Amy Osborne for BuzzFeed News
Pia Cruz in front of her parent’s home in San Jose, California.
“Do you want me to close this door so you have privacy?” asks Jenni Tomaszewski as she chops vegetables in the kitchen. It’s April, and I’m sitting with Tomaszewski’s 22-year-year old daughter, Pia Cruz, in the family’s spotless suburban San Jose, California, living room, their boxer, Koa, at our feet.
“You’re good, Mom,” Cruz says. She’d been telling me about her transition, and her mother has heard it all before: when Cruz realized she was trans (on her 18th birthday, on a family trip to Maine with her two triplet brothers); the lesbian sergeant who found women’s clothes in Cruz’s duffel during her 10-month stint in the army (“These are your girlfriend’s, right?” she’d said, and Cruz went with it because crossdressing in the military was forbidden then and now); the electrolysis she’s flying to Chicago to receive later this summer.
At least for the moment, Cruz’s mother is her landlord. She moved back in with her parents last year to save for surgery and stabilize her mental health. It’s not what either of them expected for Cruz at this point in her life, but it means Cruz can put what she would have spent on rent elsewhere in the city — “easily $800 to $1,200,” she says — toward those Chicago trips, the first of which cost about $5,000. “That is my motivation,” Cruz says.
Cruz and her family have reached a fragile peace after years of tumult related to her transition. They fight about the same things any 22-year-old living with her parents would fight about: Tomaszewski wants her daughter to take out the garbage without being asked. “She can really, really cook,” Tomaszewski says. “But she’s the messiest person in that kitchen. And it makes me crazy.”
“Every now and then my mom will remind me of how I owe everything to her because she saved me from homelessness,” Cruz says, “even though she caused it in the first place.”
Nationally, 40% of homeless youth are queer or trans. That percentage is a little lower in Santa Clara County, where Cruz lives — closer to 29% — but that’s still more than a quarter of the homeless population. In a vicious housing market, where the median monthly rent is $3,188 and landlords reject rental applications for the flimsiest of reasons, trans people are at especially high risk of homelessness. In San Jose, homelessness shot up 42% in just the last two years.
Last month, the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development proposed that homeless shelters be allowed to deny access to trans people, overriding the 2012 Equal Access rule that bans discrimination in public housing, federally funded shelters, and federally backed mortgages on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity, and marital status. The change would hit already-vulnerable young trans people especially hard. So some trans people are figuring out how to live at home, even if their parents aren’t exactly supportive, while painstakingly educating their parents about their needs and their identities in the houses they grew up in.
Amy Osborne for BuzzFeed News
Frank Peña and his sister Alejandra both live at home in their parent’s house.
Ten years ago, whenever someone in my queer New York friend circle approached their date for top surgery, we’d all break out the spreadsheets. My friends and I would sign up for days to bring dinner or do laundry or watch movies together, filling all the time slots so someone would always be there for whoever was undergoing surgery at the time. But nobody ever mentioned their parents.
Most queer and trans people I’ve known have had fraught relationships with their families, if they talked to them at all, and they were neither a source of financial support — many transition-related surgeries were and still are crowdfunded — or caretaking.
So, in 2017, when I brought a lasagna to Frank Peña’s house in East San Jose after his top surgery, I didn’t expect his mother to open the door. She took the Pyrex from my hands, brought it to the kitchen, and placed a paper towel over the plate as she microwaved a square. Then she brought it over to the couch where we sat, a fork tucked alongside. Peña, now 28, still lives in his childhood home alongside his 23-year-old sister, Alejandra, both of his parents, and their three dogs. What a cool mom, I thought. Welcome to the 21st century.
But it was a little more complicated than that. At the time, Peña’s mom changed his sheets and woke up every four hours to give him painkillers as he recovered, but now, two years later, she still doesn’t use his correct pronouns, and she still calls him by his birth name.
Peña lowered his expectations to maintain peace at home. “I knew my mom wasn’t going to be one of those moms who showed up at the Pride Parade,” he says. It’s not perfect, but he’s okay with that for now.
