By Desiree Cooper
Bre’Ann Campbell didn’t set out to change the world – she’s been too busy working on her personal transformation. But in the process, the confident 26-year-old Detroiter has become an unwitting advocate for trans women everywhere.
“I’ve known that I wanted to be a woman since I was three,” said Campbell, who was born male. “For the longest, I’ve been searching for someone who is strong and looking out for trans women. I didn’t realize that I was becoming that person.”
Born in North Carolina, Campbell moved to the Detroit area as a teenager.
“I struggled with my sexuality, with the clothes I wore and how I carried myself,” said Campbell, who attended high school in Taylor, Michigan. “During puberty, I looked at what was happening to the girls around me and was sad that those changes weren’t happening to me.”
Campbell was clear that she was attracted to men, but that she didn’t want to be a man – she wasn’t gay. Struggling to understand the difference between gender and sexuality, she became depressed. At 16, she discovered Detroit’s transgender community, and was suddenly clear that she identified as transgender. The problem was that she didn’t see any positive examples of what it meant to be a trans woman.
“Many of the trans women that I met were sex workers,” said Campbell. “I didn’t want to transition in order to be sexualized. I wanted to marry and raise a family.”
At 23, Campbell began to do some soul searching. She started thinking about what it would take for her to become a healthy trans woman, including having a job with health benefits, getting into counseling and garnering the support of family and friends. In 2007, she landed a job at Wayne State University as an HIV tester and counselor with the Horizons Project, a program that provides services to HIV positive and at-risk youth ages 13 to 24.
With some job security, she broke the news to her mother in 2009, who has accepted Campbell’s transition. “My mom’s friends know that she originally had a son and a daughter, but now she adamantly insists that she had two daughters,” Campbell said.
Since her transition in 2010, her mother has gone to therapy with Campbell and has helped with her hormone shots. “She misses the child she raised,” said Campbell. “But she sees that I’m in a much happier place.”
Campbell has been similarly welcomed by many in her inner circle, including her church. “Now when I talk about my old self, people don’t even remember that person,” she said.
The making of an advocate
But her transition has been far from easy. In 2010, Campbell went apartment hunting. She found the perfect place and filled out an application, but that’s when things went awry.
“They saw my birth name on the application and insisted that they couldn’t process it because it wasn’t my correct information,” said Campbell. “The next day they called and said I wasn’t approved.”
Angered by the denial, she eventually took her case to Equality Michigan and the Michigan Department of Civil Rights. Campbell’s case received publicity, launching her into the public spotlight. Although investigators could not find sufficient evidence that she had been the victim of gender identity discrimination, the incident awakened yet another identity in Campbell – that of an activist.
“When I transitioned, I never expected to lose rights that I had before,” she said. “I can’t even go to the bathroom. At a previous job, they once called security because some women felt that because I wasn’t born female, I couldn’t use their bathrooms. I was told that I had to use a unisex bathroom or the men’s room.”
It became hard for her to search for jobs. “I would look great on paper, but when I showed up not looking like the person with a male name, I’d get shut out,” she said.
She officially changed her name in 2011, a moment she remembers as “the best feeling of my life.” Even that hasn’t stopped the harassment. When she tried to change her name on her utility bills, the Secretary of State, the Social Security office and even at work, “they were all confused and felt that I owed them an explanation,” she said. “If I had gotten married and wanted to change my name, no one would have questioned it.”
She is now committed to changing not only the public perception of trans women, but also the image that trans women have of themselves. At the end of last year, she participated in a forum about trans women at KICK!, an agency for Detroit area LGBT African Americans. In the forum, she encouraged an open dialogue about trans women and sex work, a conversation that met with some backlash. “It’s a fact of life for some people,” Campbell said. “We have to be able to talk about it.”
Now a board member of KICK!, Campbell is finding that she’s becoming a role model for younger women. “I don’t want to play a woman,” she said. “Instead of demanding respect as a woman, I try to show them what it really means to be one.”
A woman for all women
Campbell confesses that she sometimes feels like she makes the life of a transgender woman seem easy. “I wasn’t thrown out of my house when I came out,” she said. “I haven’t had to live on the streets. I have a lot of support that many others just don’t have.”
But her leadership has taken a personal toll. Campbell was in a serious relationship with a boyfriend who accepted that she was transgender. But when she wanted to come out as a trans woman, he balked. “He was afraid of what others would think about him,” she said.
Her activism not only cost her that relationship, but it may even put her in danger. “People who know me worry about my safety,” she said. “When anyone Googles my name, it comes up that I’m a trans activist.”
Campbell isn’t concerned about what others think. “What’s done is done,” she said. “I had the life I always wanted when I changed my name and lived as a heterosexual woman dating a heterosexual man, and never speaking of my trans identity. But that was boring. I’d do this 1,000 times over so that trans women can have a beacon of hope.”