These Michigan Auto Enthusiasts Love Their Cars. They Just Happen to Be Trans Women.

The prevalence of transgender women among car enthusiasts is hard to gauge. But if the two who sat down with Pride Source are any indication, it's time to gear up and remove any real or imagined barriers.

Raising Hell

Kelli Lin Kraft has been to hell and back - in more ways than one. Her black '69 Nova, Hellraiser, was purchased in Hell, Michigan in 2001. It was likely headed for the junk heap, but Kraft rescued the rusted out Chevy and rebuilt it from the ground up.

"It was in really bad shape," said Kraft, a transgender woman living in Dearborn. "So I stripped it down, cut all the bad metal away and put [in] brand new metal. Basically, everything's been replaced on that car, except for the roof skin." Kraft continued with the specs. "The Hellraiser has a 383 stroker motor in it. It has 500 horses. It has a racing trans in it. It has a 12-bolt posi rear end in it with 4.10 gears."

Kelli Kraft. Courtesy photo

Kelli Kraft's classic car, the "Hellraiser." Courtesy photo

A skeleton, Private Malone, sits permanently in the backseat.

"The kids just rave over it," Kraft said of Hellraiser. With "2 Hell & Back" splashed across the windshield and an abundance of skull artistry, "It gets a lot of attention."

It wouldn't be until 2015 that Hellraiser was in the award-winning condition it is today. Not only did Kraft have a car to restore, she had her own personal and physical struggles to endure. First was the breakup of her marriage. Then, following a spinal injection mishap, Kraft spent years recovering from paralysis. And she would be debilitated once again following an accident with a drunk driver.

"The government really kind of screwed me out of everything," Kraft said, about her battle for disability benefits. "I'm a survivor. I've had so much happen in my life. Everybody says I should write a book."

Kraft credits Hellraiser with motivating her to regain her health. "I love cruising," she said. "It's enjoyment for me, especially going from where I couldn't walk and all that. It brought me back. It gave me that hope."

The Wanderers are a Downriver car club where Kraft found community. But after almost a lifetime, when she finally made the decision to come out publicly as Kelli last fall, Kraft was ready to give up the auto life for good.

Shortly after coming out on her Facebook page, one of the women in Kraft's car club hit her up with an offer.

"She's like, 'So are we going to see you this year?,'" Kraft said. "And I'm like, 'No, I wasn't planning on it. I kind of was going to give the car thing up because I don't think I'll fit in.' And she's like, 'Girl, you need to bring that car. Anybody that don't like it here and can't accept you don't have to be here. We are a club that we accept all people, all right?'"

Kraft couldn't have imagined how transitioning would transform her outlook on life. She said she's sure taking hormones saved her from suicide. Today, "I love myself and I love my life. I couldn't have it any other way other than I wish I would have done this long ago." Over time, she slimmed down from 325 pounds. Formerly camera shy, Kraft now calls herself a selfie queen.

Kraft said she feels accepted and comfortable. She enjoys the attention she gets when she's cruising in Hellraiser.

"I get the looks and some people come up to me and they're like, 'Oh, did you buy that car from that guy?,'" Kraft said. "And I'm like, 'That guy is me.'"

The Real Rosie the Riveter

Cassandra Valentine loves her job. She's a tool and die maker for Ford Motor Company, which means she helps manufacture metal car parts for Ford vehicles. It's not just physical work - it requires extreme precision.

"I don't consider my job a job," Valentine said. "I consider my job more of a hobby because I get to create things from scratch." In her department at Woodhaven Stamping, she's able to create her own continuous improvement projects. "It's satisfying," she added. "It's one of those things that you step back and you say, 'I did that.'"

Valentine, who lives in Trenton, has been with Ford for almost five years. But she got her start in tool and die long ago. In 1989, at a time when she had been laid off and was unsure of what career path to take, Valentine's father brought her into his tool and die shop in Belleville where she completed the training program and has stuck with the profession ever since.

Valentine is a huge proponent of women in the skilled trades.

"People in general just need to think that they could do anything as long as they put their minds to it," Valentine said. "In fact, when I started my transition, I had a lady come up to me. She says, 'Can a woman get into tool and die?' And my answer was, 'Absolutely. [It's like] most things in the world -you don't use your genitals as a work tool. You use your hands and your mind.'"

When Valentine interviewed for her position, it was just two weeks before the "bomb" went off in her head that told her, "I'm not who I think I am." She told Human Resources she would be transitioning. Following a delay due to construction at the plant, "I was able to transition and walk into Ford Motor Company," Valentine said. Later she would learn from a coworker a meeting had been convened to announce the arrival of the new transgender team member and warn folks they could be terminated for saying something wrong. Rightly, Valentine made her displeasure known to her higher ups to ensure trans employees wouldn't be outed like that in the future.

Rosie the Riveter is an icon to Valentine, who considers herself a modern-day Rosie. "If it wasn't for the Rosies in World War II supplying munitions for our troops, taking care of our country here in the homeland, we would have lost the war," she said.

With that inspiration, in March, Valentine created an elaborate Rosie display at work to celebrate Women's Month and Rosie the Riveter Day.

Women in the skilled trades should remember their Rosie roots, Valentine asserts. "Those are the people that paved the way for all of us women in the working industries in general," she said.

Outside of work, Valentine is an artist and a musician who enjoys cruising in her dark blue '67 Mustang, Eleanor. Her day-to-day is a red 2019 Mustang fittingly named Ruby.

Reflecting on whether she experiences transphobia in the workplace, Valentine said she hadn't noticed it outright, but expressed a frustration familiar to many women.

"There are some times where I feel as though I'm not taken serious enough and that I have to prove myself," Valentine said. "It's kind of like the story of time, where women have had to fight for their independence, the right to vote, the right to work. And there's always that individual, that one male individual that has that attitude of, 'You don't know anything. You're a girl.'"


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