These days, because of impossibly high rents in big American cities, young people like Peña and Cruz often have to choose between two bad options: managing parental transphobia at home or literal homelessness. “It’s not just that LGBT youth come out and then get kicked out of the house,” says Logan Casey, policy researcher at the Movement Advancement Project, although that does happen. “It’s more about a fraying of relationships over time.”
For trans people already struggling to find employers and doctors who won’t discriminate against them, securing a home of their own may become a lower priority. “Leaving is expensive,” says Samantha Allen, a trans reporter and author who chronicled queer and trans life outside of traditional coastal hubs in her new book, Real Queer America. “When you’re together with your family, you can pool resources.”
“LGBT people are more likely to experience economic insecurity across the board,” says Casey, who is trans himself. “It does end up forcing people into these arrangements that they probably wouldn’t otherwise choose if there were broader access to, for example, trans-affirming health care and affordable housing.”
Plus, transitioning is expensive. Finding insurance that will cover trans-related medical care is a challenge. Iowa just passed a law banning public agencies from paying for trans-related health care, which will make medical transition harder for thousands of trans Iowans. Some trans people don’t opt for medical transition, but those who do can frequently pay $1,500 a year for hormones, an ongoing expense. A mastectomy for trans men and nonbinary people, known as top surgery, can range from about $3,000 to $10,000, while what’s known as bottom surgery for trans women, often a combination of orchiectomy and vaginoplasty, can cost up to $30,000.
Bottom surgery for trans men, a rare choice, can cost $20,000.
A hidden cost of those surgeries are travel expenses. Surgeons trained to provide trans care tend to be concentrated in certain areas of the country, usually in big cities where social services for LGBTQ people cropped up first.
“The places where you see the highest concentrations of transgender care tend to be the most expensive places in the country,” says Matt Goldenberg, a trans clinical psychologist in Olympia, Washington, who counsels queer and trans clients, their partners, and their parents. Even states like Washington that include gender confirmation surgery in state health insurance will often send trans patients out of state, but insurance won’t cover travel expenses. Genital surgery requires patients to stay close to the surgeon for weeks for follow-up care, which can mean thousands of dollars in hotel bills. And recovery requires weeks away from work and missed income.
To afford the medical care they need, Peña and his peers are forging a third path. Sometimes they are simply enduring, closing off emotionally when they get home and walk in the door. Sometimes individual open-minded family members or a nearby LGBTQ community make living at home bearable. And sometimes parents can learn how to support their trans children.
Amy Osborne for BuzzFeed News
Erik prepares a meal for the teenagers at the San Jose LGBTQ Youth Space. It has become a second home for Erik, who spends most of their time there.
The popular narrative is straightforward: If your parents don’t understand your gender or sexuality, you get on a bus to the city, find your people, and become yourself without the shackles of your parents’ judgment. Or maybe your parents kicked you out, and the pilgrimage isn’t exactly a choice. Either way, cities will absorb you, offering anonymity to build new selves from scratch, an array of lovers to try out, and community to back you up when your parents won’t. Audre Lorde’s Greenwich Village in the ’50s, Armistead Maupin’s Castro in the ’70s, and Michelle Tea’s Mission in the ’90s promised dance floors and marches and enough fellow freaks that you never had to be alone again.
That’s still the mainstream Western story: White Gen X’ers tend to assume that it gets better if you leave. “You need to get out of that house,” advice columnist Heather Havrilesky recently told a 25-year-old struggling with gender identity. Feeling oppressed? Just move.
But uprooting yourself is hard without resources. The soaring cost of living in LGBTQ meccas makes them largely inaccessible now, especially for young people without parental support.
It’s true that migration produced rich queer culture in the last century, most visibly in the black and Latinx chosen families who built the ball scene in cities like New York and Detroit. Tommie LaBeija recently described to the Cut what the House of LaBeija has meant for young people: “We took these kids into our homes when their mothers and fathers found out that they were gay, and they had nowhere to live.”
But white queer and trans people also moved to cities, cramming themselves into the cheapest houses they could find. Those buildings were usually in low-income black and brown neighborhoods that straight white people avoided. Developers spied an opening: Any white faces made an area “safe” for those white tech bros and stroller moms, and owners could jack up rents once the neighborhood got whiter. It’s why I’ve lived in Harlem and Crown Heights and Sunset Park, or what I guess has been renamed Industry City, where you can buy $18 coffee now. That white queer search for a new home had dire consequences for the black and brown families who got priced out: The Bay Area, once a bastion of diversity, has resegregated. San Francisco, which was 13% black in the 1970s, is only 5% black now. Oakland lost 4% of its black population in just four years.
