What began as a routine medical visit at the Los Angeles LGBT Center became an escape route for Maria (not her real name), a transgender woman stuck in an abusive relationship.
“My boyfriend was very aggressive and controlling all the time,” Maria said in Spanish during an interview at the center, while her therapist, Iordana Gaytan Gamiz, translated. “I was afraid. I had no money. I felt trapped.”
“I can be myself now. I feel alive again.”
Maria came to the US from Guatemala about 10 years ago while in the midst of a male-to-female transition. She had no family here, and her sense of isolation in a new culture and difficulty supporting herself financially were magnified by the discrimination she faced as a transgender woman.
When she first saw a doctor at the LGBT Center, she didn’t say anything about the abuse. But the bruises on her body spoke for her. The doctor alerted the STOP Abuse team and, within hours, Maria was moved into an LGBT-sensitive domestic violence shelter. This began the long-term process to help her stay safe and build a new life.
The LGBT Center is better able to meet the complex needs of domestic violence survivors like Maria thanks in part to a grant from Cedars-Sinai, says STOP Abuse Manager Susan Holt, PsyD.
“Every time I come here, I know I’m not alone.”
“It can be very difficult to secure funding for LGBT-specific domestic violence programs,” says Holt. “The grant from Cedars-Sinai came at a time when state and federal funding for domestic violence programs of all kinds has been declining.”
The center is one of 13 organizations across Los Angeles that received a grant from Cedars-Sinai to expand free or low-cost mental health services. Since 2012, Cedars-Sinai has granted over $4 million to more than two dozen nonprofits to promote access to mental health services for low-income, underinsured, and uninsured patients.
Through the STOP Partner Abuse/Violence Program (STOP Abuse), part of the LGBT Center’s comprehensive family violence intervention, Maria received counseling and other support as she fought depression and took her first steps toward independence during her 3 months at the shelter. She now has a steady job, is living with friends, and is planning to go to college to develop her business skills.
“It can be very difficult to secure funding for LGBT-specific domestic violence programs.”
Maria says she wakes up each morning with a sense of freedom. She also has confidence that she will be able to recognize red flags early in future relationships.
“I want to find someone who respects me for the person I am,” she says. “I can be myself now. I feel alive again.”
Gamiz, who refers to her clients as “real warriors,” leads a Spanish-speaking group for transgender domestic violence survivors. “The group has become family for many of these clients,” she says. “They count the days until the next time they will be together.”
“We share everything,” Maria adds. “Every time I come here, I know I’m not alone.”