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'I'm Not The Only One': Transgender Youth Battle The Odds

Once homeless herself, Kimberly McKenzie now works for Lamp Community, a nonprofit that helps the homeless.
Gloria Hillard for NPR
Once homeless herself, Kimberly McKenzie now works for Lamp Community, a nonprofit that helps the homeless.

Despite a number of victories for gay rights and national polls reflecting a growing acceptance of gay men and women, there is a population within the LGBT community that often feels left out of the national debate.

They are the "T": transgender men and women who still face many obstacles, including employment discrimination and homelessness. They experience these troubles at an early age, too; young transgender people face discrimination in all aspects of life, and many find themselves on the streets.

Looking For Work

A wrist tattoo peeks out from the cuff of London Griego's sweater. She is a tall 19-year-old with light makeup, slender fingers and long, black hair.

"I remember April 23 was the last day I cut my hair ever short — April 23, 2006. I've been growing it ever since," she says.

After aging out of the foster care system a year ago, Griego has been living at the Covenant House shelter in Hollywood, Calif. She's looked for work, only to be told she doesn't qualify. London says it's because she's transgender.

"Because that's how the person who is interviewing me, who is going to hire me is thinking: 'I don't want somebody who is going to scare my customers away,' " Griego says.

She shrugs and says when she gets hormone therapy — and maybe some surgery — she'll pursue her real dream of having her own makeup line, maybe becoming a model.

"I'm not the only one facing these kind of problems, I'm sure," she says.

She's right. A 2011 report from the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force Foundation documents discrimination against transgender individuals everywhere, from employment to housing, as well as hate crimes. Those who lose a job because of bias face four times the rate of homelessness, according to the report.

'That's When It Hit Me'

Transgender women tend to get the brunt of the discrimination in the transgender community, says Jake Finney, the anti-violence project manager at the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Center.

Nearly half of the shelter's residents are transgender. Finney says many transgender youth have been kicked out of their homes or rejected by their families, like 18-year-old Titus Slee.

The transgender male has an easy smile and wears an Obama T-shirt. How the high school senior came to be living here is a story with a few twists and turns. From his earliest memory, Slee thought of himself as a boy. All his friends were boys.

"On the fridge, there was a picture of me in the dress," he says, "and one of my friends was like, 'Dude, why are you wearing a dress?' And my mom was like, 'Well, yeah, that's my daughter.' And I guess that's when it hit me that I wasn't male, that I was different from all of my friends."

When I was adopted, the parents were completely unaccepting. And that would go along with the abuse I faced.

But life was about to change for Slee. His mom struggled with addiction, and at the age of 8, he went into foster care. Two years later, a family adopted him.

"When I was adopted, the parents were completely unaccepting," he says. "And that would go along with the abuse that I faced. They would call me names, and it was just really, really bad."

At 15, Slee was removed from the home and reunited with his mother. They had three good years together. When she died earlier this year, he contacted his estranged father, who rejected him.

That's when Slee found himself on the streets — and on his bike.

"I was scared because I'd been told that I look younger than I really am — that people would just see a young kid at night," he says. "And there are always scary people out at night, so I just thought if I ride fast enough, they won't catch me."

The Look

Not that long ago, Los Angeles' Skid Row was home to Kimberly McKenzie. She spent a year navigating its chaotic sidewalks and surviving.

The 29-year-old former New Yorker had worked all her life, and by her early 20s had a job at a bank in Manhattan. So what happened in McKenzie's life that took her from that job to homelessness — first on the streets of New York and then Los Angeles?

"All my life, I struggled with my identity, finding who I really was and being comfortable in expressing myself," she says.

So five years ago, at the age of 24, McKenzie made the decision to transition from male to female. She began by wearing makeup and then started hormone therapy.

"I finally felt, like, this is it. This is the beginning — this is the beginning of my life, of me being in control of it," she says.

Her life did change, dramatically. "It just went total 360. I lost everything," she says.

McKenzie lost her job, along with many friends. Family members just didn't understand.

As for society, "I was humiliated. I lost, like, my dignity," she says. "It's like you're an alien; it's like you're not even real. People stare at you, and they don't realize that they're staring at you. But you take it all in. You take the whole world in."

Even though she was on the streets, she kept herself together. She started volunteering at Lamp Community, an organization that assists the homeless.

Today, McKenzie is the administrative assistant at the nonprofit. She's perfect for the job, she says, because she has great organizational skills and she's been there, walked in the shoes of the people she now helps.

Yes, she still encounters the whispers and stares. But every once in a while, McKenzie says, "people just look at me and smile." That, she says, gives her hope for the future.

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Gloria Hillard