Jaci Adams: From the unsteady streets to the strength of bridges

Jaci Adams: From the unsteady streets to the strength of bridges

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If you’re looking to have a good time for a good cause, the Mazzoni fundraiser Elixir should fit the bill nicely.

Guests at this year’s Elixir event, on May 18, will enjoy a full open bar, food, music from local trio Hotsy-Totsy and DJ Carl Michaels, a silent auction and more. The theme of this year’s event is “Leading Ladies” and proceeds will support the expansion of women’s health services at the center.

An even-better reason to attend: Elixir Activist Leader Award recipient Jaci Adams. Her life story is inspirational and proof that change really can come from within, even despite the worst circumstances. Get your tissues ready. PGN: Tell me about your beginnings. JA: I was born on Dec. 12, 1957, in Beckly, W.Va., but I don’t have any memories of that time. My earliest memories are from when we moved to Philadelphia, and I mostly recall that I never got to use the word “mommy.” I heard other kids using it, but my mother had left us when I was very young, so I never got to call anyone mommy. I also remember the other kids outside having fun and laughing with their families. I couldn’t relate to that, either: My father was angry and abusive — there was no laughter in our house. I knew I was different. I could jump rope better than the little girls, dress up my paper dolls better than the girls, and I couldn’t play basketball or baseball or anything like that, but at that age I didn’t know the difference between boys and girls. PGN: I understand you ran away at 9 years old. What incited that moment? JA: There were multiple beatings. For no reason, my father would just look at me and hit me. The night I ran away, we were living on Allegheny Avenue, and in a lot of those old houses they had trap doors to the basement. One of my father’s friends took a basketball and my father blamed me for it being missing. Now he knew I’d never played with a basketball in my life, but my father beat me for hours and then threw me in the basement trap door without any food or water and turned the lights out. I was just a little boy, but the whole time he was beating me I didn’t cry. I just said to myself, This is it. It had gone on for many years and I’d had enough. So when I heard him go upstairs later, I got myself out and left. PGN: Where did you go? JA: That first night I caught myself looking for my mother. I had no idea what she looked like or who she was, but somehow I ended up going from North Philly across town to West Philly hoping to find her. I remember two old ladies saw me and called the cops, who took me to the Youth Study Center. They got me to tell them my phone number: PA6 ... I guess I shouldn’t say it, but I still remember the number! Anyway, they called my father and said, “Mr. Adams, we have your son” and he said, “Fuck him” and hung up. I was 9. The guard turned to me and said, “You’re going to have a hard life.” I stayed there for a few months and that was the first time a boy ever kissed me, which was weird because I felt like a girl but I wasn’t into boys. I’d had some bad experiences already. Finally my brother, who I hated as much as my father, came and got me. Staying at his place was as bad as home; he’d allow his friends to taunt and abuse me, sexually and all that. So I ran away again and was on the streets. I got introduced to heroin when I was 10 and, by this time, I was so comfortable being abused and battered by men that I just assumed that’s how it was. That’s just what men did to mixed-up boys who felt like girls. PGN: And you were doing drugs at this time? JA: Yes, and — I think this is true for most addicts — once your addiction kicks in, compassion leaves you, care leaves you, dignity leaves you. [Tearing up.] Between the drugs and the abuse from men, I started fighting back the best way I knew how. The night I left, it was as if I became pregnant with a little boy. I became a fierce woman so I could protect that little boy in the basement being abused. To protect him from the preacher across the street who took him in for spiritual counseling and, on the first day, dropped his pants to his ankles. To protect him from my father, who they called “fat man,” who beat him daily, to give him the mother he never had. PGN: Spiritual counseling — was the family religious? JA: I went to Catholic school but not really. And for a long time that man destroyed my faith, in preachers and in God. I didn’t know what religion was; I just thought that preachers were freaks and that God didn’t care. Add the addiction to that and I became hardened. [Tears.] I refused to let anyone hurt that little boy anymore. It was hard because I felt that I had two people to protect, and the “she” in me wasn’t going to allow anyone to beat the “he” ever again, ever, at whatever cost. PGN: And what were you doing at the time? JA: Everything — drugs, prostitution, robbery, you name it. I was in and out of jail for years, I’d do six months, get out and then get locked up again that same night. PGN: Why were you going right back in? You didn’t care at that point? JA: No, it’s all I knew. I don’t think “care” was even part of the vocabulary. I’d get out and hit the streets again. I was 13-14 and trying to prove that I was an adult who could take care of myself. Trying to protect that little boy in me while trying to convince you I was a grown woman. And I had a habit to fill and I needed money for it. You know, back then, there were no role models for people like me: There was no RuPaul, there weren’t successful trans people around to look up to. The only people I saw were doing what I was doing. I give RuPaul a lot of credit, just being so public and positive; it gives a face to the community. It helps to see someone you can