Real Change Vendor Shark, who tells me she is gender nonconforming and identifies as a lesbian, has come quite a ways to be able to say both of those things with pride. To reach safety, Shark had to make a long journey — both literally and figuratively — to a new home that accepts her fully.
When about 10 years ago she first realized she identified differently than people around her, she said, she was not in a safe environment to express it.
“Considering I lived in states that are very either non-caring or hateful — which is, unfortunately, at least half this country now — I really couldn’t express myself safely until I really started moving here,” she said.
However, that was something of a move from the frying pan to the fire: Shark went through a significant period of housing insecurity and homelessness upon arriving in Seattle.
“For the first couple of years when I was living here and I wasn’t in my own place, I couldn’t really express myself either because of fear of abuse or mistreatment,” Shark said.
The shelter system was “absolutely not” a safe place for people in the LGBTQIA+ community, at least when she was navigating it. However, she noted, there were a few shelters that did accept women and people who identify as women. Shark specifically praised The Sophia Way, which runs the Helen’s Place shelter in Kirkland.
“That’s the direction that people should go anyways, but it’s not always the case,” she said. Otherwise, Shark said, “Most of the services I’ve noticed are binary: straight-up male or female.”
Providing more shelter services for people who don’t fit into the gender binary would help LGBTQIA+ individuals navigating homelessness a lot, in Shark’s opinion. That said, she’s still grateful to live here.
“I think we are one of the more accepting places in this nation of people that want to be who they are instead of what people want them to be. But we still need to take more steps to be more accepting and caring of [those] people,” she concluded.
At Real Change, Shark said she felt welcomed and supported. But, she cautioned, “There’s always room for improvement no matter how much you already do.”
Now that she’s been stably housed for quite a while, she’s able to be more and more herself. These days, Shark finds herself drifting towards a more feminine gender expression.
“It’s starting to lean more and more towards femme. I find myself making more fashion choices that way. Because it feels like a comfort zone now, honestly,” she said.
She’s also become comfortable being out in almost all contexts.
“I try to be, and I find myself gradually moving in that direction as I evolve my own inner being. It’s a slow process, because it needs to be,” Shark said.
A major step for people whose gender does not match the one they were assigned at birth, she noted, is the ability to legally affirm that.
“A lot of people that I’ve met over the past couple of years that are willing to share personal information with me still use their legal names, but they present themselves as who they want to be,” she said. “I feel that we as a society should be more accepting of who these people want to be and maybe help them in the direction of, ‘Oh, hey, if you need to change this on your records or anything like that, here’s resources for you to do that if you want it.’”
That process is “fairly easy” in Washington, she said, unless you are — like Shark — from another state: “You have to jump through multiple sets of hoops to get that stuff done. It’s really complex depending on what state you’re from.”
Still, we’ve got it better here than most, she said. A member of Shark’s online LGBTQIA+ community — she is, as documented in a February vendor profile, an avid gamer — has been unable to come out because of dangerous anti-trans laws in their home state.
“Here in Washington, they don’t publicize the fact that you’re trying to change your legal identity and personality,” Shark said. “In that state, where they’re from, you have to publicize yourself and out yourself to local media to where they can actually potentially look you up, target you and maybe cause some sort of violence or something like that. That needs to be regulated federally.”
While the looming threat of violence against trans and gender-nonconforming Americans is alarming, Shark admitted, “It’s very dark in some spots, but more evolving and becoming lighter in other places.”
To make it brighter, Shark advised more human connection.
“We’re in an era where we don’t talk to the people around us as much, and that is something that’s a huge problem, especially when you’re trying to connect with someone that is LGBTQIA+,” she said. “Knowing our neighbors will not only give us a sense of safety, it will give us a sense of love and community as well.
“And that’s something that not only Washington is missing, but it’s missing all over the world.”
Shark sells Real Change at the PCC in Kirkland. Her badge number for Venmo payments is 13097.
Read more of the May 31-June 6, 2023 issue.