Gender Warriors

Growing up transgender and gender nonconforming in San Francisco.

Rexy Amaral (Photo by Jessica Christian)

“When I first started middle school, I was as closeted as you could be,” begins Rexy Amaral, 19, who was assigned a male gender at birth, but who came out as transgender when she was a teenager. “There’s your main closet doors, and maybe you have a safe in there, and then in the safe there’s another box that needs a key, and then there’s another box inside of that one. … That’s how deep in the closet I was.”

But before the personal fight in the battle for transgender rights begins, young gender-questioning people have to come to terms with who they are, and who they’re not.

For decades, San Francisco has prided itself on being a leader in providing a sanctuary for gender equality. The 1966 Compton’s Cafeteria riots, which were spurred by police violence against the transgender and queer communities in the Tenderloin, preceded the 1969 Stonewall Riot in New York City. In 2013, the U.S. experienced a gay marriage battle that took the whole country by storm, but our mayor was illegally handing out marriage certificates to same-sex couples way back in 2004. And that bathroom ban the entire country is currently up in arms about? The San Francisco Unified School District has had a gender-neutral bathroom policy in place since 2003.

But just because battles have been fought doesn’t mean the war for queer rights is over. The city may be a mecca for some — particularly the white and wealthy — but there is still a population in dire need of support as they fight on the front lines for acceptance. Through the hard work of past generations, non-heterosexuals have won some much-deserved freedoms, but those without traditional gender orientations are still struggling, even in San Francisco. And unlike previous battles, such as marriage equality and workplace discrimination laws, which were fought in large part by adults, it is often transgender and gender-nonconforming youth who stand up to their parents, teachers, superintendents, and even the Supreme Court.

A child plays with a flag at a rally held in solidarity with transgender youth outside City Hall in San Francisco, Feb. 23, 2017 (Photo by Jessica Christian)

Amaral moved to San Francisco right before the start of middle school — a rough time for any young person, let alone one struggling with her gender identity. Then identifying publicly as a boy, Amaral was assigned to Buena Vista Horace Mann, a K-8 school in the Mission District. There was no queer youth group in 2009, and few peers were open about alternate sexualities or gender identities.

Even though she was still closeted, Amaral’s classmates knew something about her was different. She was constantly harassed, had thumbtacks thrown at her, and was shoved in the hallways.

“It got to the point where my teachers just didn’t know what to do,” she says.

Amaral’s moment of realization that hiding her true gender was not serving her well came when she was violently attacked by fellow students.

“I had a large amount of my classmates corner me into a stairwell, and they each took turns beating me up,” she says. “At that point, I realized that this was already happening without me even coming out, so what was I doing holding it in?”

This epiphany coincided with the hiring of a new staff member, Anayvette Martinez, who acted as a liaison between students, teachers, and parents. She helped launch the school’s first Pride Week and became a confidant for Amaral.

“I told Anayvette when I wanted to come out, and she was like, ‘OK, mi amor, let’s do this!’ ” Amaral says.

For many young people, this may have involved sharing the news with a few close friends and letting it spread in the hallways. Or, if they’re brave, announcing it in front of a class. But Amaral chose to go big and come out as queer in front of the entire school during assembly. She sat down with her English teacher and wrote a poem to read aloud, which ended with the phrase, “I’m gay and I’m here to stay.”

“I was already feeling so liberated and so free,” she says.

The Pride Week general assembly rolled around, and when her turn came to speak, she stood up in front of the entire school and read her poem, then quickly fled the auditorium. Five minutes later, she paraded back in through the doors wearing a blue-sequined top and gown she bought at Goodwill, while Lady Gaga’s “Born this Way” blasted over the stereo system. There was a big silence as the school recognized Amaral in drag, and her heart stopped.

“But then a group of people who were super-queer started clapping and jumping up and down, saying ‘Yes, yes!’” she says. “And I was just like, ‘This feels good. This is correct.’ ”

“After that it was like, ‘Get ready world, I’m coming for you,’ ” Amaral adds.

