Photo by Bethany Mollenkof. 

Sabel Samone-Loreca on Living as a Black, HIV-Positive Transgender American

"I know you wanna close all the windows and doors and just be in the dark, but if you just wait and hold on...the light comes through." Sabel Samone-Loreca offers wisdom from a life of resilience and recovery.

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Nov 21 2018, 6:41pm

Photo by Bethany Mollenkof. 

This interview is part of Broadly's Trans Legends oral history project. Read more here.

Sabel Samone-Loreca’s journey from being diagnosed with HIV to becoming a leading advocate for people living with HIV/AIDs was long and unlikely. She moved to California in the early 90’s, believing she had just three years to live. But Samone-Loreca survived, and turned her fierce compassion for others into activism. In California, she began a new chapter of her life, founding HIV support groups, and working with ACT UP in San Francisco, while having several groundbreaking moments, like becoming the first out trans woman to be married in California. Her late husband Luis A. Loreca was a youth advocate, and died from cancer at the age of 35 in 2005. Ms. Samone-Loreca is currently a Supervisor at Community Partners, a barista at Starbucks, and training for NSAM Certified Personal Trainer at EVERYBODY gym in Los Angeles.

BROADLY: Sabel, how did you get your name?

SABEL SAMONE-LORECA: When I lived in Atlanta, I was going by Sable Samone for a show I was doing in town. When I moved to San Francisco, the name just kind of stuck—Sabel. But it was Sable for a long time. When I got to change it, it was a choice between Sable and Sabel. I always thought of “Sable” as the coat, and I was like, No, I don’t want to be named after a coat. Sabel would be like a French shortbread cookie. And, “Samone” meant “so beautiful.” So when I was reading about the cookie, I thought about the name Samone. When I talked to my mom, I was like, “This is what I’m gonna change my name to, this is what I’m gonna be called.” And she was like, “Okay.” So the next day, I went and filled out the paperwork.

So, finding your way to being a trans person. Who showed you the way? How did you find a community? Where was it?

Well, I transitioned. I found out about transitioning and hormones in Atlanta. I was probably about 25, and this was about '87. There’s a place there where friends of mine went that got on hormones, but I wasn’t quite ready for it and was still kind of confused about what was going on. When I moved to San Francisco, there was a lot of Latina women that I saw and knew at the clubs, but I never saw anybody that was Black and trans. Most of the girls I knew, they identified as drag queens, and I knew I wanted to go further than that.

That’s around the time I was going through a lot of mental health stuff. I was dealing with having been raped and everything. I was going to a program called WAR (Women Against Rape), and my doctor asked, “What can I do to make your life better? What can I do to make you happy?” I told him I wanted to transition, but I didn’t know what that meant and what that looked like. One day, he made me sit down, and we looked at the computer screen, and we saw seven or eight types of hormones. He wrote me a [prescription] out for every one of ‘em. He said, “Now, as long as you stay clean and you get your shit together, I’ll continue to write you a script.” I have never had a script cancelled.

So, this was a big step in your journey out of addiction and out of the darkness.

Yeah. I was coming out of a domestic relationship. I was coming out of drug addiction. I was coming out of homelessness. Mental health-wise, I was just a wreck. I think a lot of it boiled down to self hate and not knowing how to cope. I did a lot of illegal stuff because of all the stuff I had to cope with and take care of and live and survive, so it was one of those things where, you know, I never wanted to go to jail as a girl.

"Now that you’re she and totally living as her, what does she want? We’ve all had to think about this."

During my recovery stint, I met a woman named Angel. She was from Nashville or somewhere in the South. She was an older trans woman, and she had always been around for everything I was going through in San Francisco.

One day she came in and we sat down and I said, “Look, I’ve done all the paperwork to change my name, I’ve got all this stuff done, and I’m really serious about going through this.” I said, “Angel, could you help me?” She said, “You stay in recovery and get yourself together. I’ll help you on the outside spiritually.” She’d come pick me up and take me to church on Sundays, and we would have drinks, or we would go have lunch or something, and she was kind of like that main source of what I wanted. Because she had a job, she had her own place. I mean, it wasn’t the best and it wasn’t always pretty, because she hustled to survive, too. But she wasn’t on drugs. She had been on drugs and been through all that, and she had gotten clean and sober. Everything I wanted, she had gone through, and she, you know, she was just on top of it.

