Trans Figured: My Journey From Boy to Girl to Woman to Man is the complex and fascinating true story of New York artist Brian Belovitch. When Belovitch temporarily lived as a trans woman name Tish Gervais in the '70s and '80s, there was a time when she had it all. Though life as Tish eventually became one of freedom — garnering success both as a singer and as a model gracing high-society magazines and New York's downtown social scene alike — it certainly didn't begin that way.
In the opening chapter of Trans Figured, Belovitch recounts harrowing true events of Tish when she was a sex worker in the '80s — a reality commonly accepted and prescribed for trans women living then and now. While every trans woman's experience is different, Belovitch looks back at a moment that Tish, as a sex worker, was addicted to drugs and living without much hope. Read an excerpt of Trans Figured, below.
Broke, busted, and disgusted at having spent every last dime, I needed more cash. Still buzzed from yet another nasty binge after the Limelight show, my days now seemed pretty mundane. It was spring 1986, and trying to wake up and muster enough energy to shower was sometimes all I could do. Or maybe I'd just skip it, I thought, opting instead to linger by the phone. Now I knew how a dog felt begging for table scraps, desperate as I was to catch a trick, a date, a john. My miniscule Hell's Kitchen studio apartment on West Forty-Fifth Street was becoming more like a cellblock.
Queen crack had a way of making you feel that way.
Barely a month ago, I had been planning my big birthday party at the Saint, calling up Andy Warhol to invite him personally.
"Andy, hi. It's Tish. Tish Gervais," I said.
"Oh, hi, Tish," he said in his instantly recognizable flat tone.
"I'm calling because I'd be so honored to have you as one of the hosts on the invitation for my thirtieth birthday party at the Saint."
"Gee thanks. Sure."
Thrilled, I thanked him and hung up, knowing any further conversation with the pop icon was futile. He was especially shy and his assistant had told me that I scared him. I couldn't say I blamed him, though I was certainly no Valerie Solanas.
Still, I couldn't help thinking about how quickly my situation had changed since I made that phone call. Johnny R., my former sugar daddy, had stopped paying my rent, and there were few if any work options for trans women back then so I had registered with two escort agencies for more sex work. Somehow sashaying in and out of fancy hotels like the Plaza, the Waldorf Astoria, and the St. Regis lessened the sting of shame. As long as I didn't have to splash my ass in a back-page sex ad in the Village Voice or Screw, it helped me retain the fantasy that my life didn't suck and left me with a sliver of dignity intact.
Plain and simple, I'd been whoring my whole life. It wasn't the end to my means nor did I want to claim it as a career choice. Not that there was anything wrong with sex work—it's just that I always had bigger dreams for myself. But my acting and party-promoting career was practically zilch by then. Indeed, the only acting I was doing was acting like everything was fine when it fact it wasn't. Word had gotten out in my nightclub circle of friends that I was hitting the crack pipe pretty much twenty-four seven, so most people knew they couldn't rely on me any more for parties or performing gigs.
Getting up at two or three in the afternoon, mind you, wasn't the ideal time of day to get much done. I'd click on the TV, not even knowing if I had cable because Johnny had stopped paying the bill. Several hours would pass with me channel surfing, chain smoking, and praying that the phone would ring.
Courtesy of Miss Chickie
Sure enough the phone rang.
It was Freddie. "Hello!" I spoke with as much fake enthusiasm as I could muster. "Where have you been?"
"Oh, you know me, busy with the wife, kids, work and all. Hey, listen, Natalia, let's say you and I get together tonight. I want to take you out. Get dolled up real nice and we'll take a ride to Atlantic City. It's going to be a real special time, just the two of us. I'll get a suite, champagne, dinner—the works."
I laughed, thinking, What did I do to deserve this sheer act of generosity?
Freddie was notoriously cheap with the girls with something extra. That's what I called myself instead of a "chick with a dick." More ladylike. He was a forty-year-old frustrated married man, short, kind of stocky, not bad looking in a Tony Soprano kind of way.
Freddie liked to get fucked, but he just couldn't come out and say it. It was an endless game of how to find things to stick up his bum: candles, cucumbers, dildos, you name it. I even kept frozen bananas in the freezer just in case. I knew once I whipped out the banana, stuck it in him, he'd get off and go. He was notoriously tedious and stingy; you had to really work hard for any extra cash. Sometimes at least he'd be generous with bling or drugs.
But the thing is, he always had the purest coke.
"Sure, Freddie. Sounds like fun. What time?"
At 8:00 p.m. on the dot, the buzzer rang. I pressed the intercom and in a sultry voice said, "Who is it?"
"Who the hell do you think it is, little red fucking riding hood?" Freddie yelled back in his thick Brooklyn accent. Buzzing him in, I ran into the bathroom and ripped the rollers out of my thick brunette mane, brushed it, and tossed it back. I grabbed some perfume and sprayed heavily.
Earlier, I had rummaged through my closet to fish out something to wear for the trip to Atlantic City. I didn't have much, for I had sold a lot of my best clothes to other girls or to my dealer for more drugs. What I found was a fuchsia silk wrap dress and black patent leather pumps. This was another thing about Freddie: he had a foot fetish, so before he arrived I spent a half hour working on my feet to get them into perfectly worshipful shape.
