Transgender Day of Visibility: How invisibility killed my uncle

My uncle died with parts of herself hidden away. Let’s do the work, so others don’t have to.

Transgender rights - United States
Transgender rights activists protest against the US government''s alleged attempt to strip transgender people of official recognition at the White House in Washington, US [File: Kevin Lamarque/Reuters]

My uncle struggled with substance use for as long as I knew her. Crack cocaine, crystal meth, benzodiazepines, alcohol, tobacco, and, most recently, opioids. At 57 years old, her battle ended alone on the floor of a halfway house.

Yet, when people from my hometown console my family and me about my uncle’s death, there is a deafening focus on the substance use struggle – not my uncle’s struggle with her transgender identity.

This half-hearted reckoning about my uncle’s death is, in many ways, emblematic of the environmental causes of it: denial, shame and isolation. Like many people in the trans community, my uncle struggled with poor health, abuse, addiction, housing instability, incarceration and joblessness for decades.

It was particularly difficult for me to see my brilliant uncle, who had been at the top of her university class for chemical engineering, slowly kill herself. I helped my mother, a school psychologist, tirelessly make phone calls, secure beds, and drive my uncle to and from rehab programmes, halfway houses, and emergency departments. In between these stints, she lived with us. We kept trying to connect her with psychiatrists, gender counsellors and social workers. Yet, the search for care was unrelentingly futile, with the last psychiatrist refusing to treat my uncle for gender dysphoria until she was clean.

My uncle kept her identity hidden for a large part of her life. Growing up in a rural mining town, she was shyer than her siblings. But this inwardness was shed when she dressed up in old wigs with her siblings after dinners to perform the boisterous, tip-tapping “Gong Show” for their parents and dinner guests. Yet, when glimpses of my uncle’s femininity surfaced elsewhere, her Catholic parents gave pointed remarks about “the immorality of gays,” not having the language to discern gender and sexuality. Arriving in a larger city for university, she finally found solace hanging out with an alt-dressing friend group she met there. A new community that showed her a different reality from her restrictive childhood. However, the sense of acceptance and belonging from that support network became muddled with the substances used amongst 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 time for my mom to fully understand why police officers kept arresting and bringing my uncle back to her home half-naked. Eventually, she realised my uncle would get high, put on clothes that affirmed her identity, and then when coming to, strip down in the street. It is heartbreaking to think that society had signalled 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, she was far from the progressions of Gen Z. In contrast, my uncle’s coming out materialised as there became fewer safe spaces for her to exist privately. Her relationship with her identity was forthright, but the emotional and physical violence that it incited forced her to enigmatise its public perception.

For most of her twenties and thirties, my uncle’s identity was reserved to putting on gender-affirming clothes at night, in the privacy of her room or shadows of an alley in which she was living. Then, certain events in her forties and fifties intensified the need for my uncle to be publicly open about her identity. While in gender-affirming clothes one night, she was beaten up so badly on the streets that she was rushed to the hospital and admitted overnight.

My uncle said this hadn’t been the first time this had happened. Between bouts of houselessness, my uncle had her clothes thrown in the garbage of her apartment building’s laundry room, was evicted from that same apartment for “loud behaviour,” and was eventually kicked out of the trailer park she moved to after being verbally abused by her neighbours.

Through these unjustified events, she realised that she would have to publicly check certain boxes to get the help, care and protection she needed. When filing for a housing discrimination lawsuit the year before her death, my uncle finally confided in my mom that she knew she was born into the wrong body at 13 years old.

Despite how it ended, my uncle’s life was not defined by suffering. My mom remembers her proudly walking across their high school stage as the valedictorian of her class. I remember her finding it in her heart to buy my grandma silk scarves as presents, despite their complicated relationship, and using whatever savings she had to buy other houseless individuals meals.

After digging for funeral photos on Facebook, my mom found my uncle wrapped in a metallic dress while taking a mirror selfie, grinning back at her. It is incredibly unfair for people to let their discomfort or misunderstanding deny others their right to fully live – not just for ephemeral moments when drunk or high or alone.

Today is International Transgender Day of Visibility. Yet, today, countless US states are raising bills that would perpetuate further trauma and invisibility for transgender individuals. The US is at a legal crossroads for deciding the society in which transgender, intersex, non-binary, and gender-fluid youth grow up.

Just this month, Texas and Idaho passed bills criminalising attempts to access gender-affirming care, even when done so out of state, characterising the acts as child abuse. Why is it that on Transgender Day of Visibility – a day for empowerment and celebration of the transgender community – our country is struggling to even recognise the humanity and agency of these individuals?

In 2021 alone, more than 80 bills in over 30 states were introduced that attempted to restrict transgender adolescents. Seven states passed such legislation and similar proposals remain active in five states. Like Texas and Idaho’s recent legislation, many of these bills take aim at access to gender-affirming healthcare.

Simply changing laws cannot erase peoples’ identities, it merely forces individuals like my uncle into a life of invisibility, pain and harm. Trans youth have a 30 to 50 percent rate of attempted suicide compared with four percent in the general population. In contrast, trans youth who receive gender-affirming care, including puberty blockers and gender-affirming hormones, have a 60 percent lower chance of depression and a 73 percent lower chance of suicidality.

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 misinformed. Government leaders must stop zeroing in on rare weaponised cases involving people who came to regret receiving gender-affirming care instead of ideating how to create the reparative care needed by many. Even though some of these bills will not pass, harm has already occurred.

There is a long history of violence – emotional, verbal, and physical – against the transgender community. Out of survival instincts, many individuals look for signals from their communities and societies to let them know if they are safe to be themselves. For instance, the legalisation of same-sex marriage was associated with fewer youth suicide attempts. The recent onslaught of targeted laws is the harshest signal of all.

Regrettably, my uncle perceived many of the same threatening signals growing up decades ago and stayed in the shadows, self-medicating. In addition to the psychosocial harms of these bills, peoples’ ability to access care has already been curtailed. Due to mounting political pressure last year, Genecis, Texas’s largest clinic providing children with gender-affirming care, closed.

Just this past week, Texas Children’s Hospital, the country’s largest paediatric hospital, stopped gender-affirming care for trans individuals in response to the legal actions of Texas Governor Greg Abbott. Recently, when talking to my friend who is non-binary, they said that “too often, people want the party and not the work”. In society today, “the party” comes in many forms, from buzzy Pride events and drag show brunches to the social capital that comes from liberal posturing on social media.

Showing up for transgender, intersex and non-binary communities takes work, such as investing in communal spaces and wrap-around care clinics that address the disproportionate rates of mental illness, homelessness and joblessness while also providing gender-affirming care. Showing up means joining with communities to protest, collaborate, advocate and implement change not just today, on Transgender Day of Visibility, but every day.

On the day the police came to the door to tell my mother about my uncle’s death, she brought her only belongings from the halfway house. Three small brown bags. A week later, my mom finally brought herself 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 away.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.