She was beautiful. She was one of these tall, blonde, bombshell women, and Angel was not to be toyed with! She had much respect in the [Tenderloin District of San Francisco]. And I appreciated that, and I wanted to be like her, you know? I’m grateful I can say I have been like her, and I’ve surpassed that. And I’m quite sure if she was here today, I’d be making her happy. I’m sure I’m making her happy as she looks down upon me.

She was a really big inspiration on what being trans meant to me and what I had, too—because everything we have today, I didn’t have that to look forward to.

Was that in the 90s?

This is like, 95-97-98? I moved to San Francisco in ‘93. And I was probably 27 when I started my transition.

How much did spirituality affect your journey?

Transitioning sounds kinda glamorous and everything, and on one hand it is, but on the other hand, it’s like—I found out really quick, my life was not going to be all sugar-coated chocolate and gummy bears and the rainbow, you know?

I didn’t know many [trans] girls, especially Black girls. I knew a lot of Latina and white [trans] girls, because they were always out, and they were the ones I saw who were doing stuff I wanted to do. I didn’t know what it was with a lot of Black girls, you just didn’t see them. I guess they were doing hair or they lived in Oakland for the most part.

I kinda had to find my own-ness. I always attribute my career start to advocating through the cannabis club, CHAMP [Cannabis Helping Alleviate Medical Problems], because they [showed] me what it was like to be an activist.

I smoked weed all my life. It was one of those things where, not only was it like my medication, but also keeping me mildly steady. Being offered drugs as well, and dealing with all my mental addictions and everything else, it kind of balanced everything out. You know, I can honestly say I’ve gone through every journey in my life on cannabis. And it helped! I told a lot of the girls: I left the hospital bed after having gender surgery, and went straight to the pot club, with the catheter and all! It’s a wonderful thing.

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Photo by Bethany Mollenkof.

What are some other strategies that have gotten you through?

Therapy. One of the things [that was] part of being given all the hormones, my doctor wanted me to go into therapy. I started therapy because I had moved to LA back in ‘94, and I was raped. It wasn’t a trans thing or a hate thing. It was just a guy, he was raping a girl. I just happened to be what he thought was a girl from behind, and when he realized I wasn’t a girl, he beat the hell out of me and raped me anyway. And the police didn’t help me. They actually told me if I hadn’t been out dressed the way I was, it would’ve never happened to me. And that was the second time in my life being assaulted sexually. The first time, I never dealt with it or talked about it, and I was a kid. The second time, I was just turning 30.

My doctor recommended [a therapist]. From there, because of my transitioning and everything, they recommended I go to—on Van Ness, there was a gender mental health program. It was there I got my own therapist. And it was so good. As a Black person in America, we don’t often think that somebody can help us out mentally. You know, we’ve always been taught that what happens in the house stays in the house. Therapy had never been an option. I learned about having a therapist to just have someone to talk to and to ramble on to. That changed my life, [helped me] break my addiction, understand who I was, and what Sabel was becoming—because all I knew was him before, that was trying to find her. But at that point, you kind of make the decision: Who is she? What does she want? Now that you’re she and totally living as her, what does she want? We’ve all had to think about this.

[CHAMP] gave me a job as a group facilitator, to work with other trans women who were HIV positive, who were using cannabis, who had a lot of issues still going on. To have somebody who, when they came to the club, looks like them. It was awesome.

They got me to do harm reduction classes for that point in time. There’s a big thing about harm reduction going on, and there were all these classes you had to take to become a harm reduction specialist. So, from being an activist to taking all those classes and getting certified and getting to understand people and better facilitate groups, I went from that to working with another organization that worked as a homeless shelter. There, I was able to give back and help women that needed a place to say at night and needed somebody to talk to during the daytime. I was able to be that counselor for them there. For me, it was just a progression. Every time I looked up, I got a different job. I was lucky enough to have a center where I was able to give back and be that face in San Francisco—being another trans woman, knowing that she don’t have to walk the street, she can give up drugs, she doesn’t have to worry about all those things they said we couldn’t be. You know, I was at least working, just like my role models. It wasn’t the best; it wasn’t making me the dollars, but I was surviving. It was a good job. It was respectable.

