Health & Family

Becoming Liam: The journey of a transgender man and HB2

Liam Johns wears a scraggly beard and a mustache, a jeans vest and boots, and big black tattoos on his arms. He’s not burly or tall, but he clearly looks like a man.

Still, the new state law, HB2, requires that he use the women’s restroom in public buildings because his birth certificate says he was born female 27 years ago at Carolinas Medical Center in Charlotte.

Liam still has female reproductive organs, but he’s been taking male hormones since 2009. And in early March he underwent surgery to remove his breasts and reshape his chest. He uses the men’s room, because it seems most appropriate, even though it could mean breaking the month-old law that has brought so much attention to North Carolina.

Liam’s restroom choice reflects the irony in the General Assembly’s March 23 decision to overturn a Charlotte ordinance creating legal protections for lesbians, gays, bisexual and transgender people.

Proponents of HB2 expressed fears that Charlotte’s law would have endangered women and girls by allowing men dressed as women to use public restrooms. But the new law also creates a problem similar to the one it purports to prevent.

By requiring people to use restrooms based on their birth certificates, the law commands transgender men – who look like men even though they may still have female parts – to use women’s restrooms. If they follow that dictate, transgender men could be mistaken for male predators by women and girls who are relying on looks, without access to legal documents.

Meanwhile, the law also requires transgender women – who may be wearing dresses and makeup, but still have male genitals – to use men’s restrooms, where they might not be safe.

As an activist in Charlotte’s LGBT community, Liam was in Raleigh Monday, protesting for the repeal of HB2 as the General Assembly started this year’s legislative session. He and his friend, Lara Nazario, a transgender woman, have been traveling to anti-HB2 rallies around the state, filming a documentary about the fight to overturn what has been called North Carolina’s “bathroom law.”

“I won’t back down ’til HB2 is gone. I’m 100 percent human and deserve 100 percent equality,” Liam said. “When our community’s lives are under attack, we stand up and fight back.”

Born as a girl

I met Liam in mid-April, looking for someone to help explain the impact of HB2 on the life of a transgender man. We spent two hours talking in a coffee shop. He told me about the past 10 years and his struggle to understand feelings that he was a boy trapped in a girl’s body.

In contrast to the hatefulness he said he has felt during the HB2 debate, he talked about the love and acceptance he has felt from his parents and maternal grandmother in Charlotte.

When I asked if I could speak to his mother, Liam wasn’t sure if she would. Although they have a good relationship today, he said she was shocked when he confessed confusion over his gender identity more than 10 years ago.

But when I called Rosalyn Johns at her home in Charlotte, she couldn’t have been more open and eager to talk about her youngest child. “I say ‘Leanne’ at home,” Rosalyn Johns said. “I use ‘she’ at home. It’s just natural. But out in public, I say ‘Liam.’ 

Liam was born a girl, Kara Leanne, on Nov. 18, 1988, the youngest of six children, four boys and two girls.

Rosalyn Johns dressed her daughter in frilly outfits, with matching bows and shoes. “She always complained about those bows,” Rosalyn Johns recalled. “But she was very obedient. … She didn’t give me any trouble.”

As Leanne got older, “she wanted jeans and T-shirts just like the boys had,” Rosalyn Johns said. “So I went along with her.”

When he was 4 or 5, Liam remembers telling his truck-driver father that he was a boy. But he said his father “just laughed it off.”

In middle school, with puberty and hormones exploding, Liam said his gender identity “went haywire.” Sometimes he tried to be more feminine. Other times, he said he tried out more masculine things, such as ROTC. He dated girls and boys. “I guess they just thought I was confused, and I guess I did too ’cause I just didn’t understand things,” Liam said.

When he was about 15, Liam told his mother he was gay. Rosalyn Johns said she didn’t take it seriously at first. “You think, ‘Oh, it’s just a phase.’ 

Then in high school, she said, “Everything changed.”

