It's another Wednesday night as a small group of regulars trickles into a youth center tucked on Chicago's north side.
From the city and suburbs, they are an eclectic bunch - dressed in everything from jeans and T-shirts to pumps and sparkly dresses. Some are college students, full of hope for the future. Others are street kids, estranged from their families and finding it difficult to survive. What binds them together is the desire to be around people like themselves--those who are transsexual, androgynous or, as some describe it, "gender-fluid."
"Groups in general I'm not big on. But I meet good folks here," says David Fischer, a 20-year-old college student who recently began making the transition from female to male. He sports a suit jacket and a fedora, and has a blue Mohawk.
For him and others, these Wednesday nights are a chance to share information, sometimes a meal-- and, at least for a few hours, to escape the judgment of the outside world. "Gay kids have a veneer they can hide behind. They can blend if they want to. A lot of these kids don't have that veneer, so 24-7 they are bombarded with discrimination at home and on the street," says Rob Garofalo, a physician who specializes in adolescent medicine at Chicago's Children's Memorial Hospital. He helped create the youth center with assistance from other agencies, including the Howard Brown Health Center, a clinic for gay men, lesbians, and transgender people.
The Broadway Youth Center, which opened last fall to serve teens and young adults with a wide array of needs, is one of only a few places across the country with support services for those who are questioning their gender--something doctors say is happening at younger and younger ages.
Often these young clients have strained or broken relationships with their families. And because it is much less common to be transsexual than lesbian or gay, finding peers who are going through the same thing can be difficult. "They are clearly, clearly more at risk than any other population we deal with," Garofalo says, noting that young transsexuals, compared to others he treats, are more likely to be homeless or involved in prostitution as a means to make money to survive.
The pain of that life is apparent one evening as members of the youth group discuss a movie they've just watched, Soldier's Girl. It is based on the true story of a U.S. serviceman who was brutally murdered by a fellow enlistee after he fell in love with a transsexual woman.
The mood after the movie is somber. "At least the trans person didn't die," one youth offers quietly.
Still, it's not all bad for these young people who--beyond the chance to share such moments with an empathetic group--also are aware that they're living in a time of growing acceptance. Illinois, for instance, recently became one of a small but growing number of states to prohibit discrimination against transsexuals in such areas as employment and housing.
Today, more transgender people who are 18 or older also have greater access to doctors who can prescribe hormones to help in the transition from one sex to another. This is an important development, Garofalo says, because many who can't get hormones legally buy them on the black market and take them without a doctor's supervision.
Even with that development, making a decision to transition--and to have expensive sex-reassignment surgery--remains a daunting process. Many young people look to the counseling and medical services at places such as the youth center and Howard Brown to get them through it.
Jessi Uzel, a 23-year-old graduate student at DePaul University who attends the transgender group, recently started taking hormones, which she gets at the Howard Brown clinic at a reduced cost of about $60 a month.
"Yes, our lives are tragic in many ways. But the idea is, it doesn't have to be tragic," says Uzel, who began her transition from male to female last summer and says she wouldn't have been able to do so without the emotional support and financial break she has received. "You can do hormones the right way and just be able to live life."
Already she has begun to grow breasts and her skin has started to soften.
"It's very empowering," says Uzel, who's studying music composition. She wears a bandanna to cover a receding hairline, which she hopes will disappear as the hormones take effect. Eventually she'd like to have sex-reassignment surgery, though the cost is prohibitive right now, as it is for many members of the group. Insurance rarely covers such procedures.
When she was a teen growing up in small-town Iowa, people hardly uttered the word "transsexual." So Uzel used the Internet to look up more information about transsexuality. And at age 15 the boy then known as Josh made a revelation to his mother. "I want to be a girl," Josh said, later taking it back when he realized how upset his mother was. "She looked at me like I was something totally foreign," says Uzel, who was the "good son," the Eagle Scout who got good grades and college scholarships.
Uzel tried for four more years to fit in as male, only to come out again as "transsexual" at age 19. Last Christmas, after attending the support group for a few months, Uzel asked her family to start calling her Jessi.
Fischer, the 20-year-old college student who's transitioning from female to male, went through an extensive counseling process at Howard Brown before receiving hormones. As a teen, Fischer--then known as Dai--tried to be like the other girls, wearing makeup and girls clothes even when it didn't feel right to do so. "I didn't want to be a freak. I kind of thought I was--but I didn't want to be," says Fischer, who initially dropped out of high school but is now studying photography and film at the College of DuPage, west of Chicago.
As a teen Fischer started wearing men's deodorant and stole clothes from a brother to wear: "It made me feel a little more real, a little more who I was," he now says, explaining that after years of torment, he decided to transition from female to male last summer.
For him it has made a huge difference. "Now I walk around and I look at the world and I feel happy," Fischer says over a meal at a cafe near the youth center. "I mean, I have problems, but I can deal with them. I don't feel like I have to separate myself. I feel like I have a future."
At the group he and others discuss issues related to their transition—among them, the legal steps to changing one's name; how to tell family and friends; and dealing with the confusion changing sexes can cause with a medical insurer and at work or school.
One group member ran into problems when applying for college because his high school transcripts were still under the name he had had when he was female. Others, some of whom live on the street, talk about their struggles with drug use or how difficult it is to make it day to day.
"I vent, and it feels good for people to listen. I wish more youth would come here. You don't have to be all glamorous to be here. There's not a lot of pressure to have the right clothes and the right look. You can just have a positive attitude," says a 25-year-old group regular who works as a prostitute
and spoke on the condition of anonymity.
By day he lives life as a man. But at night "he" becomes "she," donning makeup and a wig while working the clubs and streets of Chicago. "I don't have a plan for how it's going to work out," he says while sitting at a coffeehouse a few blocks from the hotel for the homeless where he lives. Remnants of clear polish remain on his nails from the night before.
One of the older members of the transgender group, he wishes the group had existed when he was younger, when he was shifted from foster home to foster home. "If I'd had a group like this back then, then maybe things would have worked out better," he says, admitting that he often uses cocaine. "As it is, I think I'll probably die a tragic death. I think I'll probably overdose or something."
If they ask, the youth center staff puts group members and other youth in touch with counselors and agencies who can help with everything from family issues to substance abuse. The center also provides daily meals. And Garofalo, the doctor at Children's Memorial Hospital, runs a medical clinic on Friday evenings.
Given the wide range of backgrounds and needs, helping members of the transgender support group feel comfortable is a big job for Casey Schwartz, a health educator who facilitates the Wednesday night gatherings. Schwartz himself began his transition from female to male at age 20, when he was a college student, and is now 24.
Each night as the group starts, he spells out a few rules. "What's said in the room stays in the room," he reminds group members. He also asks that they make no assumptions about what sex a person in the group might be.
Switching pronouns--from "she" to "he" and vice versa--is one of the more obvious changes a transgender person can make but can also be the most difficult to achieve. Even after four years of living his life as a man and easily passing for male in public, Schwartz says his grandmother still has trouble remembering. "Sometimes she calls me 'it,' " he says. "But I know she loves me." Experiences like those, he says, make having a group of peers like the one at the Broadway Youth Center that much more vital. "It's really, really important to have trans friends," Schwartz says. "It's so meaningful when you can meet somebody like you." (Martha Irvine, AP)