And the other funny, kind of crazy part of it: After all the shit I probably should’ve done jail time for—I figure, this was my way of giving back. I’ve done a lot of shit. I’ve put myself out there, I’ve used myself and taken my life’s journey and helped to make it easy for somebody else. In reality, I didn’t have somebody to show me the way. I did it through trial and error. Like I said, I had a doctor give me several different types of hormones. You know, I was probably overdosing on hormones, when I should’ve had one or two or three, you know? We worked it out.

"Long before Christ, we’ve been around! But you’re gonna try to erase somebody that you never accepted was already here?"

Then, moving to Los Angeles in the midst of everything, I got here and I had all this criteria and all this education, and was just settling in, but it was like coming to a different world. During that time, ‘99, in San Francisco, we were already talking about “transgender this, transgender that,” and [we had] all these programs we were ready to set up for the trans community. I get to LA, and they weren’t talking about it like we were talking about it. We already had rights in San Francisco in ‘99, where trans women were identified as women and were able to go into women’s shelters and stuff like that. I moved here in 2000, and that was unheard of, you know? There were barely places you could go as a trans woman to find a support group. As far as youth goes, children’s hospitals didn’t even have the clientele they have at this point. They didn’t even have that kind of position at that time. Coming here was like coming to a foreign land after San Francisco. It was scary. It was hard.

The thing that’s so incredible about your journey, and the thing that I’ve always admired about you’re always paying things forward. You’re always giving, you’re always showing up, you’re always loving on people. I mean, it’s incredible to think that you have gone through everything you’ve gone through and managed to still be open to the world.

You gotta be! You do. You have to be. I have to believe that. Living out here in LA and being on my own—because I do consider myself pretty much, since my husband passed, to be here on my own. My family’s on the other side of the country, on the East Coast, and I’m on the West Coast. And so, we worry about each other, but I also have been one of those people who, I live my own life my own way. That song, “She Did It Her Way,” they can definitely play that at my service. She did it her own fucking way, as I could! Regardless of, you know, I’ve had some good days and I‘ve had some bad. I’ve had some that are scarier than hell. You know, I’ve had some that I can honestly say, I should not be here on this earth; I should’ve died a few times. And I provide that. More than anything, it gives me that fight. Every day I wake up is a new day, so I need to celebrate it and have as much fun on that day as I can, regardless of how I consider that time. And that’s what keeps me going, because in this political climate, it’s kind of crazy right now.

It’s one of those things where the hashtag, #WeWillNotBeErased—how you gonna erase somebody you never accepted no damn way? We have historical proof. We’ve been here long before the 1800s! We’ve been around. Long before Christ, we’ve been around! But you’re gonna try to erase somebody that you never accepted was already here? I’m just confused. But, I mean, as a trans woman, I come from a time period when a lot of girls, we stayed in the house and we stayed in our shelters, until about 8 or 9 o’clock, and that was daylight for us. And we lived. We were the children of the night, you know? For real. So, I mean, nightlife was the best life!

Long before Christ, we’ve been around!

Living in Atlanta, it was hard. Cops was able to chase you down the street. I remember telling kids the story of Handcuff Bob, where there was a guy who traveled from Florida. He would run up and down the highway from Atlanta, and he would kill the girls. He’d get them in the car and he would handcuff them, and he would kill them, and you’d hear the stories of the girls being dumped behind nightclub bars and stuff. They don’t tell enough stories of the stuff people used to do to us back then. They don’t tell the stories how the police used to stop us and frisk us, like they do the normal prostitutes. They’d chase us and make us run from them, then they’d beat your ass. They’d embarrass you. They’d snatch your wig off your head right there and make you walk through. It’s just a mess. Wherever you were at, they’d embarrass you to no end, just to degrade you.

I mean, we talk about all these things we’re losing. I come from a different time. I never had them! You know? I’m learning to accept what’s coming and what the future brings, you know, I see what the future brings. Even more so, I know what the future brings. I never thought I’d see a Black president before in my life. But I saw a Black president. For me as trans woman, coming from living paycheck to paycheck pretty much, I never thought I’d live to see the day where I’d have gender reassignment surgery. If I would’ve given up hope [at] any point in my life, I wouldn’t see these days. I’m always pushing. If it was a shitty day, you never know what tomorrow’s gonna bring. I have to keep it going. You have to play what you get.

I’m fortunate, but I almost have 34 years being HIV positive, and I’m 51 years old; so you know, you never know. I have to celebrate it all because I never know what can go wrong.

