New York City, US – On an unseasonably warm December afternoon, 51-year-old Ceyenne Doroshow sits on the porch at The River Fund, a New York City-based anti-poverty organisation that runs a food pantry in the neighbourhood of Queens.
Every Saturday, staff and volunteers distribute donated groceries to a long line of people – so long, in fact, that it sometimes winds around the block.
Doroshow recounts her first visit to the food pantry. It was three years ago, on a stifling summer Saturday. The heat was making those waiting in line uncomfortable and was especially difficult for the elderly.
Doroshow has a soft spot for old people, and asked the organisation’s executive director, Swami Durga Das, if she could help by handing out water. He jumped at her offer and gave her water and biscuits to distribute. Then he asked her to volunteer on a weekly basis.
Doroshow was worried that wasn’t a good idea. “People might not like me,” she told him.
After all, she had already attracted some attention and curiosity on that first day; one man had even cursed at her.
Curses and curiosity: being transgender
As a transgender woman, Doroshow is all too familiar with the hostility, harassment and discrimination transgender and gender nonconforming people face, and she has had practice dealing with such situations.
“Well, God bless you, sweetie,” she’d told the cursing man.
“Ceyenne was wonderful, very present,” Das says, explaining why he was so keen for her to become a regular volunteer.
And while some refused to accept anything from Doroshow, others were friendly and eager to learn more about her.
She did return on the following Saturday.
“I was very nervous on the first day, there was so much adrenaline because I actually had conversations with people that had seen me [in the neighbourhood] for years, but had never spoken with me,” Doroshow remembers.
The man who had cursed her also returned that Saturday.
Doroshow remembers his words to her. “I was having a bad day and I chose [to take it out on] you,” he’d told her apologetically.
“I bet you won’t do that again,” she’d replied.
Three years later, Doroshow still volunteers at The River Fund every week. And as rates of poverty and hunger have increased in the city, affecting more than 1.4 million New Yorkers, it is busier than ever.
She also sees the man who cursed her around their neighbourhood. “I see him at the grocery store – totally a different man,” Doroshow says. “He shakes my hand, says ‘Hey, how are you? God bless you. Can I come Saturday?'”
Seated on the porch, Doroshow, who moves confidently and is dressed in subtle tones of black and grey, stops herself mid-sentence to shout at a fellow volunteer: “Sheila, what are you eating?!”
“Spaghetti meatballs in the damn can,” Sheila responds.
Doroshow looks horrified. She’s not the kind of woman who will allow a friend to eat that when she has cooked fried rice and beans with chicken and left it in the office kitchen for everyone to share.
“I made you food,” Doroshow says, pointing to the kitchen. “You, go!”
Cooking in heels
Doroshow has always been passionate about cooking.
At The River Fund, her cooking skills are put to good use whenever they receive a batch of donated vegetables that are a little out of the ordinary – like rutabaga or asparagus – and many people are unsure what to do with them.
She will stand by the line, ready to dish out advice: “Asparagus can be cooked or steamed.” Or, “If your kids don’t like vegetables, blend them and add them to tomato sauce.”
She believes that a sense of community and acceptance can grow around food served with love, and that is a central theme of her 2012 cookbook and memoir, Cooking in Heels.
The book tells the story of Doroshow’s life as a black transgender woman. Written after she had gone through a particularly tough time, during which she spent 28 days in jail, her memoir is now one of the tools Doroshow uses to raise awareness around transgender rights.
Growing up: cooking and discrimination
As a child, it was in her grandparents’ home in Park Slope, Brooklyn, that Doroshow developed her love for cooking; watching and learning from her grandfather, who was a chef at the New York City nightclub, Copacabana.
Strange or unfamiliar ingredients never bothered Doroshow. Once, her grandmother sent her to the store for groceries and she returned home with tripe for a soup she had seen on a cooking show.
In her parents’ home, however, the kitchen was off-limits for much of her childhood. Her parents saw her as a boy and expected her to behave accordingly – to them, that meant playing baseball and football, not cooking.
“At that time there was no ‘transgender’, not the word. You can imagine how the words that really were used, all hurt me,” she says. “Now my parents are accepting, but as a child back in the 70s and 80s, it was horrible. And I’m not gonna pussyfoot around that.”
She had sometimes faced physical abuse at home and her parents would take her to ministers and therapists.
It wasn’t until her early teenage years that a therapist told her: “You’re just transgender, nothing’s wrong.”
She would sometimes sneak out of the house wearing her mother’s clothes and would often avoid going home – staying with her grandparents or friends, riding on trains all night long.
