How Do We Reach the Transgender Promised Land?
Change is the only way.
I’m not changing who I am.
Just my appearance,
For the people who see gender as
Black or white,
Male or female,
Instead of the grey shades.
That makes up the majority,
The grey shades that make up the whole LGBT community…
Seventeen-year-old Elijah Crafter firmly recites his poem before about 200 people at TransOhio’s 6th Annual Trans and Ally Symposium in May 2014. He’s typically a shy writer and sketch artist off the stage, but a quiet confidence builds within him as he shares his perspective as an African-American transgender teenager.
Imagine waking up to yourself
In the opposite sex.
As your mind rejects your body
And your body is filled with a sense of disgust,
Imagine your heart begin to beat rough from the thoughts
That you’re stuck.
For me it is real.
5:00 7:00 8:00
Whenever I wake this is how I feel.
When he finishes, the crowd erupts into applause. His mother sits at the front table beaming. Famed collegiate athlete Kye Allums, the first to come out as trans while playing, takes the stage and spends the first five minutes of his keynote speech singing the young man’s praises.
Tall, caramel-toned with a slightly unkempt afro puff, Eli smiles from the podium, the last year and a half of his life flashing behind his glistening pupils. It started with coming out to his family as a lesbian at age 16 and ended with a decision to save up his child-support money for top surgery, setting a Spring Break goal to schedule the procedure.
It’s the first time he has met other trans people like himself, and he’s getting a standing ovation from them.
It’s a whirlwind year that could serve as a new blueprint for positive transgender and gender non-conforming youth development, where affirmation and unconditional support replace the reigning paradigm of physical and emotional transition in the face of adversity.
A Family That Transitions Together
Eli sits in a situation many, unfortunately, would classify as unique.
He is an African American-transgender teen with a supportive immediate family. His transition is in the hands of a comprehensive team of culturally competent medical professionals, and he attends a school where transgender inclusion is part of the learning process.
Eli’s mother, Betty Crafter, a nearly 60-year-old single mom of three sons and a 25-year foster parent to many more, was an early leader in the youth advocacy movement trying to dismantle the school-to-prison pipeline. Now she’s the ever-doting mother, rubbing Eli’s shoulders and running her hands though his plush afro puff as she talks about how excited and anxious she is for her son’s transition.
It’s a warm August afternoon. Eli and his mom sit on a leather sectional in the dark brown-toned living room of their brownstone home in the Columbus neighborhood known as Olde Towne East. Crafter talks of the fears she has for her son as he navigates the world as a transgender man.
“I think some of our relatives feel really nervous about it,” she says. “They don’t know what to say or ask. But had we not gone through our own personal experience with Eli, we may be in the same boat. But now we are able to help educate and mentor others.”
Before he began his transition nearly two years ago, Eli told his mother he was a lesbian. But despite coming out, Crafter noticed her child growing more depressed.
“She didn’t accept it at first,” Eli says softly, dropping his head slightly and then looking up at his mother. It’s a chilly evening a couple months later in November, just before Thanksgiving.
“I was trying to hold on to my daughter,” Crafter says. She pauses slightly and shifts on the brown sectional. “But there was one particular day I remember seeing him in so much pain. He was suicidal, and I knew that it was my unacceptance that was causing the depression, so I made the decision that I wanted my child to live. And if my child is happy, then I am happy.”
Crafter still mixes up the pronouns every now and again. “She gets it right most of the time,” Eli says with a sly smile. “But she’s become my biggest supporter.” For this family, the defining factor is love. And loving Eli unconditionally has become the main reason why he’s flourished.
A little while later and a few blocks over on the Near East Side, on a snowy day in January, Eli’s father, Paul J. Cook, Sr., recounts the first time his son told him he was transgender.
“He was sitting in his living room, his mother was there and I was there. That was when I saw him cry,” he said. “I never had seen him cry so profusely. I put my arms around him and kissed him. But now we had a basis to begin understanding, and I underline begin, because we also were going through a process.”
Eli sits quietly, an endearing half-smile firmly planted above the dark stubble now growing from chin. He has started hormone-replacement therapy, and it’s already showing. He often reaches up to rub the small hairs, each time the smile growing just a little wider.
Cook, a 64-year-old history professor, chuckles as he retells the story of his son’s first testosterone injection. The doctor had surprised them; neither son nor father knew it was coming in that specific visit. But instinctively, Cook pulled out his camera phone and started filming as if he was watching his son get his first checkup as a baby.