Freddie Romano was a small-time hood. I knew he had some connections, but I wasn't sure with whom because I never wanted to know. He carried a gun and made money fencing stolen merchandise and dealing drugs on the side. A lot of the other pre-op girls liked him because, even though he was a real piece of work, if he liked his time with you, he'd tip you with a nice piece of bling or some coke.
I opened the door and there was Freddie, flowers in hand and all dressed up in a gray, pin-striped, double-breasted suit and tie. He looked unusually handsome, though the suit hung on him like it belonged to someone a size larger.
"Hello, gorgeous," he said. "You look great, babe. Turn around." He whistled as I swirled around like Maria in West Side Story, and bent down to kiss my feet. "You're looking hot, doll."
Freddie plopped his black attaché case on the kitchen counter.
"Close your eyes, babe." I did, hearing the snap, snap of the case opening. "Surprise," he said. My eyes widened when I saw a big pile of gold, diamond, and pearl jewelry. Like a cherry on top of a sundae was a giant baggy full of coke.
"You like?" he asked. "I have to bring this to Atlantic City. Got another baggy? Let me split a little off for the ride down."
He opened the bag and dipped into it with his diamond-adorned pinky to scoop out a hearty bump for me to try.
Sniffing hard and long, my head swelled and my body tingled from my head to my toes. "Ooh, this is so good. Shall I bring my pipe? I can cook some up real quick for the ride."
"Nah, I just wanna sniff, if you don't mind." Oh, here we go, I thought. Here comes the creepy control freak that he is. "Wait till we get to Atlantic City, ha!"
I felt dejected because sniffing didn't really do it for me anymore. I loved to smoke and was sure that at some point in the evening I would be able to get him to give me some to cook up. Without him looking, I tossed my butane torch, small Pyrex bottle, stem, and a baggie with baking soda into my purse and snapped it shut. I dashed into the bathroom for a quick fluff of my hair and a swipe of red lipstick and off we went.
Strutting out with Freddie in tow, I saw a shiny black stretch limousine parked on the curb and barely noticed the driver hold open the door for us. It wasn't my first time in a limo. Once inside, I checked the wet bar to see if it was fully stocked because I really needed a drink if I were going to spend several hours putting up with Mr. Romano.
"Oh, goodie," I said after sliding open the wet bar to discover its contents full. This would take the edge off the coke jitters.
Freddie told the driver to raise the tinted partition. "Don't open it unless I tell you to, buddy."
The partition slid up, the driver turned on the ignition, and soon we were rolling out of Hell's Kitchen down Ninth Avenue and into the Lincoln Tunnel. I leaned back and said, "Freddie, be an angel and pour me a drink. How about a nice vodka martini? Two olives, please."
Photo courtesy of James Mulqueen
When we arrived at the casino, Freddie grabbed my arm and paraded me into the Trump Hotel lobby as if I were his wife. I waited patiently as he registered for the room, which was a lavish suite with a full dining room, a bedroom, and a gorgeous view of Atlantic City.
"My, how fancy we've become, Mr. Romano," I said once we were inside.
"Hey, nothing's too good for you, babe. After all, it's a very special night."
I was thinking, Jesus, this is so cheesy. I must be one of God knows how many girls he's run this game on. "Yes, honey, it is very sweet of you."
"What do you say I run a bath and order some food before we go downstairs to the casino?" he suggested.
"Sure," I responded, though food and gambling were the last things on my mind. I wanted to get my hands on more of that coke. "Let me have some blow, Freddie. I'd like to cook up a little to smoke."
"Don't you think you can wait till we get back to the city?" he asked me. "I really don't want you to smoke here, if it's okay."
"Aw, come on. Don't tell me you dragged me all this way to be such a bore." I was not happy with this new development and was determined to get some of the coke to cook up and freebase. That was my thing. He knew it. It was odd that he was resisting. Usually we'd smoke for hours. It helped loosen him up so that I could begin the parade of toys to stuff up his bum.
"If you don't mind," he said, "I'd really wish you could wait, just this once, for me. Don't worry, I'll take care of you later." He served up a few more lines. I guess I'd just have to follow the script I had been given.
He then headed to the bathroom and started to run a bath. Hours had slipped away and I had no idea what time it really was. Freddie called for me to come into the bathroom, where he was naked, sitting in the tub.
"Come here," he says. "Wanna grab that washcloth and wash my back?"
Oh my God, I thought, Am I really playing the subservient little mob gal role? I started to wash his back and he said, "Oh, honey, that feels so good," and then I noticed that his shoulders were shaking and he was stifling a sob.
"What's wrong, Freddie? Did I do something to upset you? I'm sorry about the smoking."
"There's something I have to tell you, but you mustn't ever tell anyone else about it, okay? Can you promise me that?"
"Sure, no problem. What is it?"
Related | 7 Sex Workers Share Their Stories
He was sobbing again, wiping his tears away with his nubby hands. He looked like an overgrown child who had been very naughty. He looked me in the eye and proceeded to tell me why he had brought me there that night.
