The day I first suggested to my wife that we might move in with my folks was not a good day. We were a couple of months away from the end of our lease and the completion of her degree, and her health problems were only getting worse. We’d imagined putting the solution to her medical issues on hold while she completed a job search, a move, and the waiting period before she was covered by insurance. When I looked at our situation rationally, however, this seemed untenable. Her pain increased with any sort of exertion, and the jobs she was looking for as a field researcher all involved extensive outdoor exertion on a daily basis.
Reluctantly, I floated the possibility that we could return to our home state of Massachusetts (which has the lowest uninsured rate in the country due to robust public investment in health care options for poorer residents) and save money by staying with my parents until she had recovered from the surgery she needed. It’s hard to imagine anything worse than needing surgery, putting your life on hold, and moving in with family long after moving out on your own. But for many transgender people, returning home at a time of medical or economic hardship just isn’t an option.
According to the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey, which was released in December 2016 and collected data from more than 25,000 transgender respondents, 8 percent of the transgender individuals surveyed reported having been kicked out of their home because they were transgender, and 10 percent reported having been subjected to violence at the hands of a family member. Family rejection is the primary reason why LGBTQ youth are dramatically overrepresented among America’s homeless, and it is also highly correlated with other negative outcomes including drug use, HIV/AIDS, and suicide. I have a family who supports me when times get tough, but many other transgender people aren’t so lucky. As we prepared to pack up and move home, I learned that I knew someone who, like me, was experiencing one of life’s small setbacks—but unlike me, she had no family support to fall back on, because she is transgender.
A few weeks before we left Knoxville, Tennessee, I ran into a trans acquaintance I’ll call Christine. Over a beer, she told my wife and me that she was moving to Memphis to live with a girl she’d only recently met on the internet. I can be a plain-spoken companion, particularly when I’m drinking, and I told her in no uncertain terms what I thought of that idea. (I believe I used words like foolish and self-destructive.) After I’d pushed her, the truth came out: My friend was moving six hours’ away to live with a near stranger because she didn’t have any other options. Her lease was up, she was unemployed, and her family had rejected her for having transitioned.
Christine and I weren’t very close back then, but when my wife and I realized she was in such a vulnerable spot, we resolved to check in on her from time to time and to try to help if needed. As we were settling into my parents’ house, we heard that Christine hadn’t yet made it to Memphis. Instead she was on the road with her new girlfriend, whose job required a lot of travel. This did nothing to set my mind at ease—I’d hoped she would soon land work and find other friends in the new area. A few weeks later, the pair was in Massachusetts, and we suggested a meetup. After initially sounding enthusiastic, Christine suddenly backed off from the idea. I was suspicious that the new girlfriend might have vetoed the visit.
My own situation was no picnic, of course. My father and I butted heads over small household chores, just as we had when I was a teenager. My mother initially seemed to dislike one of our dogs, a terrier that jumps up on people when she’s overexcited. The process of obtaining health care for my wife moved more slowly than we’d hoped, and we were often impatient or irritated with one another. We worried about whether my wife would find a job, what we’d do if she couldn’t find one in her field, and how we’d make enough money to move out—but we never worried about being safe, dry, warm, or fed.
The stresses we were going through were ordinary and dreary, but from Memphis we spotted warning signs about Christine’s unstable new romance. Through social media, I learned that Christine’s girlfriend had very strong moods and emotions and that she was apt to block people with little or no provocation. I learned that after Christine made plans with another mutual friend, the outing was canceled because her girlfriend didn’t like going out and seeing people. I worried about my charming, sociable friend, but I knew that she had no place to go if she wanted out of the relationship. It was stay or be out on the streets, which I’d subsequently learned was something Christine had personal experience with when she was first living as a woman.
I worried and fretted and made plans with my wife to offer Christine a place to stay if and when we had one. In the end, it all turned out OK. My wife found a job (we’re preparing to move as I write), and Christine found one as well. Her relationship ended chaotically and unexpectedly, but when it was over, she was able to find a place to stay that she can afford.
Still, it’s easy to imagine things going differently. A lack of family to offer support in hard times can turn a small setback into a disaster, and for the transgender community, these small setbacks are further compounded by the difficulties we often experience finding employers willing to hire us or landlords willing to rent to us. A more robust social safety net would help, and so would nondiscrimination laws protecting transgender workers, but what we really need is for social attitudes to evolve enough that parents no longer hate and fear their own offspring for being different. Absolutely nothing can take the place of a loving and supportive family in hard times, and it’s a tragedy that many transgender Americans lack that.