The first thing you realize when you talk to Cheryl is that she adores her kids. “I was born here in Calgary and raised here, been here all my life. I have three wonderful kids, but I am not allowed to see them. The court feels that, because I am a transgender woman, it would cause psychological damage to them,” Cheryl tells me with a soft and sad voice. She is tall and timid, and really happy she has a safe place to come to almost every day.
Cheryl has been a Shift client for almost three years. “I had a severe depression and I ended up being suicidal. After my third attempt, they put me in the hospital and I was there for four months. When I got out, I had nothing; my breastplates were gone, my belongings were gone, everything was gone; so I got out of the hospital and I was living on the street. To be precise, I was living in my van and I was working the stroll in Forest Lawn,” says Cheryl. It was then that somebody gave her a card for Shift.
The first time Cheryl came out as a transgender woman, living her life as a female was 15 years ago. She was taking hormones and getting ready for surgery, when she hooked up with a woman she met at a party. A couple of weeks later, the woman showed up at Cheryl’s door, informing her that she was pregnant. Recognizing she was about to become a parent, Cheryl realized that she had to choose between either pursue her dream as a woman or being part of her child’s life. “I wasn’t allowed both, so I picked my child,” says Cheryl. She had to put everything on hold. Years later, in consultation with her psychiatrist, she decided to continue her pursuit of her real identity and re-embarked on her journey of transition into life as a woman.
Twelve years had passed with her playing the role of being a man. And the transition hasn’t been easy. “Being a transgender woman, I don’t fit in with the, I guess you want to call them the ‘straight crowd’ and I don’t fit in with the gay, lesbian or bisexual crowd, so kind of just hover in the centre.”, which is why the safe and nonjudgemental support of the Shift program means so much to her.
When Cheryl got the Shift card, she needed a couple of weeks to get in touch with the agency. “The support counsellor here was very understanding and she didn’t condemn me or anything for what I was doing. I told her I had no money so I’m doing what I have to do to at least eat. Next thing I knew, there was a lady from the Canadian Mental Health Association that came in, and the Shift counsellor asked me if I would please talk to her. So I sat down and we talked, and all of a sudden I had a place to live. When I moved in, I owned nothing. The only thing I had was two short dresses. That was all I owned, and I talked with the Shift counsellor some more and next thing I know she called an agency; they show up and I got all of these clothes, and I just felt wonderful that I had someone there that actually cared,” adds Cheryl.
“I honestly don’t know. If it wasn’t for that lady from Shift walking up to me and giving me that card, I don’t know what would have happened to me. Honestly it’s been nothing but support and they help me with even the littlest things, like in wintertime when you don’t have a jacket. When I don’t have anything to eat, they give me food, and the nicest thing about all of it is they don’t condemn me. I tell them that sometimes money is so tight, I have to go back out and work, and they don’t condemn me for it, they just tell me “you have to be safe,” says the tall woman with the softest voice. She adds that it’s wonderful to have an organization that supports her.
Cheryl doesn’t hesitate when asked if she has a message for the other transgender people out there. “Don’t give up, don’t give up, as hard as it is, as lonely as it is, you can come to a place like Shift and you have someone that will stand beside you and will help you and me.”