"It's the last time you'll ever see me. You're one of my favorite girls. We always have a good time. You have a good heart and you never try and take advantage of me like some of the others."
"Thanks," I said. "I just try to make you happy, that's all. You've been good to me, too. What do you mean I won't ever see you again? Are you going away? Moving? What?"
"Natalia, I made a very, very big mistake and now I am going to have to suffer the consequences. In a little while, my number will be up. Someone's on the way here to make me pay the price."
He was going to be killed! I began to panic. This fucking trick had just so much as told me that I might become an accessory to murder! I wasn't at all considering what he had just said was going to happen to him. I started screaming.
"Get the fuck out of that bath tub right now, Freddie, and get dressed. Call your driver and have him pick me up. I want to go back to the city, now!"
"Shh! Be quiet before they call downstairs to the front desk, be quiet."
Photo courtesy of the Belovitch Archive
"Quiet? Are you out of your fucking mind? Pay me what you owe me and get me the hell out of here. That's what I want and then I'll be quiet." Well, so much for my fantasy of being a hooker with a heart of gold.
Wrapping a robe around him, Freddie walked out of the bathroom. "All right. I'm sorry I told you but I had to tell someone. I'll call the driver. Calm down." He grabbed his pants and pulled out a couple of hundred-dollar bills and handed them to me. I stuffed the money in my purse.
"What about the coke? You said you would give me some for later."
"I can't give you any more. I have to turn that and the jewelry over when they get here." Handing me a pretty little diamond pendant on a gold chain, he said, "Take this." I was now thinking that the ride back would be brutal but at least I could sell the little trinket for an eight ball when and if I got back home.
"Here's one more thing I'd like you to have." He reached into another pocket and handed me a small bullet. I was so high at this point and so relieved that I was getting the hell out of here that I took it without thinking, tossing it into my purse.
Calmer now, I said, "Thanks," and gave him a hug.
He picked up the phone and rang for the driver. "He'll be waiting downstairs. Car fifty-four."
I slipped into my dress, snapped open my bag, checked my face, applied some fresh lips, fluffed my hair, and turned to Freddie. "Good luck with all this." I didn't know what else to say.
Freddie looked sad and somewhat bewildered as the door closed behind me. Up until this point, I had managed to avoid any serious run-ins with the law and this was something I wanted nothing to do with.
I made a swift exit from the hotel to find car fifty-four. I slid in as the driver slammed the door shut. The sound of the ignition signaled we were off. It happened so fast I couldn't tell you what the driver looked like. All I knew was that I was out of that hotel. Halfway to New York, my mind started playing tricks on me. I realized I might never even make it back to my own private hell in Hell's Kitchen. The coke continued to make me increasingly paranoid. I began to imagine the driver, who I hadn't spoken to or for that matter even got a really good look at, was taking me somewhere to finish me off.
I opened my purse, grabbed one of the last cigarettes I had, and saw the bullet that Freddie had given me. I was now certain that I'd been set up. Freddie had given me the bullet so that I'd be found with it and blamed for his death. I felt that that it would be an act of divine intervention if I ever saw my freedom again. I finished off the bottle of vodka and gratefully I passed out.
I woke to the sound of the limousine door being yanked open. "Here you are, miss. Three-Forty-One West Forty-Fifth Street," the driver said.
I couldn't believe it. There was my front door. Feeling a bit unsteady, I stumbled out onto the sidewalk. I nearly knelt to kiss the ground, so certain I had been that I wouldn't make it back. There must be a God after all, I thought.
"Thank you very much," I said to the driver as I wobbled toward my lobby door.
The slowly rising sun reminded me the night was nearly over but that wasn't enough to convince me my little noir adventure had ended. Oh no, I knew I'd have a buyer for this diamond pendant. In minutes, I was banging on my dealer Sonia's apartment door on the third floor of my building. I knew she'd be able to straighten me out.
After scoring my coke from her, I headed back upstairs to cook up a fierce witch's brew of hard rock to smoke away the rest of the night. I was shaking and sweating when I finally plunked the rock into my pipe and torched it with a crackling blaze of butane. Snap, crackle, and pop, I inhaled the smoke deeply into my lungs and held it in as long as I could until I felt my body go numb. A sultry, tingling sensation seeped slowly through my body, relieving me of the fear and all the emptiness I felt. My problems slipped away in a cloud of smoke and now I was content, calm knowing that my true lover had arrived to comfort me.
The next day when I finally woke up I reached for the remote. Oprah was on so it had to be late afternoon. Immediately, I remembered the one pressing thing I had to attend to. The bullet. It was still in my purse. Grabbing some newspaper, I wrapped it up. I wrapped a scarf around my messy hair, slipped on a pair of dark sunglasses, and left the building and walked toward Ninth Avenue, a few blocks from my apartment. When I was far enough away, I tossed the newspaper into a trash can.
Then I remembered that tonight was the opening of Ginger & Fred, the new Fellini film at MoMA. Dinah Prince of the Daily News had invited me...
Trans Figured by Brian Belovitch is out now via Skyhorse Publishing.