For a while, she took drugs. And as she tried to build a life for herself, she faced recurring setbacks as she struggled to find housing and was repeatedly rejected for the jobs she applied for.
Double discrimination: black and transgender
While there is growing awareness and acceptance of gender non-conformity today, not least because of media personalities such as Caitlyn Jenner, a transgender woman who, as a former Olympic athlete and TV personality, has received significant media attention in the US, Doroshow believes that many of the serious issues facing the transgender community remain overlooked.
A 2011 report by the National Transgender Discrimination Survey entitled found that transgender people face discrimination in education, housing, employment, and healthcare, and that black transgender people fare worse of all.
Doroshow is currently struggling to find housing that will enable her to stay in her local community, but says property owners have withdrawn offers after meeting her in person.
Before earning her college degree in social science, Doroshow was offered a job through an employee at a homeless shelter where she stayed. She subsequently spent years working for shelters and community health centres. But, while working for an organisation for transgender women, Doroshow was always on call and eventually wore herself out. She ended up feeling burned out and unwell, and felt she needed to quit in order to get back on her feet.
Desperate to make ends meet and to provide for the family members who relied on her, she spent a few months working as an escort. In 2010, she was arrested and sentenced to 28 days in jail.
28 days in jail
It was a dark period in Doroshow’s life.
A local newspaper in New Jersey, where she was living at the time, prominently featured the news of her arrest, and Doroshow says that this led to harassment from strangers who would show up at her doorstep. The media attention, she explains, also shocked her family and jeopardised the work she had done for transgender rights in the local community and her relationships with her neighbours. She was judged by something that was only a small part of who she was, she says, adding: “Doing sex work doesn’t make someone a monster.”
She was sentenced to serve time in a New Jersey correctional facility for men, despite her gender identity, and placed under so-called protective custody. This is a common form of imprisonment in a justice system that is often ill-equipped to serve gender non-conforming people and involves seemingly protecting transgender prisoners from harassment and violence by placing them in isolated confinement, even though this is known to carry risks to inmates’ mental health.
Doroshow had already experienced the dangers resulting from regulations that place transgender people in institutions based solely on their biological gender: while struggling with homelessness in her younger years, she was housed at a men’s shelter where another resident attempted to rape her.
In jail, she spent several days crying in the cell she shared with another transgender woman, whose presence helped ease the loneliness of isolated confinement. The women could communicate with inmates in nearby cells through the vents, and soon they started discussing the one thing they were all desperate for: good food.
The inmates were tired of eating the same things all the time, so Doroshow began advising them on what they could buy from the jail store in order to create different meals. Make a casserole, she told them, by mixing ramen, Vienna sausages and cheese bits in a ziplock bag, adding water and seasoning from the noodles, and then cooking the whole thing in a microwave oven.
Eager to keep herself busy and with her thoughts and conversations centred on food, she started writing down the recipes for meals that she was eager to make once she got out.
But writing paper was hard to come by; inmates received only three sheets of paper a week. So Doroshow scribbled down recipes on anything she could find – napkins, scraps of paper, magazines – and collected them all in a ragged envelope.
From their cells, the inmates started discussing their favourite dishes, asking Doroshow to go over the steps of preparing them. She would take notes as she told them how to make them. Some were recipes she hadn’t tried before; others were for dishes she had made many times but wanted to tweak.
“What are you cooking tonight?” one man would ask. As her fellow inmates listened, Doroshow would recount the details of meals she used to cook, such as her Aunt Do’s stuffed shells – a laborious dish that she helped her aunt to prepare as a child.
Doroshow described how they would boil the large pasta shells until almost soft and prepare two fillings – ricotta cheese with herbs, and meat fried with onion, garlic and bay leaves.
She would then place the bowls of stuffing in front of her like an assembly line and, while holding a moist shell in the palm of her hand, spoon a little of the meat into it before filling it up with the ricotta cheese. Once filled, the shells would be placed in a baking skillet, a homemade tomato sauce with rosemary sprigs would be placed on top and a block of mozzarella cheese would be grated over everything to finish. The skillet would go into the oven, and they’d wait for the cheese to start bubbling.
The inmates listened quietly, and sometimes checked in with a “Did you write that down?” to make sure that she hadn’t missed a single ingredient from a recipe.
Then they would make requests for another meal.
“Do you know how to make chicken curry?” someone would ask.
“Sure do,” Doroshow would reply, before starting over with more chopping, seasoning, mixing, and frying.
These elaborate fantasies of favourite meals could go on for hours, Doroshow recalls. “It helped the nights go smoothly, and quicker. It helped me having something to focus on because you’re just sitting for hours in a cell, vegetating.”
