Tristan Torres knew he felt different as a young child, but didn’t know anything about people whose gender does not easily fit into a box. “I didn’t have a word for it until I was 15,” he says. “I learned about transgender people from Jerry Springer.”
Over the next year he began to venture little by little into a more authentic life. When he came out to his mom at 15, Torres thought first of his safety. He says he was worried about what his Puerto Rican mother would think, but he was most afraid of how her boyfriend—who collects KKK and Nazi paraphernalia—might react.
“I came out before Thanksgiving, because I knew she couldn’t kick me out because of all the family,” Torres, now 18, says. “She cried a lot—a lot. And then the conversation started about kicking me out.”
A year later, Torres found himself thrown out of the house and in the foster care system. In just nine months, he was placed in two homes, in which he faced constant abuse and threats by those entrusted to care for him.
At his first placement, his foster mother would lock him in a bedroom and chastise him—denouncing his “lifestyle” and saying he was confusing her biological children—until Torres would end up “curled up in a ball on the floor, crying,” he says. He had to fight both his social worker and attorney in order to be moved to a second foster home.
“I was like, ‘Are you serious? I’m the one who has to step in and advocate for myself?’” Torres says.
After an initially pleasant honeymoon period at his second placement, Torres eventually found himself excluded from family outings and denied food if he did something “wrong,” such as correct a family member who used the incorrect gender pronouns. He says he lived on M&Ms and waited for his foster parents to leave the house in order to eat a proper meal.
Then, Torres’ foster father lashed out saying, “You’re a freak. Your only friends are transsexuals at The Center.”
That night, Torres couldn’t take it anymore. He left through his bedroom window and reunited with his mom.
Torres’ experiences have shaped his work. He volunteers full-time at The Center, and works closely with both foster kids and transgender youth. He is a key member of an advocacy group called FAAYT (Foster and Adoptive Youth Together) and works with FosterClub, a nationwide nonprofit for people who have been in foster care. He’s even creating a resource guide for LGBT and foster youth.
Because of Torres’ uncertain living situation during foster care and constant bullying in high school, he fell behind and is two credits shy of his diploma. Even without his unsafe home life, school itself has proven not just problematic but scary at times. Torres went to six different Valley high schools, where he was bullied not just by students, but also by teachers.
In one instance, a substitute teacher refused to acknowledge Torres’ chosen name and would use his birth name during roll call in front of the class—even after Torres explained his situation.
Another time, Torres was pulled out of class by the school nurse, who told him that he could no longer use any bathroom at school—boys or girls—and insisted he could only use the bathroom in the nurse’s office.
He says he had to explain to her Nevada’s public accommodations law, which was modified in 2011 to include gender identity and expression. The law protects trans and gender non-conforming individuals from being denied access to public spaces, including schools.
Even with these protections, there has been scant education about the law provided to schools, and those who face discrimination have few resources to help them. Violations of transgender discrimination laws are filed with the Nevada Equal Rights Commission, but it’s often a slow process to investigate complaints. For many transgender students here and across the country, it’s simply easier to change schools or drop out.
Of the K-12 transgender students in the Western region surveyed by the National Center for Transgender Equality and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, 74 percent reported harassment, 36 percent reported physical assault and 12 percent reported sexual violence. According to the survey, 17 percent of students face harassment that is so severe that they leave school.
Torres’ experience is not unique. In September, the Elko County School District voted unanimously to deny a transgender 13-year-old student to use the boys’ restroom. His mother told Think Progress that her son felt uncomfortable using the girls’ bathroom after coming out. Another student’s mother complained, saying that other boys should not be pressured to use a stall.
For many transgender people, things as routine as finding a doctor or getting a driver’s license can be difficult. When Torres tried to find a doctor who could prescribe hormone-replacement therapy as part of his female-to-male transition, he found only one pediatric endocrinologist in Las Vegas who took such patients.
Another circumstance was when Torres recently went to update his driver’s license to reflect both a legal name change and to change his gender marker. Torres brought his court order verifying his legal name change, but says the DMV employee refused to change his gender marker unless he provided papers showing he “had the surgery.”
Nevada law does not require any form of surgery to change the gender marker on state-issued ID. However, there is a Medical Certification and Authorization (Gender Change) form that must be signed by a physician, a fact Torres had to learn the hard way. “I have to learn everything,” he says. “I have to use every tool to protect myself.”
When asked what the biggest issue for transgender people is, Torres’ answer comes quickly: murder.
In July, The Advocate called the murder of transgender people–—specifically transgender women of color—an epidemic, citing 21 murders of transgender women. That exceeds the number in all of 2014, The Advocate reports.
“Regardless of age, we are all suffering, because we’re trans. I say that because there is so much suffering when you are transgender,” Torres says. “It’s so hard. So many of us are getting abused, beaten, raped, murdered.”
With everything he has already gone through in his young life, it would be easy for Torres to turn jaded, but he is quick to smile and is a self-proclaimed hugger. He’s living with his mother while he finishes high school. Recently, The Center awarded him a $25,000 scholarship, and he is looking forward to moving out and studying communications at UNLV.