When Jae Lee was younger, he didn’t have words to describe how he felt inside. It wasn’t until his mid-20s, when he met a transgender man, that he started to understand what he was experiencing.
“I have always been bullied about my sexuality,” he said. “But I didn't know that there's anything such thing as transgender, not for women. In my mom's (Samoan) culture we have trans women and trans girls, as far as she knows, not really trans men.”
Coming out in 2018 answered questions that had been lurking in the back of Lee’s mind his entire life. It was also one step on a long journey that started when Lee was just barely a legal adult.
Lee joined the U.S. Army reserves at age 17 and served for 10 years. During his time in the military, he got pregnant, married a fellow soldier and gave birth to his daughter Tiare in 2009. During his marriage, Lee experienced abuse and he left his partner after two years.
Soon after his marriage, Lee found himself in another bad relationship and was cut off from his family and the world around him, including his daughter. He remained in this situation for six years before escaping and returning to Austin in 2017.
Lee, 33, has worked tirelessly to put his life back together. He regained custody of his daughter, who is now 13. He enrolled full time as a student at St. Edward’s University studying social work. He has also started hormone therapy and is still trying to find a way to get top surgery — a common procedure for trans men — so he can feel more comfortable in his body.
“Top surgery really is life saving,” he said. “Especially if you're going through hormone therapy, and the other parts of you are changing. ...I can't quite explain the psychological effect of being misgendered all the time. It really sucks. My entire body just shivers and locks up almost like a trauma response.”
He works part time at night in a FedEx warehouse, and his goal is to get a masters in social work and business. He is passionate about helping people, especially those at risk for entering abusive relationships.
“There's so many different intersections of discrimination that I've experienced myself, that have colored my life, that I've survived,” he said. “I think those experiences can be helpful to other people that are in those vulnerable populations.”
Lee also takes great pride in his daughter, Tiare, whom he described as “13 going on 30.” Tiare’s favorite subjects in school are reading and math, and she loves to draw and sing.
Lee said throughout the difficulties he has faced, love from his mom has been a constant that has gotten him through — even as his mom has struggled to understand his transition.
“My family always wanted me back," he said. "Even though I was half out of my mind, I was very mentally ill. Anytime I would visit my family, they always treated me like I was welcome. (My transition) I don't want to say it's been an easy journey. ... I'm starting to realize that this is gonna take some time for them.”
Lee and Tiare live in a one bedroom apartment and receive support from Foundation Communities. Many of the requests on their list are geared toward improving their health and happiness by making their house a more comfortable home.
“I've been making it work with bandages, putting fires out here and there,” he said. “We've had to spend money on essentials for the last four years instead of buying really anything for ourselves. ... A lot of the stuff is for my kid to feel like she can be comfortable in her own space, and she can create her own space.”
Lee said everything he has been through has only made him more determined to make a good life for himself and his daughter.
“When people hear this story, they're surprised that I survived it,” he said. “I was always going to go to college, I was always going to finish. There's periods of time in my life that were dark... (but) it was never a question of whether I was going to die in those situations. I was always going to come back and do more than just survive.”
The Lee family's wishes:
Rental assistance; car insurance; help with medical bills for gender affirming care; household goods and items such as new linens and photo frames; technology including a laptop, computer and monitor, tablet, a new cellphone, drawing software including Clip Studio Pro and Live 2D, a PlayStation5 and games; subscription to SoFly Social fitness classes; singing lessons for Tiare; Korean lessons and cultural immersion events for Tiare; summer youth activities for Tiare such as Sky Candy and Earth Native Wilderness summer programs; a family trip; and gift cards to H-E-B, Bed Bath and Beyond, Ross, Adidas, Zumiez, Academy, Forever 21 and Rue 21.
Wish list available on Amazon.
Nominated by: Foundation Communities, 3000 S. Interstate 35, Suite 300, Austin, TX, 78704. 512-447-2026, foundcom.org.
Its mission: Creating housing where families succeed.
Use the form below or click here: https://statesmansfc.kimbia.com/statesmanseasonforcaring
This article originally appeared on Austin American-Statesman: Season for Caring, Foundation Communities, Jae Lee