Op-ed: When Homeless Trans Men Face Violence, There Are No Places to Turn

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I started my journey toward living as the man I am at 12. I had always been a masculine kid. And nearly from birth, I'd gone from foster care to living on both sides of my abusive parents' and stepparents' families. Every place I landed, there was more emotional abuse — or worse, sexual abuse — heaped on me. It was inescapable.

By the time I was a pre-teen, it led me to the streets. I was free, I thought. But the shift simply opened up a new world I had to learn to survive in. The little help I got from the state threw me into half-assed therapy sessions, where the therapist tried to convince me I should meet my foster parents' needs. Thankfully I ended up with a social worker whose supervisor was a butch lesbian; she was the only one who really understood what I was dealing with. She saved my life, and I'll never forget her for that.

I recently read The Advocate's story about Ky Peterson, the black trans man thrown into solitary confinement in a Georgia prison who almost died from a medication overdose after screaming for a week for help. Everyone basically told him to shut up; they didn't care. I was a young black trans man who wasn't in jail at the time, no, but hearing his story rang true for me. I was caught in a system and yelling for help, and getting back silence.

Like Ky's correctional officers, everyone in the foster care system viewed me as a "butch lesbian." Only one person on earth really understood that my masculinity was more than that for me — and, sadly, that person was me. It didn't matter that I was young. I knew I was a man.

I had no stable home for the next few years. Eventually, I decided to reconcile with my mother enough to have a roof over my head. But that agreement meant I had to be responsible for her other five kids, for keeping her and my stepfather from killing each other after they got wasted on alcohol or drugs, and keeping myself alive while she went on her binges.

It probably doesn't come as a surprise, then, that I dropped out of high school by 16. I mean, hell: At that point I had been in ninth grade three times due to missing pretty much the entire school year from all my absences. One year I'd missed a month straight because my mother was just simply too loaded to drive me 20 minutes to the bus stop.

The unstable home, the pre-teen years of learning to survive on the streets: I thought it all had at least taught me about how to live on my own without codependency. But it didn't. When I started dating women as a young adult — and to this day — I clearly seemed to attract abusive partners. It's happened so many times now where I'm at the point of asking daily, "Is there something wrong with me?" Everyone around me keeps saying no, but in 27 years I can't remember the last time a woman has said she's loved me and genuinely meant it, outside of my grandmother.

I don't like to play into the "I'm trans, so no one will want me for me" stereotype because life's more complicated than that, but in trying to navigate relationships, I will say that I've honestly settled for everything and anything just to not be alone. That means I've dealt with physical, emotional, and mental abuse, sometimes to the point of feeling like I should use drugs and alcohol to dull my pain for nights on end. The feelings get especially intense in those days right before I have a surgery; trans men's genital reconstructions can mean numerous procedures, and I've now gone to six all by myself. I keep a YouTube diary to help other guys know what the phalloplasty option is like (there's still not enough information out there on it), and I smile in the videos — but sometimes that's just for the camera. I stay strong for others.

Being a chronically homeless black trans man with a history of being abused has meant I often feel like I have no place to turn, no one I can trust to talk to who would truly understand. Sometimes I feel embarrassed to be seen as the "man" — the "strong" one — who's getting beat up by a woman, the one people expect to be the "victim" in an abusive situation. People don't understand that it's part of the abuse when, for instance, my partner five years ago told me to "stop acting like a bitch" when I seemed too "sensitive" about how she was treating me.

"You're supposed to be a man," said my ex's new partner later, right after she'd threatened to kill me and throw me into the Mississippi River. "Men don't cry. They don't have emotions. You'll never be a man acting like that."

She was a masculine-of-center person, and hearing that from her somehow made it even harder to take. I was 22 at the time, and depression hit me like a freight train. Zoom ahead two years later, and I find myself being incarcerated for the first time over another instance of intimate partner violence

This time, my partner had tried to stab me in a rage, or maybe a psychotic break. I finally got up the gall to ask for help and I ended up in jail for almost three months on a battery charge. They did not believe that I could be the victim of domestic abuse. And because I was not from that county, no one else knew where I was. I languished in that cell, the jail making $118 a day off of me from the state. Who cares if I didn't do anything? For all the system cared, I could have stayed there forever. I only got out when I threatened to fire my public defender and then I agreed to plead "no contest." The false charge remains on my record.

During those three months I was locked up, I told none of the jail staff I was trans. I just went without my hormone therapy for the entire time because if I said anything, I knew I'd be put in solitary confinement. It's a well-known fact passed among other trans people (and effeminate cisgender men) I'd met who'd been jailed that this often happens "for our protection." But I knew my mental health was not OK, and I was afraid that the psychological damage of isolation would lead me to attempt suicide. It wouldn't have been the first attempt I'd made either.

