“I can be a classy lady by day, and a Goth tranny mess at night,” exclaims Layla with a toss of her strawberry blonde hair. Layla has lived her life by defying the expectations of others. She grew up in a small town in Michigan, which felt to her like it was dead set against her being herself. The minute she turned 18, she left there in search of a place that would allow her inner self to blossom, “I felt called to San Francisco,” she says.

The road to get here, however, was far from easy. After she left home, she began bouncing from schools, to shelters, to unsuccessful relationships, and back, “It was during that time,” she remembers, “when I started to drink.” One boyfriend brought her to Washington state, and when that ended, she started heading south. “I tried it all,” she says, “religious shelters, transitional homes, even traveling magazine sales. It was hard to find people who cared, hard to find the right place.” She ended up stuck in Modesto, where she panhandled $21 for the bus fare to San Francisco and has been here ever since.

Since she arrived, Layla has found her place with the sober community. “I go to meetings everyday, I work with my sponsor,” she says. “My higher power is never giving in.” She started her transition to become a woman in January 2010, “though it has been a little rocky with the hormones, I feel like I’m on the way to becoming who I’m meant to be.”

Layla has big plans. She’s writing the great American novel, and she writes poetry as well. She wants to go to school someday to become a social worker, “I want to give back,” she says, “because on my way here there were a lot of people who sincerely tried to help me.”

When she heard about the vaccine studies, she decided to join because she wanted to be a part of something that might help others. And volunteering for the study has been a good experience for her. “I love my counselor, even the receptionist is so nice,” she says, “it’s a place I go where I feel totally honored and accepted, no judgment at all.”

“I do get scared sometimes that if there were a vaccine, it would only be available to rich people,” she says, describing what makes her nervous about the studies. “But,” she continues, “that seems like a better problem to fight against than not having a vaccine at all.”