I love watching people’s jaws drop when you tell them you’re 50 after they’ve clocked you for 30!

Yeah, at work one day, this lady said, “I have kids your age!” I said, “Really? Well I’m 51, so how old are your kids!?” I love it.

Who of the girls you came up with do you miss the most?

The girls I came up with were not professional women. Let’s put it that way: The girls I came up with did the kind of things I did, so we were stunt queens. Big time. A lot of them still are, so, matter of fact that was one of the reasons I moved from San Francisco—to separate myself from them. It was very difficult having them as friends and trying to move forward in my life, because, you know, certain friends can always pull you back down. [The girls I met here were] everyday girls that were kinda doing the same thing I was doing—they was trying to survive. I met a lot of them from the HIV Stops With Me campaign.

What was the campaign?

The HIV Stops With Me campaign was about teaching folks about people that were in their neighborhoods that were HIV positive. But they were doing real well. They were role models for the HIV Community. I was kinda the only HIV Positive trans girl at the time who wanted to be out. They put up three billboards within two blocks of my house. So it was a real outing thing on top of it, too. During that time, I was doing a lot of advocating for just being trans. And I didn’t realize—I was HIV positive, too, and it began to be one of those things where, as a Black trans woman, you have all these things in life you have. I had quite a few strengths already. I was Black, young, I had the male card. Now I’m a trans woman. Now I’m HIV positive. I can pull any cards you ask me to possibly card. Any more strikes you can give me—I have three, and a few more extra. So, what you say about me? At some point, you can’t tell me you can defeat me, you can beat me down and take whatever you want from me. I have every strike against me and every block thrown at me. The only way from here is up.

I’m one of those kids that come from a history of mental health problems. I come from a history of abuse. You know, I’m one of those kids who went through all of that shit in their childhood. And I’m here to say, at 50-something years old, I look damn good doing it still. Hey! You can follow my history, all the shit, this bitch looks good. I’m not in a wheelchair, I don’t carry a cane, I’m not on blood pressure pills, I’m not on dialysis, I don’t have diabetes, I don’t even have a gray hair yet!

You don’t? I’m getting gray’s already girl...

I’m grateful. I have my issues with what we call God in a spiritual sense, because I’ve learned through a lot of different religions that spiritually, I am my own, you know? If I look at what the Bible says, and I look at what a lot of other religions say, I am my universe. I am the space, the air, everything. I am all of that, because without getting on my two feet and doing what I need to do, it will never happen. Now, spirituality, me doing one thing is going to lead to something else happening, and that's kinetic energy of things working together in the spaces, and numerology is mixed in there; it’s how I get what I need in life. I have to be the force behind me pushing, because right now, I don’t have that from anybody else.

Yeah, to push yourself and always challenge yourself.

I’ll tell you the story behind my first tattoo. My first tattoos were on my forearm. For a good six months, I went through a bad meth addiction. For a good six months, I started using because of the stupidity in my head and the boyfriend I was with. I started using and I got so bad, it had me doing a lot of crazy shit—moving all over the city in LA, all up and down the state. My arms were a mess from using. The day I quit, I went and got tattooed. And I wanted those tattoos as a constant reminder of what I had did to myself. Every time I look at my arms and see those two tattoos, I know what my life was like for those six months; I know I’m grateful. I haven’t been back to that. Every time I have a stupid thought for other stuff or anything else in my life, I look there and think, look where you’ve been.

Wow. That’s incredible. I know you so well and know all these things, but to hear them all at once is a reminder of just how much you’ve overcome. What does Trans Day of Remembrance bring up for you? What tips do you have for the younger girls who haven’t been through their hardest times yet?

During my time of transitioning, you either had your ass beat or got called “sir,” just walking down the street. You knew how to fight. When he said, “hey dude!” when you turned around to get smart, you knew you had to know how to battle. It was like that, girl, I’m serious. I’ve been chased and shot at, me and my girlfriend. We came back at this dude. We hit him in the mouth. We didn’t know he was a drug dealer, though. He went into the street and shot at us. It was crazy. I’ve done a lot of crazy shit. A lot of girls don’t have to experience that on that level.

