Here’s what you see when you drive down Los Angeles’s Santa Monica Boulevard just east of La Brea: a 7-Eleven, a Shakey’s Pizza, a low concrete building with fish painted on the side, and a taco stand. There’s a Chinese takeout place and a triple-X video rental shop, a filling station, and four lanes of traffic, two in each direction. Old people waiting for the bus. Young mothers dragging children in flip-flops. A discount dollar store, a Laundromat, and a bunch of teenagers standing around and smoking. If you stare for more than a minute, you may note that most of these teenagers are girls, and that they’re more ethnically varied than other cliques in this segregated town. But that’s it. Santa Monica Boulevard’s got the sun-bleached, chain-store feeling of most of L.A.
If you’re a transgender girl (meaning you were born male but live as a female), you might notice something extra along this stretch of Santa Monica. It’s here that you’ll find girls trading secrets about how to shoot up the black-market hormones purchased from the swap meets in East L.A. If the hormones don’t work fast enough to manifest your inner vision of wider hips and C cups, you can find out about “pumping parties” out in the Valley, where a former veterinarian or a “surgeon’s wife” from Florida will shoot free-floating industrial-grade silicone into hips, butts, breasts, knees — even cheeks and foreheads. Of course, this is dangerous when the oils shift and form hard lumps in the armpits and thighs, but you’ll look good for a while black lives matter t-shirt.
On Santa Monica, you can learn which dance clubs, like Arena (with its crudely painted ocean mural on the outside), let in underage kids and have go-go boxes for dancing. You can learn which motels, one block up on Sunset, are safe and clean and have weekly rates. You can find out about the telemarketing company that hires transgender youth, no matter what they look like, to sell garbage bags and first-aid kits over the telephone. Of course, for the job you’ll have to memorize a script saying that you’re handicapped and that these household items are offered at higher prices because they provide employment to mentally handicapped people like yourself. And though it makes you sick to say it, this technically won’t be a lie; transgender people are still dubbed “mentally ill” by the medical community, the way gay people were in the seventies. This is how the telemarketing firm gets away with cheap labor.
On Santa Monica, you can walk with a friend to the Jeff Griffith Youth Center — one of the few outreach agencies that knows about, and feeds, struggling transgender kids under twenty-four. It’s right on the corner of Sycamore; you’ll recognize it by the thick bars on the windows and the hand-drawn sign that says NO FIGHTING. Here you can sign up for a shower or get free bus tokens or a subsidized meal on a tray that looks just like the kind served in the high school cafeteria you ran from. There’s also a big TV and a pool table with no billiard balls, and you can hang out until the place closes at six o’clock, without cars stopping you on the street and asking, “How much?”
And when the center closes, you can traipse over to Benito’s, the twenty-four-hour clapboard outdoor food stand and “Home of the Rolled Taco,” for yet another dinner. Teenagers can always eat.
At Benito’s, over the sizzle and pop of day-old grease, kids preen and throw insults and drink oversize sodas from waxy paper cups and look into cars for cute boys who might roll by. As the girls wait for night, when the dance clubs open, the Benito’s parking lot fills with them, laughing and squealing and running up to one another with halfway air-kissy hugs, like they haven’t seen each other in ages and yet don’t want to muss their clothes. Most look nothing like the drag queens or cross dressers that stereotypes dictate or outsiders expect. They’re young and soft faced and wear jeans and T-shirts or, if it’s a Saturday night, clingy dresses and big hoop earrings.
“Tracy, girl, I haven’t seen you since like last month! You look good! Where you staying at?” This is the kind of banter one might hear as girls bump into each other buying post-taco Slurpees at the 7-Eleven.
“Angel! I know, it’s been a long time — that’s ’cause I’m not staying in Hollywood no more, chica. I got me a husband and we moved over to Culver City.”
A husband is a stretch, but it’s a term kids commonly fling around in an attempt at permanence or stability. When Tracy asks Angel more questions about her man, Angel will likely demur unless the two are legitimately good friends. Teenagers are known for stealing one another’s boyfriends, especially when there’s a perceived scarcity, like there is in this community.
Standing on the corner of Highland and Santa Monica, you can feel positively cultured, as canned classical music is piped out of a loudspeaker and into the parking lot all night long. I heard that it was the Chinese restaurant that put this in, in an oddly misguided attempt to curb loitering. But teenagers like Vivaldi as much as anyone else, and they gather there, shouting over its trills, bobbing their heads in four-four time. Gossip speeds along the sidewalk, as kids swap secrets about crushes and losses, and dish about what no-good ho stole another girl’s man. Some kids, though certainly not all, climb in and out of cars — hustling for cash. In this crowd there’s competition for men and money and good clothes and popularity just like at any high school in America, and on the Boulevard you can find out who’s winning. The Boulevard is also where you can hear about who just got her breasts pumped and looks damn good, and who went back home to live with her mother, becoming a boy again. It’s where you can learn from the older girls that not everyone has surgery and not everyone wants it, because a woman can have a penis and — girl! — no one can tell her she can’t. It’s where you can listen to the new Pink CD on your friend’s Walkman and play video games at the all-night Donut Time. It’s where you can feel normal, connected, hip. It’s where you can be a teenager.
Around the corner from Santa Monica and up the street, on Highland, is an unremarkable brown office building. It’s the kind of place that houses dozens of low-rent and high-turnaround businesses: limo services, temp agencies, computer repair places, accounting firms. Every weekday morning a handful of transgender kids stumble in with the rumpled brown suits and briefcased folks, because in the basement of this building is a high school, of sorts. Or was, when I became a teacher there.
I don’t even remember how I first heard about Eagles, the small, scrappy high school for gay and transgender teenagers. Probably just from a new acquaintance in a passing conversation. But it had piqued my interest; I was curious who would go there, since when I was a kid, there was no such thing as a gay school, and hardly any such thing as a gay student. Would these kids be harassed, troubled, in need? I wondered if I could help in any way. By then I had been living in Los Angeles for six months, and an itchy boredom with the town had begun to creep up my spine. Having moved from New York so my partner, Robin, could get a Ph.D., I was missing an urban edge and lonesome for community beyond my dining-room table. I worked at home as a freelance magazine writer, and I had extra time to volunteer, maybe once a week, maybe twice. So that winter (which didn’t really feel like a winter at all), I rang up the school.