The epic life of Sarah Luiz Transgender woman, recovering addict, model and author has experienced fame and misfortune


By Dennis Taylor

A million little pieces of Sarah Luiz have been shattered and scattered more times than anyone can imagine. That’s the good news, says the once-famous Salinas resident, who compares herself to a piece of pottery that was broken, then repaired to become something much better.

“The Japanese have this thing with ceramics,” Luiz said, referring to kintsugi. “If a piece of ceramic art breaks, they’ll put it back together with an adhesive mixed with gold. Suddenly that piece has been reborn into something new, something stronger, more beautiful, and more valuable than before.”

Luiz today is a 58-year-old author, jazz singer (her range is soprano to bass 2), inspirational speaker, and social activist with deep compassion for virtually every underserved person who crosses her path. 

She’s been a wife (twice), a millionaire and a business owner (two restaurants, two clothing companies, a gift shop, an interior-decorating company). She worked as a fashion model, partied with high-rollers, and dated “every kind of man you can imagine,” she said with a laugh.

She’s also a recovering addict (“drugs, alcohol,and sex,” she says) who suffers from schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and complex post-traumatic stress disorder.

And Luiz is a transgender woman — born with a male body and, from her earliest days, a female mind.

Sarah’s tribe

At this writing, she has a roof over her head as a resident of Moon Gate Plaza apartments, supportive housing in Salinas that overlooks a large percentage of the city’s homeless population in the city’s Chinatown area. Most of her neighbors were once on the street, themselves, and many will be again.

They are part of her tribe.

“I’m 52, and Sarah is the first real friend I’ve ever had in my life. I call her my queen,” said Tammy Eavn-Hoy, her neighbor at Moon Gate. “She’s my friend because she never judges me, even though I have my own quirks: I’m good in public unless I’m drunk, and then I do stupid things, make an ass out of myself, and don’t remember most of it.”

Luiz describes it this way: “If you found yourself in a room with my friends, they’d probably scare the hell out of you. I just love people who are unique, and aren’t afraid to be real, and be themselves.”

“Everybody loves Sarah because she smiles at every person she passes, and it’s genuine,” Eavn-Hoy said. “She makes me a better person because she accepts me.”

Panhandling in Monterey

Around 2000, Luiz was rescued from a Monterey street, flat broke and panhandling, sleeping in downtown doorways, or on the beach.

The social worker who found Luiz worked for Interim Inc., the nonprofit homeless outreach service she credits with helping her reassemble her life, like a piece of kintsugi pottery.

“They really helped me when I was on the streets,” she said. “They got me a counselor. They got me a therapist. They got me on some medication. They taught me a lot about addiction, put me in programs. They encouraged me to become an inspirational speaker for their organization. Thank God for them — they helped me turn my life around.”

Jeffrey Dwight Luiz: Showgirl

What kind of life? Let’s start here:

Sarah was born in New Hampshire as Jeffrey Dwight Luiz, a little boy whose mom and stepfather enjoyed parading him around in frilly outfits, wearing his mother’s hairpieces. “And I loved it,” Luiz unabashedly declares. “I definitely was a little showgirl.”

When Jeffrey was 6½ years old, his father — a vice-president at the Bank of Boston — began sneaking the boy into the public bathroom at a local park, standing him on a toilet seat, and sexually molesting him.

“He had no conscience whatsoever, and to say he was a rapist and a psychopath is putting it mildly,” said Luiz of her biological dad, who was already divorced from her mother. 

She still carries the emotional and psychological scars today.

At school, young Jeffrey was bullied for his feminine features and behavior, but Luiz says today that she can’t recall a time when she didn’t want to be a girl.

When Jeffrey was 16, a free-spirited female friend came from California to visit, dressed him up like a woman, and led him to a mirror.

“I couldn’t believe what I looked like,” Luiz remembers. “I wanted to scream with joy.”

‘Hi, my name’s Sarah!’

They popped some pills to calm his nerves, then went to a gay bar — Jeffrey’s first — where he felt an awakening that led him to this:

“I was working as a waiter at a Pizza Hut at the time, and one day I showed up wearing a bra stuffed with tissues and said, ‘Hi, my name’s Sarah!’ This was New Hampshire in the 1980s, and people were freaking out.”

Two years later, “Sarah” nervously shared her secret with her mother, whose reaction lifted a great weight: “Why in the world would you think I would disown you? I love you no matter what!” her mom responded, according to Luiz’s 2020 memoir, “The Forbidden Fruit.”

At the same time, her confusing new life was beginning to come apart.

‘I just spun out’

“One thing led to another, and I just spun out,” she said. “Before long, partying — drugs and alcohol — was an everyday affair for me.”

She also began experimenting as a sex worker.

At 18, Sarah and her fellow partiers moved together to New York “to become stars,” she said, and her recklessness caught up.

