Who I Am at the End of the Journey

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| This is the 517th story of Our Life Logs |


My mother had what some would call a “dirty” pregnancy, meaning my parents weren’t together and my father wasn’t in the picture when I was born in 2002 in San Diego, California. My family doesn’t talk much about it due to the stigma, but I’ve gathered the gist of what happened. My mother, along with her three other siblings had a troubled childhood full of emotional negligence, physical abuse, and sexual abuse. To cope, my mom got involved in gangs, drugs, unsafe promiscuity, and other illegal activities. These habits didn’t slow down after she had my sister and me. Toxic habits can’t be unlearned overnight, and trauma cannot be blinked away like dust in the wind.

Since I can remember, my existence was controversial. On top of a “dirty pregnancy,” I was brown.  My mother came from (an overtly racist) Vietnamese family who considered my mother’s relations with a Mexican man to be a huge scandal. Not to mention, she was referred to as “the troubled one.” Each factor of my identity called for speculation, and my extended family did not make any attempts to remedy the evident discomfort they experienced when I was in the same room as them. From day one, I was another stain on their family tree.

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Me (left) and my sister (right) as children, 2004.

Despite this treatment, I did have one aunt in which I could seek refuge. My aunt was a born-again Christian who was married to a devout Christian pastor. Together, they had two daughters and adopted two white children, Ryan and Joseph. She offered stability to me in a caring and nurturing way, something I never quite received from my own mother.  Beyond the love she gave, I was drawn to her household for other reasons. My cousins were about my age, there was always food on the table, and they had a trampoline in the backyard.

My adopted cousin Ryan was the closest to my age, so naturally, I gravitated towards him. We would play with toys, bike around the neighborhood, and watch movies together. I slept over at my aunt’s all the time because, quite honestly, I didn’t want to go home. As time passed, I noticed my biological cousin feeling uncomfortable around Ryan, saying he was unnerving to be around. But Ryan was a friend to me—no, he was like a brother. I didn’t listen to her concerns.

When I was seven years old, Ryan sexually assaulted me. I didn’t tell anyone for two weeks because, quite honestly, I didn’t know what words to use. When I finally confessed to my sister, she brought it to my mother’s attention, who then yelled at me for causing trouble. I started believing that I was the one instigating my cousin’s inappropriate and invasive behavior. I was disgusted with myself and I was so angry he had ruined a very close bond between us. What was even more disappointing was that my aunt refused to believe me. Her reaction was quite telling that her main intentions were not to do what was best for me, but to maintain the reputation of her family.

And if that weren’t enough…

When I was eight, I was taken from my mother. By then, my mother’s battles with addiction came to a head and she became extremely abusive. I remember the days I tried so hard to conceal the wounds she inflicted, but people noticed.

At the time, I didn’t understand why I couldn’t be with my mother and why everyone was against her. I thought her behavior was normal. But as I was tossed to different relatives, I came to see that what I’d believed all my young life was a lie, that my mom was physically, emotionally, and mentally abusing me. That’s a lot for a kid to come to terms with when they’ve been brainwashed to take it as ordinary. While struggling to understand my new life, missing my mom, and moving from place to place, I developed anxiety and major depressive disorder.

With the blanket of voices and feelings suffocating me, I searched for ways to make the pain stop. That’s when I found out that cutting myself offered a second of distraction—at nine years old. The severe cuts turned to deep purple bruises. When my family saw them, they were baffled. They had no idea why it was happening or what to do to stop it.

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That’s me (with curly hair for days) at 9 years old.

Ultimately, they sent me to therapy. I’m sure it saved my life. With the help of my therapist, I began the process of untangling my emotions and feelings. I even had a chart to map out my progress.

By the time middle school hit, I had a hard time socializing with others. I was still trying to understand my trauma and I guess I just didn’t want others to get involved with me. Their lives seemed so normal and I was sure that my mess would turn them away.

Since I didn’t have people to turn to, I decided to use my appearance as an outlet to express myself. In seventh grade, I cut my thick curly locks to a short bob and for the first time in my life, I felt good about myself. I continued experimenting with hairstyles until, in ninth grade, I decided to do something my peers saw as crazy. I shaved both sides of my head. I hid it for days until coming clean with my aunt, who then promptly took me to the barber to get it fixed.

As I sat in the barber’s chair, I got a good look at myself in the mirror. When I saw myself, I felt comfortable. Part of why I liked my new appearance so much was because it was androgynous. Under all the hair was a person who was not pulled in one direction or another.

After this realization, I started questioning my gender identity. The journey began with reflection. I considered the possibility of being gender fluid because the one concrete thing I knew was that I didn’t want to dress as femme. I wanted to be masculine.

