"I really feel like this is where I'm meant to be. I was meant to go through all the things I went through to be here."
- Ashley Johnson
It was another night in the city. Ashley was at the bar chatting up this guy who’d been eyeing her from across the room, and she could tell, easy, he was interested. She named her price. They agreed to meet up at a parking lot down the way.
She had moved back to the city from her mom’s place across the river in Jersey. The first time she ran away from home to live in New York City, her plan of getting a menial job and slowly working up was busted when she started seeing a man named Joe. Joe lived on the streets—he abused alcohol and he abused Ashley, but he was all she had in a city she didn’t know. When he was drunk, he ran into oncoming traffic and Ashley would have to pull him back and talk him out of it, hold his glasses when they fell onto the sidewalk. This time, Ashley knew better. She didn’t get straight A’s all through high school for nothing: if she could learn book smarts she could learn street smarts. She could depend on herself.
Sex work was a better way to survive than dealing drugs, Ashley thought, and she even enjoyed it in the beginning. The first time, she had strolled down 8th Avenue and easily picked up her first customer. She came back and did it again. She never used any substances, and since Joe just the smell of beer made her sick. Remembering how she used to have to sneak out under her mother’s watchful nose, she relished in her newfound independence. The work was hard and barely enough for food and a cheap hotel room, but it was all her own.
The parking lot was empty when she arrived. What Ashley didn’t know was that her client’s friend, who’d been peering suspiciously at her in the bar, had planted the idea in her client’s head that Ashley was a transgender male to female. He arrived at the lot with his friend carrying a bat, and swung hard into her side. Ashley crumpled onto the asphalt.
“You’re a guy,” the men yelled as they beat her with the bat and kicked her. She pleaded for them to stop; she promised she was a woman. To prove it, they used the bat to penetrate her. It was only when she was broken and bleeding that the men scared off and ran away.
But Ashley’s a girl—she looks like one, and any masculine features are due to Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS), a hormonal imbalance she’s had since birth. PCOS also increases her risk for obesity and diabetes, and makes it hard for her to have children. Her mother had it too, but they were never close enough to talk about these things. For a while after the assault she resented transgender women - not because she was intolerant - but because their lifestyle made her lifestyle hard.
It wasn’t the first time Ashley was assaulted. The other time was in New Jersey. On her way to school, a man came up behind her and grabbed her, tackled her to the ground and tried to rape her. Ashley was a big girl, so she fought him off, and instead of going to school headed to the police station to file a report. When she told her mother, the attempted rape was brushed off like it was her fault. Her mother had caught her going out at night to hook up with older men: because she was already sexually active, Ashley must have deserved it.
Her home in New Jersey didn’t feel like a home. When she was young, her mother worked hospital shifts at night and slept through much of the day. Her love was disciplinary: she made sure Ashley went to the right schools, played the right instruments, joined the right extracurricular activities, and contributed her part to the family’s survival. By the time she was eight, Ashley had learned to cook, clean, starch, and press; a year later, she was also changing her baby sister’s diapers, feeding and dressing her. There were never any men in the house, so she did the handy tasks too, pulling up carpet and putting down tiles.
Though grateful for the life skills, the truth was she felt neglected. She never had too many friends either—kids made fun of her for her early puberty and masculine traits, and besides she was too much of a smart kid, drowning in schoolwork and housework, to be popular. She had an aunt who was like a big sister, but she died suddenly when Ashley was thirteen. The aunt was only twenty-six herself. After her death, something broke in Ashley and in the family. Her mother and grandmother withdrew, and she started acting out. Home life became forced.
She never imagined she would find her family on the streets. Even while homeless, Ashley developed a support network of friends who looked out for her: in times of need they did little things like lend her soap or save her a seat in the soup kitchen. Most importantly, they understood the hardships of homelessness and hoped she would one day get off the streets. When she arrived in the city, Joe had shown her the ropes, introducing her to a constellation of soup kitchens, drop-in centers, churches, and community-based organizations. One of the first places he brought her was to ASCNYC.
