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For Gabrielle Diana Gladu, 16 is particularly sweet. Two years after a suicide attempt, she is thriving -- a transgender teen who beat the odds.
Tall, blond, sharp-witted, and stylish, she lives in Ottawa, Canada, with her predominantly Catholic family, who immigrated a generation ago from Poland and France. Her family is not fabulously wealthy, but they work hard and organize their resources well to support her.
But Gladu is all too aware that increasing transgender visibility and fresh legal protections seem to go hand-in-hand with continuing discrimination in almost every sphere of trans people's lives -- be it travel, education, health care, or employment.
While many trans youth have turned to YouTube to find community, support, and a powerful vehicle to share their own stories, Gladu stands out among her peers. Boasting more than 2,800 subscribers at press time, Gladu's channel takes on everything from the talk show host Wendy Williams's transphobia to offering do-it-yourself beauty and style tips.
Tragically, sometimes all the help and support in the world cannot keep the anguish at bay for clinically depressed trans teens, who face a unique set of challenges that make them especially vulnerable to suicide. Indeed, much of The Advocate's coverage of trans issues centers on the disproportionate amount of violence foisted upon this tiny segment of the population.
But to kick off Transgender Awareness Month, good news was in order. That's where Gladu comes in. Her story epitomizes the resilience trans youth -- and adults -- put on display every day they spend living their truth. The Advocate spoke with Gladu over the phone and in emails about her home life, her role models, her family, schooling, social media activism, and most important -- her aspirations.
Read on to find six ingredients that help Gladu flourish as a trans teen -- ingredients that can be applied to any young person's life as a source of hope and direction for all trans youth, their families, and their communities in a difficult world.
1. Gladu's family loves and supports her.
While many trans youth face rejection from their families of origin, Gladu's family has always had her back, she says:
"My mother, my grandmother, my great aunt -- they are so, so supportive. My grandmother told me that, when I first started transitioning, my great aunt was so exited to buy me clothes, and when I heard that I was just like 'Wow,' and they take the time to learn and [my great aunt] tells me that if people don't accept me, 'Screw them!' and I want to make sure I give a shout-out to my brother. I don't know where I would be without my family."
For any teen navigating the trials and tribulations of adolescence, unconditional family acceptance can make a big difference. Even when depression and anxiety arise, the strength of active affection can lift a trans teen higher -- and even save a life.
On September 27, Gladu posted a video to her YouTube account that was featured on BuzzFeed and subsequently went viral. In the video, along with a birthday cake, her mother gave her a beautiful gift: confirmation that her long-awaited legal name change had finally gone through. In the lore of trans lives, public and government acceptance of personal choices for naming stands near the top of the proverbial affirmation pyramid.
2. Gladu received immediate help and ongoing support after her suicide attempt.
The 16-year-old recounts a dark moment in her young life:
"It was the beginning of grade 8, 2012. I was very, very confused. I knew something was different about me. I was so afraid of what people would think of me. On December 12, 2012, I overdosed on sleeping pills, and I was brought to the hospital. I would not have made it if my friend [had not] called my house. And after I [took the pills] I texted my friend and said, 'What did I just do?' I was thinking, Maybe this is for the better, if I'm never going to be what I am."
After the incident, Gladu underwent intensive therapy and began to reorganize everything in her life around accepting her identity. Transgender suicide rates are staggering, and advocates insist that caregivers must be particularly watchful of at-risk teens with a history of anxiety, and strike a balance between carefully monitoring them for warning signs and trusting them to be independent.
3. Gladu's school accepts and accommodates her without singling her out.
"I have my own bathroom at the school that I attend right now. They are very, very, very accommodating towards me," Gladu explains, emphasizing that the most important thing that schools can do is listen to the wishes of trans youth and be open to their needs.
While Gladu is most comfortable using her own bathroom at school, she readily insists that trans teens have the right to use the bathroom that matches their gender identity, and displays an impressive knowledge of the policy issues surrounding full legal rights for equal access to facilities.
When she started ninth grade and disclosed her gender identity, her school immediately waived her gym requirement, which would have entailed competing against boys. Even then, school administrators didn't single her out:
"Actually, it's funny, the vice principal knows that I am trans because he accommodated my needs. But the current principal did not know that I [am] actually trans until my BuzzFeed article went completely viral, and she came up to me at lunch one day and said, 'I didn't even know that you are transgender, and it's great.' Even not knowing, she was still really accepting, and everyone has an idea of who I am as a person. I would talk to her about LGBTQ rights, and she was completely open to talking about it. That's really important: that your principal and your vice principal and the school board accommodate your needs, and I am really thankful about that."
4.When faced with religious oppression, Gladu chose an accepting spiritual life.
"I do not attend a Catholic school now," Gladu explains. After encountering a lack of acceptance in her previous parochial school, she made a conscious choice to go to a public school because she didn't believe that a Catholic school would accommodate her transition in the manner that her current school's administration has welcomed her.
Despite her family's Catholicism, in her quest for trans-affirmative spiritual growth, Gladu has turned to Buddhism:
"I left the [Catholic] religion because I do not feel comfortable in a church that does not accept me. I identify myself as a Buddhist. It's early on in the stages and I am rebirthing myself and my spirituality. I'm very content with Buddhism because I feel like it has great teaching and it has helped with my transition in the way that a lot of the teachings are about compassion and being conscious of your body and your mind and what you are saying and I feel like that has a really profound effect on my transition and who I am now."
5. Gladu surrounds herself with great role models, friends, and supporters.
Gladu looks up to Laverne Cox, Janet Mock, and Blythe Smith in a way that highlights the significance that positive trans role models play in a teen's life. She also finds inspiration from role models within social media like Julie Vu a.k.a Princess Joules on YouTube, Kat Blaque on Facebook, and Blythe Smith on Twitter. "Blythe is one of my beauty inspirations," says Gladu. "She always has her makeup blended to perfection and she's extremely visually appealing!"
Lastly, Gladu acknowledges Kim Laurier as a profound trans inspiration:
"Kim is one of my sweetest trans friends. We've known each other online for a long time and I started transitioning before her, and to see her growth now as a young trans woman makes me so happy. I relate to her so much because she's a real poetic masterpiece, and she's a musician and YouTube personality as well, and we get along so well. My heart goes out to her since she's been through quite a lot!"
6. Gladu has a passion for educating people about trans experiences.
Gladu's YouTube channel extends the educational work that she performs in her everyday life:
"I began to go on YouTube and I researched about, you know, what it meant to be transgender because I finally felt like I understood ... why I felt this disconnect with myself and it's because I'm transgender. And I think I've done a good job of educating people and that's one thing I'm really proud of in my transition. You can't expect people to already know. You have to educate people."
Glad is a trained musician, currently working on an album of original songs. She's also a style enthusiast, with a keen understanding of how apparel and accessories can highlight an individual's unique spirit.
Perhaps most important, Gladu is a thoughtful, burgeoning trans advocate with an understanding of policy concerns that impact trans lives fit for someone well beyond her years. As such, it's safe to say that viral video won't be the last time the globe gets to know Gabrielle Gladu.