3 min

One trans youth’s quest for support and acceptance

The quest for understanding continues

Credit: Capital Xtra files

Many months ago, I wrote about Pink Triangle Youth (PTY), the group coordinated by Pink Triangle Services. One articulate member was Melanie, a 20-year-old young trans. Ever since then, I’ve wanted to speak to her about her voyage of discovery. Last month, we got together for a chat.

Around age 11, Melanie first began to sense that her inner self did not match her body. At school, she had been taunted as a “fag” and “queer.” But she knew these did not apply to her. Luckily, in high school, she was in an alternative program where she studied independently, outside the schoolyard’s bully environment. She confided in her teacher who, while not dismissive, took a laissez-faire attitude.

However, at age 15, Melanie went onto the internet and she discovered she was not alone. Around the same time, she began to frequent Ottawa’s Youth Services Bureau and spoke to a counsellor about her feelings. This woman not only listened, she provided advice. From there, Melanie became involved with Rainbow Services and in 2000 went to her first Pride Party. She joined Gender Mosaic, started attending PTY and became involved with the Rainbow Youth Advisory Committee.

“In Ottawa, there has been support and acceptance,” she told me, “but there are no specific services for trans youth. This is a serious lack. Most trans youth are kicked out of their homes. They are forced onto the streets and into prostitution in order to support themselves. This does not occur in Ottawa as much as it does in other cities. But many trans youth here remain hidden. There is no centre, no safe place specifically for them.”

While the connections with Gender Mosaic were worthwhile, their issues were very different. People who come out as trans while adults have their own families, have worked for a number of years, have the money to undergo gender reassignment surgery. For youth, they must deal with parents, siblings and grandparents who may have no knowledge of the issue. They are forced onto welfare, as employers don’t want to hire trans youth, fearing negative reactions from customers.

In Melanie’s case, her divorced parents reacted differently. For her father, it has been very difficult. His relationship with her is fraught with prolonged periods without contact. Her mother has been more accepting after initial difficulties. Her grandparents and cousins at gatherings avoid the issue while her younger brother has had to follow his own path to acceptance.

“Interestingly, for my brother, it was when he visited me in Montreal that he finally began to understand. I had been asked there to speak about trans youth at a Public Service Alliance Pride conference. He saw me there in my female dress among other gays and lesbians and he finally understood. He’s cool with it now.”

Melanie has also been involved with Egale Canada’s Trans Committee and participates in PTY so if other trans youth come to the meeting, they have someone to speak to. She signed up for Katimavik, a youth exchange program, and insisted that the organization accept her as a trans youth, which, after some reluctance, it eventually did. I asked her how someone so young, who has lived alone, has had the strength to make her own way.

“At first, I kept my fear. When I got on a bus, I worried what people would think. When I met my relatives at a gathering, I was afraid of what they would say. But I turned that fear into an ‘in your face’ attitude. If people stare at me, I stare back. I have actually come to enjoy the shock factor. I won’t let people push me because of who I am. I push back.”

Nonetheless, day-to-day decisions still present predicaments – simple things, like using a public washroom. Initially, Melanie chose the one that corresponded to how she was dressed. But today, she goes only to women’s washrooms. Another example: being stopped by the police when dressed as a female and your driver’s license indicates the other gender. Ottawa police, she stressed, have been sensitized to such issues. But even they, like many people, stumble over the choice of pronouns. Some of Melanie’s friends sometimes still use the male pronoun even though she has legally changed her name. Among the trans community, she mentioned, there is a movement to use gender-neutral pronouns.

Melanie will continue to push for greater understanding and for the rights of trans people. She will save her money so her body will finally match her true self. It will be her generation, she believes, that will ensure society acknowledges trans people and will protect them under law, just as gays and lesbians are now.