Eli’s father sits legs crossed in a leather recliner in his copiously furnished living room. Two #BlackLivesMatter T-shirts are draped across a wooden piano in a back corner. Images from the Civil Rights Movement and Afro-centric artwork line the walls of the former activist. Cook speaks in a deep, captivating baritone as if he’s addressing a lecture hall instead of just the two sitting before him. Every word has emphasis and meaning.
“My only objective as a father is to serve as a force to help my son,” he says. “Because of his courageousness, he’s blazing a trail, not only for himself, but for others, so they can confront their fears. I don’t worry about him from that standpoint. I only continue to worry about the backwardness of the society that he must now confront.”
The Reality for Trans Youth
According to public health statistics, Eli’s family is an anomaly: a family with historic ties to the Civil Rights Movement and elderly parents who can remember a time when the word transsexual was only whispered, to pathologize a practically invisible population.
This type of support isn’t typical in the trans youth experience. Instead, trans youth have become the face of much more tragic realities.
The December suicide of 17-year-old Leelah Alcorn in suburban Cincinnati reawakened a conversation on the devastating effects of so-called reparative therapy on LGBT youth. Laverne Cox’s documentary, The T Word, which aired on MTV and Logo, featured a full cast of transgender youth all under the age of 30. And in February in Denver, the annual National LGBTQ Task Force Creating Change conference was beautifully derailed by an army of mostly young trans activists and allies demanding true inclusion.
There’s a trans youth revolution that’s gaining more momentum than ever before in the United States. Their voices are finally shattering trans invisibility and penetrating the deafening marriage-equality discourse. Much like the students of the 1960s and the activists who built the early ACT UP movement in the 1980s, today’s transgender and gender non-conforming youth are staking claim to their movement and demanding acceptance.
But as we’ve often seen, louder voices and more visible faces can trigger a violent backlash.
Young trans women of color continue to be victimized by the highest hate-crime rates in the country. At a shocking 41 percent, the attempted suicide rate is the most likely destroyer of trans lives. In the first two months of 2015, a new death of a transgender person reported each week.
The Elis of the world demonstrate even more clearly how the deaths of Ohioans such as Leelah Alcorn, Cemia “CeCe” Dove and Brittany-Nicole Kidd-Stergis (the latter women, both in their early 20s, were murdered in Cleveland in 2013) could be prevented.
An accepting environment at school is also a major factor in positive trans youth development. Studies by the National Center for Transgender Equity; the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, GLSEN; and the Trevor Project show that transgender high school students have higher rates of truancy, bullying and suicide attributed to the bigotry they experience in school.
When Eli approached his principal at Columbus Alternative High School to tell him he no longer wanted to be called Aisha, he immediately was given the school’s blessing. Eli then spoke with each of his teachers and addressed each of his classes.
He describes it like a light switch. “One day I was Aisha and the next day I was Eli.”
“We agreed that he owed it to himself and to the teachers who were working the closest with him to share his truth, and he was very forthright with that,” said Columbus Alternative Principal Darryl Sanders. “I don’t believe that we had any teacher in this building who was less than accepting.”
Sanders describes Eli as a high-achieving student who is “studious, strong-willed and extremely articulate.” Columbus Alternative High School has many like him; one of Columbus City Schools top performers, it is for honors-level, college-bound young people.
“He embodies what CAHS is all about. Our students are students who dare to question. They interrogate and question their environment, and Eli is no different,” Sanders said. “We celebrate who he is.”
Eli has felt so supported that he started his own student group called Colors of Diversity that he hopes to one day grow in to a nonprofit organization. The group is making several thousand origami swans, each with an encouraging message to brighten someone’s day and allow people to realize they’re not alone. Each swan also comes with a number connected to an online of someone’s story about overcoming adversity.
“I think that if we, as school institutions, are going to become the best safe havens for our students, we have to be willing to have difficult conversations,” Sanders said. “You’ve got to put yourself on the backburner and put the needs of your students in the forefront.”
A Medical Sanctuary
Because of Eli’s tenacity and his parents’ unwavering support, he became one of the first trans youth to receive hormone-replacement therapy as a patient in a new program at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus. THRIVE, which stands for Team-Driven Healthcare That Respects the Individual and Values Emotions, is geared toward children and adolescents who are transgender or experience a difference of sex development. (DSD is known historically as intersex).
Just over a year ago, doctors and staff at Children’s created THRIVE after seeing a need for more comprehensive services – medical care, psychological care and family care – for their transgender and DSD patients. Among those behind the effort was Bethanie Combs, a licensed social worker who now serves as its coordinator.
