Ruby Corado escaped the civil war in El Salvador at sixteen, traveling to the United States alone. She's experienced homelessness, survival sex work, and domestic abuse. Living as a transgender woman less than two miles from the White House, Corado is faced with an administration that is working to roll back her rights every day. But in spite of these hardships, Corado has fought to make a place for the LGBT community in her adopted hometown.
Almost five years ago, Corado opened Casa Ruby, a nonprofit serving LGBT youth. The center began in the basement of an apartment building in the Park View neighborhood, a space that Corado paid for out of pocket. The nonprofit now has four more locations across DC, including a health clinic and emergency shelters, and serves more than 500 people in need of housing, immigration support, and HIV counseling.
I visited two of these spaces with Corado. The original Casa Ruby, which has expanded from the basement space to occupy the whole building, now has a drop-in center and fifteen beds for temporary housing. Almost a dozen teenagers and young adults were hanging out downstairs, eating, talking, and charging their phones — it had a distinct college-dorm vibe. We walked down the street to a nondescript house that provides long-term shelter for her clients. She plans to open more centers like these, offering extra housing, new community spaces, and additional services, including mental-health counseling.
Since the election, life at Casa Ruby has become more challenging. Two days after I visited, one of the Casa Ruby employees was attacked, and a shelter's door was shattered. It was the third act of violence against the center in two weeks. When I texted Corado two days later to see if she was OK, she told me she had already had the door replaced.
Despite these assaults, Corado is as determined as ever to keep Casa Ruby up and running. And with her history as an immigrant, former sex worker, and transgender woman, she's uniquely prepared for the fight. We sat down to discuss what it takes to keep the determination alive, being true to yourself, and the current political reality.
Jackie Snow: How did you end up in DC?
Ruby Corado: In 1989, my dad put me on a bus from El Salvador, and I ended up in the DC metro area. It was pretty much a human-trafficking situation. My dad paid to get me here, but I had no idea it was going to just be me. I went to live in this house where I became the maid. Eventually, I ran away because the owner of the house wanted to rape me.
At times, I was homeless. I spent my younger days at Dupont Circle, where many other young, homeless people also spent their time. I was working as a femboy, and it was there where I met a lot of trans people. I eventually decided that I was also trans and learned how dangerous it could be in those days. After I had already started the transition, Tyra Hunter lost her life in the hands of emergency medical technicians [who refused to care for her after a car accident], and my friend Ms. Willy was gunned down.
Eventually, I was like, Hell, I'll just go ahead and transition. If I die, I'm gonna die. But I was not prepared. As a gay, feminine boy, things were still OK. As a transgender woman, it felt like society was punishing me. It's like I was paying a price to be me — but at the same time, I had really found true happiness. As soon as I took the first hormones, I felt like I had come together.
JS: How did you get into advocacy?
RC: The result of so much violence and discrimination makes any human being say, "Enough. Enough."
I started engaging in survival sex work. In those days, I loved what I was seeing in the mirror, but I hated the fact that, to survive, I had to sleep with people [for money].
I started speaking out because I didn't want to be a sex worker. Everywhere I walked, people would call us faggots: "Leave. We don't want your kind here. We don't want your people here." I had already survived the war in El Salvador. I had survived bullets. Words couldn't kill me.
That's how it all began, out of being tired of being dehumanized. People don't have to accept me, but they do have to respect us. I realized the world wasn't ready, but I said to myself, I have the right to be here. There is space in this city for me.
As a transgender woman, it felt like society was punishing me. It's like I was paying a price to be me — but at the same time, I had really found true happiness.
JS: Tell me about starting Casa Ruby and the community center that you run.
RC: I would go to the park after work and just hang out with the gays. Sometimes I would invite them home with me, and we would cook and they helped me clean the house. At some point, I realized that some people were not going home because they didn't have a home.
Then, in 2008, a man tried to kill me. He left me for dead in my house, but I survived. I was homeless for about a year after that. In the process, I applied for Social Security disability with the help of some lawyers.
I got disability, and I got a lump sum. I had this money, and I said to myself, Ruby, you're going to do with this money what you've never done before. I started looking for spaces. Casa Ruby was a community dream. It wasn't just my dream. People wanted to have a place other than HIV clinics.
In 2012, I opened that first center in the basement of an apartment building. We started with the drop-in center, and now we have four other spaces where we provide housing. There is medical case management for HIV-positive trans people. We're about to start a full-service HIV center, which will provide testing and counseling. We're going to expand even more because, these days, there are so many people fleeing their homes, and they're coming to Washington because it's a progressive city. Since October 2016, we've served 184 kids in our homeless emergency housing.
JS: What types of people come to your drop-in center, and who stays?
RC: We have young people who get thrown out of their homes. This new generation, they're more independent, but we also see people who are older. Lots of trans people. Lots of gender-nonconforming. We serve a large number of LGBT immigrants from across the world. One of our programs is the LGBT Immigrant Services. In that program, we have about 560 people that we serve in the area, and we're not even close to the border.
On Monday, I went to defend a case for one of our clients who's trans. The judge was going to send her back home to El Salvador. I kept telling him how many trans women are murdered there. He said to me, "Well, everybody gets murdered in El Salvador, so what's the difference: trans people getting murdered here versus in the rest of the world?" That really shows that the lives of LGBT people are not valued.
JS: How have things changed since the inauguration?
RC: More hate. Some of our clients have been threatened. There's a lot of the "Go back to your country" narrative. We know that in other parts of the country, there's been an increase in murders. Here, it's a lot of violence. When people perceive that trans people, gender-nonconforming people, or LGBT people are vulnerable, they think they can get away with [hate crimes], and sometimes they do.
But people like me, we want to work. I work almost seven days a week. I'm on call 24-7. I'm falling asleep. But here I am.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Jackie Snow is a DC-based journalist who lives close to the White House — but even closer to the Obamas' new digs.