A sticker on a table at the San Jose LGBTQ Youth Space.
Now a one-bedroom apartment in the Mission in San Francisco rents for $3,841, and no one moves there for liberation anymore. Cruz remembers her first day back in San Francisco after her discharge from the Army, when she saw a homeless trans man at the corner of Castro and Market holding a sign. “He wanted to save up for his phalloplasty,” she says.
If you want to find gainful employment, you’d have your pick of restaurant work — assuming employers will hire a trans person, which they often do not — because restaurants in the Bay Area can’t stay staffed, but even good tips and a high minimum wage aren’t enough for an apartment. Sex work doesn’t offer enough to get by, either, especially after the federal government passed twin bills shutting down online advertising last year. Housing is so hard to come by that in 2015, San Francisco opened Jazzie’s Place, the first LGBTQ-focused homeless shelter in the country. San Jose quietly followed with its own shelter this year.
And it’s not just California. In Minneapolis, the first city in the country to protect trans people from discrimination in public spaces, rent has skyrocketed in the last two decades. In Miami, a longtime gay destination, 45% of millennials live with their parents. Seattle’s rent-burdened young people are “seriously fucked,” according to The Stranger, and Capitol Hill is no longer recognizable as a gayborhood. In Atlanta, by some counts America’s gayest city, queer and trans artists of color are fighting rapid gentrification. Liberal cities might once have been havens for LGBTQ people escaping draconian laws, but now they’ve turned into havens for rich people. “Get out of that house” is becoming nearly impossible advice to follow.
“Every era comes with its own set of burdens,” says Erik C., 31, who lives in Gilroy, California, with their parents and identifies as transmasculine. “The reality is that we can’t hop on a bus and go anywhere.”
Amy Osborne for BuzzFeed News
Pia Cruz in her neighborhood.
Cruz and her mother remember her first exit from their house in 2015 quite differently. Cruz calls it getting kicked out. She’d known she was trans for nine months -—“the longest nine months of my life,” she says — but she couldn’t do anything about it. When she did come out, her mother was not pleased.
“I kind of dismissed it, and actually kind of discouraged it initially,” says Tomaszewski.
Cruz felt like she had to leave, even though it meant she’d be homeless. “I didn’t have any other choice. I was mad,” she says. Her options were the physical safety of her parents’ house “versus my severe biological dysphoric issues, and of course that’s going to win.”
Historically, it’s often been tough for trans people to be able to count on their parents for any support, let alone free rent. The assumption, Goldenberg says, is that “we do lose our families.” It’s new for high numbers of trans young adults to be living at home to afford transition, and there’s not much research about that experience yet.
And though living with their parents is the best financial option for a lot of young trans people, it might mean their mental health suffers — no small concern in a community with an alarming suicide attempt rate. According to the Human Rights Campaign, 77% of LGBT teenagers struggle with depression. The simplest solution is parental acceptance, which studies say decreases trans young people’s anxiety to the same levels as their cis peers.
When Cruz left, her mother was shocked. “I found a letter upstairs that said we were dysfunctional people and she didn’t want us in her life anymore,” Tomaszewski says. “It broke our heart when she left like she did.”
Tomaszewski is not especially proud of how she handled herself at the time. “I don’t know if I could have been calmer,” she says. “But it didn’t need to be ugly. And I was probably…we were probably both ugly at times.” Ultimately, she and her husband had the house and the power, and Cruz ended up on the street.
She had already enlisted in the Army but wasn’t due in Fort Jackson, South Carolina, for a few months, so she couch surfed, slept on beaches, and crashed with strangers in Santa Cruz, Monterey, and San Francisco, taking the highest levels of street hormones she could find. She went off them abruptly for basic training, dropping them in a trash can outside the military entrance processing station.
Eventually, after multiple suicide attempts while in the military, her subsequent discharge, and another period of Bay Area homelessness that she describes as “dangerous,” Cruz started hormones again, this time in prescribed doses. She ended up at a VA shelter in East San Jose, then eventually found a place with four housemates downtown. It wasn’t great — “Some of them fetishized me, some of them were violent towards me” — and she often came back to her parents’ house to do laundry.
