Family, community support is crucial for transgender, non-conforming youth

A group of people walking in a field
Katrina Romulo/Staff

Imagine having to hide a piece of yourself from those closest to you because you fear they won’t understand. Or even worse, that the piece may result in homelessness, violence and isolation. This is the unimaginable choice and emotional toll many transgender and gender-nonconforming, or TGNC, people face when discovering their gender identities. With support from their families and communities, TGNC youths and adults have improved safety and mental health. Family acceptance has been shown to significantly reduce suicide rates, depression and negative health outcomes among these individuals.

The importance of familial acceptance is pressing to me, as I am a closeted trans queer man attending college away from home. I just finished one year of testosterone hormone therapy, and my parents aren’t aware of my transition. They’re not aware of what it means to be trans, what pronouns are or the difference between sexuality and gender.

My first coming-out was less of a coming-out and more that my family just found out about me being with a girl. They didn’t take it so well. I lived the remaining year of high school without discussing my queerness with them. They told me it was a phase, and so, I hid my true self from the people I loved the most. I had no community representing my identities as queer and Chicano. I felt alone throughout my coming-out process. It has taken my mom and dad two years since I came out to say, “I love you for who you are,” but I know they still have more to learn about how they can support me. And now I wonder if coming out a second time — this time as trans — will be any easier.

Family acceptance has a significant effect on the lives of TGNC youth and adults. LGBTQ+ youths who are highly rejected by their families are eight times more likely to attempt suicide, six times more likely to experience high levels of depression and three times more likely to be at high risk for HIV and sexually transmitted diseases. Even mild acceptance can make a significant impact. LGBTQ+ youths whose families are a little bit more accepting are 24 percent more likely to believe they can be happy as adults compared to those whose families are not accepting at all.

Additionally, family rejection is at the root of a homelessness crisis among LGBTQ+ youth. Twenty to 40 percent of the 1.6 million homeless youths in the United States identify as LGBTQ+. The 2018 San Francisco Bay Area LGBTQ Community Needs Assessment found that 13 to 18 percent of TGNC people surveyed did not have an overnight place to sleep at least once in the past year (compared to the 6 percent average across all LGBTQ+ respondents), and 4 to 11 percent stayed in a car or on the street (compared to the 2 percent average across all LGBTQ+ respondents). TGNC youth and adults face a particularly difficult time because support services such as shelters frequently are gendered or turn away TGNC clients.

In addition to the damage family rejection can cause to TGNC youth and adults, community rejection can be equally devastating and many times life-threatening. Even if we don’t have a TGNC family member, understanding the effects of transphobia and rejection is important for us all. Since 2013, more than 130 TGNC people have been murdered in hate crimes. The National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs recorded 52 reports of hate violence-related homicides in 2017, the highest number ever recorded in 21 years. Fifty-two percent of those homicides were TGNC people, and 40 percent were transgender women of color. We are being killed at record numbers, and it is in our hands to address the transphobia and violence and make our communities safer for everyone.

It’s not easy letting go of prescribed gender roles and expectations in a world that reinforces these stereotypes. It can seem like swimming upstream when the current makes it so convenient to accept the status quo. We all have a role to play in the safety of our TGNC community members. We can build and advocate for welcoming and inclusive environments in the institutions and communities to which we belong. It will take time to understand and accept, to deconstruct the systems that have been created. But when the alternative is harmful to our children, love and acceptance must prevail.

Luckily, I have found my second family through Somos Familia. I’ve learned a lot about the process my parents are going through and how maybe, just maybe, they’ll come around. I’ve learned that I don’t just have my given family, I also have my chosen family that along the way has supported me through my transition.

Somos Familia continues to work for Latinx and LGBTQ+ communities, specifically with Latinx parents with queer kids, in the Bay Area. This weekend, Somos Familia is hosting a historic event bringing together Latinx families with LGBTQ+ loved ones from across California to share their experiences, learn together, and build a community of unconditional love. Being surrounded by families who support their children will be a transformative experience for me and all the others coming together. The support of my community matters.

I am one of the lucky ones, even though it may not always feel that way. Our TGNC friends and neighbors’ lives are at stake. This is a call to action for all of us, even those who do not know a TGNC community member. Community support matters. Having allies and chosen family matters. Advocating for inclusivity and support for TGNC community members can change a life — and I know because it has for me.

Leo Cuevas Ramos is a member of the Leadership Council at Somos Familia.