Ruby Corado sits in her makeshift office, a plastic chair behind a Northwest Washington rowhouse, when her phone rings — again.
It’s someone from the mayor’s office checking to see whether she can attend a party that Muriel E. Bowser is throwing. She can’t. She apologizes and explains that she is traveling to New Orleans that day to deliver a keynote speech at a national conference on the plight of sex workers.
There was a time when no one with influence cared what Corado had to say. In the realm of the marginalized, she lived on multiple ledges: undocumented, homeless, HIV-positive, transgender. But now her phone rings every few minutes with calls from the head of a national LGBT organization or a police department official or a jailed prostitute.
The rowhouse behind her has a name, her name: Casa Ruby. She rented the first floor in 2012 for $1,500 a month, envisioning it as a drop-in center for the most vulnerable in the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community: the young and discarded. Now Casa Ruby has a budget of $1.3 million and occupies the whole building plus three others nearby, offering everything from emergency shelter to health counseling to immigration services. In the past nine months, more than 2,200 transgender and gay people — nearly all of them black or Latino, nearly all of them poor, nearly all of them familiar with discrimination and violence — have turned to Casa Ruby.
Even then it’s not enough, Corado says. Casa Ruby has a housing wait list of about 100 names, and the organization’s phone rings constantly with others seeking help.
Sometimes it’s a transgender immigrant who can’t speak English looking for assistance finding a job. Sometimes it’s a young person who is about to be released from jail and needs a bed. Sometimes it’s a desperate teen or young adult who just wants to speak with Corado.
“Sometimes all I can do is talk to them because they are suicidal,” Corado says.
In life, some people reinvent themselves. But Corado has undergone two major transformations in her 46 years that make her one of the most influential voices for a community whose needs have multiplied alongside its rights.
She was a 16-year-old boy who arrived alone in Washington from El Salvador ; now she is a curvaceous, red-haired woman many call “Mom.”
She was a rape and assault victim who once walked into a hospital psychiatric ward hoping not to come out; now she is an advocate who gives speeches, testifies at hearings and manages a nonprofit that has become a beacon of hope to young LGBT people in the nation’s capital and beyond.
Corado walked into Casa Ruby recently to find a Brazilian man who cried when he saw her. He told her, “I knew if I saw Ruby I was going to be okay.”
The bell above the front door serves as Nytina Walker’s cue to say, “It’s a beautiful day at Casa Ruby.”
Walker, a 37-year-old transgender woman, is legally blind and can see only the shadows of those who walk into the organization’s headquarters on Georgia Avenue. But for hours, she will say those welcoming words over and over, grateful for the opportunity.
“There wasn’t a program like this when I was young,” Walker said. If there had been, she said, maybe she wouldn’t have ended up smoking crack and not knowing what hotel she might wake up in: “I’ve been to a lot of funerals.”
Walker knew Corado when they were younger, and it was normal for transgender women to buy hormones off the black market and inject harmful silicone in their breasts and hips to make their bodies reflect how they felt.
She knew her when they both sold sex to survive.
Corado, who learned she was HIV-positive in 1995 and is now working toward becoming a U.S. citizen, doesn’t deny her past. She speaks about it as someone else might their résumé. She doesn’t have a prestigious degree or a string of notable jobs. What she does have, she says, is life experience that allows her to relate to anyone who walks into Casa Ruby.
Corado was a teen when she came to Washington, sent by a father who feared his effeminate son, then named Vladimir Orlando Artiga, would be killed in El Salvador’s civil war. She said she lived with a family who worked as smugglers of undocumented immigrants and labored as a maid to pay off her debt to them. She left, she said, when the father tried to rape her — the first of several encounters with violence.
The first time she heard the word “gay,” she said she looked up the definition and saw that it meant “happy.” But life as a gay man didn’t feel that way to her, and nothing felt right until she met a transgender woman. By 1996, Corado was living as a woman, and in 2004 she changed her name.
She was doing well, she said, until 2008. When she talks about that year, she sobs. As she tells it, a man she dated asked her to move in with him. She declined but agreed to meet him one night. He told her he had a gift for her. As she was getting ready in the bathroom, she said, she saw his face in the mirror. For hours, she recalled, he beat her and raped her.
“I couldn’t understand how someone who had shown me affection literally wanted to destroy me,” she said, her eyes a mess of mascara and tears. “He destroyed me. I felt so empty.”
