Houston transgender icon Tommie Ross fighting to build better future for all women

HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- Imitation is the highest form of flattery.

In the late 1960s, a young Tommie Ross found an idol to emulate: the legendary Diana Ross, leading lady of The Supremes.

"Everything I saw, for some reason, flipped the switch on me and I was in love," Ross said.

That imitation eventually became Ross' act, then later in life it led to self-discovery.

Ross was born in Houston's Third Ward as Tommy Jones and then legally changed her name in 1990. Now, she's a legend in the world of drag.

"I've won a lot of national titles. I'm a former Miss Gay USA," Ross said.

She has also played a role in desegregating the LGBT pageants and has become a mentor for the transgender community, continuing to fight for their rights. But it took a while before she would step into heels as her authentic self. Now, she can talk candidly about the journey to the woman she has become.

"For a long time, I mislabeled myself as gay," Ross said.

She said there's a growing acceptance of the gay and lesbian communities. However, when it comes to the transgender community, they continue to be left a few steps behind.

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"We're fighting over the right to be in the bodies that are ours. We're talking about being able to be safe in bodies that are our bodies," Transgender Education Network of Texas Executive Director Emmett Schelling said.

Schelling said getting people to understand that being transgender isn't a choice hasn't been easy.

"Who chooses to be part of a population targeted? Who chooses to be part of a population where violence is enacted toward simply of being who we are?" Schelling said.

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"The epidemic is real": To underscore the alarming epidemic, the life expectancy of trans women of color is 35 years.

Violence against the transgender community happens all too often.

Last year, the Human Rights Campaign reported 44 transgender or gender non-conforming people were fatally shot or killed. The majority of them were Black and Latinx transgender women. In 2019, the number was 25.

The most recent U.S. transgender survey revealed 40% of participants had attempted suicide. Among the most common reasons pushing them to this point are sexual and physical assault, harassment in school and job loss due to bias.

Ross said the most critical way to bring about more acceptance and save transgender lives is by starting conversations when children are young.

"The kids nowadays by the parents embracing their children and allowing their children to say 'I'm transgender' or 'I feel different,' is so beautiful," Ross said.

When it comes to transgender representation, Ross said there's still a ways to go.

"You can't really judge the book by the cover. Even after you read the book, it's still a mystery."

SEE ALSO: List of resources and organizations that support all women

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