- May 20, 2011
May is National Foster Care Month. This post comes from Elijah Nealy, an adoptive parent and foster parent living in New York City. In addition to his experiences adopting his son out of foster care, Elijah describes what it was like for him growing up as a “gender different child” and coming out as transgender as an adult. Check out his story and learn more about foster care and HRC’s work with adoption and foster care agencies.
Some of us are fortunate enough to discover the truth about who we are early on in life. But for others it takes a long time to get to the core of our being. Raised in a fundamentalist Baptist family, I was a young gender different child, born in a girl’s body but knowing there was something different about me. At 8-9 years of age, I was hoarding toilet papers tubes so I could pee standing up. I spent my childhood with the boys on our block, playing baseball, cops and robbers, and building tree forts.
But by the age of 12, I was depressed and suicidal. I spent my adolescence nearly drinking & drugging myself to death trying to numb out all the ways it felt like my body was betraying me. I hated the way my chest was changing. I hated the monthly menstrual reminders that my body didn’t match the way I felt inside. But I didn’t have words to talk about what was going on inside me and I was afraid to speak the truth. I knew that I was attracted to girls and so in late adolescence, when I discovered lesbians, I figured that must be what I was. And then I discovered there was such a thing as butch lesbians, & that helped a little bit more – at least I could wear the kind of clothes that felt like me. But I was still carrying the secret inside me of how much I hated my body.
As an adult, I would sometimes wear long dangly earrings so as not to cause too much stir when I entered the ladies room. I bought suits with skirts and tried to pretend that my body fit me. I tried to convince myself that I had already lived much of my life as a lesbian; surely I could finish out my life that way. Finally just a little over five years ago, I spoke the truth about my gender dysphoria and began the process of coming out once again, this time as a transgender man. It’s been an amazing journey filled with many challenges but also marked by immense joy. When I wake up in the morning today & look in the mirror, I want to laugh out loud with joy because I can finally see myself!
About 3 years ago, I became connected to an agency based in Brooklyn, New York called, You Gotta Believe! Their single mission is to find a permanent family for every young person in foster care, including the older kids, even the 18-21 year olds, whom other people have long ago given up on. They hold parent training classes all over New York City, including at the LGBT Centers in Manhattan and Long Island. Through their classes, I met Alex at a panel where young people were talking about their experiences in care. I’d seen his photo & a brief bio on a website of waiting kids and I had been drawn to him. The agency had been working with Alex for over four years, searching to help him find a family to call his own.
A few weeks after that panel, an agency worker brought Alex and I together over a meal and two weeks later he moved in with me. Alex and I bonded almost overnight. He had never had a father and within weeks was calling me “Pops.” I worried that “Pops” made me sound old, but a close friend reassured me that was what all young, hip, urban guys called their fathers. I came out to him early on and he seemed fine with my being trans though I sometimes wondered if he saw me any differently.
One night when we were up late talking, Alex looked at me with tears in his eyes and said, “Pops, I’m so grateful for you. I know I’m 21 and mostly grown up but inside sometimes I’m still a little boy. I’m so grateful I found you, because you can teach me how to be a man.” The emotions behind his words washed over me and tears began to form in my eyes as well. It was almost too much to believe. Did he really mean that this transgender guy whom some others would never see as a “real man” could teach him this? Yet I knew in that moment Alex was right – that this once genderqueer kid who for years thought he would never grow up to be a man had finally come full circle. My son was right – I could teach him how to be a man who lived his life with courage, authenticity, and self-respect.