She faced rejection from her family when she came out as gay. “Keep it to yourself,” some relatives told her.
Several years ago, Mugler Curet, a transgender woman, was robbed and sexually assaulted as she was returning home. It rattled her so deeply she felt she had to leave the city for a time, seeking safety in Florida and Massachusetts.
“That’s what you get,” she told herself, her grandmother’s chilling warnings echoing in her head.
She eventually did return to the Bronx, and soon found a haven, a space safe enough to grow more comfortable with herself: Destination Tomorrow, a center that has been serving the borough’s gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community for nearly a year.
The jubilant parades and parties drawing millions to New York for Pride have highlighted just how much the world has changed in the five decades after the Stonewall uprising. But for many, especially young people of color, expressing their identity can remain an act of defiance, one that comes with a steep cost that includes a constant threat of violence and discrimination that can stand in the way of housing, job prospects and safety.
At Destination Tomorrow, which is little more than a maze of office space on a busy South Bronx street, people like Mugler Curet have found comfort and community. The center has counseling and computer programming classes (the “Haus of Code”). There are also video game groups and crystal healing sessions, and people come, as Mugler Curet put it, just to “kiki” — gossip, joke around, listen to music.
“You don’t have to explain over and over when you’re in a place that understands,” Mugler Curet, 23, said on a recent afternoon as she sat in a large space set up like a living room, filled with couches, chairs and a constant stream of mostly R&B; music.
“It’s a sense of home,” she added. “A sense of safety, a sense of comfort, a sense of acknowledgment that we exist.”
Some coming through Destination Tomorrow have struggled with homelessness and substance abuse. They face harassment and entrenched poverty.
Conversations often turn to the inequity in the criminal justice system, and outrage over cases like the death of Layleen Polanco, a transgender woman who had been jailed on Rikers Island because she could not afford bail on misdemeanor assault charges. (The authorities said she was found unresponsive in her cell; investigators have not found evidence of foul play.)
“The most marginalized are still being harmed,” said Sean Coleman, the center’s founder and executive director. “In some respects, we still don’t get it. We still don’t understand some of the needs of some community members.”
Destination Tomorrow, a nonprofit with transgender leadership, opened its office almost a year ago to fill a void in the Bronx left by the closure of the borough’s previous LGBTQ center. The organization tries to address the problems that smolder in a population that has long been misunderstood and maligned.
In 2018, 25 transgender people, the vast majority of them minorities, were killed in the United States, according to a count maintained by GLAAD, the organization that tracks representation of the LGBTQ community in the media. The New York Police Department recorded 51 hate crimes in the city last year involving the LGBTQ community, including 11 against transgender people.
Still, the adversity, for many, was no match to the sense of liberation that has come from living their truth.
“I’m proud of who I am,” Tyanne Walker said, prompting high-fives and cheers from the group sitting with her at Destination Tomorrow. “You can’t closet this no more. I’m black. I’m queer. I’m here.”
Walker is part of a group that gathers Wednesdays at the center. Recently, the discussion turned to feelings stirred by Pride month and doubts about the authenticity of businesses so visibly displaying rainbow colors in windows, on flags, across limited-edition sneakers — even the bases at Yankee Stadium.
Walker, 28, who came out as a lesbian to her family only months ago, described the looks of disapproval and disgust she has noticed from strangers as she holds her girlfriend’s hand in public.
Nearly everyone had stories: The barber who refused a haircut; clerks at bodegas who treated them icily.
“If you go through that drama, imagine a trans woman,” said Jahaira Gonzalez, the center’s director of outreach and the support group moderator, who shared stories of her own transition.
Mugler Curet comes to Destination Tomorrow on Mondays and Thursdays for high school equivalency classes. Sometimes, she stops in for Hot Meal Mondays. Last year, when she did not have a winter coat, she got one from the center’s clothing drive.
She likened her transition to the life cycle of a butterfly. She remains in the cocoon, not quite ready to emerge. “The metamorphosis has to take place,” she said.
But she also embraces it as a genderless state: She can pose for pictures in blond braids and pink lipstick one day; on another she wears a T-shirt with cutoff sleeves and doesn’t mind the stubble on her chin. (On this day, during this conversation, she used feminine pronouns. But that shifts, too, and she said it doesn’t matter to her what others use to address her.)
She was raised by her grandmother in the Mitchel Houses, a public housing complex in Mott Haven.
“There is no home like the Bronx,” she said. “It’s home. It’s the best. You just have to know how to move around.”
Blu Ruby Diamond, who goes by Ruby, walked into the center toting her portable speaker and microphone. She was a newcomer, having visited the center only once before after finding it through her lawyer.
She had long been a street rapper. Now, her lyrics drew from her experience as a transgender woman. She began transitioning when she was 49.
Just over a year later, she has seen her life change, in many ways for the better. Before, it had been checkered with battles with drugs and homelessness. “My life as a boy was so hard,” she said.
“As a woman,” she added, “I do everything right. Bad people, bad habits — none of that. I’m proud of who I am.”
Her mother accepted her transition — “Well, that’s between you and God,” she told Ruby, “but you’re my son and I love you.” Her brothers did, too.
It was harder with her daughter, who is 31. Her daughter, she said, worried, “I don’t have a father.”
“I’m your dad,” she answered. “Nothing on earth is going to change that. I could look like Wonder Woman, but I’m still your dad.”
She hired a lawyer because she said her former landlord refused to renew her lease after she started transitioning.
And she quickly made herself at home at Destination Tomorrow, joking with the staff and the others dropping by.
“I love y’all,” she called out.
“We love you back,” Nia Reid, the center’s intake specialist, replied from the front desk.
“I never got the chance to feel my community,” Ruby said. “I was around straight people too long.”
She picked up the small microphone she carries, its cord held in place with blue duct tape. She started belting out “If You Don’t Know Me By Now,” a soulful song by Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes.
All the things that we’ve been through/You should understand me/Like I understand you.
Her words filled the center, needing little help from her tinny speaker. Her new friends, Reid and Walker, stopped their conversation on the other side of the room, stood up and became Ruby’s backup singers, swaying to the music with their arms up in the air.