My name is Diana Feliz Oliva and I am a transgender, first-generation Mexican American. I was raised in a single-parent household in a small, rural town just outside Fresno, California. For a shy, feminine, awkward little kid like me, growing up in a small, rural town was not easy.
My mother single-handedly raised five children—two boys, two girls and me. I was constantly made fun of by my own family, classmates and neighbors. They said things like, “Don’t walk like a girl. You carry your books like a boy. Girls play with dolls, not boys.” I grew up living with a lot of shame, stigma, guilt and fear, and I felt that no one in my life understood me.
Years later, still struggling with my gender identity, I moved to Los Angeles and ended up on the streets of Hollywood. There I engaged in sex work in order to survive, and was arrested several times on Santa Monica Blvd. for prostitution. On my last arrest I was sentenced to serve 45 days at L.A. County’s Twin Towers Correctional Facility.
During my incarceration I finally realized that life was too short, and that I needed to walk in my truth to be happy. Funny how things work out—it took being incarcerated to finally feel liberated. A few months after my release I decided to return to school. I entered California State University Los Angeles and earned my bachelor’s degree in social work.
During my last year at Cal State L.A., I couldn’t bear living one more day in a lie. So I began my transition from male to female. A week after my graduation, I shared this news with my mom. She reacted with so much anger and disgust. She even told me, “You are going to hell.”
My mom’s reaction was devastating and heartbreaking. Nonetheless, I moved to New York to pursue my graduate studies at Columbia University, and earned my master’s degree in social work. From the Twin Towers of L.A. County Jail to the Ivy League towers of Columbia University. I finally felt that I had shattered the shame, the stigma, the guilt and the fear that plagued my life for so many years.
Last year I returned to Los Angeles to continue my work with the transgender community. I am currently the Transgender Health Program Manager at St. John’s Well Child and Family Center, and have the honor of serving over 1,400 transgender patients in South Los Angeles who would not have access to healthcare otherwise.
The reason I applied to Liberty Hill’s Wally Marks Leadership Institute for Change: Emerging Leaders program was to influence funders, government entities and elected officials to create trans-inclusive policies, and to financially invest in transgender programs and services, specifically in the areas of civic engagement and leadership development. Tragically, the life expectancy of a transgender woman of color is 35 years old.
Earlier this year I celebrated my 44th birthday, a huge milestone that many transgender women don’t get to experience because of violence and hate. Liberty Hill’s Wally Marks Leadership Institute has empowered me to dream again, to continue to fight and to continue to create the change I want to see in this world.