Cover Story

Tracie Jada O’Brien: A Trailblazer in Community Empowerment

By JP Emerson

My name is Tracy Jada O’Brien, I was born in 1951 in St. Louis, Missouri. I was born during a time when the world was socially and politically changing much like it is now. This was the era of the Vietnam War, racial unrest and racial injustice. My family migrated from Mississippi to St. Louis. My mom and dad didn’t raise us, my dad‘s parents did, I am the third of three children. I stayed with my mom for the first five years of my life and then my siblings and I were taken to our grandparents, and I think that’s when I first felt abandonment. My mom was very endearing to me, and it was hard to all of the sudden to be taken to my grandparents, but looking back in history that was kind of the way families survived back in the day were grandparents raised kids as the young adults tried to get their footing in an ever changing world which was the late 50s early 60s and I grew up knowing I was always different. I was uncomfortable in the physical state I was born, I knew I was a girl, I was more like my sister and my mom than I was my brother and my grandfather and I learned very quickly that it was inappropriate for me to act out on that so I began to hide it and mask it and as time went on it became very difficult for me to interact with my family because of this dysphoria I was experiencing. At the time I didn’t know gender dysphoria, but I had depression and isolation, so I grew up being a needy kid. 

When I was in the third of fourth grade one of my teachers saw ME (I’d like to think) because she was very endearing to me she even invited me to her home for dinner, this was the 60s and she was white but her family was black and looking back that was something very different for the time especially for a teacher to take that much interest in a child and be that endearing to a child and that child was me and I never forgot that but she probably saw something in me that needed to be affirmed and she help me with that. During the racial unrest of the 60s our grandparents kept us sheltered and luckily St. Louis didn’t experience much of the racial unrest that was happening in Chicago and down south, so we got lucky in that aspect, but it was still happening and with our grandparents sheltering us we lived somewhat normal lives. During my school time I was always lucky enough to meet someone that was effeminate like me, so I always had someone to hang out with. When I was 14, I shot up to 6‘3” tall which really scared me because I couldn’t see myself in the future being a 6’3” woman with big feet, long arms and being muscular so I stopped eating. Looking back that was part of my dysphoria. Also, I started working at the House of Pancakes in St. Louis in about 1967 and that’s why I discovered there’s a whole different world at night. That’s when I saw nighttime people, I saw drag queens, hookers and strippers because I would leave work late at night. I saw that there were female impersonators, and I could be a part of that community. Looking back I think my higher power always placed things in my path to make me okay because my family my school my employment was never affirming to me but that certain little part of my life was always affirming therefore I left home at a very early age and moved to San Francisco with a friend of mine who told me about the hippies there and how you can dress or be whoever you want. Before that I can remember growing up and having rocks and bricks thrown at me and running for my life and I’ve been running ever since I got clean and sober in 1991. 



Back in the 80s 90s and early 2000s there were places that were funded for people with HIV and AIDS who could no longer live at home or even on the streets, so they could go to these places and receive care, but it was much like hospice they would end up going there to die. One of those places was called Joshua House where I got a job as a caretaker. I started out with one client and by the end of the year I took care of the whole house. I worked there for three years basically until everybody had passed away. Then I went to school to become a drug and alcohol counselor which led me to work at Stepping Stones for six years where I was Director of Outpatient Programs. At that time, I was receiving gender affirming care, but I had many challenges and obstacles and I thought to myself there has to be more done for our community. This was also during the time of the LGBT social and political prominence, so the Trans community was slowly coming together. This was also the time that I worked with the then AIDS Foundation and I collaborated with them to become the first spokesperson/model for the first HIV prevention program for Trans women of color. That also started my work in advocacy. 


I was hired at Family Health Center to coordinate the first ever funded Transgender care program in San Diego County, at that time there was only one other trans support system which was through the San Diego LGBT Center. I was also hired by the Californian Endowment which funds capacity building and information gathering, etc. I was asked to bring the community together to create a freestanding organization and do a needs assessment report which was rather a daunting task because you’re asking and isolated community who has never been brought to the “table” to give this information. I was at the Los Angeles Transgender Day of Remembrance when I thought to myself, what about a Transgender Day of Empowerment which is completely opposite of the Transgender Day of Remembrance which is the time to come together to mourn those Transgender people we lost throughout the previous year. I thought what better way to counteract that sad occasion with a happy occasion. 

During that time, we also created transgender support activities in the community, we had the transgender community celebration, transgender community drag shows, transgender community support groups, transgender community female to male support groups and non-binary support groups. So essentially, I was tasked with creating systems here for the transgender community. What we learned was that the needs weren’t just with healthcare, there was also a need for housing, employment, access to affirming care that was affordable and attainable so I’m really thankful to Family Health Centers who provide transgender care to the community. We now have Transgender organizations not only in California but across the country which was a direct result of the people from the 2000s coming together with the Office of AIDS, The California Endowment and the help of other financial entities to build the capacity. We also assisted UCSD in developing their Transgender affirming surgery clinic. 



