One woman’s long journey to love, community, and self
Michelle Simek photography by Louis Carr

Sabel Samone-Loreca is statuesque and captivating, with an abundance of tattoos, piercings, and a radiant smile. A self-described loner, she can be shy and introverted. She also can be very vocal when advocating for the rights of HIV-positive transwomen. “If living in your authentic self is more important than anything else; if you can’t eat; if you can’t sleep; if you can’t do anything but think about living in your authentic self—then fuck whatever anyone else says, and live who you want to be,” says Sabel.

Sabel has bravely survived her HIV diagnosis, pneumonia (PCP), racism, multiple suicide attempts, rapes, a hate crime in 2013, hepatitis C, rectal cancer, addiction, and homelessness. On March 15, 2017, at the age of 49 and after being interviewed for this article, she finally underwent gender-confirming surgery (GCS), which she describes as “a lifelong goal” that she thought would never happen.

Originally from Tampa, Florida, Sabel struggled with her gender identity and sense of self, especially in the religious African American community where her family lived. In the churches where she was raised, God was judgmental and punishing. While assigned male at birth, she had feminine mannerisms and had what they call in the South, “a little sugar in the tank.” She wasn’t sure what exactly she was and turned to the trusty red and beige family encyclopedia (if you grew up in the 1970’s your family probably had a set of these encyclopedias also!) for answers. The books had listings for “gay” and “hermaphrodite,” neither of which rang true for her. She “wasn’t in the book”, which was “very weird” for her, since “the book” was full of all of the information you would ever need.

Skin color was also an issue. “Even in my own African American culture, I was judged for my skin color. If I wasn’t light enough then I didn’t get certain things. The darker skinned you are in African American culture, the less valued you are.” At the tender age of 10, she was sexually assaulted for the first time. She was sexually assaulted again in her teens—this time at a mental health facility. With cruel irony, but not uncommonly, the rapist was a staff member at the facility.

When she was in her late teens, she snuck into gay clubs where she saw a striking Asian woman who was somehow “different.” Later, Sabel saw her out of the club environment, behind a makeup counter at a Tampa department store. It turned out that this particular woman was transitioning and already had breast implant surgery. This was Sabel’s first experience of a transwoman and it resonated deeply. “She was what I was looking for… I hadn’t seen this in my community.”

However, she still struggled with her identity and attempted suicide a shocking and saddening 10 times between eighth and 12th grade. She calls some of those attempts “cries for help”, but others were real. Following her last attempt, a nurse told her that if she tried to kill herself again, she would be involuntarily committed to a Florida state mental institution. Atlanta offered escape and a chance to start over—and possibly self-discovery.

Atlanta had a thriving drag scene, which Sabel joined with enthusiasm. She performed at local drag clubs in Midtown but also had mainstream jobs in offices, restaurants, and in the beauty industry. Sabel began to embrace her androgynous look and she started dressing like a woman.

She started dating and, in 1987, felt that “there was something not right with her relationship” and she went to get tested for HIV—at the Centers for Disease Control (CDC)—which can only be described as an intimidating experience. The CDC is a huge white building with lots of doors and cubicles. The testing area had four cubicles and if you stood, you could see who was on the other side of the wall—hardly a confidential environment. There she was asked “900 questions” about her sex life, given a number on a piece of paper, and told to return in two weeks. Two weeks later, very early in the morning, she went back for her results. An uncompassionate test counselor told her that her HIV test result was positive. At that point Sabel literally could not hear any more. Everything else the counselor said sounded to her just like the adults in Charlie Brown cartoons: “whaah, whaah, whaah.” She wiped her tears, pulled herself together, and went and worked a 24-hour shift at her job. Her then-boyfriend also tested positive for HIV.

Asked if she considered suicide again after her HIV diagnosis she said, “No, I was already dead.” In 1987, people living with HIV were expected to live only three years—and only two of those were “good years.” Sabel numbed herself with alcohol, drugs (when asked what was her drug of choice: “anything that was around”), and travel, which eventually brought her to California.

Before heading to the West Coast, she started taking AZT. At one point, she was taking pills four times a day—for a total of 30 pills daily. In addition to HIV medications, she also took anti-nausea pills, an antidepressant, and an appetite stimulant.

In 1993, Sabel and four other trans friends from Atlanta decided to go on vacation to California and jumped on a bus to Los Angeles. The vacation became permanent for Sabel—she never returned to Georgia. The group did not like Los Angeles. “I really didn’t understand L.A. at the time,” said Sabel. Local gang activity involving the Crips and Bloods was quite frightening (especially for vulnerable transwomen), so they headed north to San Francisco and ended up in the Tenderloin.

