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TRANS ACTION Entrepreneur embraces visibility through example
by Gretchen Rachel Hammond

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Chicago-born author and philanthropist W. Clement Stone believed there was little difference in people with one significant exception—attitude.

The guiding philosophy for his co-authored 1960 book Success Through a Positive Mental Attitude would evolve into the bedrock of Stone's legacy—one that influenced millions.

"Have the courage to face the truth," Stone once said. "Do the right thing because it is right. These are the magic keys to living your life with integrity."

The transgender community faces a society which not only refuses to do the right thing in recognizing transgender equality because it is right but, as in the case of North Carolina, seeks to eradicate transgender people through legislation.

The lessons of history taught by the Nuremberg Laws of 1935 demonstrate that stripping away the rights of any group of people is inevitably followed by those who feel that violence and murder committed against them is wholly justifiable.

Even in the face of an onslaught of legislative and physical brutalization, courage, authenticity and lives of integrity are fundamental aspects of the humanity which remain steadfast in transgender individuals.

They are aspects which are only part of the guiding principles at the heart and history of Joe Betancourt, whose life as a transgender man is one that he no longer feels he can keep a wholly private matter.

"Throughout my life, I have believed in giving back to the community and helping or mentoring children," he told Windy City Times. "But I've never been able to participate in helping children who are LGBT or transgender. I want to be more active in the community. In order to do that, I feel it would be best to reveal my identity so they can see that we are all equal and that we can all overcome our current situations, surpass them and do great things in life."

It's an idea that Stone espoused when he said, "If you are really thankful, what do you do? You share."

As a young man, Betancourt used to devour Stone's work. A Positive Mental Attitude would eventually play a key role in taking him from a 13-year-old homeless kid on the streets of Chicago to the owner of Betancourt Realty—today a successful and continuously expanding company that was forged, as with everything in Betancourt's life, through his embrace of relentlessly hard work.

He was born in the North Side neighborhood of Wrigleyville. His father was an electrical worker at a Chicago factory and one of Betancourt's earliest role models.

"I always looked up to my father," he told Windy City Times. "I always wanted to be like him."

For the first nine years, Betancourt was an only child. Over time and following his parent's divorce and the subsequent marriages of his father, he became one of nine siblings.

"I remember at the age of four, I knew that I was attracted to women," Betancourt said. "My first crush was on my babysitter. My family just figured I was a tomboy."

However, by the age of 13, Betancourt had not only fully discovered but was living as his authentic self—something he did not want concealed by misperceptions. No matter the depth of love and respect between him and his family, Betancourt drew a solid line.

"I told them to accept me and, if not, then goodbye," he said. "I didn't give them a choice. My uncle didn't like it one bit. My mother didn't believe me. My friends did not accept me."

His parents were each in the midst of relocating to new states. But Betancourt had every reason to remain in Chicago. He had a girlfriend named Clara.

Whether or not love was a factor at such a young age was immaterial. Betancourt had already begun to shape the pattern of his life around key principles. Ranking high among them was the belief that commitment—whether to a job, an ideal, a goal and in particular an individual—is irrevocable and never subject to passing fancies, changing fortunes or even the security of a roof over his head.

Ultimately, Betancourt emphasized that it was his choice to leave home. He and Clara were alone on the streets of Chicago. Betancourt had dropped out of school. He had no prospects.

"I was just trying to survive," he said. "I worked at daily labor factories to make a buck. There were nights we would sleep in cars or hallways in Wrigleyville that had radiators in them."

In those early days, he discovered that his greatest skill was the kind of ferocious determination that looked at the end of an eight-hour work day as far too limiting.

"A lot of it was desire, confidence and setting goals," Betancourt said. "Asking myself 'how do I get there?' There has to be a belief that nothing is impossible because it really isn't."

After few months, he became a dishwasher at a steakhouse on Broadway and Clark. He worked his way up to a busboy position at the My Pi pizzeria. Eventually he was employed as a cook by the Canteen Corporation before moving up to bookkeeping.

Betancourt was only 16.

He and Clara parted company three years later. Their separation might have been an obstacle had Betancourt not discovered Stone's work and that, for example, "big doors swing on little hinges."

They did and opened into a management position.

"I stayed in the restaurant business for 14 years," Betancourt recalled. "I was doing a great job. I was making very good money and I have always been a provider but I wanted to be an entrepreneur."

That desire was fueled when, at 28, Betancourt bought his first property—a Greystone in, at the time, the rundown neighborhood of Logan Square.

"It was an incredible feeling," he said with a laugh. "I remember going up to the building, kissing it and saying 'this is mine!'"

It was another defining moment in Betancourt's life. Empowered by the fruits of 80-hour weeks, careful budgeting and the refusal to allow the word "impossible" into his vocabulary, he left the restaurant business for real estate.

Betancourt Realty is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year.

"It was very easy to make the change," he said. "Because real estate is another type of business where you are there for your client and you extend yourself as much as possible. I was used to doing an above-and-beyond job in the restaurant business and now I was helping people achieve their dreams. It was extremely rewarding, especially when I was dealing with first-time buyers who would run into their new home with their kids, just full of joy."

However, there are pitfalls in real estate, the depths of which were demonstrated even as Betancourt was celebrating the birth of his son to Emily—a woman he met in 2002 and to whom he always remains "grateful that she gave me two beautiful children."

As early as the fall of 2006, Betancourt could see the glaring problems in subprime mortgages. By 2009, people's dreams were collapsing into the abyss.

"I had developed 24 buildings, I had three projects, a restaurant that I owned, my office was moving and I was having a child," Betancourt said. "I let go of the restaurant so I could spend more time with my son but then, a year later, the real estate market hit the bottom. Luckily, I had some money saved up and I was able to keep my office open. When life reaches a level of difficulty, you sometimes have to find a different direction, to overcome it or at least be safe until it turns around. This is where friendship comes in. Supporting each other, helping each other, advising each other. If you fall, you build back up. That's a habit that you must have throughout your life."

Today, Betancourt is a proud, single dad of his son Josh and daughter Chloe—the births of whom he treasures as his greatest memories. He may have reaped success in business but, at his heart, Betancourt remains a family man.

In both endeavors, he has had his succession of falls but has never stopped building his life upon them. He believes that he has an example of love, faith and determination to share and wants to direct his efforts to LGBT youth homelessness and outreach services. He is also weighing an idea of using his West Division Street offices as a space in which to hold monthly meetings for LGBT youth who need a safe place to speak out about their thoughts, feelings and grievances.

"Kids need mentors to grow," he said. "People like us for them to look up to. To any transgender person right now, I would tell them not to be afraid to be themselves. I would tell them to look for someone who is supportive of who they are to be on their team. I didn't give my family a choice but that is not something I would recommend for a child of 13."

Betancourt stands tall as an opposing testament to those who would not do the right thing by the transgender community—who believe them to be lesser individuals. He has exceeded the impossible with a mantra that Stone presented and Betancourt built upon.

"You have to work hard," he said. "Know that you are in control. You have to focus on you, believe in you, have a goal and just strive for it. You don't give up, you just continue and always focus on the positive. By doing that, the negative will go away."

Such is the fervency of his belief that even bad news from North Carolina cannot diminish it.

"I have so many friends in the community who are doing great things," he said. "This is a great time for all of us and for unity between everyone. It is an important moment in our lifetimes."

For more information about Betancourt Realty, visit .

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