As a sex worker, Ashley came back to ASCNYC regularly to restock on condoms and test for HIV. Being around the agency and attending groups, even if it was just to pass the time or get a Metro-card, had educated her on HIV-related medical issues and the importance of prevention. When she got into a relationship, she would come to ASCNYC with her boyfriend to get tested together. Time after time, the tests came back negative.
Ashley stopped doing sex work when she met Malcolm. They had felt an instant connection, and he asked her right away to be his girlfriend. He took her to live with him in his Single Room Occupancy (SRO). They started to talk about their dreams for the future, about getting married and having children. They didn’t use condoms because they wanted to have a baby. Ashley didn’t think it was a problem: she had taken him to ASCNYC near the beginning of their relationship, and they’d watched a video together about HIV and relationships. He was educated; he would tell her.
Malcolm didn’t want Ashley doing sex work, but he also didn’t want her talking to any other men. Eventually, he stopped her from going to ASCNYC, or anywhere else without him. She stayed locked up in his SRO—she wasn’t supposed to be there, so she had to keep a low profile—for most of the day, only sneaking to the bathroom when needed. The room was small and cramped, and she stared at the shrinking four walls daily while she wondered if Malcolm would come home. He was a recovering crack addict, but he also dealt drugs for extra income, and Ashley could never be sure that he’d return in one piece.
Perhaps she would have seen the warning signs if she’d been able to associate with other people. He had told her he was getting benefits from HASA (HIV/AIDS Services Administration), but he said it was for people with mental illnesses. He had diabetes, and though Ashley helped him take his insulin and pills, there were medications that he wouldn’t let her see, saying they were just vitamins that he would sell. Ashley had no reason not to believe him.
He began to lie to her in other ways. His father died and he relapsed. He didn’t make her sleep with anyone for drugs like another crack-addicted boyfriend had done, but he helped her sign up for welfare and stole her checks. He disappeared for days, coming back only to ask for money.
She left him. She found a room with a friend, started going back to ASCNYC. She was there one day, getting tested so that she could get a Metro-card. She knew something was wrong when the results took too long coming back. Finally, a Peer Liaison came in to give her the news.
Ashley didn’t panic. She was well educated because she had come to the agency so often, and she knew she wasn’t going to die. She knew she would get connected to a Case Manager right away, who would help her set up her doctor’s visits and assist with her housing search. She was angry, furious that after having sex with so many strangers, the one to infect her would be someone she loved and trusted in a monogamous relationship, but she accepted it. It was only when she stepped out of the counseling room and someone came to hug her, asking if she was okay, that she broke down in tears.
After finding out that she was positive, Ashley resolved to get back on her feet. She stayed away from sex work and what she described as “negative behavior.” She attended any groups she could to keep busy—women’s groups, creative writing, positive support groups, movie group—and enrolled in ASCNYC’s Peer Recovery Education Program (PREP). After graduating Valedictorian from PREP, she completed a Hepatitis training called HOPE and was brought on as a Peer. She went back to Jersey to repair her relationship with her mom. She moved into an apartment with an old friend she had run into coming to the agency a little bit before she started PREP, who she’d always had a crush on, and they started a loving, healthy relationship.
It’s hard to believe now, with the pieces falling into place, that there was ever a time when she was sleeping on trains, accepting sleeping bags from charities, stopping into public bathrooms to clean up, and strolling the streets for tricks. For Ashley, every step and fork in the path was worth the wear on her feet. That’s because now, as a Peer Educator, when she leads support groups for women through Honoring Everywoman’s Right to Safety (HERS), and facilitates Sisters Informing Sisters about Topics on AIDS (SISTA) interventions, or counsels women in abusive relationships and who are HIV positive, she can truly say that she understands. It’s the kind of support that she could never find in what she calls her “real blood family.” She continues to build her other family at ASCNYC every day through her work as a Peer. “My family is here at ASCNYC,” she says. “My home.”
*Some names have been changed for the purposes of confidentiality.