Then in May 2017, Cruz invited her mom and dad to come to a support group for trans women at the Billy DeFrank LGBT Community Center. It was Cruz’s first meeting, and she rolled in late after buying makeup at Target across town. “There’s this big circle of about 40 trans women and I’m like, ‘Oh, hello, my people,’ and I take the last seat, and I take the seat directly across from my parents.”
Cruz had waited until the support group to fully present as female in front of her parents because it felt safer. Her mom would be “surrounded by 40 trans women,” Cruz remembers. You’re on my turf now, she thought.
To Cruz’s surprise, Tomaszewski liked the women, especially an older one who gave good advice. “Her name was Jen too, so we really connected,” she says.
Afterward, Cruz was still nervous. Would her mother yell at her in front of her new peers? But she didn’t. “She was like, ‘That was beautiful,’” Cruz remembers. She could finally relax in front of her parents. “It wasn’t a private thing anymore.”
Tomaszewski remembers her light bulb moment, which didn’t come until after Cruz had invited her to the support group, checked herself into an inpatient psychiatric hospital, and attempted suicide again. “She said to me that she wouldn’t go through all the crap she goes through every day if it wasn’t real,” Tomaszewski says. “I’m like, you know, who would?”
Cruz moved back home a year ago. Now, she and one of her brothers share their childhood bedroom, sleeping on the bottom bunks of two sturdy wooden bunk bed sets under glow-in-the-dark stars stuck to the ceiling. “Practically, it’s my room because I go in there and cry and write love poems and burn incense,” Cruz says, while her brother does homework for college in the study. “He’s fully in the family,” she says. “I’m kind of one step out.”
Cruz isn’t sure her mom fully believes she’s a woman. “She thinks I’m going to wake up and think I made a mistake and want things back,” she says. But she also knows her mom will defend her.
Indeed, Tomaszewski gets animated remembering when Cruz hit a stranger who touched her at the park. “I wish I was there and could have gotten a swing in too, because you don’t want that to happen to anybody that you care about, but especially your baby.”
Amy Osborne for BuzzFeed News
Pia Cruz mows the lawn at her parents’ home.
Even staying with nominally accepting parents can be a balancing act, especially if lack of nearby community means trans people are isolated at home.
“If your scope of contact is so small that the people you hear most from are your parents, and they’re not supportive, you begin to internalize those messages,” Goldenberg says. “You question yourself.”
On one extreme, some emotionally abusive parents intentionally isolate their trans, queer, or gender non-conforming children, keeping them home from school and cutting them off from the internet. Conditional acceptance is also damaging; even after he’s warned against it, Goldenberg has seen parents withhold access to hormones or a name change until their children improve their grades, the equivalent of intentionally denying therapy to a person with depression.
Even dealing with lower levels of transphobia can require an exhausting level of calculation. “The space I see people enter is wanting to advocate for themselves but not wanting to lose the support they have,” Goldenberg says. “People are often making that cost-benefit analysis on a daily basis, and that takes a lot of emotional energy.”
Erik, who commutes to work at the LGBT Youth Space in downtown San Jose from their parents’ house in Gilroy, has managed that daily code-switch since high school. It’s been a long road for Erik, who was born in Mexico and raised in California. At 14, they cut off a lifetime’s worth of knee-length hair, then saved for top surgery at 27. But they’re waiting to go on testosterone until they can afford to move out. “I did go on T and I started freaking out, because I started getting the peach fuzz, and I was like, ‘I can’t, this is something I’m going to struggle to hide,’” Erik says.
Hiding, at least in part, is essential for now, because the risk of upsetting their parents is too high. “I understood who I was and how I felt at a very young age,” they say. “Every time that was expressed it was shot down.” After they bought clothes from the boys’ section in middle school, they “got donated.” Every time they’d cut their hair shorter, their dad would shake his head. “My mom will be the one who’s berating verbally,” Erik says.
