I feel that it’s my duty to use my experience to create a better world for queer and trans youth.
[TW: discussions about abuse and drug and alcohol usage]
This December marks an important achievement in my transition! After 17 years of waiting, I’ll be undergoing my orchiectomy. This surgery, the first and potentially only genital surgery I’ll have, is something I’ve wanted since I was a scrawny little brown boy. In honor of something this big, I’ve been reflecting on my experiences in my childhood and teenage years. Specifically, I’ve been reflecting on what it means to have been a queer and trans person in a Latinx family.
Growing up in a Latin household, simply being sexually attracted to men (something that I’ve known since kindergarten) was not something that was even entertained as a thought, let alone being a boy who know she’s really a girl. Latinx culture strongly emphasizes masculinity and heterosexuality as being the most important qualities that a person assigned male at birth should have. This often comes in the form of toxic masculinity and abuse for people who don’t appear to comply with this picture of manhood. This strangles the life out of trans women and queer boys, emotionally, psychologically, and sometimes literally.
In my family, there was such a strong emphasis on heterosexuality and masculinity. Uncles and cousins emphasized and tried to drill into my head their macho ideas of manhood. I had to act like a boy but being around mostly women — in their eyes — had made me soft. So what they did was send me to be with men in my family to toughen me up and make me a man. Needless to say, they didn’t make a man out of me and I wasn’t comfortable or happy with these attempts to make me one at all.
I had to perform masculinity for them, because the idea of me being feminine, enjoying feminine things, and rejecting masculinity were so unconscionable that they weren’t options for me. The emphasis that was placed on me to look (sexually) at women, even as a child, was symbolic of how unconscionable it was to be any sort of queer. I’d known, by kindergarten, that I was sexually attracted to men. Simply to look at a man made my heart flutter and my body tingle, but I could never describe these feelings to anyone.
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My sexuality and gender as a child were things that I ended up having to explore independently of my family, because I could never have gone to them to talk about my feelings. Even if I were a heterosexual boy, I’m unsure I could have talked about my sexuality to my family. Sexuality simply is not something spoken about in Latinx families, to the harm of our youth. Since queer subjects were never covered in school and I had nobody in my family that I could turn to, I turned to whatever I could find.
Had my family, had Latinx families, been more open to talking about sexuality, I might have avoided the potholes and pitfalls that I had hit, the predators I attracted. I might have had a childhood where I could be myself and a young adulthood where I didn’t have to turn to sex work. But since I lacked that, my sexuality as a queer youth was a place of emotional landmines that is still impossible to parse.
At 9 years old, most people think sex and gender are the last things on childrens’ minds, but it was always on mine. I started having sex with older boys and adult men at that age, and they were the ones who taught me what my parents and what school did not. They taught me about my body and how I would end up having queer sex. My sexuality was something that I learned of and embraced early, I had sexual relationships with boys and men much of the time that I was growing up with nobody to really help me navigate it. I was the object of predation when I thought I was the object of love. Had I a family that I could have gone to as a queer child, this would have been avoided.
When I was 11, I relied on public access television, weekly circulars from New York City, and Jerry Springer to teach me the words for my identity. When I’d visit New York, public access channels would play escort ads at night and that was how I first saw a woman with the kind of body I wanted. Weekly newspapers were the same. I learned that I was a “shemale”, a “transsexual”. Although I rarely had access to it, the Village Voice showed me the kind of woman I was going to grow up to be. It was how I learned that escorting (sex work) was what women like me did. It was how it became an option when I eventually transitioned. That was what life was for me. I grew up with access or experiences that were too much for a child to comprehend. Yet, coming out and getting guidance was not an option.
For some queer and trans youth, coming out as a child or teen can mean eventual acceptance and very few roadblocks. For others, especially queer and trans youth of color, it means rejection, abuse, and eventual disownment. This is why 65% of all homeless queer and trans youth are youth of color. Even if one isn’t disowned, the environment can be hostile and suffocating which leads to poor mental health outcomes for those who grow up in households that are anti-queer. Additionally, the lack of queer-friendly sexual education in households ultimately contributes to the high level of queer people of color who acquire sexually transmitted infections and HIV. The household that queer youth of color grow up in, even after one has acquired their own personal independence, heavily impacts the behaviors of queer people of color.
To handle dysphoria and the inability to even speak of my queerness to anyone related to me, I turned to drugs to mute the pain. For years, I used and abused drugs and alcohol until I ultimately needed the aid of inpatient and outpatient rehabs and 12 Step groups. It wasn’t until my cousins took me to get an HIV test when I was 19 that I actually considered HIV as a risk to my health despite having sexually active for a decade. This is not unique to me, and unfortunately cannot be combatted until communities of color address queerphobia.
I call on communities of color, especially during the holiday season when so many queer youth of color can’t be with their blood families, to examine the queerphobia and toxic masculinity that our cultures embrace or force onto children. What can we each individually do to make our families and cultural spaces safer for queer youth, especially trans girls?
- We can de-stress the importance of hypermasculinity in our cultures. By showing that hypermasculinity isn’t a prerequisite for being a respected person, queer youth who don’t wish to be masculine can see that they will still be loved and wanted if they choose to reject masculinity. It would also lead to more respect for women and feminine people, which would have a positive impact on youth whether they were queer or not.
- Straight, cisgender people who are friendly to queer people need to do their part in fighting the anti-queer attitudes in their families. Queer people — all queer people — need accomplices who are willing to fight for us even when we aren’t around. By challenging the anti-queer mindsets of people in the family, you eventually change cultural spaces by encouraging people to do better for queer folks.
- Everyone should encourage open and frank discussions about sex and sexuality that are inclusive of queer sex and the shape that can take. Instead of relying on schools to teach sexual education — which they barely do, even for heterosexual people — we should do more to have those conversations to educate our youth. I ended up on relying upon people who very well could have been preying on me to show me what sex was. Nobody should have to risk that in order to learn.
There’s so much cultural work across all demographics which needs to be done to create a society that accepts and respects queer and trans people. But we can start on even the smallest level to create that society. We have to do it, to prevent any more queer youth homelessness.
My parents and family, faced with the very real possibility of losing me, eventually accepted me for the most part. Though I have cousins and aunts concerned with whether or not I’ll turn their children queer or trans, and I have no wish to ever engage with them again — I survived. I feel that it’s my duty to use my experience to create a better world for queer and trans youth. That’s what all of us who survived and grew up have to do.
Featured Image: Photo by chelsea ferenando on Unsplash