Names have been changed.
When I was a 5-year-old boy in Mexico, I had a red sweater with a hood. I loved to put it on my head and pretend that it was my long, beautiful hair.
I looked like a girl even with short hair. In kindergarten, during recess, boys chased me in the same way that they chased the girls. I enjoyed the attention, but in elementary school the boys stopped chasing me. They must have realized that I was not a girl. I felt rejected.
Around that time, my mother got fed up with my pretending to be a girl. She had tolerated it before, when she thought I would grow out of it. But one day when I came home from school, I couldn’t find my red sweater. I asked my mom if she had seen it. She told me she had burned it and that she did not want me to pretend I was a girl anymore.
I did as I was told, but I missed pretending to be a girl. I realized how different I was from other boys. As I grew older, I felt more and more feminine. Not being able to suppress those feelings, I began to walk, talk, and act like a girl. Everything I did was synchronized with how I really felt, but not with what my parents or anyone else wanted.
My hometown in central Mexico is very small. There are approximately 500 people and only one school that goes from 1st through 6th grade. After 6th grade, you must transfer to a school outside of town to continue your studies. Many kids in my town do not, but I did.
When it was time to pick my middle school, I picked a technical school. I had a keen interest in technology and wanted to learn more about how systems and computers worked. Plus my best friend since 1st grade, Gina, would be attending the same school.
Although I never told Gina I was attracted to boys, she must have figured that out because she never asked me about girls. She talked about the boys she found attractive, and I said nothing.
But my parents told me I would instead go to the school that my two older brothers were attending. Although I did not like that idea, I had no choice, because my parents would be paying for my schooling.
All My Fault
In hindsight, I think my parents sent me to that school so my brothers could protect me. They knew better than I did that their feminine son in his tight clothes would get bullied. They were right.
Beginning in 8th grade, other kids, usually boys, called me “f-gg-t,” “freak,” and other derogatory names. They would shove me and threaten to beat me up. I didn’t tell my brothers. I was afraid of being called a “chicken” or a mommy’s boy.
One day, someone called me names on the school bus, and my oldest brother, Freddy, confronted him. They fought, which made me feel guilty. If only I were “normal,” I wouldn’t be a source of shame for my brothers or put their physical safety at risk. I blamed myself for causing all this trouble. I began to wish I did not exist.
By the time I entered 10th grade, I felt unsafe and almost ready to quit school. What stopped me was my dream of going to college in two more years. No one in my immediate family had a college degree, so I wanted to be the first one and make my family proud. I felt that a college degree would compensate for my femininity.
I had never heard of “transgender,” so I thought of myself as a very feminine gay boy. I had been attracted to boys since kindergarten. But unfortunately, in my town, I didn’t know anybody gay either, so I couldn’t imagine a future with a husband who could be accepted by my family or anyone else.
Still, I kept dressing in tight clothes and styled, albeit short, hair. I hoped that college would be a place I didn’t have to hide my identity.
Then, one morning, my mother and I learned that my father and Freddy were in a car accident. My father had his ribs broken and survived. But my brother died before the ambulance arrived.
Time to Leave
After that, things at home were terrible. The brother who had stood up for me countless times was gone. My father couldn’t walk or provide for the family anymore. My younger sister was sent to a free boarding school in Mexico City to save money. My surviving brother went into a deep depression. For a year, he stayed in his bedroom and talked to no one.
I didn’t know who would support my family financially and I felt unsafe at school and in the community. I began to work on the weekends and during school breaks, but I knew that no job in my country would pay enough to support my family. That August I made the decision to come to New York: I was 16. My plan was to work hard in New York, so I could send money back home.
I chose New York because I had heard it was a place free of discrimination. My Aunt Giselle had lived in New York for the past 15 years.
Giselle had been my mother’s brother. I had heard that he left our hometown to become female. She had gone to New York in hopes of living as her true self.
I didn’t know my aunt at all. She had left my small town when I was 8. Yet she was my aunt and also a male who felt female. I felt that was enough to make her like me, connect with me, and perhaps, for a time, support me.
My parents made all the arrangements, and I found out when I got to New York that Giselle had lent us $5,000 for me to make the trip. My parents told me they feared I would “turn out” like Giselle, but I reassured them that I would not. I think they knew that their feminine son was in danger in our small town.
It took more than two weeks to make the trip from Mexico to New York. I got from my town through the desert to the U.S. border with a “coyote”—someone who makes money smuggling humans across the border. I was given assurances that he was a good guy, but I feared for my safety. I was afraid that he or others would notice I was gay and call me names, or worse. To hide my identity and to shield myself from potential harm, I kept to myself during the entire trip and spoke to no one. I wore baggy clothes, not my usual tight ones.
Not Easy in New York
Once in Texas the coyote passed me along to a friend of his who drove us to New York in four days. My aunt lived in Sunnyside, Queens, and I arrived at her house at 11 p.m. When she opened her door, I could not believe how beautiful she was. I was expecting to see a man with a wig and make-up, but she was tall and fit, with long, beautiful black hair, big breasts, and perfect white teeth. After an awkward moment, she gave me a hug.
In the following days my aunt took me out. We had breakfast at a local diner, and I went to the movies for the first time in my life. She also took me to the hair salon where she worked.
When we went to enroll me in school, however, we encountered obstacles. My aunt did not have legal custody of me, so school officials said that I could not enroll. Giselle and I decided that the best thing for me to do was to get a job. I wanted to pay her back the $5,000 she’d loaned me to immigrate. Although I was undocumented, I managed to get a job as a dishwasher at a Chinese restaurant. I was still presenting as male and dressing like I did back in Mexico, in tight jeans.
