“I don’t like to smile. Because of my teeth,” he said pointing to his open mouth while he spoke. A gap was visible where front upper and lower teeth should be.
I met Michael outside his new apartment at The Salvation Army. The apartment was hardly new to the shelter’s campus; however, a home was new for Michael.
Michael is transgender and until recently was homeless. The Salvation Army offered Michael months of safe overnight housing in a dorm for transgender individuals before he was able to receive a caseworker and an apartment.
Colorful necklaces adorned his chest and bright beads were threaded on his long, curly hair. He wore torn tights, knee-high socks and furry high-heeled boots with little pompom tassels. His outward appearance was fun, funky and loud.
His voice was quiet. His eyes were even quieter.
I wondered who Michael was and how he arrived at the door of The Salvation Army in an area nicknamed “The Homeless Corridor” downtown. Where was he from and what was his family like?
Michael me made me think of my Michael–my brother–and all of the hardships and obstacles that my sibling overcame growing up as a gay man. I saw my brother struggle. I’m sure the Michael before me had struggled as well.
Had Michael struggled with substance abuse? His empty mouth and complexion made me wonder. Why does Michael prefer to be called the male pronoun “he” yet identify as a female?
My time, unfortunately as it often is for photojournalists in shrinking newsrooms, was limited. I had two other shoots that day and all were on deadline.
As I drove away from the shelter, my heart was full of gratitude. I thought of my warm and welcoming family back home in St. Louis that raised me well. I thought of my husband, our secure home, and my comfortable bed that I take for granted each night. I thought of my bank accounts that were not empty and realized that late payments owed to me were not the crisis I thought they were that morning. I was thankful that I owned transportation and could drive my car to the nearby library to return items after our meeting and also that I had the cash to grab a quick meal before my next shoot.
But most of all, I was thankful for meeting Michael. Although our meeting was brief and he didn’t want to smile for photographs, he gave me his time and respect. He gave me perspective.