But Erik has been especially dependent on their parents because they were undocumented until age 24, when they got temporary legal status through the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA. Before DACA, their parents wouldn’t let them learn to drive, afraid they’d get pulled over and deported. (Undocumented people could not get driver’s licenses in California until 2013.) Financial aid for college was also inaccessible, so Erik had to drop out of San Jose State University when an uncle couldn’t pay for it anymore. Instead, they enrolled at Gavilan College in Gilroy, taking classes indefinitely to keep their student ID. When someone told them that De Anza College in Cupertino offered students free bus passes, Erik jumped at the transportation opportunity, crashing at their aunt’s house to be near campus.
At De Anza, they saw an advertisement for the LGBT Youth Space, a haven in downtown San Jose that offers support groups, counseling, and events like Queer Prom. But it took another year before Erik could find a way to get there. “I took the little flyer and I folded it up and I put it in my wallet like a little fuckin’ santito card and I just carried it,” they say.
Amy Osborne for BuzzFeed News
Erik (right) reacts during a drag queen performance at the at the South Bay Youth Pride Festival.
The Youth Space, where Erik is now an outreach coordinator, and which experienced a targeted attack by vandals this month, saved their life. “If I didn’t have access to what I had access to, I wouldn’t be here,” they say. That community, and the counseling available through the center, is what makes living at home possible for now.
“We’re seeing more and more of these LGBT-frIendly hubs popping up across the country and making life a lot more livable for LGBT youth who are within spitting distances of those places,” says Allen. She cites Salt Lake City as an example. Even heavily Mormon Provo, Utah, where she lived in high school, has an LGBT youth resource center that could be a lifeline.
Erik’s aunt moved out of the area, so they moved back in with their parents in Gilroy midway through school. It took years to save for top surgery, get health insurance, and find a job that would give them time off to recover. Finally, as Erik drove to San Francisco for a doctor’s appointment, an angry ex-girlfriend called their mom and revealed what had been Erik’s secret surgery plans.
Erik’s mother called, livid. “What are you talking about? You’re crazy!” Erik remembers her saying. It was the first time either of them had discussed Erik’s gender identity directly. So Erik pushed. “These are your options,” they said. “You can kick me out of the house and I can heal in a crusty hotel room in San Francisco — I have the money for it — or I can heal at home and not get infected.”
Their mother relented. “I don’t agree with it, but if you’re going to do it, I want you to heal at home,” Erik remembers her saying. A cousin drove Erik to the city for surgery, and their mother took care of them in recovery, as if the surgery had been for some other ailment.
Erik doesn’t spend a lot of time at home. “Living with my parents now still entails a lot of that shutting off of the ears,” they say. They can drive now and don’t have to lie about long class schedules to stay out of the house anymore, but the situation is far from ideal.
Amy Osborne for BuzzFeed News
Erik in San Jose.
But their extended family is close-knit, which Erik attributes to their Mexican culture. When Erik’s grandmother moved to Gilroy from San Jose a few months ago, everyone took the day off to help her pack and relocate. Before then, Erik visited their grandmother once or twice a week between work and school, translating whatever was in her mailbox. And Erik plays Super Smash Brothers with their cousins all the time.
Erik requested “they” pronouns be used for this article but has not asked their parents, friends, or coworkers to use them. “I’m still not at a point where I can enforce the use of one singular pronoun,” they said, “especially with family.” An official name change is out of the question because it could threaten Erik’s DACA status; they’ve heard stories of undocumented trans friends losing legal status that way, and Erik won’t risk it.
Everyone’s standard for what they can handle is different, Goldenberg says, and the question is whether trans young people feel safe at home or not. In March, a British Columbia court ruled in favor of a 14-year-old trans boy whose father wouldn’t let him take hormones, which may set a Canadian precedent that misgendering a child or denying children essential medical services constitutes abuse. The boy had previously attempted suicide, and doctors testified that the hormones would help prevent another attempt.
But Erik and Cruz are adults, making decisions for their own futures.
Amy Osborne for BuzzFeed News
Frank Peña responds to emails at the San Jose LGBTQ Youth Space.