San Francisco was both a wonderful and horrible time. Sabel and her friends lived in the Ambassador Hotel (it was cheaper than renting apartments) and partied. She fell deeper into addiction and the hustle. If there was “coin” to be made, she was going to make it. “I didn’t give a fuck about myself and certainly didn’t give a fuck about anyone else.”

Things changed in 1994 when she began taking hormones. She credits her doctor and social worker at the South of Market Health Center for encouraging her to get off drugs and to get clean. They saw beyond her addiction and recognized her potential to make an impact in the community. But, in order to get hormone treatments, she had to test clean for street drugs and take her HIV medications. And she stayed clean for
a while.

Also in San Francisco, she legally changed her name to Sabel Samone, and that name is listed on her birth certificate, identification card, and Social Security card. Sabel chose not to reveal her previous name or discuss her early life experiences other than what is included in this article. “That part of me is gone,” she stated emphatically.

Sabel started working at Californians Helping Alleviate Medical Problems (CHAMP) and Central City Hospitality House (with transwomen). However, even with her support system, the clinic and her meaningful jobs, drugs were difficult to escape. She moved to Los Angeles to “run away from drug addiction.” Much to her surprise, she met a man who soon became her husband, Luis A. Loreca.

Luis and Sabel met at a People Assisting The Homeless (PATH) shelter in Hollywood. Luis was also HIV-positive. The attraction was instant but they felt shy and awkward. It took a while for them to get past subtle glances and smiles. Eventually Sabel cooked a meal for Luis, and the old adage proved true: the way to a man’s heart really is through his stomach. They became inseparable. Luis saw Sabel helping and supporting other PATH residents with their HIV diagnoses and encouraged her to get a job in the community. She began working at Minority AIDS Project (MAP) and with the HIV Stops With Me campaign, where she publicly came out about her HIV status in 2004.

The two were married in 2005 and Sabel became the first known transwoman in California to legally marry. Tragedy struck just a few months later when Luis was diagnosed with cancer and died suddenly. A picture of the happy couple remains on her wall to this day, a testament to what might have been.

2005 was also the year Sabel took her next step in her transition journey when she had an orchiectomy, otherwise known as surgical castration (the benefits of an orchiectomy include loss of body hair, muscle mass, and increased body fat). In 2008, she received breast implants. In 2016, she started prepping for gender confirming surgery (GCS), which involved painful electrolysis treatments. In the same year, she was cured of hep C and was also diagnosed with and treated for rectal cancer.

Her thoughts about GCS are mixed. A medically savvy woman, she purposefully does not want to know the surgical details of the vaginoplasty. She just wanted “to wake up and have it be over.” She thinks that the surgery will build her confidence but is worried about post-operative pain. After a month, she hoped to take walks around Los Angeles and return to the gym in three months. Sexual activity is permitted after six months. It will take a full year for her to heal from the surgery. She will have to dilate her new vagina for the rest of her life (dilation is necessary to keep the vagina at the depth and width that was created during surgery).

Today, she only takes one pill a day to control her HIV as opposed to 30 pills a day in the late ’80s and early ’90s. Sabel is now sober and no longer actively using. And she holds a coveted Consumer Seat (in Service Planning Area 4) on the Los Angeles County Commission on HIV.

A vocal spokeswoman for HIV-positive transwomen, she hopes that her story about both her HIV diagnosis and her transition will help the community. Her advice to other transwomen? “Everybody, young or old should live their life the way they need to be. Living my life as Sabel was a life or death moment…it would have been easier to be dead than walking this earth killing myself slowly, with drugs…not taking care of my health.” In other words, be true to yourself.

She turns 50 in August and hopes to celebrate this milestone birthday with a trip to Hawaii. Like many people who have had HIV for a long time, she didn’t expect to live this long. She didn’t expect to live at all.

Sabel may not have a listing in an encyclopedia, as the internet has replaced those dusty reference books. If you Google Sabel, you will find links to numerous articles about her and interviews. Sabel is finally “in the book,” and we can look forward to many more riveting chapters in her life. And, as Sabel says, “There’s a lot to me.”

Writer Michelle Simek works at an HIV/AIDS research and treatment clinic in Los Angeles. She is also an actor, freelance writer, and literary editor. In her spare time, she knits, goes to punk rock shows, and pets her cat, Baxter.