Coming out at 17

As a freshman, Leanne went to Waddell High School and started hanging out with friends who were “very different,” Rosalyn Johns said.

There had been other problems. Leanne was diagnosed as a child with juvenile diabetes and missed a lot of school as a result. In elementary and middle school, teachers came to the Johns home to go over lessons. When Leanne was a sophomore, Rosalyn Johns said she began home schooling and did so until Leanne graduated.

Liam recalls that diabetes accounted for only part of the sick days. He also suffered from depression and had been having anxiety attacks “since I was a small child.”

In high school, Liam still looked like a girl – only with a buzz cut instead of long dark hair. At 17, he said he “came out” as a transgender male. “I recognized it in myself and told a few friends and started to present like a male.”

But he said he was secretive with his parents. “They knew something was up,” he said. “I think my mom was still getting used to me being queer or gay. I just kind of withdrew from them.”

The next three years were the hardest of his life.

‘Some dark days’

Liam didn’t yet know many other transgender people. He felt scared and hopeless.

When he was still 17, he said he tried to kill himself by injecting an entire syringeful of insulin – 30 units instead of the typical 5 for diabetes – and taking a handful of Benedryl before going to bed.

When he woke up and realized it hadn’t worked, he said he thought: “You freaking idiot.” He vowed that, next time, he would take a stronger dose.

After high school, Liam lived with his parents while attending classes at Cleveland Community College to become a paramedic.

At home, he was called “Lee” and acted like a girl. When out with friends or on dates, he identified as a boy. That’s when he started asking to be called “Liam.”

But at school and work, he just allowed people to think whatever they wanted. “Some people thought I was female. Some people thought I was male. I just went with it, either way.”

He bound his breasts tightly with Ace bandages and binders he bought on the Internet. Money was short, and he sometimes skipped meals to pay for alcohol and drugs.

“I had to decide, do I want to cure my hunger pain or do I want to cure my emotional pain,” he said. “There were some dark days.”

Speaking up

Today, Liam has dozens of friends who are in transition, from male to female or female to male. He said almost all of them have tried suicide at least once. Some of his friends have died. One was Blake Brockington, a former UNC Charlotte student who had become a role model for LGBT youths in Charlotte and across the country.

Brockington, who was born a girl, left home as a teen and found sanctuary with two transgender men who were also Liam’s friends. They grew close as Brockington evolved into a leader speaking out against discrimination. He gained national attention as the state’s first transgender homecoming king, at East Mecklenburg High in 2014.

A year later, at 18, Brockington died after being struck by several vehicles on the outer loop of Interstate 485 near Pavilion Boulevard. It was an apparent suicide.

“What started me speaking up was Blake’s death,” Liam said. “He was like a little brother.”

Just weeks ago, on March 23, state legislators hurriedly passed HB2. But Liam barely noticed because it was also the first anniversary of Brockington’s death.

That night, Liam and two friends held a ceremony in the back yard of the Plaza Midwood house Liam shares with his father, who has been divorced from his mother for 12 years. The friends lit a blue Chinese lantern and shared a moment of silence.

Brockington’s death and the suicides of other teens also affected Rosalyn Johns. “I knew perfectly well what could happen,” she told me. Because of that, she said she has tried to make sure Liam knows he can “come to me for anything, and talk to me about anything.’ 

Rosalyn Johns said she assured Liam: “I would rather have you like you are now and alive than to have you in a pretty dress and all fixed up in a casket.”

Restroom attack

Throughout his teen years, Liam used women’s restrooms. Even after he began thinking of himself as male, it seemed right because of his androgynous appearance.

But a problem arose one night when he was 19, he said. He had gone with friends to a bar outside Nashville, Tenn., where he was playing in a women’s rugby tournament.

Wearing a baseball cap, T-shirt and shorts, and with his breasts bound tightly, “I looked like a 13-year-old boy,” Liam said.

