Persia Lynette Brewer transitioned in the toughest conditions imaginable. Still she endures, using her experience to help others.
WORDS AND PHOTOS BY CRYSTAL MILNER
According to the national numbers, the average life expectancy in the United States is slightly short of 80 years old. In 1900, the average life span was 47 years; 118 years later, transgender women of color aren’t expected to live beyond 35.
Homelessness, violence, and lack of healthcare are common contributing factors. And Persia Brewer, a black trans woman born and raised in Boston, is no stranger to these troubling adversities. Forced from her home on Blue Hill Avenue at 17 and fed to the streets of her native Dorchester, Brewer quickly learned how to survive.
“I was traveling all over the nation doing sex work,” Brewer says. “I went to a lot of different states. I dealt with celebrities, I dealt with politicians. That was what I knew, that is what a lot of other trans women had exposed me to as a means to survive.”
During the early stages of her transition, most of the knowledge that Brewer acquired came from the streets. She started injecting illegal hormones that a friend scored in New York, each shipment arriving in two small containers—one red, and one clear.
“I really didn’t know what it was,” Brewer says. “I knew it was hormones, because of the way it was changing my body, but I really wasn’t clear on what she was giving me.”
At the same time, living at the intersection of transgender, black, and woman left her vulnerable to microaggressions and discrimination.
“You’re smart and intelligent, and that has value way more than whatever you see in the mirror or whatever other people see when they look at you,” Brewer says.
In her mid-30s, Brewer has experienced life in ways most people couldn’t imagine, let alone survive. This is her story, in snapshots:
Weekday mornings begin around 6 am for Brewer. She takes a shower, brews a pot of coffee while she picks an outfit, then begins her makeup routine. There was once a time Brewer couldn’t wear makeup so freely: “I can remember going in my grandmother’s closet, taking her shoes out, walking around the house in her shoes, taking her dresses out, putting on her lipstick, playing in her makeup and trying to put it all back before she came home,” she recalls. “My family always knew.” Born as Jason Wade Anthony Brewer in 1981 in Roxbury, she legally changed her name to Persia Lynette Brewer in 2014.
For roughly three years leading up to her participation in this project, Brewer woke up in an apartment just off Blue Hill Avenue in Dorchester, located in the same complex she lived in two decades ago. “I was 17 and living here,” says Brewer. “We lived upstairs from this apartment, and they kicked me out. … Well, my dad kicked me out.” During most of Brewer’s adolescent years, her dad, a local drug dealer, was in prison. Brewer visited him almost every weekend, and while she didn’t consider herself to be transitioning at the time of those visits, she recalls sitting across from her dad with nails painted and hair permed, wearing tight jeans and a shirt to match.
Being ostracized by family was just the beginning. At 25, Brewer was diagnosed with HIV after finding a boyfriend’s HIV meds and getting tested herself. Now she takes a Delestrogen shot, her hormone injection, every two weeks in addition to three pills she takes every day and evening for the virus. Four medication changes and 11 years later, Brewer says the HIV is undetectable.
When Brewer left home, she made sure to keep in touch with family. She visited for birthdays and during the holidays. Their relationship was slowly healing, but when Brewer started to get hormone treatment and shared that information with her family, even her mom, who had defended her against her father in the past, had trouble accepting the news. “She was actually very upset,” Brewer recalls. “She really did not agree with me taking a medication that would change the child that I guess she thought she raised.”
Brewer works for AIDS Action Committee in Roxbury. For 30 years, AIDS Action has advocated for fair and effective policies, and run cutting-edge prevention programs as well as various services for people living with HIV. A few times a month, Brewer joins a fellow colleague from AIDS Action to walk around Boston and do outreach.
“Persia, is that you?” One evening while working for AIDS Action in Dorchester, Brewer ran into an old friend. They shared some laughs then went their separate ways. “I really try to make an impact because those people I pass by, a lot of them know me,” Brewer says. “A lot of them have watched me transition from being a homeless trans woman on the street to a secure trans—I don’t even want to say trans—a secure advocate of women and struggling people.”
Brewer witnessed lots of violence on the streets. “I learned in time that the sex work industry is compiled into so many different facets that there is a huge portion of it that can be done without having sex at all. I really worked that niche as much as I could. I had one client who paid me $20,000 to put a leash around his neck and sponges on his knees and arms and he cleaned my whole house—walking around like a dog and barking,” she says.
As Brewer transitioned, she was also homeless and in and out of jail, at one point finding solace in a local drug dealer. “He made sure that I had money, shelter, food,” she recalls. “Pretty much anything I wanted, he would take care of.” One night, as Brewer was leaving her boyfriend’s house, three men on his stoop began harassing her. “The next thing you know,” she says, “two of them sort of move back, the other one takes a step back, I see the barrel of a gun, and I’m out.” She woke up three blocks away covered in blood. At 27, Brewer had been shot in the face—twice. “I was in the hospital for three months,” she adds. Brewer’s face was reconstructed with 52 titanium plate and 36 screws. The shooters weren’t found or brought to justice.
During her three-month stay at Boston Medical Center, Brewer was given multiple painkillers to help manage the pain from the surgeries. “Once those medications stopped, I ended up with a heroin addiction,” she says. Recognizing the toll substance abuse took on her life, she later checked herself into rehab, where she met a friend who in time became her live-in partner. “We enjoyed being social, going to movies, going shopping, we had a lot of similarities,” Brewer says.
In addition to working at Aids Action Committee of Mass as a transgender health navigator, Brewer lends her talent and effort to other grassroot causes as well. On some Wednesday evenings she helps to facilitate a chronic disease management program at Fenway Health. It’s a free six-week course open to anyone with a chronic illness, as well as their friends and family members. The class offers techniques for dealing with frustration, fatigue, pain, and isolation, and teaches students how to advocate for themselves during doctor’s visits, plus make healthy diet and exercise choices. “One of the things I really try to push in the class,” says Brewer, “is don’t allow your disease to be the reason why you don’t live.”
Though her partner was supportive for a while, Brewer ended the relationship after three years. Her boyfriend had a gambling problem and was not contributing to bills or chores. In the aftermath, he drained their shared bank account, and then worse. On a Monday morning last November, Brewer awoke to him entering her home at 3 am using a golf club. He destroyed a television and ransacked the kitchen; as he tried to enter Brewer’s bedroom, she used her strength to lean against the door as he repeatedly bashed the golf club into it. Police arrived before any more damage was done. The next day, Brewer changed her locks, filed a restraining order, and packed the rest of his belongings. Brewer’s landlord warned her that he found a pallet topped with sheets and blankets in the basement, and he suspected it belonged to her ex.
Brewer began her transition 15 years ago, during a time it was less socially acceptable. “They had always put it under a term of like drag queens,” she says. “I really started learning to love and to value myself. … It literally took about 4 or 5 years of just figuring it all out. If I wanted to really make the best of the life that I have, I’ve got to work at it and give myself the same amount of energy that I think I gave so many other people. … I think I would tell my younger self that your family is always going to love you—even when you don’t believe it.”