The reactions of others were disappointing, to say the least. Many people, including my own family, would say how difficult it was for them to transition from “she/her/hers” to “they/them” and even “he/him.” It was as if I was making their lives so much more difficult by wanting this change in recognition. And because I was still so uncertain about who I was, their lack of respect hurt all the more.

It wasn’t until I began dating someone who was on their own journey of realizing their own gender identity that I became more stable in my own journey. The person I dated didn’t feel they were the gender that they had been assigned at birth. During our relationship, I provided them emotional support and comfort to help them understand and accept themselves. Doing this allowed me to grasp my own self-perception and understanding of my gender identity. After all, how can we accept others if we don’t give ourselves a little grace? With my newfound sense of self-love, I determined that I was a trans nonbinary individual.

On top that, I found the certainty of my identity through one of my best friends who gifted me my first binder. For the LGBTQIA+ community, a binder is a spandex-like undergarment that binds and flattens the chest. Once more, I was able to see my ideal body. It was another step to being comfortable, content, and happy. This binder was used and loved and it cemented my belief that I did not want to go by “she/her/hers,” but rather, “they/them” and “he/him.”

Like before, this revelation was not accepted by everyone. When I told my aunt that I didn’t identify as a woman over the phone, she emphasized that I was only in high school and that it was most likely just a phase. My extended family thought I was trying to run away from my past trauma. But I don’t think it was that. I was finally embracing my identity and learning to love myself.

Eventually, the negative reactions of others hurt too much. Their questions and unwanted explanations began to pull me into uncertainty and made me feel like an outcast. So, I stopped bringing up, especially around my aunt… and yet…we still managed to get into fights about it quite often. She’d yell at me that I’d have to wait until I was 18 to do any transitioning, that using my new name, “Liam,” was unreasonable. She didn’t accept my invitations to come to my therapy appointments. She didn’t even try.

When I got to high school, that community manifested before my eyes. My haven became the LGBTQIA+ community at school. I was able to find a group of students who embraced my identity and didn’t pressure me to conform to societal standards. I felt at home there because it was okay to be different.

The community cultivated a loving, accepting, and supportive environment where I was encouraged to explore who I was and who I wanted to be. My race, my sexuality, my identity—it was a part of me without defining me. I was accepted and loved for it all. Through them, I learned to love myself wholeheartedly. I began to see that my past, while extremely dysfunctional, allowed me to go through battles that have been fundamental to my identity. I began to heal and see that my flaws and differences were actually the best parts of my identity. I didn’t have to abide by what anyone wanted from me to be happy.

Three years have passed since I found my home in the LGBTQIA+ community. I have become a leader in my school’s community and become the person to come to for questions and issues. As my aunt grew to understand me, she began calling me Liam and using my pronouns. My extended family is on its way to accepting me too. When you love and accept yourself, others will follow in time.

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Running my first Gender Sexuality Alliance Meeting with 40+ attendees, 2019.

I am still battling the demons of my past through therapy, but with the support I have behind me, I know I can continue to heal and grow from my bad experiences. I realize that progress is in no way linear. It requires constant tending and maintenance, but I am willing to brave the journey.

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Liam Phu at the Timken Museum of Art, 2019.

 

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This is the story of Liam Phu

Liam, 17, currently resides in San Diego, California, where he is finishing up high school. At a young age, Liam faced sexual abuse that broke him mentally and caused him to question his every move. This uncertainty was especially unfortunate when he began to realize that his gender identity was not what society would accept. As he determined that he was trans-nonbinary, he faced rejection from his family. It wasn’t until he found a home in his high school’s LGBTQ+ community did he learn to completely accept himself and began to advocate for LGBTQIA+ rights.

Liam has been serving as president for his high school’s Gender Sexuality Alliance since his junior year and was previously interned at San Diego’s Pride. Liam also enjoys mixed media art which can be seen through his work as an upcoming tattoo artist and is passionate about veganism, advocating for a humane approach to animal rights. His cousin who assaulted him has yet to apologize. It’s been 10 years.

Liam’s friend who gifted him the binder is now Liam’s current partner. Liam also created a “Person of Color X LGBTQ+ Training” for staff and faculty at his high school. He has gone to the same barbershop where he got his first big cut for the past four years. Today, Liam is an advocate for those unheard. He finds it is absolutely crucial to use his experiences and past as a way of storytelling and healing for himself and others who may be going through similar situations.

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Liam Phu with friends after transitioning, 2019. 

 

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This story first touched our hearts on March 24, 2019.

| Writer: Jacquelynn Nguyen | Editor: Colleen Walker |

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To protect the privacy of the storyteller and those involved in this retelling, some of the names may have been changed. (1)

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