Lupe’s Hair Salon in the Bronx’s Soundview neighborhood is far from the typical beauty shop. The majority of the stylists are transgender or transsexual, including its owner, Guadalupe Gonzalez, who created the salon and hired its staff.
“From since I can remember, I have always been a feminine boy,” says 46-year-old Gonzalez, who left her native Puebla, Mexico, for New York, in 1987. Accompanying her brother in law for what she thought would be a quick getaway to New York City, Gonzalez ended up making New York her permanent home. “I felt that branching away from my family would give me the chance to live my life truthfully.” When Gonzalez arrived, she worked at a restaurant in midtown making deliveries. Eventually she opened her first salon, in 1993, on Morrison Avenue.
Before she became comfortable with the person she is now, she hid that person from her family. Being the ninth child of seven brothers and four sisters, Gonzalez felt guilty about concealing her inner female self from them.
To ease that guilt, she told her parents what she’d been hiding during their 1995 visit to New York. “I knew that this would be the opportunity to be open about my homosexuality. I had no idea what to expect, I was so nervous,” Gonzalez says. “When I revealed my secret, my mother said she always knew it.”
After all, her mother caught her then little boy wearing her dress and make-up when he was seven years old. “All of a sudden, the door opened and it was my mother. She looked confused,” says Gonzalez with a gigle. “She was not upset; she just told me to take off her clothes and make-up, and go play outside. I don’t think she thought anything of it because I was young. But, at the same, time I think she was in denial.”
So by the time Gonzalez officially came out of the closet, her parents’ response was one of acceptance. “We love you regardless,” they said. “Be yourself.”
Becoming what she views as her authentic self is a journey that started five years after Gonzalez landed in New York. In the beginning, “I had a mustache, short hair. I dressed like a man. There was nothing feminine about me on the outside,” says Gonzalez, whose male-to-female transformation is complete. “Even though I was a handsome guy, I felt like a woman trapped inside a man’s body.”
The process of switching genders happened the night after Gonzalez’s friend suggested that she attend a party dressed up as a woman. “She asked me, ‘Lupe, what are you doing dressed as a man? You would be a beautiful girl.’”
Knowing that was what she had been longing for, she decided to give it a try. “I had the long hair, fake tits, make-up and a dress,” says Gonzalez. “I remember looking in the mirror and thinking to myself, ‘this is me.’”
It was the start of a new beginning. The following day Gonzalez got rid of all her men’s clothing.
“I started taking estrogen hormone pills. My breasts were growing, my skin became smoother, and my voice was at a higher pitch. Also I started taking electrolysis to remove my facial hair,” Gonzalez says.
Wearing a tight black dress that accentuates her inverted triangle body and a short pearl necklace, Gonzalez crosses her legs as she moves her hair out of her face. Her makeup preference is natural and dewy, which brings out her high cheek bones, and for a pop of color, her signature red lips. A journey that has taken years, she refers to the process as her “reincarnation.”
Despite her hopes that her new identity would be embraced, not everyone she knew was accepting during that time. “Back then, people were not welcoming to us in the community,” says Gonzalez. “Times have changed though,” she added, reflecting on the day her salon got vandalized. “Although we didn’t bother anybody, we were discriminated against.” Gonzalez describes the windows of her salon being smashed and the derogatory name calling. “I used to get stared down, like I had five heads. I guess people were trying to figure out my gender. Today I feel more comfortable because it’s more common.”
According to a 2011 Williams Institute findings, there is a reported 700,000 transgender individuals living in America. Transgender issues and images are common in today’s media, representing them in a more positive light. Popular television show Glee, features the story of a football coach who transitions from female to male. TLC’s, I Am Jazz, is a reality television show about a transgender girl named Jazz Jennings. The series follows Jazz and her family, dealing with teenage issues as a transgender teen. With well known transgender celebrities such as Caitlyn Jenner and Orange Is the New Black’s Laverne Cox, Gonzalez talks about the importance of having public figures supporting the community.
“We are showing the world that we are like everyone,” says Gonzalez. “We have to always be united.” Gonzalez feels that it is vital to have celebrities publicly speak about their experience and be the voice of the transgender community.
Gonzalez has helped her transgender employees by giving them the support as they make their transitions as well as building their careers. “It’s not easy being transgender, especially in the workforce,” says Gonzalez. Owning a salon has given her the chance to do what she loves, while helping others hone their skills. “I give them the opportunity to work as well as giving them advice as they transition.” Gonzalez talks about giving her employees fashion tips and guidance as they evolve physically. “I have been there before, support is very essential in the process,” she says.
Working together seven days a week for long hours, she refers to her transgender co-workers as family. She is trying to set a good example for them as they aim to live as their own.
Edwin Saldana, one of the transgender hairstylists, has been Lily for the past 22 years. Raised by parents who were not accepting of her lifestyle, she refers to the salon as home. “We all understand each other, based on going through similar experiences,” says Saldana. She talks about the influence Gonzalez has had on her life. “She has been a great mentor, she’s like my mom.”
Within the past year Juan Perez, who now goes by the name Dinora, has successfully made her transition as a transgender. Perez has always had an admiration for Gonzalez due to living near the salon. “When I first saw Lupe, I thought she was a beautiful transsexual woman. When I met her, we clicked. Since then she has been a big inspiration in my life, being that she’s a successful business owner and transsexual.”
Living in her truth has made her feel liberated. “I am the woman I have always wanted to be. Beautiful, confident and, most importantly, successful. I am proud of myself.”
Years of success have earned Gonzalez some loyal customers. Priya Ramrattan has been coming to Lupe’s for the past six years. “I don’t let anyone else but Lupe to touch my hair; she does a fabulous job,” she says.
That kind of compliment helps confirm Gonzalez’s choices as a businesswoman and as a trans-female. “I knew this was my destiny,” she says. “Everything I did was for me. I’m happy the way I am today, and I’m pleased with the life I chose.”