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Romeo Reyes/Facebook

by Arvin Joaquin

Romeo Reyes sang into a hardcover book so his voice was muffled. For extra caution, he did this inside the closet. He loved singing, but having three sisters who constantly teased him, he had learned tactics to avoid their judgment. But it wasn’t just the love for singing that he tried to hid; he was also hiding his true self. But years later, Reyes learned the world wanted not only to hear his voice – it needed to hear his story.

Reyes, now a renowned actor, singer-songwriter, tattoo artist, and human rights advocate, was born a girl. Growing up in Vancouver, he felt as though something was not right. He was attracted to girls and found it hard to conform to traditionally female gender roles. At 17, Reyes decided to come out as lesbian to his oldest sister.

“It was the craziest thing,” Reyes recalled in an interview with OMNI News. 

“I had a lot of anxiety.” 

Reyes told his sister, and to his surprise she acted with sheer nonchalance.

“I was like, ‘What?’ because I went from having so much built up anxiety, and then she kind of brushed it off like it was no big deal,” he says.

Then Reyes came out to his best friend, who also turned out to be a lesbian. For the first time, in his life, he felt seen. However, his parents were in denial and thought it was just a phase. His dad was quiet and reserved, while his mom was more vocal about her concerns.

“At one point, I was a DJ and I used to go to Seattle every other month to DJ for gay events there because I had friends who ran a club night,” he said. “ [My mom] was always concerned about me going there, because of people who hate on gay people.”

Then, six years ago, at a restaurant during his sister’s birthday, Reyes came out as trans. His mom glared at him but didn’t say anything. The following day, she confronted him about it. She was hesitant at first, afraid of the health repercussions. But Reyes assured her that he’s going to be fine. For a while, she also had a hard time using Reyes’ chosen name, slipping to his deadname (name that a transgender person was given at birth and no longer uses upon transitioning) at times. 

But now, years later, Reyes says his mom has adjusted. In fact, she makes sure to call Romeo by his chosen name in front of his niece and nephew. His parents also do gestures that assure Reyes they’re on his side.

“My mom and dad went to Verona where the whole Romeo and Juliet thing happened,” he said.

“Twice they actually got me souvenirs that say ‘Romeo’ on it. I thought that was really sweet. They’re not really against it anymore, I guess because they can see that I’m happy.”

Family support helps trans and non-binary youth

A result of a new survey funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research and led by researchers from the University of British Columbia says Canadian trans and non-binary youth feel more supported now than they were five years ago.

Fifty per cent of the more than 1500 respondents said they feel supported, a 5 per cent increase from the 45 per cent recorded five years ago. The survey also said more trans youth are asking their friends and families to call them by their correct names and pronouns.

According to Elizabeth Saewyc, executive director of the Stigma and Resilience Among Vulnerable Youth Centre (SARAVYC) at UBC School of Nursing, the result is good but there is still work to be done. For example, 74 per cent of the respondents said they felt extremely uncomfortable and unsafe in public washrooms, and in fact, avoided them because of safety issues.

“It is important to remember that here in Canada, our Human Rights Code actually prohibits discrimination on the basis of gender identity and gender expression, which means we should be supporting our trans and non binary youth to be who they are, and to be safe being who they are,” Saewyc said.

Saewyc said there are key things that people need to do. For instance, she says differences between provinces in terms of access to health care, in terms of discrimination and experiencing safety should be reduced. She added the importance of creating safe spaces for young people in public, like ensuring that public washrooms are accessible and safe for all trans and non-binary people.

“We need to work with families to help them as well as schools to help them understand and support trans non-binary youth, because what we did find is that although there’s a number of young people who are experiencing significant distress and mental health challenges, primarily linked to discrimination and harassment and rejection,when they have safe and supportive families, and safe and supportive schools, young people actually have lower mental health problems and do much better health wise,” she said.

Showing up for other trans youth

Romeo Reyes said he’s always known he was trans. When he was around four or five, he remembered thinking how he wanted to be a boy. 

“There’s pictures of me as a toddler running around topless, because that concept of gender didn’t really make sense to me,” he said.

Now, Reyes said he tries to use his craft to tell his story and to get in touch with his Filipino heritage. But more than that, Reyes said he does this for the future generation of Filipinos, especially Filipino trans youth because he’s seen the negative effects of lack of support.

“In high school, and knowing that I was not straight, it kept me up at night… in my school, they would teach us, ‘you’re not supposed to be gay’ and it would make me question my existence,” he said. “I’ve battled depression and I’ve had suicidal thoughts and tendencies because I felt that the world didn’t accept me.”

He said he tried to force himself to blend in with society, but that was never him. So he decided to stay true to himself and now, he wants others who see and hear his story to try and live their truth, too.

“I’m very open about this and I just put myself out there because I want youth and kids to see, ‘okay, here’s a trans person who’s open and they’re doing things, and it’s fine. It’s all good. I can do that, too.’” He said.

Reyes said he hopes parents will continue to have open communication with their children – trans or not – and assure them they can be who they want to be.

“Pretty much everything I’m doing now and how I am. It’s what I’ve always wanted as a kid,” he said. “Right now, I’m just living my childhood dreams.”