Get our free newsletter
The Gay Issue
Ruby Corado stood in the D.C. Jail, surrounded by 60 male inmates. Earlier that night in March 2008, a domestic dispute with her then-boyfriend had landed them both behind bars. Though Corado looked like, dressed like, and identified as a woman, she’d been housed with the men because of her genitalia. Prison staff instructed her to strip.
Corado, now 42, remembers being humiliated but determined.
“I said, ‘You want a show? I’ll give you a show,’” Corado says. “I got naked. The guys went crazy.”
Even less pleasant for Corado is the memory of urinating in front of the men in the cell. “That was the worst feeling ever,” she says. “Peeing in front of the boys.”
She was released the next day. The grassroots D.C. Trans Coalition, of which Corado is a founding member, organized a campaign to improve the treatment of transgender people brought to the jail. In 2009, the District announced a new policy: Transgender inmates who identify as women could be housed with female inmates. That meant no more strip searches in front of men.
For Ruby Corado, born Vladimir Artiga in San Salvador, El Salvador, the personal has always mingled with the political. At 16, she left behind a turbulent childhood—civil war engulfed the country, and classmates had physically tormented her in the school bathroom for being a feminine little boy—for the U.S. In D.C., Corado has been both a victim of violence and a leading advocate for others who have been victimized. Her nonprofit community center, Casa Ruby, provides services to a range of marginalized groups who, due to language or immigration status, often don’t know what resources are available to them. After more than 10 years of advocacy for the transgender and Latino communities, Corado can command a meeting with any local official; she just can’t keep some teenager from calling her a dude when she walks down the street.
Corado’s long history in D.C. has made her the go-to resource for government officials on trans issues. Mayor Vince Gray was quick to pass along a statement for this story effusively praising her and calling her “extremely influential in many positive changes we’ve seen in the District.”
“We know that she’s connected and that she has information we don’t have,” says Gustavo Velasquez, director of the city’s Office of Human Rights. When the office set out to conduct an awareness campaign for the transgender community, “the first person we went to was Ruby,” he says.
It was Ruby, he says, who suggested the office conduct focus groups out of Casa Ruby to work out messaging and even to find models for the ads the city put out. When the office learned that some restaurants and bars weren’t complying with requirements that single-occupancy bathrooms be gender-neutral, Velasquez again turned to Corado’s network.
The communication, Velasquez admits, goes both ways. When he sees her number pop up on his phone, he knows he’s “about to get hammered.”
“Typically when I get a call from Ruby, it’s, ‘Where is this issue?’” he says. “I haven’t finished a case of someone she sent over here, or we didn’t send an inspector over for a possible noncompliance on a bathroom issue.”
* * *
Corado’s advocacy, which runs the gamutfrom helping a transgender graduate of D.C. Public Schools get the name on her diploma changed to serving on the U.S. Attorney’s Anti-Bias Task Force, began in the mid-1990s. Still relatively new to the U.S., she was living as a man during the week and a woman on the weekends in Dupont Circle.
“I was so into my transition,” Corado says. “I was in the right neighborhood. I thought, ‘Oh, I’m OK.’” In 1995, Corado was planning to live as a woman full-time when Tyra Hunter, a transgender woman, died of injuries sustained in a car accident after EMS personnel refused to treat her.
Corado took the death as a wake-up call. She started volunteering at Whitman-Walker Health, a health center focused on HIV/AIDS care for LGBT patients, doing things like distributing condoms. A few years later, she won a pageant, Miss Gay El Salvador, which came with an expectation of community service.
“I took it really seriously,” Corado says. “I felt like the community had acknowledged me.” She increased her volunteer work and joined groups like D.C. Trans Activism (now the D.C. Trans Coalition). Another rash of hate crimes in 2003, including the murder of Corado’s friend Bella Evangelista, further galvanized her.
“I became very outspoken,” Corado says. Unlike some Latina trans women, Corado could use her English fluency to her advantage. She held her first press conference in 2003, began dabbling in activism for trans immigrants, and took a paying job at Whitman-Walker. She soon became a frequent source of quotes when media organizations reported on trans issues or hate crimes.
In June 2012, Corado launched Casa Ruby. Occupying three floors of a house in Park View on Georgia Avenue NW, the center primarily aims to serve the Latina trans community, but plenty of races and gender variants have relied on Casa Ruby. Corado says more than 700 clients have used the organization’s services, which include a daily hot meal provided by D.C. Central Kitchen; job consulting; psychological help; clothing; HIV testing; and just being somewhere to go.
One of Corado’s clients and quasi-employees is Daniel Trejo, a 23-year-old gay man who fled Mexico as a teenager after surviving a kidnapping and horrific violence. He bounced around the U.S., undocumented, before landing in D.C., where someone steered him to the freshly opened Casa Ruby.
“I met Ruby,” he says. “She said, ‘I’m going to help you.’”
