International Day of Transgender Visibility – Family Lies
This blog post is part of an ongoing series on transgender issues authored by EQ AZ Board Member Juli Myers.
From the time that I was twelve and a half to the age of fourteen, I was molested by an uncle of mine. Looking back, it’s difficult to understand how those in my life did not see him cultivating me. He had been away from the family for thirty years and returned on a whim, welcomed with open arms, the prodigal son returned. Immediately, he focused on me, a socially awkward, outwardly lonely young boy, a middle child who lapped up the attention the way a hungry kitten does a bowl of milk. Whenever the chance arose, he arranged opportunities to be alone with me, and when he had built up enough trust with my parents, he drove cross-country towing a gleaming silver camper, which he parked in front of our house, next to the church where my father preached every Sunday, and, on a chilly Friday evening, while my little brother slept just feet away from us, he initiated the first of countless sexual encounters.
He would tell me I was pretty for a boy in front of people, just one of many affectations that never seemed to ring any bells in people’s minds. Just in case it wasn’t obvious, though, a cousin of mine actually warned my parents in a phone call just a week or so after my 13th birthday, days before I was to fly out to California and spend the summer with him. Uncle Frank had made an overt pass at their neighbor’s son, and my cousin wanted to let my parents know. When the call was over and they tried to tell me I couldn’t go, I threw a fit. I had been looking forward to this trip all year long and was willing to do anything to get away from a town I hated and people who didn’t understand me. And so I went, with only the vaguest of warnings. They never actually told me what they had been warned about; instead, they hugged me and told me to call if he “tried anything”, and put me on the plane.
The following year, Frank visited several times. On one of those visits, I clearly remember sitting at our picnic table and my father, after a little too much beer, making jokes about “little boys” clearly directed at my uncle. His visits that year were as much to continue his predation of me as much as to seek out new victims. I was not to go to California that summer, but Frank took a friend of mine and a cousin instead… In the middle of July, my cousin discovered Frank molesting my friend, and when my cousin freaked out, Frank dropped the two of them at a bus station and left. Following that was another phone call from California, and I was no longer able to keep the most shameful part of my life a secret.
What I was never able to do, though – never allowed to do – was talk about it. Not one adult in the situation ever contacted law enforcement, and no charges were ever filed. As far as I know, the boy’s parents were never told, either. My uncle was told to stay away from the family, and that was the last anyone in my family would willingly talk to me about it.
After a year or so, he began coming back around. Of course, people were more cautious about having him around their sons, but apart from that, only a few of my extended family, who all knew, said or did anything at all. When opportunities to confront my uncle were presented to them, none of the people closest to me chose to say or do anything other than ignore his presence or pretend he hadn’t molested me and my friend (and, by my estimate, probably nearly a thousand other boys over his career).
This is important to note.
When I asked an aunt of mine why his crimes were allowed to go unspoken, how it was possible for them to welcome him into their homes, her only answer was, “He’s family.”
This is also important to note.
Twenty-five years later, after nearly a lifetime of hiding and equivocation about what I should do, I came out to everyone in the world and began the process of transitioning from male to female. There would be no more denying, no more hiding, no more cowering in the dark, no more giving in to the unspoken shame about my existence that had been my whole life, shame that I was shedding forever. I did this by choosing to embrace my reality, and, in the four years since Juli chrysalized and took flight, my life has become filled with the people who are my new family.
My friend Jennifer, with whom I have shared countless hours, glasses of wine, cigarettes, laughter, and tears is but one who has become like a sister to me. Then there is Megan: brilliant, bitingly sarcastic, belly-achingly funny, and trusting and loving in a way that truly humbles me; Murphy: confidante, life coach, shoulder, a beautiful soul whose love and friendship are as undeniable and cherished as the sunlight; Rebecca: partner in crime, companion and confessor, cherished more than she can know for the love and insight she brings to my life; and Melanie, beautiful and flawed and searching for her place in the world, as well, and we build each other up the way that sisters are supposed to. In their homes and lives I have been welcomed, neither in spite of my being trans nor because of it. They have welcomed me because I’m me, warts and all, and they keep me afloat when the undertow gets too strong to fight.
Where I am not welcome, though, is in the homes and lives of so many people for whom a serial pedophile was acceptable, but a trans woman… well, that would just be too weird.
For as much as we as a nation have advanced in the fight for equality and legal recognition, familial isolation and the shaming of the transgender population remains an American epidemic. According to the Center for American Progress, while 5-10% of all youth identify as LGBTQ, fully 20-40% of all youth who are homeless identify as LGBTQ, and they become homeless at a very young age. The Center also reports that, in New York, the average age for becoming homeless for youth who identify as transgender is 13-1/2.
Stories like mine have been the rule, not the exception, and the consequences of this isolation are dire. According to the National Transgender Discrimination Survey, published five years ago, 19% of those who identify as transgender have experienced homelessness at one time or another and that, among the trans population that had utilized homeless shelters, nearly a quarter were sexually assaulted and just over half experienced gender identity-based harassment by staff and fellow residents. This was in the population lucky enough to get into a shelter. Nearly 30% of those who experienced homelessness were turned away from shelters based on gender identity or expression. A different study, published by the Williams Institute at UCLA, documented that an astounding 69% of trans people who have experienced homelessness have attempted suicide.