A date drove her to a pier, pressed a cocked gun against her head, and raped her — a trauma that convinced her to reconsider her life choices.

Luiz left the big city, reverted to a male hairstyle, and sought therapy, but discovered that she wasn’t yet ready to address the multiple traumas she had endured.

She also wanted to have gender-reassignment surgery right away, but couldn’t cover the cost, and wasn’t sure how to proceed. 

Nowhere to find answers

“I had nowhere to go for information at the time — nowhere to find answers — and that’s a lonely place to be. I didn’t even know about Christine Jorgensen back then,” she said, referring to the woman who, in 1952, became the first person to have gender-affirming surgery.

“I finally read this thin, little book — I think it was called ‘Canary,’ about a transgender woman and said, ‘Oh my god … there’s a world out there for people like me!’”

What happened next would change the trajectory of her life: Luiz underwent pre-op procedures toward a full male-to-female transition, a bill that initially was covered by Blue Cross/Blue Shield.

The insurance giant later reneged, blaming a “clerical error,” saddling her with hefty medical bills, and leaving her in physical and emotional limbo, stranded midway through her transition.

The 24-year-old sued the monolith for payment, arguing the company shouldn’t have agreed to start a medical process if they weren’t going to finish it.

A media frenzy ensued.

Fifteen Minutes of Fame

“I had opened Pandora’s Box, and I was scared to death,” she remembers today. “But I began to realize that sharing my story, having a cause, might be a way forward.”

Luiz appeared on Sally Jessy Raphael’s daytime talk show a dozen times. She made five appearances on Howard Stern’s radio show. She was interviewed by Joan Rivers. The Chicago Tribune and Dallas Voice wrote about her.

“Oprah actually called, but I was busy with Sally Jessy at the time, felt a lot of loyalty toward her, and turned her down,” she said.

Professional photographer Catherine Brown accompanied Luiz to two of the Sally Jessy Raphael interviews. “Sally Jessy really impressed me as a very nice lady — she didn’t exploit people, and she saw the intrinsic goodness in Sarah Luiz,” said Brown. “Joan Rivers also was impressed with Sarah.”

The Brazilian diplomat

The lawsuit was settled — Luiz got $15,000, not nearly enough — but the overage caught the attention of a Brazilian diplomat, who saw her on Larry King Live. He stepped forward to pay for the rest of her transition, performed in 1989 by medical pioneer Dr. Stanley Biber.

The publicity turned Sarah Luiz into a transgender icon, famous and adored in the LBGTQ+ world, but her ongoing mental-health battle endured, greatly impacting her life. 

Two marriages didn’t work out. She’s been homeless in Midland and Denton, Texas, and in Monterey and Salinas. She says she has survived two suicide attempts.

Luiz inherited $2 million when her biological father died (“He never apologized for the rapes,” she laments), but says crooked lawyers stole a huge chunk of that money, and she blew through the rest with poor choices and substance abuse.

‘More of this, more of that’

“The longest I’ve been sober is 5½ years. My drug of choice is more … more of this, more of that,” said Luiz, who did another stint in rehab in late February and early March.

Eavn-Hoy says she took Luiz to the emergency room after sharing one hit of the marijuana medicine she takes for her own battles with seizures and cancer.

“I thought I had killed her. Sarah was dropping stuff and was really out of it at the ER,” Eavn-Hoy said. “Turns out, she had been off her psych meds, high on meth, drinking gallons of vodka, and suicidal for five days. And no one knew it.”

‘Greatest drug: Loving yourself’

“Sometimes I don’t want to take my regular medications, because they don’t act quickly enough to lift me out of whatever I’m experiencing — bipolar, or PTSD, or schizophrenia,” Luiz said.

“At the same time, I’ve learned that the greatest drug is loving yourself enough to make positive changes in your life, and help people around you do the same thing.”

Luiz had been panhandling in Monterey’s streets for three years with a cardboard sign that said, “I bet you a dollar you read this” when a social worker for Interim rescued her. 

“The thing that’s so amazing about Sarah is that her journey has been so difficult, so absolutely epic, and she never gave up on herself,” Eanv-Hoy said. “She’s an inspiration to everybody she meets.”

Success over stigma

Her purpose now is to share her story, and listen to others who are dealing with similar issues. Messages at her speaking gigs include themes of success over stigma, loving and respecting yourself, and not fearing change.

“Be a person of your own style, your own color, your own nationality. Be proud of who you are. Know and learn who you are. Make a difference in the world,” she said. “I’ve discovered that I’m a chameleon. I can make myself into anything I want.”

Luiz has written two books, both available online from and other outlets. “The Bitches that Brunch with Cap’n Crunch: Breakfast Will Never Be The Same,” is a quirky novel about female empowerment. “The Forbidden Fruit” is her life story. And she’s nearly finished with a third book, another novel.

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About Dennis Taylor

Dennis Taylor is a freelance writer in Monterey County. Contact him at