Editor's note: First Person is a series of commentaries that gives voice to those not commonly heard in Atlanta media.
Born transgendered, 43-year-old Valerie Nicole Smith has faced gender discrimination, attempted suicide several times, and tried to navigate the tricky maze of public assistance while being homeless.
It's like that show "The Walking Dead." The one zombie, that half-woman crawling on the ground, struggling — that's me every day. I'm going on two years with no hormone replacement therapy. I seen that and I said, "That's exactly how I feel."
I'm homeless and I was born both genders. Back when I was born, in 1967, parents got to choose whether they wanted a boy or a girl. Since I never met my birth father, all I know is that he didn't want to make a decision. He was angry and went out to the parking lot because the doctor was trying to force his hand. They went to my mother, and she chose male because my father wasn't around, and she figured that's what he would want. So, my father divorced her.
A stepfather came into play when I was 8 years old. My bedroom was in the basement of the house and anytime that my stepfather had a bad day or whatever, he came down and he beat me, he raped me, he molested me. That was a regular routine. When I told my mother about it she said, "Be the girl you say you are." But she was refusing to help.
I knew at 6 that I was really a girl because I felt comfortable doing everything that girls did. Just playing Wiffle Ball, if the slightest little thing happened or I was being laughed at, I was running away crying. Meanwhile, I was playing with Barbie dolls, making cakes with the Easy-Bake Oven.
I moved here in '87 from Long Island to get away from my family. I was 20 — about to turn 21 — and I was trying to get to Florida. But Georgia was as far as I got. I made it to Gwinnett County, and Norcross is where I started living. I started my own painting business.
I didn't start to correct myself by taking hormones until 12 years ago. Also, at that point, yeah, I foolishly got married to a woman I'd been best friends with for nine years. Her family thought we were dating. When I came out and told my then-wife that I'm a woman, she says, "Oh, so, what are you telling me? I'm a lesbian?" But there was never any sexual involvement. At first she was supportive and said she would help me, but it didn't last.
I had eight months of feeling like I was truly living in society. Eight months of, OK, I'm going to truly live my goals and my dreams. This was just prior to becoming homeless and losing my job. For a while, my skin was good, I had no problems, I was being fully respected at work. Then management changed. There was an on-shift supervisor who told me I had to wear makeup. I'm dealing with parcels, stacking them in a truck, and I need to wear makeup? At certain times I would wear makeup, and I'd get positive comments, but I'd also get the comments I didn't want.
The homelessness came after I was injured at work. I was loading a truck by myself, a platform collapsed, and my leg and arm were crushed in the conveyor belt. I'm there by myself screaming for help for 20 minutes before anyone recognized what was happening and hit the stop button. So I had the pressure building up of all the packages falling on me.
My last day on the job was Oct. 17, 2008, and I put in a request that day for my 401(k) money. I didn't get it until March, and meanwhile, I got evicted on January 1, 2009.
They denied my long-term and short-term disability because they said I "abandoned" my job.
From the time of losing my job and being evicted, I've attempted suicide nine times.
It's because everywhere I go I'm looked at like a caged animal. Men come up to me a say, "Which are you a $3 or $4 ho?" I'm neither. In Five Points especially, you've got people with their camera phones. There's no telling where my picture's been posted and made fun of. None of these people know me. Another frightening and upsetting thing to me is when I'm on MARTA, a little kid will turn around and say, "Mommy, is that a man or a woman?" The parent won't apologize to me, but they'll smack their kid and not give them an answer. I may be a confusion, but why hit your child?
My PTSD kicks in because both my legs were broken, my collar bone was broken, my nose was broken three times, my ankle was broken, my arm was broke — all by my stepfather.
When I was released from the hospital following a suicide attempt last year, Grady Memorial Hospital placed me in female transitional housing, which is proper. I was at Gateway formerly, but I was placed on the wrong side. I was placed with men. For now I'm reliant on Grady. They won't give me hormones, yet they'll place me in female housing. But a lot of the female transitional houses won't accept me because my testosterone levels have increased and my facial features have completely changed.
I'm stuck in this situation where I'll have to be housed with men, which is not safe for me.
I have a business administration degree, I have an IT degree, I'm Windows XP-certified. My résumé, if I were to post it, I would get job offers. When I show up, it's, "I'm sorry, you're not the person we thought you were." Georgia's a right-to-hire state. They can openly discriminate if they want to. When it comes to going to court, unless you have 100 percent documentation, there's no way to prove discrimination.
I can't change what's happened to me in my life. I have to live right now for every day. That's what I'm trying to do. At this point I've given up on suicide because I suck at it. The only time I didn't attempt suicide were the years I was on hormones and I felt like me. I didn't feel like that zombie. I felt alive.
— As told to Gwynedd Stuart
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