My journey began on a Monday morning, Feb. 23, 1981, at 10:52 a.m. in a small country town called Ocilla, Ga. I was born to the late Theloris O’Neal Lewis and Raymond Lewis, the eldest of their three children.
The name Raymond Antonio Lewis was bestowed upon me, and I was welcomed into the world as a baby boy. Today I go by “Octavia,” and the gender listed on my identification is “female,” a reflection of the person I know I’ve always been. Believe it or not, that transition wasn’t even the most challenging of my battles. This is the story of how, despite the fact that the black community is often accused of being closed-minded, the overwhelming love and support of loving friends and family is what allowed me to get to where I am now: happily working on being the best me I can be.
My paternal grandmother raised me until my teenage years, when I was made to go live with my parents in Jacksonville, Fla., where my father was stationed in the Navy. Not long after, our house caught fire, forcing us to relocate back to Georgia. I call this disaster my blessing in disguise because if I had remained in Jacksonville, I might not be writing this story.
Granted, returning to rural Georgia was not the easiest for me. A high school freshman who clearly presented as an effeminate male, I wasn’t exactly greeted by my classmates with fanfare. My family members were well aware that I was “different”—it was impossible not to see that—but they chose not to say anything to me, perhaps hoping that I was going through a phase that would soon end.
They were right about that effeminate boy going away. But they probably wouldn’t have guessed what they would get in return. I made it through high school and entered college. That’s when my life changed forever. I met Jazzy J, whom I considered a gay sister-mother figure. She was the first person to do my hair, dyeing it blond for me. She took me to my first gay club. I learned a lot from Jazzy—watching her, listening to her and even imitating her.
My supportive circle continued to expand when, during my early college years in southern Georgia, I met two people who would become my chosen relatives: John and Ja’Neil. They were responsible for my first trip to Atlanta, which would become my home for the next 10 years. It didn’t take much convincing for me to leave my little two-traffic-light hometown, where the railroad tracks literally divided the whites from the blacks and which could not sustain me anymore.
Once settled in Atlanta, I had my first encounter with what I thought was true love. I was 21, and this young man made me feel like I was the only thing that mattered to him. At that time I still hadn’t blossomed into the mature, unapologetic woman living her truth who is writing this piece, but she was slowly emerging. Tragically, in addition to the gift of love, this man left me with something else that I’d seen rob the life from many friends and strangers alike: HIV. I went for a routine screening the end of March 2006 and returned for my results on April 3. The test was positive.
I thought about suicide because to me I was already dead. However, that changed when I met my mentor, Avery Wyatt, who changed my life forever. Avery was my case manager at the DeKalb County Board of Health who fully accepted me while helping me navigate what was an inadequate and unfriendly health care system. Avery motivated me to go back to school in the fall of that year. Not only that, but he gave me the courage to be the person I was destined to be.
That meant it was time to start going by “Octavia” and living full time as a woman. I was no longer afraid to present myself as who I truly was. I had emerged from my cocoon to become the woman I was destined to be. I got my new name tattooed on my arm so as to never forget it.
When I returned home for the first time as Octavia, I was kind of surprised at how well most of my family received me. My uncle, John L., was the first and most enthusiastic to truly embrace the new me. He accepted Raymond but loved Octavia for all she was. I was truly blessed to have someone like him in my life. Being loved and accepted made the next step of my journey a bit easier.