Making Change: The Cost of Being Transgender

Homeless teens who want a sex change are selling themselves to pay for it.

ByABC News
May 9, 2007, 2:09 PM

May 10, 2007 — -- Kenyatta can't talk long; she has a date.

"We call them dates," she said of the men with whom she has sex for money.

Anxiously, she brushes her long dark hair off her slight shoulders and out of her smoky eyes.

Once you know that Kenyatta, 22, was born a male, her large hands and Adam's apple seem obvious. But at first -- and even second -- glance, there is little to suggest that she wasn't a girl her entire life.

She prostitutes herself "about twice a month" in order to buy the black market hormones that enlarge her breasts, raise the pitch of her voice and keep hair from growing on her face.

"Honestly," she said, "I have to pull a trick to pay for hormones."

Kenyatta is one of 25 young people spending the night at Sylvia's Place, an emergency homeless shelter for New York City's gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender youth.

A third of the people here this Tuesday night, like most nights, are low-income transgender women who were born male.

Kicked out of their homes and ostracized by their peers, they look to each other for solace and to the streets to make a living.

In an effort to make their bodies more feminine, some "trans women" take unregulated doses of hormones bought on the black market and pump industrial silicone -- the same stuff used in brake fluid -- into their breasts. Many have hurt themselves or attempted suicide.

Being transgender is costly. It costs people their families, homes, health, educations and jobs.

It also costs a lot of money.

To pay for their transitions, many of these young women have not only lived on the streets but worked there as well. They sell their bodies to afford the treatments and trappings necessary to make those bodies look to the world as they do in their heads.

Wealthier parents with a child who begins to present as transgender, sometimes as early as 5 years old, will seek information on the Internet, with a family physician, or through a community organization. But many low-income parents can't afford access to those resources.

Children from poorer families are more likely to be thrown out of their homes and end up on the streets.

Though the transgender community in the United States is small, roughly estimated at between 1 and 3 million people, it represents a broad diversity of people.

"Transgender can be anything from feeling internal body dysmorphia [an altered body image] to acting on it, as with cross-dressing, to actually changing your body through hormones, silicone injections and surgery," said Cris Beam, a journalist who spent seven years following a group of transgender youths on the streets of Los Angeles for her book "Transparent."