Dee Colon is a transgender who has lived most of her life in a quiet New York community. Staying close to her roots has helped her survive.

Dee Colon is a transgender caregiver who was born in Manhattan in the 1960s and has lived most of her life in the quiet, conservative New York neighborhood of Fresh Meadows, Queens. Staying close to her roots has helped her survive, she says.

Like many New Yorkers, Colon commutes to work in Manhattan, where she has spent two decades serving non-profits supporting the LGBTQ community.

Since 2006, Colon has worked at Amida Care, which offers New York state’s largest Medicaid special needs plan for those with HIV/AIDS. Transgender people work on staff and comprise at least seven percent of its membership.

Colon is now one of Amida Care’s longest serving employees. Her fluency in Spanish is one of many skills Colon draws upon to support New Yorkers with HIV/AIDS.

Given the challenges of being a transgender woman, Colon says her Queens neighborhood was not the easiest place to grow up.

“By age 2, I knew who I am. I could not hide it. As a child, I used to sit on the fire escape, knowing that I would get surgery someday,” Colon said.

“It was another era, with a lot of shame and punishment.  Rejection in the home is common, but I have always been quiet and self-protective.”

Not all transgender people undergo surgery. It is a difficult decision.

Despite the hurt that Colon sometimes endured at home and in public, she believes that staying close to her roots helped her to survive and eventually to thrive.

“I overcame a lot of damage and let go of a lot of psychological damage and trauma,” Colon said.

Leading a sheltered home life, Colon was somewhat protected from the violent assaults that transgender women are vulnerable to, and she also evaded HIV/AIDS.

Globally, 19 percent of transgender women are living with HIV, according to the Gap Report 2014, issued by the Joint United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS. Transgender women are 49 times more likely to acquire HIV than all adults of reproductive age, it estimated.

Colon postponed higher education until relatively late and did not enroll full-time at Queens College until the 1990s.

A grassroots activist, Colon joined the campus Gay and Lesbian Union. It wasn’t easy being a “person of flamboyance,” said Colon, but she believes her strong personality and feminine demeanor may have helped ease her way.

“All transgender people deserve acceptance.”

Majoring in psychology and art history, Colon graduated with honors in 2000 and then landed a job at a LGBT community center on Manhattan.

Through her work, Colon has served transgender New Yorkers and others trying to cope with HIV/AIDS, discrimination or homelessness.

“The problem is that all transgender people deserve acceptance, not just those who are celebrities like Caitlyn Jenner and not just those who are good-looking or smart or talented,” she said.

Colon started hormone therapy in the 1980s but waited until four years ago to undergo gender reassignment surgery.

Not all transgender people opt for surgery. All surgeries pose risks, and gender reassignment procedures are costly — an average of $50,000. Although medical insurance for these procedures is becoming more available, it can still be a challenge to obtain.

“Not everyone is getting on the bandwagon.”

In 2011, Colon was operated on by one of the nation’s top specialists, in Arizona. “I felt it was an important component to go through the entire surgical process, to really be myself,” she said.

Following the latest flurry of media coverage about transgender Americans, fueled in part by news about Caitlyn Jenner and actress Laverne Cox, Colon said: “Things have started getting better. People are getting more accustomed to us, and being a transgender American is becoming more mainstream.”

She said there is less fear of housing and job discrimination, hostility and violence.

“But not everyone is getting on the bandwagon,” she said.

“Transgender women and men are still targets in some communities and are still being ostracized by society. There has been a backlash against the recent wave of media attention. The struggle continues.”

Susan Ruel has worked as an editor on the international desks of the Associated Press and United Press International, and reported for UPI from Shanghai, San Francisco and Washington. A former journalism professor, she co-authored two French books on U.S. media history. A Fulbright scholar in West Africa, she has served as an editorial consultant for the United Nations in New York and Nigeria, and has reported from Latin America, North Africa and other points for newspapers and magazines.

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