‘Safe for the first time’: Trans immigrant finds hope in LA

Sara Reyes sits on a couch in the living room of the HOPE house, a transitional home for transgender, gender non-conforming and intersex people in LA. Photo by Steph Brown.

When Sara Reyes arrived at the transitional home for trans, gender-nonconforming and intersex people where she now lives, the first thing she noticed was an abstract painting of the beach hanging in the stairway. 

“It looks like freedom,” Reyes says of the painting. “I couldn’t believe that I was here in California. I’m usually not a beach person. But to be honest with you, I'm loving it … because I feel safe here for the first time in my life.”

Reyes, 28, is staying at the HOPE house, which stands for Helping Our People Evolve. Run by the TransLatin@ Coalition, it provides temporary emergency shelter in a home-like setting on a residential block of East LA. 

The five-bedroom home serves locals and recent immigrants, like Reyes, who fled her hometown of Bucaramanga, Colombia in March. 

Reyes was assigned male at birth, but in elementary school she started feeling doubts about her gender. Growing up, she kept to herself and focused on studying to become a lawyer. In her final year of law school, she decided to medically transition from male to female, and she started taking hormone blockers. 

While she was terrified of losing her family and her career, Reyes worked up the courage to come out as trans to her dad. 

“He was like, ‘I don't have a lot of experience with this, but for you, I'm willing to try and learn everything that I can so I can make it easier for you,’” Reyes recalls. 

Her mom was a little harder, but eventually she came around and accepted Reyes as well. 

Next Reyes came out to her boss at the law firm where she’d just started working. This did not go nearly as well. 

Reyes explains, “They were like, ‘Yes, I understand you can do that, but don't do it here. If you continue here, we might lose [business] just because you're trans. And we're not going to support that.’”

So, with financial and emotional support from her father, Reyes moved to Bogotá to apply to more law firms. But she faced transphobia, and she also suspected that changing her name and gender identity made potential employers think she had a criminal background. Reyes didn’t receive a single interview. 

In 2021, Reyes’ father passed away. Now she says she feels completely alone. 

While grieving her father, a cousin in the U.S. told her about The TransLatin@ Coalition, an LA-based organization that could connect her with services and help her apply for asylum in the U.S. The next week, Reyes bought a one-way ticket to LA and packed a single suitcase, tucking her father’s handkerchief and watch inside.

She found her way to the The TransLatin@ Coalition headquarters in LA, was assigned a case manager and underwent an intake process. The  same day, she got a tour of her room at The HOPE house in East LA. She’s lived there rent-free for the past six months while applying for asylum and awaiting a work visa. 

The HOPE house is located on a residential street in East LA. It provides temporary emergency shelter and transitional living for transgender, gender non-conforming and intersex people. Photo by Steph Brown.

The HOPE House was founded in 2018 using grant funds and revenue from The TransLatin@ Coalition’s annual fundraiser fashion show. Since then, more than 200 people have each spent a night there, with up to 13 people at a time sleeping in bunk beds and sharing two bathrooms.

Some residents stay at the HOPE house for free on an emergency basis. Others enroll in a savings program, in which residents pay $500 per month for six months, and then recoup that money before they leave, to pay for their own apartment. 

“The mission of the HOPE house is to create an inclusive and affirming environment,” says Jimena Sandoval, who works in communications for HOPE house. “A place that is a safe haven.” 

Safety is a crucial issue for the community. According to unpublished data collected by CSU San Bernardino hate crimes in LA targeting the transgender community increased nearly 70% from 2021 to 2022

Sandoval says this rise in violence is another reason the house strives to “create a space where [people] can heal” and feel empowered to imagine their future.