a woman, she has it easier than some. “Others who fall under the transgender umbrella can’t even go into a bathroom, if a woman says there’s a man in there, they’ll go to jail,” she says.
Because Isaac was a famous pageant queen in the trans community, when the Lower East Side Harm Reduction Center asked her and co-founder Belen to start a group, word got around and people came. “They follow me,” says Isaac. “I’m showing people a part of my life they’ve never seen before. I was Natalie the beauty queen, now I’m Natalie the advocate.” For many trans people, she said their lives seem hopeless. They have trouble getting jobs and being accepted in society. A nyte attendee asked for her blood so she could contract hiv. The woman had trouble getting a job, and Isaac said the government aid for hiv positive people made hiv seem like a good alternative.
At the Harm Reduction Center, there is a guy vomiting outside the doorway; a man in soiled clothes yells at passers-by before making his way into the center; and a staff member is yelling to a person taking too long in the bathroom, suspecting they might be using drugs in there. These are typical goings on for a non-profit that provides needle exchange and counseling for drug abusers. Meanwhile, the nyte meeting in the back conference room fills with the smell of perfume and twelve lipstick-lined mouths chat. Isaac is shaking her sassy bob back and forth, shushing the girls.
The Tuesday night meetings are crowded lately, full of trans women who said they are excited to have this outlet. Giovanni Figueroa, the man that brought them all together, lovingly refers to them as “the girls.”
Figueroa, who sometimes dresses in drag but tonight is wearing a page boy hat and a blazer, is a psychotherapist at the Harm Reduction Center who knew some of the girls socially and treated many of them as their therapist. He found that transgenders were more likely to have problems with drugs and sex work. “They are ostracized from their family and the community and are often forced into prostitution because it is their only means of survival,” says Figueroa. He encouraged them to organize and gave them a room at the Harm Reduction Center to meet.
The group is growing rapidly and has seen trans women go from being prostitutes to advocates in a short period of time. One of the newest members of the group is Jahira Castro, a spritely brunette with piercing eyes. She is attending her third meeting after being picked up for prostitution and being required to come or serve jail time. “We don’t want to desecrate our bodies like that,” says Castro. “But we just can’t get legal jobs.”
The group is seeking facilities for mental health, drug abuse, medical services, hormone treatment, and a homeless shelter. With their recent funding it seems they may be on their way. They are getting support from the community and their fundraisers are packed to the brim. “People I hadn’t seen in 15 or 20 years came to the show to support me and the group,” Isaac said about their recent fundraiser. “That was the greatest thing that ever happened to me.”
Isaac says she is sure that nyte can make a difference for the trans women she mentors. She is currently focused on getting grants to keep the program afloat. She hopes the Harm Reduction Center will help them to raise funds to have their own facilities geared to the specific needs of trans women. For now, she says she’s just trying to take care of her girls and encourage them to speak out for transgender issues in hopes that they can change the trans community’s fate.