Formerly unhoused and fighting to be her authentic self, Kaleef Starks put herself through college

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By Yosi Yahoudai
Founder and Managing Partner

“No one really believed in me in my home life at all. Education to me was sort of an escape honestly,” said Kaleef Starks, a USC Annenberg Journalism M.S. Student.

“Being a black trans woman, being someone who experienced homelessness. I’ve been through a lot. My journey was something that it required a lot of patience. You know, I’ve always been attracted to radio and television.”

“I grew up watching Barbara Walters, I grew up watching Oprah. I grew up in Fresno, California. So, I grew up to a working class family, I had a single father.”

“A person like me is not typically accepted, any one of the LGBTQ communities, but especially a trans person. So, growing up, it was really hard. I went through a lot of bullying from people at school and in my home life as well.”

“My parents were not accepting of me. And at 14, my father put me out in 2007 had nowhere to go. I was couch hopping with various family members. And they all had an issue with my identity literally everywhere I went. They were just like, you can’t stay here. We don’t we don’t accept who you are.”

“So, I decided to come here with my mom and my mom was homeless. She was living in a garage, living out of her car. She really didn’t have much. It was a really toxic environment. I ran away several times. For me it was sort of like, oh, you know, I’m going to school. What more do you want? My mom really had a tough time finding employment. You know, which is why you know, we she was living in the garage at first and it wound up living in her car. Then we moved on to a shelter because it was so hard financially.”

Angela M. Sanchez, a friend of Kaleef, stated, “We first met when we were both experiencing homelessness in a family shelter when I saw to leave him and I was like, Hi, can we be friends and so we actually had like our bunks next to each other. When we were both in the shelter Kaleef was definitely that spark of optimism, that sense of joy that liveliness that even though we’re both homeless with our families, there was something that I looked forward to about having to have this experience with her. For both of us, we were each other’s support, buddy while we were there. And later, I would go to UCLA. And then two years later, I would see Kaleef over at UCLA as well.”

Kaleef continued, “I wound up getting into UCLA, and like my path just kind of changed. It didn’t transition early, you know, some trans people transition early. I didn’t have the ability to do that. But I already knew that I was a woman or a girl or whatever. I just didn’t have the resources or the support to do that. It wasn’t until I saw Isis King on America’s Next Top Model. And when I saw her on the show, I was like, oh, like I was just like, oh, okay, you can transition. I didn’t know that you could actually medically transition. I started around 18 as far as medically, but socially, I was already like, literally, dressing how I wanted to dress.”

“After finishing UCLA and you know, getting my degree in gender studies and LGBTQ studies. I took some years off and I worked I worked at the Covenant House, California. And then I moved on to LA Children’s Hospital, where I was a prep navigator, a sexual health counselor, and then I moved on. So, the Los Angeles LGBT Center where I worked for the National Institute against LGBTQ intimate partner violence. But I really loved education. I believed in education.”

“Fun fact, I actually started an application to Annenberg in high school, but I chickened out, because I didn’t believe in myself, I just did not believe that I would get in I did not think that I would be here. I applied and got accepted, and got offered the full ride scholarship with Wallace Annenberg, which was an honor to have, I’m the fourth person in America to have that. And you know, without that, I wouldn’t be here for sure.”

Heather John Fogarty, a former professor of Kaleef, mentioned, “The class where Kaleef and I collaborated, students were put into groups to work on projects, multimedia projects, and she just immediately distinguished herself as a leader.”

Kaleef added, “I took advantage of the resources and I just use them to the best of my ability. So that’s why you know, we have ‘The Stark Effect.'”

“My recent podcast is called ‘The Stark Effect.’ I wanted it to feel like a daytime-ish energy. I was so lucky enough to find student producers here who believed in in the show and sometimes me being who I am it will make people uncomfortable. So that’s something that I’ve had to navigate in the newsroom. I would like to be a part of that wave where you have a trans female journalist who’s also an African American person where you know who they are, but it doesn’t affect their careers.”

Fogarty added, “My hope for Kaleef is that she has the opportunity to write her own story.”

“I think the younger me is so proud. Although it’s really hard and it’s tough, the younger me and even both the mature me now, you know because in a lot of ways I’ve had to be my own parent but I think I’m really proud,” stated Kaleef.

Sanchez continued, “I’m very proud of her and all the effort and work that she’s put into this I know how hard this has been for her to achieve. And so I couldn’t be happier for Kaleef and I’m going to be there for her on graduation day as well.”

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About the Author
Yosi Yahoudai is a founder and the managing partner of J&Y. His practice is comprised primarily of cases involving automobile and motorcycle accidents, but he also represents people in premises liability lawsuits, including suits alleging dangerous conditions of public property, third-party criminal conduct, and intentional torts. He also has expertise in cases involving product defects, dog bites, elder abuse, and sexual assault. He earned his Bachelor of Arts from the University of California and is admitted to practice in all California State Courts, and the United States District Court for the Southern District of California. If you have any questions about this article, you can contact Yosi by clicking here.