“People who experience gender variance or have a DSD often experience a need for follow-up care, education and support,” she said. “We are lucky to have physicians across many disciplines who can seamlessly provide care for all their medical needs, including urology, endocrinology, psychology/psychiatry, genetics, adolescent medicine, adolescent gynecology, pediatric surgery and social work.”
When Eli’s mom heard about THRIVE, she knew it was a program that would benefit her son. Eli quickly agreed.
It’s the day before school starts in August, and Eli is nearly bouncing out of his skin at the excitement of his first three doctor appointments.
“I don’t really feel any different after three shots,” he says afterward. “I thought [the testosterone replacement therapy] would remind me every time I went that I was born a female, but it doesn’t. I don’t mind getting the shots. It makes me excited that change is coming.”
“I actually want to do it more often. I really want the deeper voice to start coming through and I want hair on my face so I can start shaving.”
His mother laughs slightly, letting him know that shaving isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. It’s a common moment of adolescence that Eli will be able to recall fondly as an adult, instead of the painful memories so many transgender adults have of maturing in the wrong body.
According to the first-ever National Transgender Discrimination Survey, a 2011 effort by the National LGBTQ Task Force and National Center for Transgender Equity that will be updated in 2016, nearly half of the community doesn’t seek health care because they can’t afford it, About one-third avoids doctors because they fear discrimination. Nearly 20 percent of respondents were refused healthcare outright because they’re transgender.
Combs and her colleagues at Nationwide Children’s Hospital work to ensure that patients feel safe while experiencing some of the most invasive medical care of their lifetimes. Transgender youth are offered state-of-the art care, including the use of blockers for gender-variant youth. That’s a new alternative that halts puberty and other physical development that takes place during early adolescence.
“It is typically when a gender-variant child starts experiencing these biological changes that don’t match how they identify that we start see severe depression and suicidal [thoughts],” Combs said. “Having tools like blockers, which is a reversible treatment, helps buy time so individual youth and families can make informed decisions regarding permanent changes that may occur later in their transition.”
The Trans “Promised Land”
Although support surrounds Eli, it’s been a long journey to this point of acceptance for him and his family. And they’re all well aware that the world around him doesn’t mirror the loving atmosphere they’ve created inside their homes.
“I know what the world can be like when you’re different,” his father said. “Because of Eli’s courage and just who he is, I know that he’s going to want to go out there and protest, but I fear for safety. One day I will be proud of him for fighting for his rights, but right now I just want my teenage son to be safe.”
Eli’s mother has the same concerns. When asked what she fears most, she sighs deeply and blinks slowly, the evils of the world flashing behind her eyelids.
No world is perfect, not even Eli’s world of love and acceptance. He has to use a teachers’ restroom at school because Columbus City Schools lacks both gender-neutral restrooms and inclusive policies regarding facilities for trans students. Ohio still doesn’t specify sexual orientation and gender identity in its anti-bullying law, and state anti-discrimination laws don’t include gender identity or sexual orientation.
Cook sometimes fears that the newness of THRIVE might find his son being taken advantage of. And Eli’s parents’ insurance doesn’t cover his top surgery, so he and his family must pay out-of-pocket for the procedure.
“Eli is strong. He has been doing really great with the rejection so far, but I’m afraid of how the constant rejection will change him,” his mom says. “I don’t want him going back to that dark place of depression where he’s having suicidal thoughts. That’s what really scares me.”
Like any parents, Cook and Crafter wonder how they can shield their child from the evils that come from intolerance.
But like the Biblical profit Elijah, who ascended to heaven on a fiery chariot, Eli Crafter represents that possible ascension into a transgender paradise, that magical place where the streets are paved with trans love and acceptance and not stained by the blood of trans lives, where pronouns and bathrooms don’t cloud people’s judgment and where it’s just as easy to imagine a trans woman of color leading the Human Rights Campaign as a white cisgender man.
A piece of Eli is already operating in this paradise. He’s making plans to study psychology in college and wants to one day become a psychologist so he can offer trans youth culturally competent counseling through their transitions.
“I want to make the world a better place for people like me,” he said. “I want to start a non-profit that helps transgender and all LGBT people, not just with coming out or their transitions, but with getting jobs and housing and clothing. I don’t want us to have to fight so hard just to be ourselves.”
Bruce Jenner’s interview with Diana Sawyer at the end of April was a great moment of trans visibility, but the 65-year-old Olympic gold medalist isn’t the face of the modern trans rights movement. Youth like Eli, who believe a transgender president will be elected in their lifetime, are the ones who will get us to a paradise of full trans acceptance.
Eli’s story gives us hope that positive trans youth development is possible. The trans promised land can be achieved, but how soon it becomes a reality is entirely up to us.