Soaking in the attention from the throng of thousands on the parade route, Trudie Jackson beams and waves at the crowd. She yells “Happy Pride!” and shows off her deep crimson Native American dress and her hair tied back with white ribbons.
She is surrounded by several other women, all wearing bright dresses. Together they create a kaleidoscope of colors so that the Indigenous Out and Proud entry, a group of Native American transgender women, is one of the brightest at this year’s Pride Parade.
After the parade was over, I meet Trudie at Cruisin’ 7th, a bar on Seventh Street, where she is helping with an Indian taco sale. As I approach her table, she hugs me, enthusiastically asking if I liked the parade.
Trudie, a public-service and public-policy sophomore at the College of Public Programs, learned earlier this month that she has been awarded a Udall Scholarship.
But Trudie’s current success hasn’t allowed her to forget her troubled past.
Growing up near the Four Corners on a small reservation, Trudie spent the first seventeen years of her life as a male. When she came to Phoenix, she began dressing and acting like a woman.
“You couldn’t be open on the reservation –- everyone knows everyone,” she says. “My parents were involved in traditional Native American events, and I didn’t want to bring shame to my family.”
Trudie began working in Phoenix as a female prostitute, where she hustled to put a roof over her head. She fell in with a clique of other prostitutes, a crowd filled with sex and drugs that consumed Trudie like a black hole for fourteen years. Ultimately, she was stabbed by another prostitute.
“It was just a street fight among trans women,” Trudie says matter-of-factly. “It’s part of the turf — you have to stand your ground.”
After being in and out of jail for several years, Trudie left for the last time in 1999. She mentions an individual she met, who had one thing to say to Trudie: “This place is not for you.”
Eleven years later, Trudie is a recipient of the Udall Scholarship, a $5,000 national grant given to eighty individuals annually, designed primarily for Native American students pursuing public-policy degrees. Through the scholarship process, Trudie met Janet Burke, associate dean for national scholarship advisement and internships at ASU.
“I encouraged her (to apply for the scholarship) just by assuring her that she brought a wonderful set of accomplishments to this application and that I felt she had as good a chance as anyone I had encountered of winning,” Burke says.
Writing the application essays, Trudie says, made her look back critically at her past. She now drives from her home in west Phoenix along the same streets she worked as a prostitute years ago.
Trudie attended Phoenix College part-time for six years, working full-time as a peer health advocate for HIV/AIDS. In 2008, she was honored by the National Native American AIDS Prevention Center for her action and leadership.
Soon after winning the Udall Scholarship, Trudie attended a reception for students transitioning from Phoenix College to ASU. Her father gave her some sage educational advice at the event.
“When you get your degree, no one can take it from you,” Trudie recites.
Her appreciation of education is palpable: She follows any mention of an experience she has overcome with her feeling of hope for the future. Being an older student at ASU does not faze her. “We’re all here to learn,” Trudie says.
Almost two years into the program, she is in no hurry to complete her degree.
“It took me six years at Phoenix College, I’m just hoping to finish my bachelor’s degree at ASU within five years,” Trudie explains with a slight chuckle.
Trudie found a mentor in her first-year composition teacher at ASU, Elizabeth McNeil, who is also the coordinator of the university LGBT certificate. Though Trudie has struggled in writing for the course, her perseverance has impressed McNeil.
Confronting prejudices held by other students has also been a challenge.
“There was a macho male student who called Trudie a derogatory term when I wasn’t in class,” McNeil says. “She came and talked to me about it because she has always been an advocate for herself.” McNeil adds that Trudie did not want to cause a controversy, however, and that eventually the male student dropped the class out of academic necessity.
Trudie works full-time as a tobacco-program liaison for Native Health, an urban Native American organization, coordinating programs to prevent smoking-related injuries or deaths. She is attempting to fuse smoking and HIV/AIDS policies together, since the latter is Trudie’s passion. She also acts as a mentor for Native American transgender women — for example, she is involved with the biannual Miss Native American Transgender Arizona pageant, which will be held on Dec. 10 at Cruisin’ 7th.
After our interview is over, Trudie thanks me for my time with a big smile. She mentions that she needs to go back to Cruisin’ 7th for a Native American drag show.
Shortly before I leave, Trudie recalls her most memorable experience at the parade.
“I was stopped by a woman along the parade route who hugged and thanked me for my presence in the parade,” Trudie says. “Native Americans have less representation in (LGBT) community events so their appearance made her proud, she told me.”
With a new spotlight shining on her, Trudie is representing more communities than ever before.
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