Rexy Amaral, April 7, 2017 (Photo by Jessica Christian)

Rexy Amaral’s story is remarkable, but not every young, gender-questioning person in San Francisco feels safe coming out.

For Vi Le, 30, revealing that her true gender didn’t match her male body was not an option when she was little.

“Growing up, I always had an intuitive feeling that I was a woman,” Le tells SF Weekly. “But my conditioned world — my social world — told me otherwise, so I thought something was wrong with me.”  

Le grew up in a small studio apartment in the Tenderloin with her brother, and parents who’d immigrated from Vietnam.

“I saw plenty of trans community members in the neighborhood — drag queens, crossdressers, transvestites, gender-nonconforming people — but that world was denied to me,” she says. “Anytime I tried to express myself authentically, I was met with rejection from my parents. They used to threaten to drive me to the Castro to drop me off. That set me up to be scared of that neighborhood, which was a place where I could have figured myself out more. I never felt like I could reach out and really discover the real me.”

The constant rejection of her true identity caused Le a lot of stress growing up.

“I was always depressed and full of anxiety, because there was this part of me that wanted so badly to come out, but I was always afraid and sad,” she says. “I felt authentically myself when I was alone, but was afraid to express myself to the world.”

In Le’s sophomore year of high school, the depression got worse. She began to contemplate suicide, and came close to following through.

“What saved my life in that moment was my little brother,” she says. “It was the middle of the night, but he came running to me when he saw the light on, and he saved my life. I think that was what pushed me to ask myself the deeper question: Who am I, to myself? Not to the world, but who am I to me?”

Le is now an out and proud trans woman, but her experience of struggling with depression and anxiety is, unfortunately, not unique for young people questioning their gender identity. In a 2014 study conducted by the Williams Institute — which polled more than 6,400 transgender individuals — 41 percent of gender-nonconforming youth reported attempting suicide. Across all demographics nationwide, that number is only 4.6 percent.

The possible reasons for suicidal behavior become clear when diving deeper into the Williams Institute data: More than half of trans youth polled reported being bullied and harassed at school, with up to three-quarters of those experiences being physical or sexual acts of violence.

These studies have helped organizations around the country secure funding for outreach to gender-questioning youth and provide physical- and mental-health resources, as well as training for parents and teachers.

A father holds a sign at a rally supporting transgender youth, held at City Hall, Feb 23, 2017 (Photo by Jessica Christian)

In San Francisco, there are two spaces where youth can find community in a transgender-only space. The San Francisco LGBT Center on Market Street is one, and TRANS:THRIVE, part of API Wellness on Polk Street — which caters to the Asian and Pacific Islander communities — is the other.

“It’s really important for these youth to have a space to explore their identity, discuss resources, and build self-efficacy,” says Zami Hemingway, the Youth Program Coordinator for the Center. “It’s about finding ways for them to thrive, and not just survive.”

The Transgender and Gender Nonconforming Group at the Center meets every other Friday. The group caters specifically to youth ages 18 to 24, and it’s two transgender staff, including Hemingway, who lead it. At the meetings, youth can discuss their family issues, coming out, accessing physical and mental health care, and their experiences living each day in San Francisco as someone who doesn’t identify with the sex they were assigned at birth.  

Having a community space for transgender youth that is outside of a medical facility is a rare and important one, Hemingway says. Most of the social services available to trans youth are related to physical health, counseling, or STD and drug testing. This only furthers the stigma that gender-nonconforming people are ill, a barrier against helping them grow as people.

Up the street at TRANS:THRIVE, which serves more than 600 transgender and gender-nonconforming people annually, the resources available to youth can get pretty specific, with half a dozen themed groups for people to choose from.

Identify as transmasculine or transfeminine? Swing by for two different groups on the first and third Tuesdays of the month, from 6 to 7:30 p.m. Trans people of color can attend “Tranzotica” on Saturdays from 3 to 4:30 p.m. And those who are negotiating diagnoses such as autism, Tourette’s, or epilepsy can sit in on a Neurodivergent Trans and Gender NonConforming Social Group, on the third Wednesday of the month, from 5:30 to 7 p.m.

