Brianna: Growing Up Trans in a Small Texas Town
I’m Brianna. I grew up in a small town that’s not too many miles away from Austin. I just didn't feel like I belonged, so I eventually came to Austin to find my community.
As I was growing up, I tried to fit in — I’m sorry, I’m a little nervous — but from the time I was four I always knew that I was different. I didn't know the term, but when I was eight years old, the doctor finally told my parents that I was transgender — that I think like a girl, that I feel like a girl.
Was this doctor in the small Texas town where you grew up?
Yes, he was a therapist in the small town. He knew the term. My mother, she accepted me when I was four years old.
So, you felt different, and your mom acknowledged that when you were as young as four?
Yes, I told my mom that I am not a boy; I am a girl. I was just always girly.
What does that mean to you — to be girly?
I just feel like myself! Of course, I was about nine or ten when I started to wear girl’s clothes, but I started slow — just a shirt or something. Then as I was growing up, I put on make-up and began my transition.
So, what was that like when that doctor gave you a word to describe how you felt and you learned that there were other people who felt like that?
That word — I didn’t understand the term at the time. I just knew that I felt like a girl. When I looked in the mirror, I would see me as a girl. I am that girl inside and out.
When I was going to school, I got picked on because I was not hanging out with the guys as much. I was experimenting with make-up and changing my hair at school. And I didn't feel comfortable going to the boy’s restroom, you know. Because some boys were really ugly and mean to me. They called me “homo” and the “f” word. I tried not to let that bother me, but it did.
In high school, I started learning about cosmetology and I’m still trying to do that — become a cosmetologist.
In high school, did you continue to use the boy’s restroom, even though you were being harassed?
Yes. I just dealt with it, you know?
Have you ever been physically attacked in a men’s restroom?
Yes, I have — many times. [Sigh] I just try to deal with it. Even at jobs, I usually feel uncomfortable going in the men’s restroom. Because — those guys — they make remarks to me and are very ugly. They say, “What are you fucking looking at?” They push and they shove. But I try not to say anything back or let that bother me at all. At times, I just can’t deal with it anymore. At work, I told my bosses; and at school, I told the teachers and the counselors.
Did any of them help you?
They didn't really help me much; they didn't listen to me much either. They did speak with some students that gave me a hard time at school. People like me, we go through so much — you know?
That must be so hard— to have to worry about what will happen every time you go to the bathroom.
Yes! They say, “Are you looking at my junk?” I’m not looking at their junk! I wouldn't want to make anybody feel uncomfortable, but I had to use the men’s restroom — at schools and at jobs in my small town growing up. Even in Austin, some places are like that.
Where are you working now, and how is the environment there?
I’m seeking employment as a receptionist. I used to work at Central Health as a receptionist.
Has it been difficult for you to find jobs because you’re transgender?
The job applications always say they are “equal opportunity employers,” but I’m not sure about that. Some places, they don’t want to even give a trans person a chance to show them that they’re a good worker.
I felt that a lot when I had a job back in 20008 and 2009. My supervisor and HR said, “Well, you look really feminine. You look like a woman, but your ID says something different.” And my roommate told them, “What does that have to do with the job? She wants to make a living. She works hard. She’s punctual and dependable.”
I lasted there about six months because first I was using the women’s restroom and then I had to use the men’s restroom. And then I had to use the supervisor’s restroom. It was the battle of the restrooms! So, I lasted there six months.
So why did they start making you use the men’s restroom?
Because some person saw me go in the woman’s restroom and called HR and complained. So they told me I had to go be what my ID says. So I went to the men’s restroom, and there were about twenty guys in there and they were looking at me. They said, “What’s she doing in here?” and “Why are you in here?” Then they threw paper towels at me, made remarks and threats and said hateful things to me.
So, then they told HR and they told me to use the supervisor’s restroom, and then one of the supervisors was uncomfortable about me using that restroom.
All of this sounds incredibly hard on a person’s self-esteem. Adolescence is difficult to begin with, but with all this harassment and rejection. Have you struggled with depression?
