Three years ago, after a car accident left her contemplating the possibility that she might die without anyone knowing her true gender identity, Nina (not her real name) finally decided to come out as a transgender woman. She made the announcement during a family reunion, everyone sitting in a circle–people who had all, at some point, vowed she could tell them anything.
Not ‘anything’, it turned out. Loudest among the cacophony of voices telling her that trans people were confused, that she would go to hell, was her father’s.
“For Caribbean people, it goes back to race,” Nina told us. “Because during slavery, a lot of Black men were raped by European men. So the concept of sodomy, which is often associated with gay men, became something that was seen as disgraceful, sinful, immoral.”
Later her father would kick her out of their Brooklyn apartment for sleeping with men.
Nina was heartbroken. She moved in with her mom in the Bronx, and, while her mother also misgendered her, they could share feelings in a way she couldn’t with her father.
But in March, when the college where she was completing a bachelor’s degree in psychology went remote, Nina had to find a way to graduate even though her mother’s home had no Internet access. She bought a laptop and asked her father if she could move back in, along with her younger brother. To survive living with her transphobic father amid a pandemic, she has had to employ subversive tactics like concealing her therapies.
While she came out as trans, her parents still don’t know she is physically transitioning to female.
“Chosen Family” Matters More These Days
In a 2015 survey by the National Center for Transgender Equality of 27,715 trans people–the most comprehensive nationwide study of its kind–40% said their families were unsupportive. No surprise, the survey showed that trans people with unsupportive families were far likelier than their counterparts to face homelessness, suicide attempts, and serious psychological distress.
In quarantine, many trans people who rely on “chosen family” for emotional support haven’t had the same access to these friends and mentors. For Nina, her closest friends take on this role.
“They’re people that see me for who I am, people that have stood by me and haven’t condemned me,” she said of her partner and others in her circle. “They embrace my femininity, and if I get misgendered, they’re, like, ‘No, this is [Nina] and she is beautiful.’”
This embrace is particularly important, Nina says, for Black trans women, who experience bigotry because of their race and trans status even within the LGBT community–and even amid Black Lives Matter protests.
During a recent protest in Brooklyn, Nina was told off by other protestors, a Black man and woman, when she began shouting the name of Nina Pop, the fifth trans woman of color to be killed in the U.S. in May alone. “ ‘We need to protect Black men,’” the woman told her after she and the man used male pronouns for Pop, “ ‘You and your community have too many rights anyway.’ ”
Nina was flummoxed. She said she could think only about the sense of unsafety that invaded her body each time she dared walk outside her home, much less join the marches. The last protest she had attended, a couple had followed her until Nina, after running down the street, yelled at them to stop. Once they heard her feminine voice, they did. They had just wanted to know whether she was male or female, Nina said.
“Black protesters are advocating for Black rights,” she said. “But if I get murdered, then I’m just either nameless or I’m getting disrespected. And people like that woman are going to be in a comment section popping off about how I got what I deserve.”
While Black men need to be protected, Black women are often excluded from the fight for rights despite additional gender-based oppression, Nina said. But Black women need to be held accountable for the misogyny and transphobia they enable in Black men, she added.
“For me to be told that I need to sit back and be okay with dying because it isn’t my time to speak up–I feel like that’s incredibly toxic and unfair,” she said. “Especially since the people that are showing up at these protests are people that are Black and queer or Black and trans.”
While Nina didn’t attend the Brooklyn Liberation march for Black trans lives on June 14th, she sees the rally as both an act of empowerment and a sad reminder of the exclusion that makes it necessary. “The fact that BLM is viewed as separate from BTLM is ridiculous,” said Nina. “BLM should encompass all Black identities because all Black lives matter. It sucks that it was born out of the increase of injustice towards trans people.”
At the protests Nina has attended, her shouts of “Black Trans Lives Matter!” have largely met with stares and silence. Only a few people among thousands ever repeat the chant, she said.
Therapy Is Tougher yet More Vital Than Ever
If a trans person can’t leave the house and is being deadnamed, called their birth name after changing it, and disrespected daily by both strangers and family, the situation can lead to depression–as Nina knows all too well. Talking to friends allows her to communicate with people who can understand her.
But communicating remotely is particularly tough for Nina, who describes herself as a “face-to-face person.” Given her living situation, it’s also difficult to talk on the phone in confidence with her friends and partner, or during therapy.
When a trans friend referred Nina to an LGBT clinic last year, she was bewildered by the speed of the intake. After a psychiatric evaluation, she was told she could start on hormones and therapy right away. While Nina says she enjoys her therapy sessions, physical distancing has made it more challenging for her to attend, even by phone.
“I should be able to have an authentic conversation with my therapist in our shared space,” she said. But now she can’t see her counselor in person, and it isn’t possible to find that safe space in her father’s home.
Nina coordinates her therapy sessions with her family’s schedules in fear of what will happen if her Caribbean Christian father finds out. Since her younger brother might walk in on her and tell their father, she schedules sessions for mornings, when she knows her brother will be sleeping late after being up all night playing video games.
On her father’s days off from work, she must either forgo therapy or take her phone outside, which might become an unsafe physical space, given the transphobia and fetishization Nina faces regularly as a trans woman. Her memories of tensions with people in her Bronx neighborhood before quarantine because of her gender identity cause her discomfort about being seen outside even as she wants to be seen as who she is. “Do you have that thing between your legs?” they would ask.
Resilience and Creativity are Key Coping Tools
Since Nina didn’t transition before puberty, her voice remains deep despite the estrogen she takes, which doesn’t affect tone as testosterone does. To feminize it, she started doing vocal exercises. She gets up early to practice before class, for a couple of hours at a time, and practices more between classes and during those morning hours when she is free from the prying ears of her brother and father.
“Who knows what would be their response?” she said. “I know that if my mother knew I was in transition, my hormones would have gone down the toilet.” She prefers not to find out what her father would do if he found out. When he is home, she sometimes practices at low volume while he is asleep or goes outside to do exercises.
Nina is also coping with the COVID-19 challenges and the insecurity of protests by flexing her voice as a writer. She is working on illustrated short stories and a book, Toxic Astrology, that speaks to Black LGBT youths’ issues of race and gender identity through the analogy of angels forced to conceal their identity. In a human world, her protagonists, who are Black and queer, encounter racism, transphobia and other prejudices for the first time.
“When you’re transgender, you often grow up feeling that you have to hide behind a mask to feel loved and worthy,” Nina said. “I want them to have the knowledge I wish I had growing up.”