The latter was formed by TRANS:THRIVE Program Specialist Carsen, 28, who asked that we withhold his name in this story. The group was founded in response to a need he noticed in the community.

“Until I started coming to TRANS:THRIVE, the only place where I saw other trans people was in groups for people with autism or Tourette’s,” he says. “It’s a pretty substantial population, so I wanted to build a space that was specifically for them.”

Carsen is in many ways the poster child for TRANS:THRIVE — as much as any one person can be, considering the diversity of services the organization offers. As a teenager who snuck away from the church summer camp where he worked, he came across a table with advertisements for the group while wandering around Pride for the first time. As a Filipino, it was the first time he’d found a resource where he felt comfortable as a trans person of color. But even though the community was technically available to him, it wasn’t easy to actually access it.

“I had a complicated relationship with my family, and I had to find times to sneak out so I could go to TRANS:THRIVE,” he says. “After four years, I decided I didn’t care anymore, and started regularly attending the transmasculine group. In the beginning, there weren’t too many people there. But I appreciated that even when no one showed up, there were still people here to talk to. The fact that they were always there, and open, and willing to be around, was something that made a big difference for me.”

Carsen uses his experiences at TRANS:THRIVE to help other transgender individuals who are in need of community, a safe space, or access to resources for mental health, primary medical care, hormone therapy, addiction services, or STD testing.

“We get a pretty wide range of ages coming in,” Carsen says. “And in that, there’s a lot of sharing of information across generations. A lot of the stuff passed around — like doctors recommendations, advice on transitioning, and resources — are not the kind of thing most people feel comfortable sharing at the bus stop or in a coffee shop.”

The SF LGBT Center and TRANS:THRIVE offer slightly different services, but both cater to one large population: homeless youth living on the streets and in the shelters of San Francisco. It’s hard to get exact numbers, but it’s estimated that one in five transgender individuals experiences some form of homelessness. According to the National Center for Transgender Equality, somewhere between 20 and 40 percent of the approximately 1.6 million homeless youth in the U.S. identify as queer or transgender.

Many of the youth who live on the streets have chosen that option, as it feels safer than being at home (where physical or emotional abuse may result from being open about their gender identity). And while some of San Francisco’s trans homeless youth are locals, many also travel to the city in search of a safe space. Carsen encounters a lot of these people each week.

“A couple months ago, I was doing outreach at the LGBT Center’s youth meal night, and there was somebody there who’d just turned 18. Their parents had driven them all the way from Ukiah and dropped them off on the street, leaving them to fend for themselves,” he says. He handed over a few bus tokens to help them get to other services, and gave them some advice on where to find help. Despite the dire circumstances, “they were a little excited, because they could finally dress the way they wanted to, and they were so excited to go clothes shopping in our supply closets,” he says.

A child holds up a protest sign at a rally supporting transgender youth, at San Francisco’s City Hall, Feb. 23, 2017 (Photo by Jessica Christian)

Although TRANS:THRIVE is local, its employees often find themselves offering advice over the phone to gender-nonconforming youth out of state.

“I get a lot of tough phone calls and emails. People will call from less-accepting areas of the country asking for help, saying that they want to come to San Francisco,” Carsen says. “It’s hard giving them a reality check — asking them what their plan is, if they have any money saved, where’d they stay. I know they want to come, but it’s heartbreaking giving the news to someone that it’s not easy to make it here.”

When asked what services are most needed for trans youth in San Francisco, Carsen’s answer is immediate and clear.

“Housing,” he says. “That is key. It’s a daily struggle to stay in shelters. If you pass by any shelter at 2 a.m., you’re still going to see a line outside. And a lot of shelters don’t have enough trans-aware staff. I have one client who keeps getting put in the women’s quarters, even though they identify as a man.

And even if the staff are trans-competent, it only takes one security guard or one janitor who doesn’t understand to put people off.