One day she brought her envelope of recipes to a meeting with her lawyer, Melissa Broudo, from the Urban Justice Center. Broudo was curious about the envelope’s contents and when she saw what was inside, she thought the recipes had potential.
She put Doroshow in touch with the Red Umbrella Project, an organisation for people in the sex trade.
Upon her release, Doroshow and the organisation’s director, Audacia Ray, got together, and one successful Kickstarter campaign later, which raised $9,440, Doroshow published her cookbook, full of all those recipes she dreamed of making while eating only prison food.
‘A big family person’
“Aunt Do, what do you want for dinner?” Doroshow asks one evening, while getting ready to leave her house. Her aunt, whose recipe for stuffed shells she shared with her fellow inmates while in jail, is in her 80s and has been staying with Doroshow since her husband recently passed away.
“I could really eat some fried chicken,” Aunt Do responds after a moment’s contemplation.
Doroshow’s house is also home to the nephew she raised, and a teenage girl, who Doroshow fosters. “I’m a big family person,” she says.
Her book is all about family and includes recipes inspired and named after family members and friends, who have had an impact on Doroshow’s life. Aunt Do’s stuffed shells are in there too, complete with a tip that the dish can be made faster if there are children helping in the kitchen.
The book cover is a photo of Doroshow in heels with a large bowl of paella. The book starts out as memoir, recounting her life and challenges, and morphs into a cookbook with short anecdotes and descriptions about some of the people who Doroshow has named recipes after. Both sections are written in Doroshow’s distinct style: honest and straightforward.
“[Aunt Do] was the aunt who loved me unconditionally whether I was in a pair of pumps or in a pair of sneakers. It is that kind of unconditional love and compassion I wish my parents would have had,” says Doroshow, who believes mentorship is crucial in the transgender, and any other, community.
“Many have been cast out into the rough waters so you lose structure, and the guidance that you would have had if you were accepted and at home where, say, your sister and your mother helped guide you into your femininity,” she says.
While she did find some guidance within her family, Doroshow says she came to realise that family, not unlike gender, is determined by more than just biology, and can consist of any group of people who accept each other.
Welcoming the transgender community
On a Saturday morning at the food pantry, Doroshow jokes around with a couple of young male volunteers as she makes sure that the line of people moves smoothly. “These guys are wonderful. Of course, I think they’re terrible – but kind of wonderful,” Doroshow jokes. “You and the rest of the world,” one of the young men shoots back with a smile.
Doroshow is a familiar face here and shares hugs, greetings and banter with the clients and fellow volunteers.
“That’s why I love coming here. It’s like Disney World with care,” she says.
Through Doroshow, The River Fund has been able to reach members of the transgender community who come to the organisation because they know they will be welcomed.
“I really do think it’s a community that’s completely under-represented. They’re accepted here, welcomed with open arms,” Das says, adding: “I love how the young guys embrace Ceyenne. I think that starts to break the barrier between generations.”
Doroshow engages in various types of public speaking and awareness work for transgender rights, including the Trans Women’s Theatre Ensemble, and several storytelling events. She has received feedback from parents of young transgender children, who have found her book helpful, and from students who have studied it in school.
Doroshow says it’s important to her to reach beyond the transgender community.
“What I’m doing at The River Fund is for everybody, which means I’m able to go so much further, and get it out there that, Hey, I’m here, and it’s not as ugly as you think it is,” she says.
“I’m not just fighting for my transgender community, I’m fighting for every community – for family, the sense of pride, the sense of community, the sense of being and belonging.”
Focusing on the positive is Doroshow’s strategy for life. “Someone asked me, ‘Why do you tell your consumers and your clients that you were on drugs? Why do tell them that you were a prostitute?'” she says and then makes a face as if to say that the answer is self-explanatory.
“Because maybe it’ll help them. Maybe they’re feeling a little abandoned and vulnerable and here goes someone who’s the same. There’s not a day I don’t get up and I don’t feel vulnerable,” she says.
“Life is hard, but am I going to be sour about it? Hell, no. I’m going to be strong about it, I’m going to pave through. I’m still looking for housing in my neighbourhood,” she says.
In the late afternoon, when all the food has gone, Doroshow stands in the half-empty street and looks around.
A man in his 40s approaches, hoping that there is still some food left although he is much too late, and Doroshow knows it is time to leave. That part breaks her heart, she says.
“I’m exhausted,” Doroshow sighs, then turns to the young girl she fosters who has been volunteering all day too. “You wanna go home?” she says. “We’re making cookies today.”
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