Life can be tough for a 25-year-old navigating their way through the world, trying to figure out where they belong.
For Dominique Walker, of Wilkes-Barre, the hindrances of becoming the woman she wants to be go beyond finishing her education, establishing a career and meeting a significant other ready to commit to a relationship — critical goals for her to procure.
For Walker, a transgender woman, not feeling like a prisoner trapped in the wrong body is a prerequisite to finding happiness.
“I feel like a princess that’s stuck in a castle and wants to come out but can’t,” Walker said.
Today’s generation is the first to see trans people represented on television, gracing magazine covers and honored with awards for courage. It’s the first generation to go to school with transitioning people. The world has yet to teach society how to handle the topic of being trans and people are still learning to adapt, to accept, to understand.
“Most people around here think I’m a freak or that I’m confused,” Dominique said. “I want people to know that I’m not a confused person. I know who I am. I’m a woman. I don’t need Jesus in my life, either. I don’t need help. I need society to accept me for me — not judge me.”
I spent a day with Dominique recently. I went to work with her. I went to her apartment. I met her best friend and her male companion. We went for lunch. We went shopping and she tried on clothes. I listened to her story of discovering who she is and found out why she moved to Northeastern Pennsylvania to live freely as a woman. Now it’s time for everybody else to hear her story.
‘YOU HAVE TO BE YOURSELF’
There are a few minutes left in Dominique’s shift at The Home Depot when her coworker, Nancy, a 60-year-old who admits she’s “still old-fashioned,” approaches the register to take over.
Nancy describes Dominique as a “sweetheart” and says, “I like him.”
When asked why she uses the male pronoun, Nancy said, “Because he’s a male.” She admits to struggling with calling Dominique a female because she doesn’t completely understand the difference between being a gay person and being a transgender person.
Dominique prefers people use female pronouns, but doesn’t correct those who don’t. “I want people to be understanding, but at the same time, I want people to be comfortable,” she said.
Walker hasn’t begun male-to-female hormone replacement therapy — she can’t afford it. She said she has identified with being female since fourth grade when her classmates dressed up as historic figures they wanted to report on for Black History Month and she came to school dressed as Harriett Tubman — wearing her step-mother’s scarf and nightgown.
“The kids all made fun of me,” Dominique said. “They were calling me gay. I didn’t know what homosexuality was, what transgender was. I just knew I wanted to be a girl.”
As much as Nancy doesn’t understand Dominique’s gender identity, she accepts it. “You have to be yourself, whoever it is,” she says.
THE LOVES OF HER LIFE
By noon, Dominique’s four-hour shift is over and it’s time to go home and change for lunch. She’s excited because her best friend, Cecilia “Cici” Humphrey, is meeting up with her for a “girls day.”
Dominique and I walk two miles to her apartment. She doesn’t have a car because being a transgender person prevents employers from hiring her for a full-time job that pays well. She said she makes $9 per hour at her job and is not often scheduled many hours. “I only have 17 hours this week,” she said. “Sometimes it’s more, sometimes it’s less.”
Dominique’s check — which she gets every other week — ranges from $179 to $379. Sometimes, she has less than a hundred bucks a week.
She wants the government to step up and pay for her gender reassignment, believing the government’s role could help society accept the transgender community.
“The government allowed gay marriage and people are starting to accept gay marriage more. Everybody goes by what government and religion accepts. That’s where people get their judgment and opinions from,” she said. “So, if we get more acceptance from the government and religion, we’d probably get more acceptance from society.”
Instead, Dominique’s circle of support is small. Her father died of cancer in 2014 and her mother acts more like a sister, she said.
“My father couldn’t accept it, but my mother calls me her daughter,” Dominique said. “She just acts more like my sister than my mother. We talk, but we have a rocky relationship.”
Her relationship with her parents, on top of being misunderstood and bullied by her peers, is why she moved from Pleasantville, New Jersey, to Wilkes-Barre in October 2010. “Nobody knew who I was here. I wanted to get away to somewhere I could be free to live as a woman.”
She came to realize NEPA wouldn’t understand her any better.
“There’s a lot of judgment and ignorance toward being transgender in this area because a lot of people here are religious,” she said.
Dominique doesn’t know what she’d do without Cici, and Eddie Krushefski, the man who took her in when she had nowhere to go in October 2014.
“He’s like my boyfriend, but not my boyfriend. We’re friends. I don’t know what we are,” Dominique said.
Both Cici and Eddie are inside Dominique’s apartment when she gets home from work. Dominique goes with Cici to the bedroom to help her find an outfit to wear to lunch. Eddie stays in the living room.
“We’re basically friends with benefits,” Eddie said. “I love his personality. I love his thoughts. I care about him a lot. He’s somebody I worry about a lot.”
Eddie uses male pronouns to describe Dominique — out of “social habit,” he said.
Eddie always identified as being straight before meeting Dominique. Now he just goes with the flow, accepting Dominique as a woman.
Dominique comes out of her bedroom wearing a skirt that Cici helped pick out. It’s time to go to lunch.
MORE THAN A WOMAN
Dominique and Cici head to Old Country Buffet for lunch because Humphrey works there and gets a 50 percent discount.
Before Dominique gets to her table, a group that appears to be in their early 20s laughs at her. She pays no attention. Walker has more important things to worry about, she said. She has hopes and dreams.
“I’d love to be a secretary and have sex with my boss on top of the fax machine. Sleep my way to the top,” Walker said jokingly. “But seriously, I dream of going back to school and finishing my associates degree in business. I’d like to open a business in the fashion industry that everybody can feel comfortable going to — people of different sizes. I don’t want it to matter if they’re Gothic or hip-hop or punk or transgender. I want them to feel comfortable and accepted. I know from experience that it’s not fair to only accept one thing. We’re in this big world together. I want to do something that we all could share.”
Fashion is an escape for Dominique. Shopping and trying on clothes gives the trans woman a break from reality, a chance to feel beautiful. That’s why the next stop, after lunch, was Wet Seal at the Wyoming Valley Mall.
Cici helps Dominique zip up the back of a dress. She’s always there for her, she says. “I was bullied growing up,” Cici said. “I know what it’s like to feel like nobody is in your corner and nobody will stick up for you. I’m in her corner. I’ll always be in her corner. She didn’t ask to be born in the wrong body. Nobody would ask for that. It just happened,” Cici said.
Dominique exited the dressing room in a navy blue dress and long silver necklace. She looked beautiful, Cici said. She felt beautiful. In that moment, away from the people who judge her and don’t understand her, she was free to be the woman she wants to be. The princess was out of her castle.
Reach Justin Adam Brown at 570.991.6652 and on Twitter @wkdr
For support, resources and education about the trans community, The NEPA Rainbow Alliance Trans Discussion Group invites transgender people and their allies to their meetings, held on the second Sunday and fourth Wednesday of the month, at a confidential location in Wilkes-Barre.
Group facilitator, Mary Beth Frye, LCSW, encourages people with questions about the group to contact The NEPA Rainbow Alliance at 570-972-2523.