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This LA trans activist is helping others afford surgery

Trans activist Rizi Timane (center) stands with Rene Chavarria (r) and Tatiana Rivera (l), two recipients of his scholarship program that awards money to trans people looking for help paying for surgery.
Trans activist Rizi Timane (center) stands with Rene Chavarria (r) and Tatiana Rivera (l), two recipients of his scholarship program that awards money to trans people looking for help paying for surgery.
Leo Duran/KPCC

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Rene Chavarria lives in a really small town in New Mexico where "everybody knows everybody," he says.

But he's also transgender. Born female, he identifies as male. It can be a struggle to hide part of his body when he just wants to pass.

"I feel even uncomfortable giving somebody a hug," he says. "You know, do I look flat-chested enough? When I go to hug them, what is it that they feel?"

Many trans people like Chavarria are priced out of getting medical care such as gender reassignment surgery.

"There's a lot of insurances that won't cover it because it's considered cosmetic surgery," he says.

Some of the nation's best doctors for trans-related care are also hours away from his home, meaning he'd have to spend thousands more to pay for travel and lodging.

And trans people are more likely to be unemployed or live in poverty.

Because he's the sole breadwinner in his family, Chavarria didn't earn enough to save. So he didn't have much hope.

"I honestly thought that I was never, never going to get it done," he says.

Then he reached out to activist and pre-licensed psychotherapist Rizi Timane, who's transgender himself.

Trans people are helping others like themselves

Timane works with patients at St John's medical clinics throughout Los Angeles. He founded a program that gives grants and scholarships to trans people who need help affording surgery.

"I just started feeling like we have to look out for each other," he says.

There are only half a dozen programs like it in the whole country.

"There's so many more resources for the LGB community," says Timane, "and for some reason, the trans community is still kind of behind."

Chavarria received one of the two scholarships handed out this year.

With it, a procedure that could've set him back almost $7,000 won't cost anything at all.

"I kept reading the email over again and I was like, 'Is this real?'" he recalls. "I had to show my wife and I was like, 'Are you reading what I'm reading?!'"

Timane bases his scholarship on the merit of the stories he receives, and he looks for those who are struggling like he once did.

"By the time my breasts were developing, I would tie them down with ACE bandages," he remembers. "Just seeing that this was not the body I should be in in the mirror, it was psychologically devastating."

His insurance wouldn't cover his surgery, but Timane was able to raise the tens of thousands he needed by making music and selling copies of his memoirs.

"As soon as I had top surgery and I could see a male chest in front of the mirror, all of the anxiety and all of the depression completely evaporated," he says.

With extra money he made, Timane created his scholarship in 2014 to help others.

Surgery can give some people hope

Hayden, 25, was one of the first recipients. 

He asked that we don't use his last name because of the fear that he'll lose his job if his employer finds out he's trans.

It was hard enough for him to even find a job when he was younger at age 17.

"I just thought, 'Oh, I'll get a job and I'll save up however much money I need to get the surgery,'" he says. "By 19, I still hadn't had a job, could not get a job."

Hayden became depressed and desperate. He didn't see a future for himself at all.

"Without being too bleak, I would definitely not be here on Earth right now," he says.

But when he was able to get surgery using the money from Rizi Timane, Hayden remembers finally feeling free.

"It was November, so when I got back to New York from San Francisco, it was absolutely freezing and I wore just a T-shirt," he says. "It was just like, 'I don't even care if I'm cold!'"

'It's as though they've been set free'

Surgery can be a vital step in trans people's well-being.

"This is something essential for their life and their health," says Harper Jean Tobin with the National Center for Transgender Equality.

When President Obama was in office, he pushed to have health plans cover transgender-related care.

"But some plans still have broad exclusions that specifically target transgender people and their healthcare needs," Tobin says.

And the Republican effort to roll back the Affordable Care Act has trans people uncertain about whether their health care needs will still be covered. That's why some transgender people look to Rizi Timane for a glimmer of hope.

This year's other recipient is 50-year-old Tatiana Rivera, an immigrant from Mexico who's worked as a seamstress in L.A. for decades. When she found out she won, she cried tears of joy knowing she could fulfill a longtime dream.

"After working so hard for 30 years in the garment industry and paying my taxes, I'm getting back a small part of what I've given this community," she says.

And Rizi Timane beamed back.

"It literally means the world to them," he says. "It's as though they've been set free from being trapped in the wrong body."