One nearly universal truth in the adult transgender world: When someone finds their true self, that’s often when everyone else leaves.
That’s how it happened for Lazema Mills, 30.
“When I finally began my full transition, my mom looked at me and said, ‘No, not this,’ ” Mills said, motioning her hand up and down, from huge eyelashes and magenta wig to cute shoes and legwarmers. “And it fell out from under me.”
It, meaning everything.
Mills, who was born in D.C. General when it was a hospital and once sang opera at Duke Ellington high school, lost her clerical job, then her home when she began publicly dressing in women’s clothing.
But what came next was just as challenging.
Which homeless shelter to go to?
The men’s shelters can be dangerous for transgender women.
“Everyone is trying to have sex with you,” Mills said.
The women’s shelters would’ve been safer, but they turned her away.
“It was rough,” said Mills, who battles daily insults and harassment at a coed shelter. “At least, at least, they are not trying to harm me there.”
According to the National Transgender Discrimination Survey 55 percent of people reported that they were sexually harassed in a shelter, 22 percent said they were sexually assaulted and 25 percent said they were physically assaulted.
In many cases, sleeping on the streets was safer than going into a shelter.
The survey also found that 19 percent of transgender people were homeless at some point in their lives and that, of those, 29 percent said they were turned away from a shelter.
This is about to change in a couple of ways.
Last week, the Department of Housing and Urban Development announced that single-gender homeless shelters that get federal money must not turn anyone away because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.
This backs an earlier HUD decision two years ago that banned operators from asking about gender or sexual orientation.
This new ruling hardens that line and makes it clear that turning someone away from the gender-specific shelter they identify with is illegal.
That has been the dream of Ruby Corado, 43.
Corado was 16 when her dad put her on a bus in El Salvador heading to the District — away from her family. She imagined a shelter for young adults like her.
“I dreamed it would have satin sheets,” she said.
The sheets will be cotton, but years later, her dream is becoming a reality.
Corado, who runs Casa Ruby, a drop-in center serving the LGBT community but focusing on transgender clients, is about to open one of the few shelters in the United States that is specifically for transgender youth.
It is a lovely, three-story townhouse on Georgia Avenue in Northwest Washington.
“This is where they will be safe,” she said, walking through the rooms, about a week before the first person will move in.
“These, I couldn’t resist these,” Corado said, sweeping her hands up and down the candy-colored chairs shaped like high heels she bought for every room. “I got these with my own money. I had to.”
There will be room for up to a dozen people from the ages of 18 to 24.
“Here, you will not be hungry. You won’t be tired from a bad night of sleep,” Corado said, showing me the new, donated mattresses that arrived the day before. “You will be rested and full, and you will be ready to work on your future.”
About 15 times a month, a young person walks up the steps to her center.
“They found me on the Internet, and their parents just dropped them off and then turned around to drive back home,” she said. “They literally threw their children away.”
Everyone at Casa Ruby is a hugger. That frightened person who didn’t even wave goodbye to that car speeding away gets a hug from all the people at the office, nearly all of whom are transgender and former clients at Casa Ruby.
Corado will talk to the newest member of her growing family.
“You can’t change the past. You’re not responsible for what happened in the past,” she says. “But you are responsible for today.”
And then, starting next week, she’ll be able to show them a safe place where they can get to work on that.
To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/dvorak.