I must say that during that time I experienced my life as an underground woman of Trans experience, anything that a Trans woman could experience during the 70s 80s and 90s I experienced it. I am really lucky to have survived it because when I moved to San Francisco I found other people like me, other lonely, isolated and disenfranchised people just trying to survive; but it was home, it was a safe space for us to just be. During the disco era of the 70s we had our own Transgender bars, and I was lucky enough to be a waitress at one of them. However, my dysphoria was still crippling to me because being so tall and having big feet where is all the other girls were more able to be as feminine as possible.  I didn’t realize at the time that I was the perfect me because I was trying to fit into a mold that we thought we had to fit into. That was also my time with drugs and alcohol, and I found that when I did drugs and alcohol it took away a lot of my dysphoria, it took away a lot of my inhibitions. I was not very sexual because I didn’t fit in with my genitalia but in order to survive, I had to do survival sex work, so I found solace with drugs and alcohol. I think that’s when my life took a turn for the worse even though I always had a spark of hope within myself. In San Francisco we got to the point where it was very much like Stonewall, the police were coming to bars and would pull up in the patty wagon and take everyone to jail. It was nothing for police to just come in and raid a bar or for people to come in and attack us, yeah it was still a safe place because there were other girls like me and men who admired us which were Trans attracted men. They were mostly hustlers, bisexuals and surviving people themselves, there was this whole underground, and people need to realize that everywhere at night time there’s another world, the nightlife can also be called the street life, so I lived that street life for almost 20 years. It got to the point in San Francisco where my life became very harrowing, I lost my home, my job and I lost myself. The drugs and alcohol took a big part of myself, it took my aesthetic and my beauty so to speak. 

I came to San Diego which ended up being even darker but then again we were downtown on Market Street which was kind of a haven but a different environment for us because we had Sailors and Marines here and there was a bar called the Golden Eagle which was a show bar or discotheque downtown which is where all the people who work the streets, gay men or people from the ships they were LGBTQ+ came to party. So, there was a party every night and I was still doing survival sex work and I remember one time when I lived at SRO’s (which I lived at for 15 years), I had a client therefore I had some money in my hand, and I remember thinking I could either pay my rent or go get high. I remember making the decision and telling myself, “I was a drug addict”, so I went and got high instead of paying my rent which ultimately led me down another path which was doing heroin. It got so bad that I had overdosed a few times and was brought back but that didn’t stop me from making more money to get high again, that’s just how sick I was at the time. It had gotten so bad that I couldn’t do survival sex work anymore because I was visibly and physically unappealing to clients because of the drug use. At that point I started sleeping at a  homeless shelter downtown where the convention center is now so we would go to sleep, get up in the morning and head out to do our “boosting” which is stealing from stores. At that time if you got caught you would get a ticket for petty theft, so it was no problem to get a ticket in the morning at Horton Plaza then hop on the trolley and head to another shopping area to continue stealing. This was my life for about three years until 1991 which at this point, I was completely broken I didn’t have any teeth, I didn’t have any shoes, but I knew at that point I wanted something more than what I was doing but I didn’t know how to do it. I had also convinced myself at that time that I had HIV because a girlfriend of mine had it and because of our work I was sure I had it as well. But after a doctor appointment and testing I realized I didn’t have HIV. After one of many court dates for petty theft (which turned into them prosecuting me on an old prostitution charge), I was sentenced to the county jail for six months where I met another Trans woman who told me about Stepping Stones LGBTQ+ Recovery Program. I contacted Stepping Stones and spoke with Case Manager Scott Miller who told me to call him every Tuesday around the same time to check in, so I did until my release date in 1991 and when I was released, Stepping Stones was waiting for me, I was scared but I knew I was going so I got into their van and went to stay my first night (which was Christmas Eve) at Stepping Stones. Little did I know how that was going to change and really begin my life. I stayed a Stepping Stones for 21 months. 


What made me say yes to being named a Luminary was that being an African American postop Transgender individual who will be 73 in July, is all part of my legacy. I remember growing up not having any heroes and if someone needs a hero, someone needs to know that they’ll be okay because unfortunately life expectancy of an African American Transgender person is 35 and I’ve surpassed that threefold. It’s important that the younger generation sees they have a future, and they can be whatever they want to be, they can be a lawyer or a teacher, just get out there and do it. 


My hope for the future of the LGBTQ+ community is that the “isms”; the racism, the socialism, the ageism, those “isms” can be surpassed and people can be more open to accepting each other because in this political climate, where there is so much anti-LGBTQ+ legislation across the nation, where they want to turn back time when it was only better for a few (a very small privileged few), so by no means can we go back and it’s important that we stay strong and support each other. It’s important that the LGBTQ+ community understands that we have a foundation and understand the history and the importance of where we are right now so we can move forward in a successful and healthy way. 

The WORD is, I am here!