My uncle struggled with substance use ever since I met her. Crack cocaine, methamphetamine, benzodiazepines, alcohol, tobacco, and more recently, opioids. At 57, his battle ended alone on the floor of a rehabilitation center.
Yet when people in my hometown comfort me and my family over my uncle’s death, there is a deafening focus on fighting substance use, not my uncle’s struggle with his transgender identity.
This half-calculation about my uncle’s death is, in many ways, emblematic of its environmental causes: denial, shame, and isolation. Like many people in the trans community, my uncle battled poor health, abuse, addiction, housing instability, incarceration, and unemployment for decades.
It was particularly difficult for me to watch my brilliant uncle, who had been at the top of his chemical engineering class in college, slowly commit suicide. I helped my mother, a school psychologist, tirelessly make phone calls, secure beds, and get my uncle to rehab programs, halfway houses, and emergency departments. Between these periods, she lived with us. We continue to try to connect her with psychiatrists, gender counselors and social workers. However, the care-seeking was relentlessly futile, and the last psychiatrist refused to treat my uncle for gender dysphoria until she was clean.
My uncle kept his identity hidden for much of his life. Growing up in a rural mining town, she was more shy than her siblings. But this interiority vanished when she dressed up in old wigs with her brothers after dinner to perform the loud and boisterous “Gong Show” for her parents and dinner guests. However, when they glimpsed my uncle’s femininity elsewhere, her Catholic parents made scathing comments about “the immorality of homosexuals,” not having the language to discern gender and sexuality. Arriving in a larger city to attend college, she finally found solace hanging out with a group of alternatively dressed friends she met there. A new community that showed her a different reality than her restrictive childhood. However, the sense of acceptance and belonging of that support network was confused with the substances used among the group. Ultimately, my uncle’s addiction usurped her ability to separate the freedom to exist as her true self from the people and drugs that created that freedom.
As a young adult, it took my mother time to understand why the cops kept arresting and bringing my uncle home half-naked. Over time, she realized that my uncle used drugs, put on clothes that affirmed his identity, and then, when she came to her senses, stripped naked in the street. It is heartbreaking to think that society had pointed out to her that being caught naked in the street was more dignified than being caught as a trans woman.
My uncle did not have an explicit coming out moment, as we have come to define it. Geographically and generationally, it was far from Gen Z progressions. In contrast, my uncle’s coming out materialized as there were fewer safe spaces for her to exist in private. Her relationship to her identity was frank, but the emotional and physical violence she incited forced her to enigmatize public perception of her.
For most of his twenties and thirties, my uncle’s identity was reserved for donning gender-affirming clothing at night, in the privacy of his bedroom or in the shadows of an alley where he lived. Then certain events in his forties and fifties intensified the need for my uncle to be publicly open about his identity. One night, while she was wearing gender-affirming clothing, she was beaten so badly on the streets that she was rushed to hospital and admitted overnight.
My uncle said it wasn’t the first time this had happened. Between bouts of homelessness, my uncle had his clothes thrown in the laundry room of his apartment building, evicted from that same apartment for “noisy behavior,” and finally kicked out of the trailer park he moved to. after being verbally abused by his neighbors
Through these unwarranted acts, he realized that he would have to publicly check certain boxes to get the help, care and protection he needed. When he filed a housing discrimination lawsuit the year before her death, my uncle finally confided in my mother that he knew she was born in the wrong body at age 13.
Despite how it ended, my uncle’s life was not defined by suffering. My mom remembers her walking proudly across the high school stage as valedictorian of her class. I remember that she found it in her heart to buy silk scarves for my grandmother as a gift, despite her complicated relationship, and she used all the savings she had to buy meals for other homeless people.
After looking up photos of the funeral on Facebook, my mom found my uncle draped in a metallic dress taking a selfie in the mirror and smiling back. It’s incredibly unfair that people let their discomfort or misunderstandings deny others their right to live fully, not just for fleeting moments when they’re drunk, high, or alone.
Today is International Transgender Awareness Day. Yet today, countless US states are raising bills that would perpetuate more trauma and invisibility for transgender people. The United States is at a legal crossroads in deciding the society in which transgender, intersex, nonbinary, and genderfluid youth will grow up.
Just this month, Texas and Idaho passed bills criminalizing attempts to access gender-affirming care, even when done out of state, by characterizing the acts as child abuse. Why on Transgender Awareness Day, a day for the empowerment and celebration of the transgender community, is our country fighting to recognize the humanity and agency of these people?
In 2021 alone, more than 80 bills were introduced in more than 30 states that attempted to restrict transgender teens. Seven states have passed such legislation, and similar proposals remain active in five states. Like recent legislation in Texas and Idaho, many of these bills target gender-affirming access to health care.
Simply changing the laws cannot erase people’s identities, it just forces people like my uncle into a life of invisibility, pain and harm. Trans youth have 30 to 50 percent suicide attempt rate compared to four percent in the general population. In contrast, trans youth receiving gender-affirming care, including puberty blockers and gender-affirming hormones, have 60 percent less chance of depression and a 73 percent lower chance of suicide.
To equate these life-saving medical interventions with child abuse, as much of the new legislation in the US attempts to do, is egregious and scientifically ill-informed. Government leaders must stop focusing on rare cases of gun use involving people who have regretted receiving gender-affirming care and instead devise how to create the restorative care that many need. Although some of these bills will not pass, the damage has already occurred.
There is a long history of violence (emotional, verbal and physical) against the transgender community. Out of survival instinct, many people look to their communities and societies for signs that they are confident in being themselves. For example, the legalization of same-sex marriage was associated with fewer suicide attempts among young people. The recent spate of specific laws is the starkest sign of all.
Unfortunately, my uncle picked up many of the same threatening signs that grew decades ago and remained in the shadows, self-medicating. In addition to the psychosocial harms of these bills, people’s ability to access care has already been reduced. Due to mounting political pressure last year, Genecis, the largest clinic in Texas that provides gender-affirming care to children, closed.
Last week, Texas Children’s Hospital, the nation’s largest pediatric hospital, halted gender-affirming care for trans people in response to legal action by Texas Governor Greg Abbott. Recently, when talking to my non-binary friend, he said that “too often, people want the party and not the job.” In today’s society, “the party” comes in many guises, from boisterous Pride events and lunch drag shows to the social capital that comes from being liberal on social media.
Reaching out to transgender, intersex, and non-binary communities requires work, such as investing in communal spaces and comprehensive care clinics that address disproportionate rates of mental illness, homelessness, and unemployment, while also providing gender-affirming care. Showing up means joining communities to protest, collaborate, advocate and implement change not just today, on Transgender Awareness Day, but every day.
The day the police came to the door to inform my mother of my uncle’s death, she brought her only belongings from the halfway house. Three small brown bags. A week later, my mom finally got up the nerve to open them. A toothbrush, a wallet, a pair of jeans, and, in one of the bags, a small backpack with a wig, gold beaded necklaces, and a small bottle of perfume. Let’s do the work, so others don’t have to die with parts of themselves hidden.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Al Jazeera.