Yes, and I have tried to take my own life because I am not being accepted. Nobody’s even giving me a chance; no one’s listening to me. All that judging and hating me for being who I am has led me to try to take my life.
And when I moved to Austin, I didn't have a place to go. I didn't know anybody here. I ended up homeless because I lost my job because due to discrimination. And it’s a lot harder when you’re homeless and transgender!
People come at you with a lot of stuff when you’re homeless. I used to sleep under the IH35 bridge; I used to sleep on a park bench. Before I came here, there was another transgender woman named Jennifer Gale who died on the streets. And also I have known many other transgender women who have been raped and murdered.
When I came here, I slept at the Salvation Army in a dorm with all the men there, and I faced so many threats of physical harm. I dealt with it. I went to the director there and I spoke with her and told her about how I am and what I had been through. She was very understanding and did what she could to me help me. But there were about one hundred men in there and only one of me. Can you imagine?
No, I can’t. I met you at the Texas Capitol, and you are a tiny woman and very feminine. I can’t imagine you having to sleep in a room full of one hundred men. That sounds dangerous. Have you been beaten or sexually assaulted?
Yes, I have.
How many times?
I just don’t know how many times — it’s been so much. I have gotten a black eye. I almost got run over on purpose. Two guys attacked me and bruised my ribs by punching and kicking me. They just didn’t like people like me and they just hurt me.
Where was this?
In my small town. They thought I was a woman. I told them I wasn’t biologically a woman, and they didn’t like that. They followed me home.
Did you press charges?
I was afraid to. I was too scared.
You must have some internal fortitude that has carried you through all this. I have a lot of admiration for you — first for surviving and second because you have showed up and testified against the “Bathroom Bill” at the Texas Capitol twice now. How long did you have to wait each time to testify?
The first time, I waited about 22 to 23 hours to testify. The second time, it wasn't quite as long.
What was that experience like?
I was nervous because I was trying to fit all what I had to say in two minutes. I didn't get to say everything I wanted to. I had so many emotions, and I was frustrated and crying.
Transgender women are already struggling, and it’s going to make it even harder if we have to use the men’s restroom. Two transgender women I know have been raped! One was hit by a hammer on the back of her head and she has staples and was almost beaten to death. That was Christi here in Austin, and recently a transgender woman of color was raped and killed.
There also have been fifteen transwomen that have been murdered here in the U.S. in 2017. Almost all of them transwomen of color. Their names are Mesha Caldwell, Jamie Lee Wounded Arrow, Jojo Striker, Tiara Richmond, Chyna Doll Dupree, Ciara McElveen, Jaquarrius Holland, Alphonza Watson, Chay Reed, Kenneth Bostick, Sherrell Faulkner, Kenne McFadden, Kendra Marie Adams, Ava Le’Ray Barrin, and Ebony Morgan. I think it’s important to remember them and say their names.
Do you feel like the legislators listened to you when you testified?
I don’t. I feel like they really want to pass this bill — Greg Abbott and Dan Patrick, those people that are just hateful!
Governor Abbott has called a special session, and one of the things he’s trying to accomplish is to pass a version of the bathroom bill. Do you plan on continuing your activism?
Yes, I will continue to fight for my rights.
Where do you get the strength to do that, Brianna?
I’ve been through so much, and I’m a very strong person.
One focus of the bathroom bill is to restrict which bathrooms schoolchildren use. What do you predict will happen to transgender schoolchildren in Texas if that bill passes?
They’ll be picked on, bullied, or even take their own lives. And I just feel for them. They’re so vulnerable — like I was at that age.
If you could talk to those schoolchildren, what would you say?
Be brave. Be yourself. Be strong and don’t listen to the ugly things other people say.
Thank you, Brianna! I really appreciate you talking to me about all of this. I know it can’t be easy to relive these difficult things. I appreciate also your willingness to show up and advocate for yourself and for other transgender Texans. I have a lot of admiration for that.
I hope my story can help other transgender people be strong.
I hope so, too. And I hope it helps people who aren't transgender understand. Talking to you has helped me understand.
[Editor’s Note: This interview was lightly edited for length and clarity.]