by Gabby Benavente
I emigrated from Peru to Miami in the Summer of 2003, eager to finally express myself and my gender, safely, within a community of people who’d welcome me. The first thing I noticed was how astonishingly different Miami’s humidity was from dry Lima, but, sadly, the weather differences were minor compared to my experiences of difference.
Before moving to the states, my mama had the sole responsibility of raising my sister and I, as my father was always working. She would cook, clean, and provide my only source of affection. Paranoid that my father’s absence would affect my ability to perform masculinity, she struggled to turn me into the young man of her dreams, reprimanding any expression of femininity I exhibited. I was beaten for crying, had to watch Sailor Moon in secret, was not allowed to “talk effeminately,” and whenever she and my sister discussed a topic that caught my interest, such as knitting, my curiosity was silenced. Her rejection left me intensely lonely, but under the eyes of my mama, I was soon to fulfill my papa’s role and become the carrier of the last name, the provider, the one who would move the family from the depths of poverty…and there was no room for femininity in that position.
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After discussing my future, my parents decided that I needed to pursue the American dream. Like many immigrants oblivious to American systems of oppression constantly working towards the stagnancy of people of color, they believed anybody willing to work hard could eventually move up the social ladder. And honestly, I, too, was excited to come to America, land of the free, and finally wear dresses, knit with my mama and sister, and watch Sailor Moon.
However, those dreams were shattered the moment I started school.
My fifth grade teacher refused to protect me when I was abused by peers and called faggot, bitch, and queer. Eventually, verbal violence became physical. On so many days, my classmates would beat me to the ground, throwing things at my small-framed body. When I ran, crying, to my parents for help, they chastised me, saying “Man up!” and “Beat them up!” Focused on the struggle of trying to give me a better life, they concentrated on my education and neglected my emotional well-being. I blamed myself, believed that I deserved the abuse, and, after a while, even good grades and the possibility of earning a scholarship for college were not enough to ease my despair.
In the midst of the abuse, I accepted that I was not male. I was conscious of my girlhood since childhood, but the violence and aggression boys directed towards me made me want to separate myself from that identity altogether. I detested men for appearing to be heartless perpetrators AND my femininity for creating this false imagery of weakness. I became depressed and suicidal. I convinced myself that a god who allowed this immense torture could not be real, and if God did exist, I was experiencing Hell at its deepest level.
I finished high school and started college, where my identity was not as actively oppressed as before. However, the experiences of my childhood scarred my ability to trust people. I distanced myself from everyone—even those who identified as female. This resulted in not experiencing the ways women are traditionally socialized. No one taught me the routines of body shaving, make-up application, or feminine hygiene. I didn’t learn the complexities of feminine attire or how to interact with boys; all I knew was my fear of being maltreated for expressing femininity in their presence. I grew up being told to detest my femininity, and therefore I shielded myself from attaining these skills and interacting with other women.
However, I was tired of having to actively hide my identity, even in front of friends who I knew would be supportive, and realized that I could no longer pretend that becoming financially independent would be enough to satisfy my pain, that I needed to take a risk in spite of potentially falling in trouble with my parents. So, I started looking for resources and strategies that would help ease my troubled mind, heal my trauma, and reconcile my transgender identity with spirituality. I was immediately moved by different forms of Buddhism and meditation. Buddhism, along with other religious philosophies I explored, such as Unitarianism, embraced my identity, emphasized the importance of gender fluidity, and articulated admiration for people who break away from their gender assigned at birth. I became acquainted with trans-inclusive feminist theory, and found comfort in reading works of various authors such as bell hooks. After finding both comfort through meditation and knowledge through reading, I began to let go of the fears that came with my own femininity and finally felt secure enough to present myself to friends as a transgender woman. It took so much intentional work, healing, and social deprogramming, but, today, I feel free to walk in a dress and show physical affection. I am no longer bound by chains, and every day is a step closer towards blissful liberation.
I, now, actively pursue the passions I forgot when my life was smothered with violence and depression. I’m involved in the environmental movement, and the people that I’ve met there have been my allies through every step of my transition, encouraging my voice and perspective on how to make the environmental movement more inclusive. This newly-found acceptance magnified my dreams: I’ve learned that there are people I can trust, that my worth is not defined by the system, but from within.
There are still various challenges that actively oppress me, such as: being undocumented, not having health care, being of low social-economic status, dealing with parents who are not accepting of my identity, and having to be closeted to them while I finish school. In spite of all these challenges, I’ve learned to not let my lack of privilege prevent me from self-actualization. I may be lacking in commodities, but I’ve regained what has been stripped away from me since childhood; the essence of my humanity. As painful as some of my memories are to me, I recognize the importance of solidarity. There’s power in an inclusive Trans* movement, in social justice organizations that actively work to amplify the voices of trans participants, and in us holding space for all of our stories. I am glad I no longer live in shadows of despair, that I can finally taste the fruits of freedom.
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My name is Gabby Benavente, and I was born in Lima, Peru. I currently live in Miami, and I am studying English and Philosophy at FIU. I am an undocumented, transgender woman who is passionate about social justice and environmentalism.