Renee Baker | Special Contributor
EDITOR’S NOTE: This article has potential for triggers.
Trying to get your arms around the life of renowned transgender woman Sarah Luiz takes a plethora of detective work. She has lived life loudly and wildly and has fought madly to be herself. Her story is so difficult to track down, you even begin to question whether it is true. Eventually though, the pieces fall into place, and in the end, she makes you smile.
Sarah’s early claim to media fame came in the late 1980s when she sued Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts, which, she said, had stalled her gender transition halfway through. Her legal argument was that the company should not have agreed to starting the medical process if they were not going to finish it.
The lawsuit was settled out of court, and Sarah received $15,000. It was not enough.
Fortunately for Sarah, a transgender Brazilian diplomat took note of her when she appeared on CNN’s Larry King Live. While he could not transition himself, the diplomat had vowed to help another. So Sarah gratefully completed her gender surgery with medical pioneer Dr. Stanley Biber in 1989, in Trinidad, Colo.
Dallas Voice originally caught up with the transgender celebrity and model 10 years ago. She was in love with her second husband, Kelly Curry, and living in The Colony. Her hope at the time was to be the first transgender woman to give birth. It was a long shot, she admitted, given her age of 45 and the complexity of uterine transplants.
The transplant never came to pass. But looking back, Sarah said, she sees it as a childish goal: “A baby can’t give birth to another baby,” she said, “and I am glad I never had the transplant.”
What Sarah shares today, after a decade of silence, is that she has had a rocky road with bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and complex PTSD — with addiction as an unrelenting passenger. At the time she wanted the baby, she was still coping with drugs and alcohol.
With five years of sobriety under her belt and now a social work advocate, Sarah comes clean and shares it all in her new book, The Forbidden Fruit, published recently by Page Publishing.
Why write the memoir now, we asked? “Well, I’d have to say that there are two reasons,” she said. “One is to release the past and all my ghosts.”
Secondly, Sarah wants others to know they are “not alone in having demons in their closets.” Undoubtedly, she wants clarity, too, on her life and her family and to, like so many trauma survivors, just to be heard.
Sarah was born in 1965, in Bedford, N.H., granddaughter to wealthy immigrant businessman Frank Luis. “He traveled between Portugal and the States … building homes for his family … in this New World called America,” she said. Of the seven children Frank Luis sired, one was Luiz’s birth father, Orlando Perry Luis, a former Army medical technician who served during the Korean war out of Fort Sam Houston. He later became a vice president at the Bank of Boston, now Bank of America.
Sarah Luiz’s darkest secret, which she is sharing now, is that her father, who should have been her protector and caregiver, was instead a “psychopath” and “rapist.”
“He had no conscience whatsoever,” she continued, “and to say he was a rapist is putting it mildly.”
Unfortunately for Sarah, she was a child sexual abuse victim and — almost worse — she was silenced by threats of death if she told anyone. If she told her mother, stepfather or sister, with whom she lived, he would kill her and maybe them, Sarah recalled.
“Around the age of six and a half, we started going to the local park [bathroom],” Sarah wrote, “and he made me stand on the toilet seat facing him.”
This was how he raped her, holding her mouth shut, and with no one else in the public bathroom knowing. At most, one pair of shoes could be seen under the stall — only his not hers. Fortunately for Sarah, the visitations from her father stopped after a court order required supervised visits. But the mental compartmentalization and the trauma were left intact.
As trauma expert Dr. Bessel Van Der Kolk believes, “the body keeps the score.” In other words, trauma is not overcome by rational means, especially for a child with little strength of mind. To Sarah, her real parents — the Dad and Mom that loved her — were her stepfather, former air traffic controller Charlie McNerney, and her mother Pauline (nee Berube) McNerney, a banker, and craft shop owner.
“My parents used to parade me around in my mom’s hair pieces and put cute, frilly outfits on me, and I loved it,” Sarah smiled, “I definitely was a small little showgirl.”
Sarah knew as far back as she can remember that she wanted to be a girl. Even through the school bullying for her innately feminine features, she persisted in her sense of self. “The difference between a lump of coal and a diamond,” she likes to say, “is that the diamond believed.”
Sweet 16 became a pivotal year for Sarah when a California Valley girlfriend moved to town and cracked her gender egg wide open, taking her out for the first time to gay bars “like, in drag.” She felt like she saw herself for the first time, like a girl from Glamour magazine.
“I couldn’t believe what I looked like,” she wrote, “I wanted to scream with joy.”
Finally, Sarah really did believe she could become true to herself in front of the world. Coming out to her mother two years later was a worry not needed: Her mother, herself a cancer survivor, had great compassion for people.
“Why in the world would you think I would disown you,” Sarah recalled her mother saying in the memoir. “I love you no matter what, silly!”
With newfound family and LGBT support, Sarah experimented with her look, her deportment, sex work and the party lifestyle. It was easy to avoid the pain of the past when you were having fun, she said, and it “became my escape.” To complicate her trauma, she was raped while on a date, on a pier in New York City.
“Out of the blue, I had a gun cocked to my head,” she wrote, “and he said you’re going to give me a birthday present.”
Sarah was in the rapist’s car and could not get out; the door was jammed. It was just like old times with her father, stuck in a car with him and unable to get out. Memories she just wanted to forget flooded her mind. “I clung to the side of the car,” she said, ”practically trying to become part of the door.”
Sarah was lucky: She lived. But that’s when she gave up on the big city. Her mom picked her up, and they went home. Having been close to losing her life and recognizing her “reckless behavior,” Sarah began to question herself and sought therapy. She cut her hair into a boy’s style, at least for a time. She wanted to transition the right way, but she was not ready to talk about the trauma and the bipolar disorder. And after the New York nightmare, the unhealthy drinking and drugs really began.
Fast forward through the insurance media blitz, the gender reassignment, love and marriage, more love, more marriage and several exes from Texas, even flat-lining from valium and vodka — Still nothing brought Sarah to the realization she was an addict. Nothing could make her feel her trauma-based feelings.
“I knew I needed to make changes in my life,” Sarah said, “but I just couldn’t put my finger on it.”
Trauma is not easy to face. In an odd way, Sarah was lucky to have survived so much. Rock bottom came when Sarah found herself homeless — in Midland, in Denton and then in Monterey, Calif. Even after a large inheritance from her birth father, which would have set her for life, she found herself destitute.
A social worker from Interim Inc. in Salinas, Calif., found Sarah living in downtown doorways, near a post-office and on the beach. She had survived for the better part of three years, frequently “flying” her favorite well-worn panhandler sign that said, “I bet you a dollar you read this.”
True to her cheerful style, Sarah wrote, “If you have to be homeless, it might as well be Monterey.”
Five years ago, Sarah found courage, sobriety, housing, and the hope she needed to start again. Now as a social work advocate and motivational speaker for Interim, she continues to help others with her autobiographical toolkit. Writing has become a solid passion and part of her salvation, and she is releasing a new novel soon.
Today, you would find Sarah to be a bubbly, gregarious, jazz-singing woman that dreams big. She even thinks of opening her own shelter for the homeless. Maybe she will cut a new album.
And I bet you a dollar that she can make you smile!
To learn more, see SarahLuiz.com. Renee is a Licensed Professional Counselor in private practice and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.