“A lack of housing affects the whole person,” he adds. “If you are worrying about where you’re going to sleep at night, it’s hard to thrive as an individual.”

For those young trans people whose immediate basic needs — shelter, food, clothing — are met, school becomes the primary issue in getting through the day.

“A lot of concerns I see raised by trans youth is access in school,” Carsen says. “How do you navigate school as a trans kid? The schools don’t know what to do. You’re always going to have to advocate for yourself, and it’s hard when you don’t know who’s going to be on your side.”

Amaral experienced this firsthand as a student at Mission High School. After her dramatic coming-out ceremony at Horace Mann, she was ready to take on the world. But high school is a different beast than middle school, and it came with bigger struggles.

“Part of the main reason I chose to go to Mission High was because they already had a drag show, and I had a crush on a friend who led the Gender and Sexualities Alliance,” Amaral says. “I didn’t identify as a trans woman when I first arrived; I identified as genderqueer. But the first day, I came in wearing a dress and heels. I already identified with the name Rexy, which was hard for faculty as I had a different name on the roster — even if I told them before class what name I prefered to go by.”

The school wasn’t the mecca of acceptance she was hoping. Almost immediately, she found herself advocating for her rights.

“It got to the point where I had to go to the principal after being called names by the students, after they called me the F-word in Spanish, and the T-word,” she says. “I was like, ‘This is it.’ I had to tell them that if they didn’t do better as a school, I was going to bring in a legal team.”

Amaral prevailed and became a spokesperson not just for herself, but for other gender-nonconforming people in her school. She organized gender workshops for incoming freshmen, campaigned for better bathroom access than the one gender-neutral bathroom in the basement, and put on drag shows and performances.

“I think a lot of people thought I had it the best in high school,” she says. “I was prom queen, and did all these awesome things. But they don’t see that in order for me to do that, I had to be intimidating to some people, because I had to survive. I wasn’t able to put all my efforts into applying to colleges, or into my academics at school, because I was constantly worried about my survival.”

But all these little battles to improve trans visibility and rights, from school classrooms to statewide gender laws, might actually be working.

“It’s changing,” Carsen says. “I don’t know what exactly switched in the past 10 years, but I am seeing a lot more parents get involved with helping their trans youth get access to resources and services. But it’s also frustrating — because what about the kids whose parents aren’t supportive?”

For Le, who struggled to come out as a teenager, identifying as a transgender woman is now something that gives her strength. And with that strength, she’s learned how to be herself and also keep a relationship with her family.

“My dad still calls me his son, but I embrace it, because he still sees me as his child,” she says. “I can’t force him to mourn the loss of his son so quickly. Until then, I’ll still be his daughter the entire way. Maybe one day he’ll see me, but I’m happy he still holds onto my being as his child.”

As the country slowly inches toward providing gender-nonconforming youth the privileges and rights of their peers, the studies are also starting to evolve. A small research project at the University of Washington worked with 73 children, ages three to 12, who identified as openly transgender. Compared with their siblings and other cisgender children, they found consistently high depression rates across the board, and only slightly higher rates of anxiety among the transgender youth — proving that if society changes, the mental health of this vulnerable population can, too.

A crowd gathered at City Hall on Feb. 23, 2017 to show support for transgender youth. (Photo by Jessica Christian)

In the meantime, the SF LGBT Center, TRANS:THRIVE, and society have a lot of work to do. In February, the Trump administration rescinded the Obama-era protections for transgender students that allowed them to use the bathroom of their chosen gender identity, leaving regulations up to individual states. As of this writing, 16 state legislatures had chosen to introduce bills disallowing transgender people to use the bathrooms of their choice.

The bathroom policy is just one of many battles that have to be fought to provide the transgender community with the support it needs to thrive. But there is hope. Hemingway puts it best.  

“I’d like to work myself out of a job,” he says. “The reason we [the Center] have to exist is because of the intolerance outside of these walls. We need to move away from safe spaces to safe societies.

“San Francisco,” he adds, “needs to be less of an ally, and more of an accomplice in trans rights.”

 

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