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Column One

Compassion creates a family

A seriously ill young transgender woman and a middle-aged nun form a bond.

September 07, 2011|By Alexandra Zavis, Los Angeles Times
  • An unlikely friendship binds Sister Margaret Farrell, left, a Catholic nun, and Leane, 23-year-old transgender woman who learned, years after her mother rejected her, that she had late-stage Hodgkins lymphoma.
An unlikely friendship binds Sister Margaret Farrell, left, a Catholic… (Anne Cusack / Los Angeles…)

Sister Margaret Farrell peers uncertainly over her shoulder as she tries to maneuver a lumbering minivan across several lanes of morning traffic on the Hollywood Freeway.

"I used to drive a cute little nun's car," she says, shaking her head.

Her 23-year-old passenger, Leane, chuckles and leans out the window to guide her.

They make a cheerful pair: the Irish nun and the transgender woman.

Audio slideshow: An unlikely friendship

Leane was kicked out of home at 13 and spent years cycling between group homes and the streets. Three years ago, she was diagnosed with late-stage Hodgkin's lymphoma.

Her mother, she says, would have nothing to do with her. So Sister Margaret became the family she wished she had, ferrying her to hospital appointments and supporting her through months of grueling treatment.

Both say the unlikely friendship has been a source of strength and inspiration. Now Leane is worried about some lumps on her neck. They are headed from a Hollywood homeless shelter to the City of Hope in Duarte to find out if the cancer is back.

***

Sister Margaret, 51, grew up on a farm in southwest Ireland. County Cork is known as the "rebel county" for its history of resistance to English Protestant rule. But her Catholic parents insisted that their children be respectful of their Protestant neighbors.

"Whatever they were or weren't, it was none of our business," she said.

At 22, she joined the Religious Sisters of Charity, an order founded in Dublin in 1815.

"I'm not a holy, pious person, but I was always involved in social justice," she said. "I guess that's what my big thing was, to see where I could fulfill this need, this urge I had inside me to do something for the poor."

In 1998, the order sent her to California, where she lives in a Culver City apartment block with four other nuns.

Through her work with juvenile offenders, she learned about Covenant House California, which operates a shelter and transitional housing for homeless teenagers and young adults in Hollywood. The nonprofit, part of an international network of shelters founded by a Franciscan priest in 1969, was looking for someone to tend to the spiritual needs of the residents, who come from all faiths.

"Ten years later, I'm still there," Sister Margaret said.

The first time Sister Margaret attended Mass at Church of the Blessed Sacrament in her adopted Hollywood parish, a mother told the congregation how she had come to accept her two gay sons.

"It was surprising to see it done so openly," Sister Margaret said. "It was great."

She was soon reminded that such acceptance is not universal. Gay and transgender youth make up a disproportionate share of Covenant House residents. Many of them tell her they were kicked out of religious homes where they were taught that homosexuality is a sin and that they are going to hell.

Sister Margaret's tiny, cluttered office has become their sanctuary. There, amid piles of donated clothes and toiletries, they know they will find a bracing cup of tea and a sympathetic ear.

"I always tell them Jesus said 'Do not judge and you shall not be judged,' so I'm not going to judge anybody," she said.

***

Leane was born with a boy's body. But by age 5, she knew that she wanted to be a girl.

"I put on some high heels and I just loved how it made me feel," she said, a dreamy look on her face. "Not the baggy clothes that I was forced to wear."

She says her parents would punish her when they caught her in her mother's shoes and makeup. When her mother remarried, her stepfather asked if she was gay. Leane said no.

"I liked boys and I wanted to be a woman, so I was straight," she said.

She spoke about her life on condition she be identified only as Leane. The Times was able to confirm parts of her account from public records and other sources. Attempts to reach her mother were unsuccessful. Other family members declined to be interviewed.

Leane said she ran away frequently from her home in Lancaster, but authorities would find her and send her back, to endure another "whupping." At 13, she was arrested for truancy and sent to juvenile hall. Her mother, she said, refused to take her back.

"She just gave me up like I was trash.... I told her I want to be a woman and she said you are not going to be a woman in this house."

She was sent to a group home for gay and lesbian adolescents, but she chafed at the rules and continued to run away.

By 15, she was selling her body in Hollywood to pay for hotel rooms because she didn't want to sleep on the streets.

It was dangerous work. Leane said she was held up at gunpoint, raped, robbed. One client stabbed her in the chest and left her bleeding on the sidewalk. She was 16.

But she found acceptance among the transgender prostitutes who work Santa Monica Boulevard and other parts of Hollywood. The money was fast and intoxicating. She could afford to dress the way she had always wanted.

"You name it, I bought it: shoes, purses, hair, makeup," she said. "Every night was a fashion show."

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