The other part of it is, I just want to say, I’m grateful for California. I think a lot of girls that live in LA need to really be grateful for LA. Outside of California, there are girls that are still doing some of the craziest shit I was doing back when I was going through it to survive. What these girls are able to have—jobs and being supermodels, and actresses and spokespeople; all the talk shows and shit. There are girls in the South that are still struggling. There are girls in the South where states and cities don’t recognize them—although they may say they do, they don’t. And so those girls are still catching it hard. Look at some of those girls that are in DC, the state and city, doing all the work they possibly can, trying hard to survive every day. You know, I’m grateful to have a job. The same one I have today in California, I’m not going to be able to have in Atlanta, Georgia. I’d be on a hoe track tonight. When I look at it from that point and from Day of Remembrance, we celebrate the girls that have passed, but we have to pay it a little bit forward and celebrate the girls surviving, trying to make it, too. Some girls are out there still, every night, taking a chance. Every night, some girl jumpin’ in somebody’s car trying to make $40 or $50 so she can pay her hotel room tonight, or her rent. Those $40 or $50 might be the last amount of money she needs to get her hormone shot. In the state she lives in, her insurance isn’t gonna pay for her to get her hormones. She has to go to the welfare office as “him,” or she don’t get them at all. These are the types of decisions these girls have to make.

"I remember when we were fighting to get our name changed—not our gender marker changed, but our name changed—what that looked like! Now you can go and have X and get identified as nonbinary gender."

People don’t realize, once you transition, you’ve done a lot of things you don’t like. Depending on how you get through life. If you can cis-pass and assimilate, then you can do better than some of those other girls. For the other girls that can’t assimilate or fit into everyday life, those are the girls who are catching hell; them the girls that are getting killed or attacked because they gotta make their money to survive to pay for the house or apartment they’re staying in, or they have three roommates and they all are doing what they gotta do to get their coins. They can’t get a job because they’re transgender.

I mean, here in LA, we’ve only had one trans woman that has died this year, but the city is recognizing her. I think that’s great. We need to hear that more from within city hall. We need to hear more of that from our mayors. When shit happens to us, we need to hear more about it. The thing that hurts me more than anything: As a Black trans woman, I hardly hear when something happens. We talk about it on Facebook, but I see organizations like TransLatin@ Coalition; they marching for life. I don’t see a lot of that with Black girls. It’s always the same handful, and I don’t know why that is. That bothers me in the sense of, everybody else is celebrating and fighting for us as Black trans women, but we’re not fighting for us. We’re not fighting hard enough, and I just don’t see that here in LA.

That’s one of the biggest challenges I can give to the community: When you have a chance to make a change, make a change; when you have a chance to give back, give it back. [Even if] that’s not gonna benefit you. Why can’t it benefit somebody else to make their world easier? That’s like me working at Starbucks right now. Some of the shit I’ve been through, I have to think: The next Black girl that comes through, it’s gonna be a heck of a lot easier for her.

What would you say to those girls in the South who can’t get jobs, who don’t have access to good healthcare?

Don’t give up. Do what you can. If you can’t do it, I’m gonna be honest, do what you have to as legally as you can to survive. There’s nobody gonna look out for you but you. Once you transition, you are pretty much on your own, and your family loves you; everybody loves you. But you need to do this on your own.

The day I started my transition, I was two years old. At two years old, I had to learn how to maneuver through life, so I had to take that adult part of him, and that two-year-old her, and teach them both a lesson. I was in this game by myself. It was me, myself, and I. Now, how we gonna do this? It’s up to me. Who’s gonna do this? I am. I’m gonna love myself through it. Simple.

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Oh my god! You’re brilliant. Story time from Sister Sabel. You’re a huge inspiration to me, Sabel, and I can’t wait for people to read this, I think it’s just the hope that we all need.

These kids are doing more today. We live in a city and a time where you can go and get [your gender marker changed to] X. I remember when we were fighting to get our name changed—not our gender marker changed, but our name changed—what that looked like! Now you can go and have X and get identified as nonbinary gender. Who would’ve thought? That wasn’t even a thought process ten years ago!

So I mean, I know it’s dark in them corners some days, I know you wanna close all the windows and doors and just be in the dark, but if you just wait and hold on, just a little longer, the light comes through. Like I said: I’ve had a Black president, I’ve had a woman run for president, I’ve had all these things in my life change, and manifest. I see all the kids—I get a chance to see the kids that I work with as a case manager. I’ve seen them grow and develop. Seeing them go through college and have that—ten years from now, it’s gonna be a whole different world for us.