identify with. But I didn’t have anything like that; I just knew the rough side of life. I never even thought about changing what I was doing because that’s all I knew. That’s what I thought the world was — but I didn’t ask to be born into an abusive family, I didn’t ask for the marks on my back from being burned with an iron, I didn’t ask to be thrown in the basement the night I left. I was fleeing for my life, because he wasn’t attacking me for being girlish, though I’m sure it was a component. I think part of the problem was that I looked just like my mother, so every time he looked at me he’d hit me, for reminding him of her. PGN: Have you ever tried to find her? JA: No. My brother gave me a picture of her before he died, but I’ve never tried to find her. I think if I did and she rejected the “she” of me, it would be too much to be rejected again. The hole would be bigger and the pain would be deeper. Though, since I’ve been clean, I try to put my feet in her pumps. She was 20 and pretty and he was 44 and didn’t like the attention she got, so he abused her too. People tell me had she not left, he would have killed her. [Brings out a tissue.] I don’t forgive her for leaving me — I have stage-four cancer and full-blown AIDS and wish I had a mother now, someone to love me and help me through it — but ... it ain’t that way. So I haven’t forgotten the pain, but I’ve forgiven her for what happened. PGN: How did you start to turn things around? JA: In the ’60s I didn’t do a lot of dope — I was still a kid — so guys would just give me a little shot to control me, but by the ’70s I really got into it heavily. As a prostitute, I really didn’t like the sex act. The abuse as a young person had turned me off of sex. But I liked and needed money to feed my habit, so I started robbing people, I’d get in your car and you’d have one intention but, by the time we got to the next light, I’d steal your money and be gone. My habit was thousands of dollars a day and I did what I needed to do to fulfill it. It was out of control. I’d used every vein I could think of: my legs, my neck, my groin. I remember seeing pictures of Rock Hudson and thinking, Boy, that’s going to be me. At one point, the Health Department came to the hit house I was staying in and tested us, and every last one of us were positive. Then in ’84, I got locked up for robbing a cab driver. It was May 12 and every Mother’s Day, I would shoot up and sit across from a church and watch the people go in and out. I’d play a game and pretend that different women were my mother — oh, there she is, that pretty one; no, that’s her, with the nice dress on. Well, that night I didn’t have money for drugs and I was really sick, because unlike crack, heroine makes you sick when you need a fix. A cab driver picked me up and we had a little involvement — mind you I didn’t like the sex part anyway, I just wanted the money but, blah, blah, blah, he couldn’t reach his mark and so I jumped out of the car with his money. Long story short, I ran back to the hit house and he chased me down. There is no honor among thieves, so when the cops came, people immediately told them where I was. I got arrested and it was a blessing in disguise: I’m the only one still living out of that whole house. PGN: Wow. JA: So, long story longer, I went in front of the judge and he said, “Mr. Adams ... ” [laughing]. I cut him off: “Sorry, Your Honor, there’s no Mr. Adams here, I’ve never been married.” He said, “Fine, Miss Adams, how do you plead?” and I broke down and said, “I’m guilty, sir: I’m guilty of being born into a loveless home, I’m guilty of being abused by every adult I met, I’m guilty of furthering that abuse. I’ve mastered it so well, I know how to abuse myself,” and I started crying. I said, “I don’t want to waste your time, just give me whatever punishment you want to give me. I’m tired — tired of the abuse, tired of the drugs, and I’m so tired of running. Just go ahead and throw the book at me.” The judge gave me three to six years. In prison my nickname was Bambi and there was one prison guard named Sgt. Johnstone who came up to me and said, “I see you running around in the prison yard doing this and that for people and I checked your record and noticed you don’t have a GED.” I wasn’t interested in anything he had to say, but then he told me that if I took the GED exam, he’d make me the head block worker. Now in the penitentiary, that’s a big deal, it gives you a lot of freedom. So I said that I’d think about it and he said, “Good, you have 10 minutes to make up your mind.” I asked him why he was doing it, and he told me that he saw something in me. [Tearing up.] He was the first man who ever saw something in me with his penis in his pants. He didn’t want anything from me, he just wanted to help. So I started running the block but when I took the test I failed. I was so discouraged I cursed him out. I reminded him that I hadn’t gone to school since I was a child and when I did, I was so distracted by what was going on at home I couldn’t concentrate. I told him I wasn’t going to take the test again and he said, “Oh yes you are.” I said, “You can’t make me do nothing I don’t want to!” and that man had two guards put me in the hole until I was ready to take the test again! This went on seven times: I’d fail the test, quit and he’d lock me up until I agreed to take it again. I kept saying, “Why are you doing this?” And he’d say, “Because the way you run things here and the way people respond to you, I know you can do it.” PGN: He saw leadership qualities. JA: Yes. Even during my addiction, I always took care of everyone else. I think it came from trying to give people what I missed. People say you can’t miss what you never had, but that’s a lie. You can look around and see love and miss it, you can see mothers with their babies and miss a mother’s love even though you never had