Frank Peña wants to live in his grandparents’ house forever. His grandfather bought it in the early ’70s, after a childhood living in farmworker housing and drying sheds, alongside plums becoming prunes. The house in East San Jose was the first property anyone in his family owned in the United States, and they’ve made good use of it; at one point, Peña and his sister, Alejandra, 23, shared a futon in the living room while their parents, grandparents, and three cousins took the bedrooms. His grandparents have since retired to South Texas, but Peña, his sister, and their parents still live in the house together.
Peña rejects the idea that he has to sacrifice his connection to family or the house he grew up in because he is trans. But living at home is complicated for him. Alejandra switches to neutral terms like “sibling” to refer to him at home to avoid “a fucking war,” as Peña puts it. “We call each other ‘brah,’ so she’ll say that,” he says.
He started taking testosterone at 18 without telling his parents. Then he cut his hair short, “a Bieber-ish mullet,” he says.
“I remember that mullet,” says Alejandra. “It was pretty bad.”
His mom kicked him out for the haircut. “Her thing was, if you ever leave this house, you don’t leave with shit. I didn’t have my phone, I didn’t have my car, nothing,” he says. He was only gone for a week; a cousin drove him home because his mother didn’t like not knowing where he was, and they had the first of many conversations about his identity. “It was kind of this mentality of I hope that I don’t have to pick” between transition and family, he says, and he would never choose to leave them.
The Peñas still see their extended family every weekend, usually at an aunt’s house in Gilroy. Picture barbecuing, beer, lots of little kids, and family members roasting each other about “how bald they are, how gray they are, those new wrinkles on your face,” Peña says.
Peña didn’t want to miss out on any of that because of his identity. “The culture of leaving your family has always been painted as this white thing,” he says. And as his mom used to say, “You ain’t white.” In Mexican culture, Peña says, “you stick with it, and you either overlook or you overcome this issue together, or you just don’t talk about it again. You put that shit aside, but you’re still family.” Peña navigates between his LGBTQ community, where peers might not understand his Mexican identity, and his extended family members, not all of whom understand his gender.
Amy Osborne for BuzzFeed News
Frank with his dog Nikko in his bedroom at his parent’s house.
Peña’s survival has meant careful negotiation at every step, with major support from his sister. Their mother said things to Alejandra, still in middle school at the time, that she wouldn’t say to Peña. “She was like, ‘You need to tell [them] to stop,’” Alejandra says. For Alejandra, who’d come to the Youth Space with Peña and gotten to know his friends, supporting him was never a question. “I was very focused on the fact that he’s still the same person he was and always has been, and that was important to me,” she says, tearing up. “Sorry, I’m crying because she said some pretty awful shit.” Alejandra didn’t tell Peña about their mother’s worst comments. “I didn’t want to hurt him,” she says.
Alejandra has bridged the gap between Frank’s worlds. She’s also pushed their mother about Peña’s gender, especially outside the house. “You need to stop telling people ‘these are my daughters.’ It’s weird. It makes you look stupid,” she told her. “Frank’s here with a full beard and short hair.”
Their mother had pushed Peña to “blossom” and become more feminine in high school, but she didn’t with her younger child. “That made it a little easier for me to be who I am,” Alejandra says. She’s straight and cis, but found a job at the county’s new LGBTQ-focused homeless shelter because she’s had so much experience with Peña’s transition.
These days, the siblings have swapped roles with their parents in a way that would not have been possible if they’d left long ago. Recently, when the electricity got cut off, Peña discovered that his dad had typed a number wrong in the online bill pay system and changed it for him. “We’re trying to fix their debt and fix their credit,” Peña says.
He’s proud to have figured out a balance, and he wonders if his queer and trans peers give their relationships with their parents enough of a chance. I’m sorry you never got to work that out, he thinks sometimes.
Goldenberg wants to see more parents unconditionally supporting their trans kids. “Parents have this great opportunity to be the parent that they need to be, and it’s pretty awesome if they can figure out how to capitalize on that moment.”
Allen, who lives in Seattle now, finds that LGBTQ people who did flee to coastal cities sometimes feel guilty for having left, especially when they hear stories of people who stayed like the ones in her book. Straight liberals sometimes insist that everyone return to their red-state hometowns to make them purple. But home can be an empty abstract if it was also a site of rejection.
“Everyone’s got to do what’s best for them,” Allen says.
Tori Truscheit is an organizer, freelance writer, and queer parent. She lives in San Jose.