One student’s journey to begin living as a woman.
by Jeffrey Billman | photos by Scott Cook
Before we go further, a quick word about the nomenclature of gender identity is in order. The term “transgender” is something of an umbrella, encompassing groups of individuals who often don’t adhere to binary gender norms. Included are transsexuals—those, like Alaine Jolicoeur, who identify with the gender opposite that of their birth, whether they’ve gone through sex reassignment surgery or not.
Here’s the other thing: The term “transgender” is commonly lumped in with the designations lesbian, gay, and bisexual—as in the acronym LGBT—but unlike those categories, it has nothing to do with sexual orientation. Trans people can be gay, straight, bisexual, or asexual. Rather, “trans” describes gender identity, which is not about sexuality at all, but about one’s internal sense of being a man or a woman.
For all the progress gays and lesbians have made in recent decades, transgender people often remain outsiders among outsiders, experiencing extreme discrimination. In 33 states, including Florida, transgender people can be legally fired for no reason other than their gender identity. (In 29 states, also including Florida, the same goes for gays and lesbians.) In 2007, when the U.S. House of Representatives first passed the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, House Democrats stripped the bill of protections for transgender people before bringing it to a vote. (The bill passed the House but failed in the Senate.)
The statistics for transgender people are daunting: 90 percent report experiencing harassment or mistreatment on the job, and nearly 20 percent have been or are currently homeless.
“In the back of my mind there was fear,” Jolicoeur says of her decision to live as a woman. We were talking the day the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a key part of the Defense of Marriage Act, in essence granting married gays and lesbians the same federal rights as married opposite-sex couples. She was thrilled with the ruling, but also aware that even as the LGB cause advances, the T’s remain among the most marginalized groups in society.
“The defining moment of my life was the murder of my father when I was 11,” Jolicoeur says in a soft, matter-of-fact voice.
She* recalls things this way, like she’s reciting names and dates from a history textbook. She was born January 30, 1991. Her father was murdered in August 2002. She describes August 9, 2002, to January 15, 2003—the period between her father’s death and when the family finally escaped to the U.S.—as “the worst six months of my existence on this planet.”
Jolicoeur was born in Haiti, into an upper-middle-class home, and grew up in a suburb of Port-au-Prince. Her mother was a vice principal at her academy, her father a CFO who railed against institutional corruption. “He was not one of the lucky ones who was able to exile from the country,” she says. “He was murdered by remnants of the regime.”
Her father was killed during his morning jog. A group of men pulled up next to him in a car, got out, and began speaking to him. There was an argument. He tried to run away. They chased him, and shot him 16 times. (A few days later, the men who were hired to kill her father came to her house, looking for the family. They couldn’t get in, so the men shot out the windows instead.)
Jolicoeur was at a summer camp in the U.S. when her father died. She was quickly returned to Haiti, where her mother relayed the news. “It was so very painful,” Jolicoeur says. “There is still a wound inside my heart. He was a quiet individual, extremely brilliant, who had a lot of passion for education and was a strong believer in meritocracy. He was a brilliant man. My father was all about proof and logic in his decision-making. He was very into soccer and reading.”
That January, a family lawyer telephoned Jolicoeur’s mother to say that, because of the difficult situation the country faced and continuing threats to the family, they needed to leave. “That was very difficult for my mom,” Jolicoeur says. “My parents had worked really hard. We had property, all these things. We just sort of lost it all and had to start from scratch.”
They moved to Miami, where Jolicoeur’s aunt lived. In Haiti, Alaine had attended a Catholic boarding school. In Miami, it was a public middle and high school. It wasn’t always easy.
Jolicoeur first suspected she was different at age 4. At 8, she found the entry for “homosexual” in an encyclopedia and thought, “Oh my God, this is me.” But that description was, in the end, inadequate. She dressed differently—eschewing “gender-appropriate” colors—and played with dolls, feeling like a girl trapped in a boy’s body.
“It’s a fundamental feeling,” Jolicoeur says. “Clearly, I’ve been lied to, lied to by society, by my own environment.”
In 2003, Alaine came out as gay—to her school, not her family. “I suffered a lot for it,” Jolicoeur says. She took honors and AP classes to avoid contact with most of her peers. She participated in the school’s Gay-Straight Alliance. At home, though, she was living a completely different life. Being gay, much less transgender, was unthinkable.
Alaine wouldn’t tell her family she was gay until her first year at Rollins.
*In order to respect Jolicoeur, and for the sake of clarity, from this point on, I will refer to Alaine by her chosen name and with female pronouns, even when discussing events that occurred in the past.