My aunt had been married for eight years to Michael, a truck driver, who was usually gone. I wanted to ask Giselle about transitioning from male to female and being married to a man, but I felt it was rude. Even though she was in some ways my role model, I couldn’t yet imagine myself living as she did, so we didn’t really talk about those issues.
I didn’t want to be a burden, so at first I stayed out of Michael’s way when he was home. Then my aunt asked me to socialize with him more, so I did. When he was home we cooked together and did chores around the house. We liked each other and became friends. My aunt noticed the change, and at first she liked it.
A few months down the road, however, Giselle grew suspicious about my relationship with her husband. After I’d been there three months, she accused me of sleeping with him. One December night we got into an argument, which progressed into a fight, and she kicked me out. In her rage, she threatened to track me down and beat me up.
Homeless and Alone
After I left her house, I went to a nonprofit called the Hispanic AIDS Forum, and asked for help. But they could not help me with housing. Then I remembered Laura, a transgender girl I had met at a night club a few weeks before. She’d said that if I ever wanted to “dress up” as a girl that I could give her a call and she would help. So I went looking for her.
Laura invited me to stay with her. I decided to switch jobs out of fear that my aunt would track me down and hurt me. At my new job at a Japanese restaurant, I met my first boyfriend, Dimas. A few months later, we decided to move in together. I was 17. He was 24. It was my first same-sex relationship, and I felt like I was finally coming to terms with being gay. It was nice that someone found me attractive, something I never felt in Mexico.
After three months, however, Dimas decided I was too immature for him and broke up with me. Once again, I was homeless. As I walked aimlessly with my bag of clothes on a steamy July day, I began to wonder if my life was worth living. None of my relationships in the U.S. had lasted more than a few months, and I had not had a stable place to live. I decided to end my life by swallowing a bottle of pills.
I woke up in the hospital and was sent to a mental health institution where I was diagnosed with major depressive disorder. I was placed in a group home for LGBTQ youth run by New York’s child protective services, called ACS.
Once in foster care, I was given assurances that I would not be kicked out of the home even though I was gay. That security and acceptance motivated me to look for resources that could help me make a better life for myself. I went back to the Hispanic AIDS Forum and began to attend a support group for gay men.
While I was there, I heard about a different support group called “Translatina” and went to check that out. The people talking around the table had been born male and were now trying to live their lives as women. They talked about hormones, surgeries, men, and family. They identified as “trans,” short for transgender.
It was a revelation. Until then I hadn’t known there was such a thing as being transgender. I did not know that there were legal and medical procedures to permanently change your name and gender. Suddenly it all made sense to me. My aunt was not a man trying to become a woman. Her sense of self and mine was legitimate: We had gender identity disorder (GID), a medical term used to describe the transgender community.
In the support group, I learned about different resources for transgender women, including Callen-Lorde, a small clinic that specializes in LGBTQ health. The facilitator of the group, a transgender woman herself, offered to take me to Callen-Lorde so I could begin my transition.
During the intake process at Callen-Lorde, I asked to start the hormone treatment—testosterone blockers plus the female hormone estrogen—as soon as possible. I was told that there was a waiting list and that I had to see a counselor/therapist for a year before I could begin treatment to feminize my body.
Although I was desperate to begin the process, in retrospect, I am glad I went through a whole year of therapy before I started my treatment. Therapy confirmed my gender identity and allowed me to work out my feelings of loss and abandonment, rejection, guilt, and the constant fear of losing my
Soon after I started hormone treatment, I found the Urban Justice Center, a nonprofit organization that works with LGBTQ youth. An attorney there took on my case and helped me apply, with the help of ACS, for my green card and a name change order. Once I got those, I began to attend GED classes, and, months later, college. I now have a job that involves giving back to my community, especially the LGBTQ community.
By the time I started my current job, I had become very feminized. I identify as LGBTQ, but not as transgender, so everyone just assumes I am a lesbian, which I’m not.
I have many reasons for keeping that part of me hidden. Although there is more awareness and visibility now for trans people, self-acceptance has been a long, complex process for me.
First I had to accept myself as a gay man in a culture that told me that was wrong. Then, when I realized I was trans, I had a whole other journey toward accepting my body. Back when I was in foster care, I wanted breast implants and sex reassignment surgery and facial surgery—but I didn’t have any money. Then I began to advance in my career and found I was accepted as an attractive professional woman.
I’ve let go of my dream of myself as a curvy bombshell, and, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized that silicone implants and other surgeries can be dangerous. It’s helped that men I’ve dated tell me they like my small breasts and slim hips.
But this all took years. I had to resolve the loss of my identity as a gay man and I still struggle with the deep feeling that I’m not trans, I’m a woman.
Becoming a woman is something like when I first was learning English when I got to New York: I had to process and think through everything. When I first began transitioning to female with hormones and women’s clothes, at age 18, I was translating from male to female all the time, wondering if I was ”passing.” Over time, I internalized both English and femaleness.
It’s important for me to be seen as a woman. It was so dangerous to express my femininity for so long, and now people like it. Even though I haven’t transitioned fully, the hormones have helped my body align with how I always felt—female—and that helps me feel like one. My style is low-key and professional now: pants and button-up shirts, some make-up, and long but well-cut hair. When I dress up ultra-feminine in a skirt and heels, everyone compliments me. Men, women, colleagues; all seem to love it.
I’m 30 now, and I’m glad I took my time and decided on my own form of transitioning. I used to hate my body, and now I accept the ways it’s not traditionally female. There’s more than one way to be a woman.