it. So, one day I was in my cell making up the schedules and I heard them say over the intercom, “Bambi, report to the school area.” I knew I had failed again so I just ignored it. I thought, He can lock me up till my release date, I’m not doing this again. So he sent two guards to get me. They threatened to handcuff me if I didn’t go, so I went to the school area and ... and ... they had all these balloons and a big cake ... and I just broke down. I couldn’t believe it, I had passed — fourth in the class. The crazy part was that they wanted to parole me early but I didn’t want to go. There was nothing out there for me. I didn’t want to go back to the streets and drugs, but I didn’t know anything else. Again, I’d never seen a transsexual person in business or doing anything where I could say, Damn, that’s what I want to do, who I want to be. PGN: What happened when you got released? JA: It so happened that one of the women who tutored at the jail had a personal-care company in Pittsburgh working with sick and elderly people. She gave me a job and a place to stay at the nursing home. It was an experience, it was the first time I did that kind of work, having to wash people and tend to their needs. I think God was teaching me patience and care. As an addict the first thing you lose is compassion and, having these people under my care, I got it back. Each woman that I took care of I thought of as my mom. I’d use my own money to buy them little things and seeing them smile meant so much to me. One thing that baffled me was that I didn’t even have the urge to do drugs. One of the reasons I wanted to stay in jail was because I was afraid that as soon as I got out, I’d get sucked back into doing heroin, but in Pittsburgh I didn’t know anyone to buy from or use with. It was a great experience. Instead of hurting people, I was taking care of them and it changed my life. I could never repay the people I robbed, but I could decide to do good from that time forward. PGN: When did you come back to Philly? JA: I came back to Philly in 1997. Before I went to jail, I had done some advocacy work, passing out condoms, etc. So when I got back I started working with Temple University doing HIV/AIDS work, and I’ve been with them ever since. Another turnaround moment was when I called to volunteer, the woman in charge, Ramona Christian, asked me why I wanted to live. I’d never really thought about it and the truth was, I really didn’t want to live. Not until she asked me that, and then I stopped and realized that I had been living the lie my father and brother told me about my worth. They told me that I shouldn’t have been born and I believed it. I’d started tricking again to support a guy who was doing drugs. I was still clean but I was supplying him. I thought as long as I have someone to love me, I might be empty, but at least not lonely. I’ll work so he doesn’t have to do anything but care for me. When of course the truth was he didn’t care about me and neither did I. I still struggle with that: I’ll do anything in the world for other people, but I find it hard to care about myself. But once she asked me that, I started breaking away from that relationship and started working my way to where I am now. The hooking ended in 2001, the night that Nizah Morris was killed. I was on Old York Road and I got a call that Nizah was hurt. I got in my car and we convened at the AIDS Law Project office. It was the first time I worked with other trans people doing activist work. They picked me to be the spokesperson and we organized a memorial and a candlelight vigil. Overnight I became Jaci Adams. I never went back to the streets again. PGN: And what are you doing now? JA: Oh, all sorts of things. I became a founding member of the Temple University Community Advisory Board, and have served on the planning committee for the Philadelphia Trans Health Conference. I serve on the Philadelphia Police Liaison Committee and I’m a volunteer with the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Youth Aid Panel, the Delaware Valley Legacy Fund and the Walnut Street Theater. [Laughing.] I’m also on the board of the LGBT Elder Initiative and the board of “The God Environment,” a welcoming spiritual organization that holds services at the William Way LGBT Community Center. PGN: So you went from being chased by cops to advising them. JA: Yes. The night Nizah was killed, I read from Maya Angelou’s “Phenomenal Woman.” I thought about Sgt. Johnstone making me get my GED, I thought about the panel of people who picked me to be the speaker that night, I thought about how angry everyone was with the cops, myself included, but I had an “aha” moment and decided that instead of being angry, maybe a career criminal like me could use that familiarity with the cops to slither in and become part of the solution. So that if there was a problem ever again, the girls would know there was a friendly face in the room, someone they could identify with. I became the bridge, the bridge over troubled waters. I’ve been on the board for 11 years and I’ve seen tremendous change in the way the cops treat trans people. There’s still work to do, but we’ve come a long way. PGN: Well, you have quite a body of work. No wonder you’re being honored at Elixir! JA: I don’t know how I feel about that. There’s so much more I think I should be doing. I have trouble feeling that I’m worthy. And now, having been diagnosed with stage-four cancer, I really can’t do as much as I’d like. I’ve been told I have a year to live, but I’ve lived with AIDS for 30 years, so come on. PGN: Best gift? JA: They threw me a party at the William Way Center this year for my 55th birthday. It was my first birthday party ever. For tickets or more information on Elixir, go to www.mazzonicenter.org/events/elixir-cure-common-gala-saturday-may-18.

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