Trey Greene spent most of his life convinced he was going to hell.
What caused Greene, 31, of Charlotte so much discomfort was that he knew he was a boy, but he was born a girl. The outside, like the dresses he rebelled against, did not match what he knew to be true inside.
After Greene moved to Los Angeles in 2011 and became involved in the LGBTQ community, he began feeling like his true self and identifying as a man. When Greene looked in the mirror, “For the first time, my reflection felt right,” he says. “I recognized that person. I realized that is what had been wrong that whole time.”
Greene’s pain and discomfort, and the relief he found in finally presenting himself as the gender he knows himself to be, is something pyschologist Holly Savoy sees frequently in her Charlotte-based practice.
Time Out Youth estimates that at least 40 percent of the almost 200 young people with whom they work identify as trans, non-binary or gender diverse.
While strides have been made with tolerance, understanding and equality for lesbians and gays, O’Neale Atkinson of Time Out Youth says, “Trans people are the most vulnerable portion of the LGBTQ community, in regards to physical violence, emotional abuse and verbal harassment.”
Savoy says people start experiencing gender dysphoria (a discomfort or distress caused by a discrepancy between one’s gender identity and sex) about age 6. That discomfort often becomes acute during puberty.
That was true for Greene, who yearned for “facial hair and broad shoulders” during puberty. “I didn’t have a name for it back then,” Greene says. “I didn’t know what it was. I just wanted to be muscular.”
Puberty is also traumatic because it provides further confirmation of a gender that doesn’t match what the individual feels inside.
“When I got my period,” says Blake Brockington, 18, who was known as a girl until his sophomore year at East Mecklenburg High School, “my aunt told me, ‘Welcome to womanhood.’ I was like ‘Noooooo!’ ”
Brockington, who moved to Charlotte from Charleston when he was 12, was also forced to wear dresses to church and family events. “It didn’t make sense. I felt like a boy.”
He told his teachers and his father and stepmother that he was trans. He chose the name Blake because it came to him in a dream and he liked how masculine it sounds. Things at home got so bad that he moved in with a foster family, and with their support he got counseling and transitioned to being Blake.
“My family feels like this is a decision I made,” says Brockington. “They think, ‘You’re already black, why would you want to draw more attention to yourself?’ But it’s not a decision. It is who I am. I wouldn’t wish this on my worst enemy.”
Both Brockington and Greene experienced years of depression and destructive behavior, like self-mutilation and suicidal thoughts.
“To be your true self and have the freedom of self-expression,” says Savoy, “is central to being happy.”
Savoy tells her clients to be patient.
“You are on a path,” she says. “You’ve been on this path a lot longer than anyone else who knows you. Our hope is that other people will join you and catch up, but it will likely take some time and will require patience on both sides.”
A parent adjusts
A Charlotte woman (who didn’t want her name used) said she needed very little time to adjust to her child’s new identity.
She said she knew her child was full of angst and she saw signs of self-harming at age 15. When her child began a journey of becoming more androgynous, she was supportive.
“You mourn for a bit that your child has rejected their birth name,” she says, “but it is much more important to me for my child to be happy and to be authentic to themselves.”
Once at college, her child identified as nonbinding, gender- or questioning queer, which is someone who identifies as neither male nor female, both, or a combination of the two. “They didn’t want to be labeled as one or the other,” she says.
For many of Charlotte’s transgender youth, the nonprofit Time Out Youth offers support to “lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and questioning youth.”
“We’ve seen a strong influx of trans or gender diverse youth since our move to our new space” in the NoDa neighborhood, says Atkinson, 30, director of youth programs. “We are more visible now.”
The group also provides counseling to families and hosts the monthly PFLAG (Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) support group.
“I know we have saved lives,” Atkinson says.
Greene, who is pursuing a master’s degree in social work at UNC Charlotte, is one of several social work interns.
Brockington has been taking hormones (a process that was initiated when he was in foster care and is covered by Medicaid) and wants a mastectomy, but it’s too expensive for now.
Brockington also struggles with the social transitioning that becoming a black man entails.
Even when he seemingly convinced his peers, winning the reverse (basketball season) homecoming king crown at East Mecklenburg High School in 2014, the honor came with a price.
“That was single-handedly the hardest part of my trans journey,” says Brockington. “Really hateful things were said on the Internet. It was hard. I saw how narrow-minded the world really is.”
He was, however, happy for the trans community and what his win signified.
‘We are still human’
“It is a process,” says Greene. “My life has been very difficult. I’ve struggled with mental health issues and was close to suicide many times. But in just the last six months, accepting that I am a man and can be who I really am has changed everything.”
“I’m still a person,” Brockington says. “And trans people are still people. Our bodies just don’t match what’s up (in our heads). We need support, not people looking down at us or degrading us or overlooking us. We are still human.”