Afterward, she said, depression and addiction took hold. She quit her job as an outreach worker at the Whitman-Walker clinic and when she couldn’t pay her rent, she became homeless. Eventually she began receiving therapy from the D.C. Rape Crisis Center, moved into a room at the YWCA and received about $12,000 in Social Security disability back payments, she said. It was with that check that she paid for the first year’s rent of what would become Casa Ruby. The organization is now funded through grants and donations.
“The only thing that kept me alive was doing this work,” Corado said. “For a big part of my life, I felt I should have never been here, but I kept being here. I think I was given this life so that anybody who is going through anything, if they have any doubts that they’re going to be okay, they can look at me and know they’re going to be fine.”
“I made it, and I’m still fabulous,” she said with an exaggerated smile. “Still stunning and fierce.”
Alison Gardner, a longtime LGBT advocate who donates money to Casa Ruby, said she has watched with “whiplash” as Corado “changed her life from one of suffering to one of service.”
Former D.C. mayor Vincent C. Gray (D), who walked Corado down the aisle at her wedding in 2014, said he and other officials rely on her insights.
“It’s an important role Ruby plays in giving voice to people who could easily be ignored, or, frankly, disparaged,” he said. “If her voice wasn’t there, it would be a tremendous loss to the city.”
In the past few years, the rights of the LGBT community have multiplied, with the Supreme Court ruling in favor of marriage equality and the Obama administration allowing people who are gay and transgender to serve openly in the military. Transgender celebrities command magazine covers and star in TV shows.
But the young people who have come out in response are still too often met with rejection by their families and friends, said Ellen Kahn of the Human Rights Campaign. Many wind up on the streets, or prostitute themselves to survive.
Among homeless young people, nearly 40 percent identify as LGBT and 60 percent are youths of color, said Gregory Lewis, executive director of the True Colors Fund, which was created to end homelessness among LGBT youth.
“Things have gotten better,” Lewis said. “But we have a long way to go.”
The young people at Casa Ruby are proof of that.
Selena Cruz, who grew up in Winchester, Va., has lived at Casa Ruby twice. The first time, she was 20 and had been in jail several times for shoplifting. The staff at Casa Ruby helped her get a bed and medical care. Corado was by her side when she took her first hormone shot.
At 23, Cruz’s body continues to change, and she is eager to show off her curvier physique. She saunters through the organization’s front door one afternoon, wearing a shirt intentionally cut high and low so that her stomach and bra show.
Corado warns her to be careful — she is deeply aware of the dangers that still exist for the transgender community.
She knew Deeniquia “Dee Dee” Dodds, a 22-year-old transgender woman who worked as a prostitute and died last month after being shot in the District. In 2015, at least 21 transgender people were killed around the country, the most ever recorded, according to the Human Rights Campaign.
While mourning Dodds’s death, Corado found herself sitting on the porch of Casa Ruby, holding the hand of a 30-year-old transgender woman from El Salvador who had just told police what happened on her way to work: A man pulled her into a nearby alley and tried to rape her.
Corado also knows that sometimes the abuse isn’t physical but emotional.
For weeks the staff at Casa Ruby had worked to prepare six transgender young people for their first trip to a public pool dressed as women. Bathing suits were bought. Fears were assuaged. But when the group walked into Banneker Recreation Center, they were directed to the men’s room and ridiculed.
Gwendolyn Crump, a spokeswoman for the D.C. Department of Parks and Recreation, said officials “deeply regret” the incident, which involved two summer youth employees. Since then, she said, the staff at Banneker has received sensitivity training, and Keith Anderson, the department’s director, met with Corado.
After a trauma at Casa Ruby, Corado does what she rarely does otherwise: She puts down her phone. Everything else can wait. She tells the young men and women to gather in a circle.
Two dozen of them are holding hands one afternoon when Corado tells them that at Casa Ruby they are respected; they are loved.
“Individually, society can break us and they will punch you, they will try to destroy you but when you stand together it’s going to be really hard,” Corado tells them. “I understand when we walk out of these doors anything can happen. Once we break the circle, we can go back to a world that doesn’t care. But I want to remind you while you’re here, you are cared for.
“I have a very special love for people no one wants to touch,” she says. “I was one of them.”
Jennifer Jenkins contributed to this report.