Now I'm 27. That ordeal is five years behind me, but I can't say life is much different. The women I date still treat me horribly, and housing for me is still a joke. If I'm not sleeping on one person's couch, I'm sleeping on another's. Sometimes, I admit, I've dated a woman just to have a place to sleep; some so-called friends have let me stay and then taken advantage of me. It's utterly gross to see these sides of humanity, but I do what I have to to stay alive.

And then there's what happens when I can't find a couch. I could go on for days about the things that were done to me the many nights I had to sleep under tractor-trailers in the freezing cold or in the summers when it was warm enough to sleep on a park bench or in the subways.

At this point, you might be asking yourself, "Why doesn't he find a shelter? Get his own place?" Believe me, I've tried. It's too complicated now to explain all that makes it difficult for a black guy who dropped out of high school at 16, has false criminal charges on his record and therefore has trouble finding anyone to hire him, and who has a history of mental trauma to keep a steady roof over his own head. It takes more than lifting oneself up by the bootstraps. I need help, and there's been none for me when I've looked.

I've tried shelters. Honestly, the men's ones aren't safe for trans men; if those men find out who you are, you're opening yourself up to physical and sexual violence. Besides, I'd tried men's housing at a group home when I was younger, and they'd just segregated me because no one wanted to be in a room with me. And when I turned to the women's shelters as an adult, I was too masculine to make the women comfortable. 

So, many nights I've simply found myself on the streets, in the company of my city-of-the-moment's society of transients. They are the ones who have helped me the most to get through. Though I've tried to function as much as possible as a "normal" member of society, I had no health care to deal with my psychological damage from childhood, the abusive relationships, and the attacks I'd faced while sleeping outdoors. I have unresolved issues and hair triggers from trauma, and no outlet.

And every time now someone new reaches out some hope saying they can help me, at this point it just looks like a set-up. This is the kind of cycle that's kept a lot of trans folks in chronic homelessness, compounded by the blatant anti-trans discrimination in our society at large. 

I haven't heard any other trans men talk about their experiences with this. I've asked myself why. I think it partly goes back to being shamed by others for not being a man who can take care of himself. But for many it goes much deeper than that. It's the wondering if you deserve or will receive help because you're trans or only seen as a male "aggressor"; it's the wondering if you're all alone, because you've never heard of another trans man going through this before; it's the wondering if any other trans people are even going to care because you're a man, which means you're always going to be safe in the world, right?

So instead, I believe, trans men mostly don't say anything and we struggle in silence — and when we fail to help ourselves alone, it leads to a downward spiral of poor decisions and risky situations.

I've spent the last year of my life navigating being homeless while simultaneously completing my medical transition. It has been one of the most challenging years of my adult life thus far, and I did it in a new city where I didn't even know anyone and where I lived stealth (non-disclosing of the fact that I'm trans) to anyone around me who was not a medical professional or social worker. I found a shelter here in San Franscisco that would accept me and spent months there; the very last day I could stay was the morning of my phalloplasty. I've only been able to afford this necessary part of my medical care because I moved to California, where I can receive the insurance coverage.

I hadn't even told my phallosplasty surgeon that I was homeless. I didn't want anyone to judge me, to take away the surgery. Who knows if they would have? In any case, I did accomplish something I've heard other guys say they thought was impossible: to be a trans man completing his genital reconstruction while homeless. I want guys to know that it's possible, at least here in San Francisco. Afterwards, I spent nine days in the hospital, a month in a nursing home, and three and a half months in the city's medical respite for the homeless.

It hasn't all been great, though. I was the respite's first trans patient since the state mandate for trans-inclusive insurance coverage, and they didn't know how to handle me. They outed my trans status to the other people living there, violating my HIPAA privacy rights. Due to me bringing attention to this error — and only because of this — I was able to be moved to a supportive building owned by the county. And in some kind of miracle, I've now found out that I've made it onto the county's housing list, which means that out of 10,000 people seeking a spot, I'll be guaranteed government-subsidized housing. 

Even though it's wonderful, a voice in the back of my head still keeps asking, What if my privacy hadn't been violated in the first place? Would I have been tossed back into the shelter? I still feel anxiety over what might happen next, when life seems so precarious. 

 

KD is a black trans man who's been an active advocate for low- to no-income trans men while struggling through his own socio-economic situations. Hear more from him on his YouTube channel and blog.

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