Interview: Drian Juarez

Drian Juarez, far right, at her office in the Los Angeles LGBT Center. Photo Credit: Manny Sanchez/LA Gay & Lesbian Center

Drian Juarez was at a Halloween party for queer people in San Francisco. She lived in Los Angeles, but work had dried up there. By 2004 she was moving around the country, trying to earn the same amount of money she could have easily come by in LA just a few years ago.

“A passerby with a pellet gun,” she tells me, shot into the room where the party was being held. Drian caught one of the pellets in her eye, and she now lives with a glass replica. The assailant was never found.

Drian’s line of work wasn’t uncommon in 2005, and, ten years later, it’s still a road many women are forced to walk. Too often, women with sexual dysphoria have to turn to being an escort, a sex worker, or both, because they can’t find jobs, their family has rejected them and they don’t know who or where to turn, or, as in Drian’s case, they need the money to start, continue, or maintain their transitions.

“It was a viable way of earning extra money,” Drian told me. Even though she had graduated with a degree and was working, it wasn’t enough. When she decided to transition in the mid ’90s, she quickly learned she wasn’t earning close to the amount needed to cover the cost of her transition — the surgeries, as always, being the most daunting expenses. The situation may be a bit better today, but in the ’90s and early aughts, there was no way insurance companies were going to cover anything transition related.

So, part-time at first, she was an escort and sex worker.

Though it may surprise some to hear, Drian did, in some ways, find a source of strength from this work. “The ability to date, catching up on experience dating with men,” she said, were things she found helpful. For a heterosexual woman like her at the turn of the millennium, dating was otherwise impossible, and when you’re the new, younger girl in town, these men — looking to satisfy a fetish — frequent you more.

These men were also looking for companionship — it wasn’t just sex. And, fetish or no, it did allow Drian the chance to feel pretty.

But whatever benefits there were, they couldn’t balance out the drag the work was having on her life. Eventually she dropped her day job and began working these jobs full-time for the money. As time went on, her status as one of the new girls in town diminished, making it harder to make the same amount of money every week and keep afloat.

By time she was able to afford all the surgeries she felt she needed, it had been a couple of years since she had something to put on her resume.

“I felt a lot of depression and a layer of shame with my family,” she explained.

To make matters worse, this wasn’t exactly the safest type of work. As a precaution, she always asked for money before anything was done with a client — that way, if anything went wrong, she’d still have the money.

Sometimes, though, these precautions weren’t enough. Once, she and a client drove back to his place in a middle-class neighborhood. Inside his house, Drian asked the man for her money, but he was being flaky, saying things like, “Oh, I’ll pay you later.” Drian, listening to her instincts, headed for the door, but the man pleaded for her to stay. She did, and during the back and forth between them, in which Drian told the man if she isn’t paid first she’s going to leave, the man went into another room and pulled out a gun.

They ended up in his kitchen where, by chance, the windows were open. Drian started to scream, hoping the neighbors would hear her, and luckily, thankfully, some did, and walked over to investigate; the sound of their voices filled the air asking for the man’s name. Drian seized this opportunity to run out the front door and head home.

She didn’t call the police fearing consequences of her own from them.

While the episode at the man’s house was certainly horrifying, it took until losing an eye at the Halloween party in San Francisco to force herself to take her life in a different direction. But what would she do? Her work history was sparse. How could she make a living? Where could she afford to live?

With the help of family and friends, Drian found a place to live and began volunteering for LGBT events and getting involved with the local trans community. Eventually, she was offered the position of health educator for women who were in the same line of work she managed to pull herself out of.

Today, she’s the director of the Transgender Economic Empowerment Project for the Los Angeles LGBT center; she assists the local trans community in finding employment, whether full-time or part-time work.

Drian knows a lot of women today who are escorts and sex workers. In fact, a lot of her clients are just those women who are trying, just like Drian did, to do something more with their lives.

“The over-arching reason [for women with sexual dysphoria needing to become sex workers and escorts] is economics,” she told me. “Left to [their] own devices,” she told me — no parental support, no place to live, desperate to survive — these women do what they can.

And, having lived that life, Drian feels more empowered to help them.

“Everything happens for a reason,” she believes, and what she went through motivates her to work harder and do everything she can for others.

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