MIAMI – The transgender community has gained a degree of acceptance in recent years with the help of such celebrities as Caitlyn Jenner and Laverne Cox from "Orange is the New Black." But for those who are less known it can be more of a struggle. Many young transgender people, wrestling with their identities, find themselves shunned by family, friends and co-workers. Episodes of homelessness, alcoholism, drug abuse and violence often follow.
"A lot of people really don't realize the like immense amount of pain the average trans person goes through just trying to like live their life," says Eli, a 17-year-old male who was born a girl and lives in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
Eli and other young transgender people in South Florida illustrate the hardship this community faces. They also show its resilience. Here are their stories.
A DOUBLE LIFE
Kassandra Leach never felt like one of the boys growing up in Miami. Her thoughts on identity are a constant work in progress. By ninth grade, she realized she wasn't living in the body she was born into as a boy. A pivotal moment came in her life when a friend did a makeover for her, applying makeup and putting on a bra. Kassandra stared into the mirror. "It was like looking at yourself for the first time." Since coming out as a transgender female, the 17 year old enjoys the support of her mother and close friends. Renee Taylor, Leach's mother, says, "The most important thing is that your child be happy and comfortable in their skin."
YEARS ON THE STREETS
After coming out at 15, first as a gay young man, and then at age 17 as a transgender woman, Kassidy Suarez dropped out of high school, met rejection by her family and ended up homeless. She spent several years on the streets, dabbled with drugs and engaged in survival sex work. With the help of Project SAFE, a program that seeks to address the needs of at risk LGBTQ youth, Suarez found housing, counseling and a support network. Now a 22-year-old transgender woman, she has made amends with her mother, legally changed her name and is taking hormones.
Alex Ramos says he realized in the sixth grade that he wasn't at ease with having been born a female. The 13-year-old who identifies as a transgender male was conflicted, terrified and scared of how his friends would react. Friends and family members have since helped Ramos come out. He is still coming to terms with identifying as male, frustrated with the expectations he must juggle. "I have to have a flat chest, you have to sit this way, you have to talk like this. This is really hard for me. What if I want to wear makeup?"
"YOU'RE A GIRL, NOT A BOY"
Born a girl, Jess Fajardo said he was a tomboy as he grew up in Miami, playing soccer with the boys and dressing in his brother's clothes. Fajardo now identifies as a transgender male, but without the support of his mother, who continues to say: "You're a girl, not a boy." Fajardo, however, is accepted by his friends and other family members. "I just want a happy life, and I want a safe life. I don't want to worry if I go into a bathroom, are these people going to have a problem with me."
LONER IN SCHOOL
Eli has found growing up to be a painful struggle, one that's been at odds to define his gender identity. Born a girl, he has struggled with depression: "I would look in the mirror and just hate my chest. And just try to squish it down. And just like sob for hours, like I was a little kid." Now identifying as a transgender male, the 17 year old dropped out of high school, where he sported a mohawk, had no friends and was seen by his peers has weird and intimidating. The prospect of transitioning in high school? "Horrifying."
HARASSED IN SCHOOL, ON THE STREET
Nikki Rose dropped out of high school where she says she was harassed by her teachers. Rose considers herself fortunate to have support from her mother, saying "the only thing calming me down from depression is my mother." Because Rose has been in fist fights and verbally abused by men on the street, she carries mace, a Taser and a knife.
LIFE AFTER SURGERY
Atticus Ranck has been sober for the past year. It helps that he had his chest surgically altered — a breast reduction — in February as part of the transition to become a transgender male. Having grown up as a girl in Pennsylvania, the 26 year old came out as a lesbian at 17 and gradually became more "masculine" after moving to Florida for college. Ranck has been taking hormones for more than a year and he said the surgery has helped him "feel more male."
A NEW FAMILY
Ro Brown is eager to leave six years of homelessness behind him, a period during which he slept on different friends' couches. Born a female, the 23 year old recently came out as a transgender male — but not to his family. "I thought they was going to treat me different if I tell them that I prefer he over her," he says. So he's building a family of his own and married his girlfriend in June, happily receiving support from his in laws. They now live in Georgia.
Theodore Xander Frey self-identifies as agender, or someone who identifies with neither gender (though Frey favors being identified with the "he" pronoun). Born a girl, and now 18, Frey began to question his identity in elementary school, telling people he was a boy. He wrestled with bouts of confusion, anxiety and depression as he approached adolescence. Frey also ran away from home and was later detained for a mental health evaluation. "That was sort of the kind of thing, the push that needed to happen for all of use to really be able to talk openly," Frey says about his parents. "And realize that they love me no matter what."
A transgender female, Andii Viveros defied school dress codes by wearing dresses. This led to bullying but didn't deter her from being elected prom queen in high school — despite an organized petition from her classmates. Still, she had the unwavering support from her parents. "From an early age, my parents told me, 'obviously you're different, so we accept you anyway you want to be,'" she said. The 21-year-old now hosts events for LGBTQ youths and imparts this advice: "Live authentically as who you are, not how the public perceives you."
NOTE: Eli is his legal name, but doesn't want his last name used, due to fears about not being able to find employment.