A woman in the restroom stared and said, “Guys aren’t allowed in here,” Liam recalled. The woman called out to her boyfriend, who stormed into the restroom, and threw Liam to the floor.

As Liam pleaded for the man to stop, the bar’s female security guard stepped in. She knew Liam from previous visits and vouched that this person was indeed a girl.

Since then, Liam said there have been no other attacks. But the threat is never far from his mind. “What’s the worst that could happen? You could end up dead.”

Transitioning at 20

In 2008, when Liam turned 20, he said he was still depressed and having suicidal thoughts. He came to a decision: He would start the transition to becoming a man.

“I can’t go on living like this anymore,” he recalled thinking. “I either do this and I survive, or I’m going to blow my brains out. … I want to be happy. I don’t want to be a statistic.”

He was aware of national surveys showing that 41 percent of transgender or gender nonconforming adults have self-reported a suicide attempt, compared with 4.6 percent of the overall U.S. population. Transgender men have the highest rate, with 46 percent reporting suicide attempts.

In 2009, Liam found a Charlotte doctor who would prescribe testosterone, the next step in his transition from female to male. On Feb. 25 that year, he began taking hormones. His voice got deeper, and he grew facial hair.

That same year, he went to the courthouse to legally change his name to Liam. Then earlier this year, he took the next big step – “top surgery” to remove his breasts.

Liam had been binding his chest for so long and so tightly that he had three times developed pneumonia because he couldn’t breathe deeply to get enough oxygen. He found a welcoming plastic surgeon, Dr. Hope Sherie, who said transgender patients make up 75 percent of her South Boulevard practice. She is one of about 30 mental health and medical professionals who meet monthly as part of the Charlotte Transgender Healthcare Group.

Twenty-four hours after surgery on March 1, Liam posted a picture on Facebook. He looked tired but happy, proudly displaying his chest with bandages over two horizontal scars. He wrote: “First day of the rest of my life. 10 years waiting and it still doesn’t feel real.”

Liam hasn’t decided whether he’ll have “bottom surgery,” which could involve the creation of a penis. But he’s not planning to have a hysterectomy or to change his birth certificate. If he were to develop uterine or ovarian cancer, he worries that such a change would allow his insurance to avoid covering the cost of treatment.

He also wants to keep other options open: “I’m still not sure if I want to carry my own children or not.”

HB2 reaction

Liam is still grappling with the General Assembly’s decision to overturn protections for transgender men and women.

“It’s really disheartening,” he said. “Just knowing there’s that hate out there, it makes your blood boil.… How could they know a transgender person and put these rules in play?”

But he’s comforted by knowing his parents and his grandmother have accepted him for who he is. “They might not always know everything about trans individuals. They mess up on pronouns. But they are 100 percent affirming.”

Liam said his mother, a retired cosmetologist, sometimes jokes that he’s “her boy-girl,” and he appreciates it. “It may not come out perfect,” Liam said, “but I know what she means, and I know there’s nothing but love behind it.”

Rosalyn Johns describes herself as a devout Catholic and says she does not “approve religiously” of “this transgender thing.” But she views it as “a health problem, a chromosome problem” that can’t be helped.

“I just ask God to help me handle that. And He has,” Rosalyn Johns said. “… How would God feel about me turning my back on my child? … How could you not love your children?”

Occasionally on Sundays, Liam joins his family for dinner at his mother’s house, where she and Liam’s 85-year-old grandmother, Mary Bell, prepare everyone’s favorite foods, including chicken and dumplings for Liam.

Like Liam’s mother, Bell says she “didn’t know what to think” when she first learned that her granddaughter was becoming her grandson. She said she was “floored” and hurt. But she has come to terms with the new reality – “It happens in the best of families.”

Choosing the right pronoun remains a challenge for her, but she’s never unsure of her feelings for Liam.

“We love her. I’ll always love her,” Bell said. “He’s so sweet.”

Karen Garloch: 704-358-5078, @kgarloch