Trejo had never applied for asylum, attempted to finish his education, or sought psychological help to deal with his past. Within a year, Corado introduced him to lawyers to help him apply for his visa and had him start counseling. He’s also pursuing his GED, and Corado gives him $500 a month to support him. “I’m surviving right now,” Trejo says.
Earlier that week at Casa Ruby, I watched as Corado lavished compliments on a woman in sunglasses and a bobbed wig. She repeatedly told the woman, who seemed bashful, how terrific she looked. Later, Corado explained that the woman had been attacked in a shelter. She flipped to a photo in her phone of the woman’s disfigured face right after the attack. “They used Mace on her,” she said.
Between 1995 and 2005, seven transgender people were murdered in the District, according to a 2006 study from the Gender Policy Advocacy Coalition. That number is higher than any state during that period. Reported crimes against the trans community have increased from five in 2009 to 11 in 2011. D.C.’s last trans murder victim, Deoni Jones, was stabbed and killed at a bus stop near H Street NE in February 2012. Her murder has not been classified as a hate crime.
“If you look at the story of trans people in D.C.,” Corado says, “it is not a pretty one.”
Corado hasn’t been immune to any of the perils of living as a trans woman. Though she worked at several real estate and rental agencies, Corado gave escorting a try about 10 years ago. Unlike many trans women who resort to sex work as a way to survive, Corado did it as a way to meet men without having to explain her gender. “I didn’t have to say I was transgendered,” she says, “because when they saw me, they knew what I was.”
Her roommate at the time was working as an escort, and a client of hers offered Corado $500 for sex. Soon she was working with an agency, charging $300 for an encounter.
In 2006, Corado says, she met a man who seemed like a white-collar type who followed the rules. “There are codes,” she says, and violence was against the code. “I had a boyfriend at the time,” Corado says. “I saw this guy once every four months. But in 2008, he got really obsessed.”
In December 2008, he broke into her apartment, beat her, and raped her, Corado says. She reported the attack, but the case was never prosecuted. She struggled to resume her normal life. “I just couldn’t deal with the fact that that had happened to me,” Corado says.
She left her day job and began using drugs. She ended up homeless in 2009, bouncing from one friend’s house to another. So used to being the one that people relied on for help, she felt unable to ask for help herself.
In 2010, a friend helped her find a place in a home for survivors of sexual trauma, and she eventually found an apartment of her own. She continued her advocacy and began collecting Social Security disability payments, but she struggled off and on with suicidal thoughts. Three years after her attack, Corado says, she had her last crisis. She checked herself into the hospital in 2011.
“I thought, I’m going to the hospital,” Corado says. “I don’t want to die like every other transgender on the street.” Her voice breaks.
Friends from the trans community visited daily. “They said to me, ‘What are we going to do without you?’” Corado says. “The next day, I woke up and said, ‘I have to leave this hospital. I’ve got things to do.’”
Corado had tried and failed to launch a nonprofit in 2008, but she gave it another go in 2012 with new vigor. “I called 20 of my closest friends, and I said, ‘I’m going to try again,’” she says.
A year after launching, Casa Ruby boasts plenty of clients but not much cash. The 501(c)3 relies on Corado’s Social Security check, a few grants, and a modest list of donors. (The widow of a wealthy Adams Morgan supporter also left Casa Ruby some garden fountains, which sit on the back patio.)
“As we speak,” Corado says, “I owe the landlord $7,000.” She calls the landlord a “savior” and adds, “It’s one of those things. I just can’t—I don’t even worry about it.”
* * *
It’s a slow Tuesday evening at Casa Ruby. A small group hangs out in the still-light air, laughing and snapping pictures. A young man walks by and apparently cannot resist making a snide comment about “real girls” to some of the trans women, but everyone ignores him. Suddenly shouting punctures the scene, and a young trans woman bursts into Casa Ruby, a man hot on her heels.
Corado calmly jumps into the fray, which has moved to a back cubicle. The couple, a 19-year-old trans client and her boyfriend, are fighting over something someone said on Facebook. The source of the quarrel might be silly, but the fight is real; the man had waited for his girlfriend to get off a bus before flinging a sandwich in her face and screaming at her. Corado can be heard mediating the conflict in a low, soothing voice. The man storms out of the office. His girlfriend, still smeared with the contents of a sandwich, follows him.
“You know that song, ‘We Found Love In a Hopeless Place’ by Rihanna?” Corado asks me with a sigh. “Well, this is it.” She adds, “You don’t throw a sandwich in someone’s face. Next time, it’s going to be a bullet.”
Corado says the couple has talked about getting married. It’s not a development she relishes, but if they decide to wed, she knows she can’t convince them otherwise.
Though Corado’s nonprofit doesn’t have the cash flow of other organizations that serve marginalized groups in town, Casa Ruby certainly doesn’t lack for action. “I always say I have what nobody has,” she says. “I have the clients.”
Photo by Darrow Montgomery