A Diva in the Making

Chanel Dita wants to champion transgender rights. But first, she's got a date with Jerry Springer.

Chanel wore makeup anyway. She wore her tight jeans and her breasts. And the latter became a point of contention, a symbol of Chanel's defiance. People constantly asked if they were real, she says.

"If they aren't, you have to take them off."

But she wasn't removing them for anything, not for a physical, not now after she had finally determined who she was: a heterosexual woman. The Covenant House in L.A. had accepted her as who she was, Chanel says. There, she lived in the male wing, but in a hallway with gay boys and other transsexuals. Everyone, staff included, called her Dita. The bathroom was unisex.

With an arsenal of make up, Chanel gets ready for the evening.
Deron Neblett
With an arsenal of make up, Chanel gets ready for the evening.

Both houses are part of an international network founded in New York to provide homeless youths with shelter, meals, medical care, counseling and classes. The Texas location opened in Montrose in 1983. Rhonda Robinson has worked there for all 17 years, the last two as executive director. Her speech is brusque, her movements reined in near her body, but she is not at all cold. When street kids shout her name from across Lovett Boulevard, she waves them over to listen to their unbelievable tales. And she believes them.

As for Chanel, though, Robinson categorically denies every accusation made by the "young person." No one asked about breasts, she says. No one forced the young person to dress like a boy, though they did ask the teen not to wear a dress; that might bother other residents. And Covenant House most certainly does not kick people out without offering to secure another place to stay. In truth, she says, they proposed to let the young person sleep in the intake building so that the person could get a physical in the morning and be readmitted into the program. Jeff declined, she says.

"We are a licensed child-care facility," Robinson says of the requirement for a physical. "It is not to determine whether someone is male or female. It's part of the licensing agreement."

National Covenant House spokesperson Richard Hirsh says some shelters tried to accommodate transgenders in separate quarters. But Houston, he guesses, had limited experience with such a "difficult situation."

Robinson readily admits, "To be honest, this is the first time I've heard the term "transgender.' "

Those who work with troubled youths say other transgendered teens have received similar treatment at Covenant House Texas. Carol Petrucci, program director for the Houston Area Teen Coalition of Homosexuals (HATCH), says last year a male-to-female transsexual in Covenant House's residential program was asked to dress as a male.

"For her to dress in male clothing was just degrading," she says. "She couldn't deal with it because she had to dress in a way that made her feel crappy. There's no other way to describe it."

David Fuller, former housing director of the Houston Regional HIV/AIDS Resource Group, which distributes funds to agencies like Covenant House, remembers another teen who stayed at the shelter in late spring and complained the shelter threatened to kick him out if he dressed in female clothing. Fuller asked the teen to make a formal written complaint, but he said he was too scared.

"I'm not sure where I would tell a transgendered kid to go," says Fuller, who has coordinated the Homeless Youth Network and compiled a database of temporary housing programs.

"If they're receiving federal funds -- which they are from HUD -- they're not supposed to discriminate," he says.

Another youth worker, who spoke anonymously, says Chanel tends to embellish, "but I think some of it is accurate." "Clients that dress in drag have a hard time with their staff. All clients do not receive fair and equal services."

When Chanel found herself with packed bags again, she called Brenda Thomas, the founder of a transgender support group, whom she had met the week before. As she waited for her ride, around the corner a group rallied outside the ritzy Colombe d'Or restaurant, protesting the Human Rights Campaign's failure to back the inclusion of transgenders in the federal Employment Non-Discrimination Act.

That night Cristan Williams, who publishes a transgender newsletter, called shelter after shelter, but none would take Chanel. If Chanel had AIDS or a substance abuse problem, housing was available, but not for a down-and-out transsexual who had quit smoking and is a vegetarian. A straight woman, whose sister is active in the gay and lesbian community, offered her home to Chanel, and she has stayed there since. She had not planned to remain in Houston, but now she has a cause to fight for; she hopes Covenant House Texas can become as accepting as Covenant House California.

Chanel did an interview with the Houston Voice. She spoke on KPFT's After Hours show. Thomas and Williams met with Robinson, and she agreed to let them hold educational sessions for its staff.

Meanwhile, Chanel searches for a regular job. She plans to undergo sex-change surgery by age 30. She wants to earn her GED, study law to help other trannies, and start a tranny magazine, a tranny talk show and, of course, a transgender shelter. She figures she'll live till 80, and that's enough time to accomplish all that and become famous too.

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