Helping People

Trans woman Tori Bertran a South Florida role model for LGBT children and adults

Tori Bertran, SunServe youth group manager, outside her office at Sunshine Cathedral in Fort Lauderdale.
Tori Bertran, SunServe youth group manager, outside her office at Sunshine Cathedral in Fort Lauderdale. cjuste@miamiherald.com

Tori Bertran had a “very unhappy childhood” in South Florida that had nothing to do with her upbringing.

“My childhood was miserable in a very specific way because I was trans,” said Bertran, born in 1974 to Cuban parents who named her Alejandro. “It had nothing to do with whether my family was with me or not. They were a great family. I loved them and they continue to love me, but when you’re a trans kid and you can’t live out your life as you see it, I just found myself very, very miserable.”

At age 12, Bertan and her family moved from Puerto Rico to Miami. A 1992 graduate of G. Holmes Braddock Senior High School, she later studied engineering at Florida International University.

Bertran says her emotional turmoil continued into adulthood.

“When you believe that no matter what you are going to do and no matter what actions and decisions you are going to make, you are going to remain miserable, you are not going to make wise choices with your life,” Bertran said. “You think to yourself, ‘Why should I get a better job if I’m not going to be happy anyway?’ ‘Why should I be in a healthy relationship if I’m not going to be happy anyway?’ ‘Why should I not abuse drugs and alcohol if I’m not going to be happy anyway?’ That was the metric with which I judged my entire life up until I was in my mid 30s.”

Bertran came out six years ago as Tori, a transgender woman.

“That entire year — when I was just coming out of my transition, and rediscovering that life didn’t have to be depressing and horrible — the whole year is ridiculously happy and I spent it in like a euphoric haze,” Bertran said. “But it felt really good knowing that these people who I had just met really had my back. I’ve never experienced something like that before. It’s something that every time that I do something in or with the LGBT community I’m trying to recapture that. And I think I do a pretty good job.”

The idea of any child suffering the same way I did became unbearable to me.

Tori Bertran, SunServe youth services manager

After coming out, Bertran began volunteering for South Florida LGBT groups including Pridelines, SAVE, Aqua Foundation for Women and SunServe. She spoke in public, made campaign phone calls and counseled young people in crisis.

“The idea of any child suffering the same way I did became unbearable to me. I realized that all that I needed was just one example of somebody who was trans and happy and successful and had friends and a community. If I had that one example, someone showing me it was possible, my life would have been very different,” Bertan says.

“A lot of kids have it very hard at home. They can’t see past being in high school, or being in middle school or being with their parents which aren’t always the most supportive people. One of the things I always try to tell them is high school only lasts so long, your living with your parents only lasts so long, but there’s this diverse and wonderful and open and accepting community just waiting for you to join them. And all you have to do is wait until this awkward, horrible period of your life is over to do so.”

Robin Schwartz, a home loan professional and former executive director of Aqua Foundation, says Bertran is a role model for all LGBT people.

“I’ve watched many people, women in particular, start volunteering at entry level and from that they get how important giving is and great it feels and they end up wanting to give more. In return they get more and they grow,” Schwartz said. “In Tori’s case this was her beginning. Over the past few years, she grew from being an Aqua volunteer to being on the board of the organization. She played a big part in Pridelines and SAVE and other organizations. Now she’s working at Sunserve in a leadership role. How cool is that? It’s a great story.”

In 2013, LGBT-rights group SAVE honored Bertran with a Luminaries of Equality award. “Tori is energized by working with LGBTQ youth, watching them grow and develop qualities that will help them become leaders,” according to the group’s website.

This fall, Bertran began working full time for SunServe, a Wilton Manors social-services agency for LGBT people in South Florida. She is the group’s youth services manager at Sunshine Cathedral in Fort Lauderdale.

Bertran, 41, is engaged to Hollywood Gazette owner Jennifer Love, who volunteers weekends taking crisis calls for Switchboard of Miami.

“The most rewarding moments in my life have come about because of volunteering,” Bertran says. “Every close relationship I have in my life, including my partner who I’m going to marry in a couple of months, have come about because I volunteered, and because I made a lifestyle out of volunteering.”

Steve Rothaus: 305-376-3770, @SteveRothaus

Getting involved

SunServe is a nonprofit social services agency serving the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning (LGBTQ) community in South Florida.

Its office is located at 2312 Wilton Dr., Wilton Manors. Call 954-764-5150 for information.

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