Social change in America can seem mighty. And mighty slow.
Look at those who are transgender. In the past few years, they have posed on the cover of magazines, starred in TV shows, taken jobs at the White House and won the right to serve openly in the military. One of the country’s highest-paid female chief executives — Martine Rothblatt — is a transgender woman.
But if you knew Dee Dee Dodds, and you were one of those folks standing in the hot rain at a vigil for her Saturday night and you held hands with others and sang “We Shall Overcome,” then progress, change, tolerance and acceptance seem mighty far off.
“You can’t help who you are. And we just want to be accepted,” said Janiya Littman, who knew Dodds before she was shot on the Fourth of July and died nine days later. “I am still scared. I’m always looking over my shoulder. Every single day.”
While the glitzy, wealthy, high-profile trans world seems to be thriving, the trans world that still lives in the margins — the place it has existed for decades — remains an unsteady and frightening place.
Deeniquia “Dee Dee” Dodds, 22, lived in that place.
She worked as a prostitute. And whenever she went out to turn tricks, her family members always said: “Be sure to tell them who you are. What you are,” said Joe Ann Lewis, Dodds’s aunt.
And they gave her all of those warnings when she got her purse and extra condoms and went out July 4. It was about 3 a.m. in the 200 block of Division Street NE when someone shot her in the neck and fled. Dodds was on life support until her death Wednesday.
Police are still unsure of a motive in Dodds’s shooting, and they are not calling it a hate crime.
But as is the case with so many transgender people, she lived and died in the shadowy world where violence and instability are standard fare. And their path there is usually paved with hate, a hate that too often starts at home.
“A lot of people around here, they find out someone’s gay or trans or something like that? They turn them out,” said Lewis, who raised Dodds since infancy.
That is usually a quick path to homelessness and, eventually, sex work.
“I know. When I was 22, that’s what I was doing,” said Earline Budd, 57, a longtime activist in the transgender world who knew Dodds.
But it was different for Dodds, who found a loving family that did not necessarily understand the psychology of what was happening and that did not follow studies and trends and the changing debate about the nature of transgender people.
They simply loved their little boy Gregory and wanted him to be happy.
“Greg was different right away. As a boy, we knew he was different,” Lewis said. “He wanted girl clothes ever since he was little. I bought him boy clothes, and you know what he did? He cut them all up.”
Lewis let him play dress-up at home, but Dodds never stopped talking about being a girl.
It was a distraction at home, but it dominated everything in school at St. Coletta of Greater Washington, where Dodds was a special-education student.
Eventually, the teachers there let Dodds come to school in girl’s clothing, and the distraction was gone; Dodds’s behavior and class work got better, too, Lewis said.
At age 13 or 14, Dodds started asking to be called Dee Dee, because, Lewis said, that’s the sound he made as a baby, “Whaa, dee-dee, whaa, dee-dee.” And when Dodds officially changed his name, he made it Deeniquia, just to be a little fancy, Lewis said.
Still, the body and the clothing made it hard for Dodds to have a legitimate job in the business world after finishing school.
And that’s the second path that so often steers transgender people into the shadows.
“The most important thing is employment. Being able to work can change everything,” Budd said.
She has been fighting workplace discrimination for years. Transgender professors, researchers, teachers, executives and scientists have reported workplace harassment and even being fired, according to the LGBT advocacy group Human Rights Campaign.
It’s not easy to measure the level of discrimination for job applicants in low-paying fields. And that’s where the push into the margins is usually the final straw.
I remember meeting an impeccably dressed, young transgender woman who was on her way to a job interview at a department store in the District. She looked like the ideal saleswoman: fashion savvy, friendly, competent, clothes-obsessed.
“No, it’s not going to happen,” she told me. “I’ve tried so many places. Once they find out who I am, they never hire me.”
And this is why a life on the margin remains a stubborn part of being trans. And it’s why nationwide debates such as the one about which restroom transgender people can use are important.
More transgender people were killed in 2015 — 21 — than in any other year on record, according to the Human Rights Campaign. Six have been killed in the District since 2002.
It’s not enough to watch Caitlyn Jenner or Laverne Cox on TV. It’s not enough to have offices and officials include the T in all of their logos. It’s not even enough to let transgender children use whatever restroom the child wants. The death of Dee Dee Dodds is proof of that.
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