Katherine, a gentle 19-year old from Brooklyn, is many things: Bangladeshi American, an avid gamer, Muslim, a future programmer. But one thing she is not: human. At least, that’s what she's been told by the family who rejected him/her.
In the cramped apartment she shares with her parents and siblings, Katherine is a ghost. Virtually ignored, she spends the days invisible in the hallway, the only place she doesn’t get in the way of her mother who is seldom outside the kitchen, her father who spends his days in the living room, and her siblings, who hide themselves away in their small room.
Katherine doesn’t have a room, let alone a bed she can call her own. “I sleep on an extra bed until a guest comes. And when they come, I sleep in a random spot around the house.”
She escapes reality with the only item she can claim as her own: her computer. That's where she dreams of a better life.
This has become Katherine's new normal ever since she came out as transgender last year. After 18 years of repressing her true identity, she finally mustered up the courage to come out to her immigrant parents. Terror set in: “What if they don’t accept me?”
The brief talk went exactly how she had predicted. Her parents disapproved. In an instant, she was dead to them.
Depression quickly set in, and for Katherine — who had self-esteem issues since she was a child — thoughts of suicide became very real.
Living in an unsupportive household with family that ostracizes her, Katherine feels trapped. Not only is she a prisoner inside her home, but in her own body. "Maybe if I went away, it’d all be better," she would think.
She’s not alone. A study by the Youth Suicide Prevention Program found that more than 50% of transgender teens have attempted suicide by their 20th birthday.
The transgender homelessness population is massive, too. Among the documented 1.6 million homeless youth across America, 40% are transgender, according to a study reported by Trans Equality. Of that population, 90% reported they left their households because of harassment, bullying and family rejection, found a True Colors Fund study. In the same report, another 75% reported physical, emotional or sexual abuse.
“Certainly, a lack of family support is behind homelessness behind transgender youth,” said Michael Silverman, executive director at the Transgender Legal Defense and Education Fund. “When transgender youth are in unsupportive households, they are forced to [choose] between who they are themselves and family support and rejection. That’s a terrible decision to make.”
Other than family rejection, says Susan Maasch, executive director of the Trans Youth Equality Foundation, teens can feel extreme discomfort with their bodies. Often times they are prohibited from seeking medical attention by their parents who are required by U.S. law to provide consent for anyone underage. Many consider it a phase or a psychological disorder.
“Living in the wrong gender with puberty and body changes is extremely painful for them psychologically and emotionally,” she says. “I can tell you quite assuredly that it’s depressing and harmful not to receive puberty blockers or hormones that are needed.”
While there are obstacles ahead for Katherine, there’s also tangible hope, and an opportunity to find real happiness. She’s now on hormones and has been on estrogen for the past eight months, which has made for a relatively positive experience. Much to her surprise and satisfaction, she’s developed womanly features: curves and growing breasts. She's finally transitioning outwardly into the woman she has always been inside.
On a day in July, Katherine met with 10 other teens ages 12-19 who could relate. It was a fashion photo shoot for Mashable, aimed to celebrate teenage expression, in this case for trans teens who sometimes feel voiceless. Like Katherine, these young people are in the process of transitioning into identities they’ve always longed for, and learning how to communicate through tools like fashion.
With the help of celebrated stylist and creative director Nicola Formichetti, who donated his time to this project, these teens were able to connect their outward appearance to their inward selves. For them, fashion is more than clothes; rather, it's an essential means to express their genders accurately.