Transgender activist Dee Perez is a study in transitions, not only morphing from male to female during her 28-year lifespan but rising from the projects and drug addiction to become a successful community activist and mentor to countless adults and students around issues of homophobia and marginalization. As founder of Gays and Lesbians of Bushwick Empowered (GLOBE), Perez has made it her life’s work to end discrimination against L.G.B.T. people, focusing her energies on Bushwick and other underserved sections of Brooklyn such as nearby Bedford-Stuyvesant and Ridgewood.
The fifth of eight Puerto Rican children raised by a single mother, Perez grew up known by her birth name, David, in the Hope Gardens projects in Bushwick, and as an effeminate child, knew firsthand the discrimination she now works to eradicate: Taunts of "You faggot!" and bullying followed her through junior high school, becoming so debilitating that at age 14, Perez dropped out of Bushwick High School, three weeks into freshman year.
"It’s sad when you walk up to the door and literally be afraid for your life, and this is the place where you’re supposed to get your education so you can excel," said Perez, who turned to heroin and crack cocaine shortly thereafter to assuage the pain, an addiction that lasted until age 20. "Drugs became my body armor. They enabled me to walk down the street or take the train without fearing for my life."
In 1998, Perez sought help from local priest and activist Father John Powis, who emboldened him to face his fears drug free. Powis then introduced him to two New York University law students who had recently started Make the Road by Walking, a social-service advocacy organization for low-income people of color in Bushwick. Perez, who considered himself gender-ambiguous at the time, had long seen the need for L.G.B.T. groups in Bushwick and the outer boroughs and proposed the idea. Shortly thereafter, GLOBE was born under Make the Road’s auspices, with Perez as its volunteer director.
As GLOBE grew, Perez grew with it, transitioning from David to Dee with the help of hormones beginning in 2002. That she did so in Bushwick, in front of the very people who knew her as David, is significant.
"This is my home, my community," said Perez, who met with her fair share of resistance from within and outside Make the Road. "Educating people has taken time, but it’s happened. The change in attitudes needs to happen here."
That conviction led Perez to challenge principals of area high schools back in 1999, soon after starting GLOBE.
"I told them, ‘You have a problem in your schools. I know, because I couldn’t get an education in Bushwick, and gay kids tell me it’s not safe for them now.’ I said, ‘Let me come in and do anti-bias workshops with students and staff to help solve the problem,’ " said Perez. Three Bushwick principals agreed. Within a few years, Perez had enlisted several GLOBE members to help her run trainings, and in 2005, GLOBE was awarded an $80,000 grant to formalize its safe schools initiative. For the first time in seven years, Perez herself was drawing a full-time salary from GLOBE and overseeing a volunteer staff of 15.
In the meantime, Perez has also taken GLOBE citywide, increasing the group’s visibility and effectiveness through actions such as the protest outside Grand Central Station in February on behalf of 70-year-old Helena Stone, a male-to-female transgender employee of Verizon for 37 years, who had been subjected to harassment and arrest by M.T.A. police while working at the station and attempting to use the women’s restroom. That demonstration, which GLOBE spearheaded along with the Transgender Legal and Education Defense Fund, drew significant press coverage, resulting in an admission of wrongdoing and a quick shift in policy by the M.T.A.
Historically, being transgender has meant not only being at the periphery of mainstream culture but also at the margins of the marginalized, and Perez is not one to shy away from the transphobia that exists within the lesbian and gay community.
Perez leads a protest on behalf of Helena Stone, a male-to-female transgender person, at Grand Central Station.
"There’s still a lot of misunderstanding, but things have gotten better," she said. "We need to keep working at it." Similar issues crop up in romance. As Perez tells it, most men are too embarrassed to stroll in public with transgender women, making it next to impossible to find a fulfilling relationship. That all changed for Perez in 2004, when she met her fiancé, Christopher Linder.
"This is the guy that, like, he swept me off my feet. This guy is the first guy that ever took me out into public, that held my hand, that took me to the movies," she said.
For one who has toiled so hard to create safe spaces for so many, such affirmation was long overdue. Long overdue, indeed.