Members of local transgender community seek support, understanding

Aydan O'Connor (center) and his family. Aydan was born a girl but transitioned into a male when he was 29.

RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) – Millions across the country watched former Olympian and reality TV star Bruce Jenner announce his transition into a woman in an exclusive interview with Diane Sawyer Friday night. There are also many people on their own identity journeys, right here in Richmond.

Whenever Aydan O’Connor walks through Hollywood Cemetery, he reflects on his life–and the lives of those who have already passed away. He shares those thoughts with 8News Anchor Amy Lacey.

“There’s a lot of kids here, a lot of people who didn’t make it,” Aydan says. “It makes me feel blessed that to have it made it this long and this far. I fought ever since I was a teenager.”

Aydan’s life hasn’t been an easy one. He was born as a girl; his parents named him Vanessa. Living in small towns across the Midwest, Aydan grew up feeling different. Much of the time, he was in pain.

“It was to the point that I either transitioned or I killed myself,” he says.

Aydan began taking male hormones in March 2013 at age 29. Sadly, the start of his transition meant the end of a support system.

“I haven’t talked to my mom in almost two years now.”

Although he lost his mom’s support, he finally gained a true sense of self through his transition. He is now a husband and father to a stepson and biological son, all living in Amelia. He’s now sharing his story to open eyes and fight against the prejudice trans people face.

“There have been times that I’ve been out in public and people have called me an ‘it,'” he reveals.

Afton Bradley, who was born female and began his transition to a male as a teen, also wants to break down negative stereotypes surrounding the transgender community.

“There isn’t a hierarchy,” Afton says. “We’re all people. We’re all humans.”

Afton moved to Richmond from Albemarle County right out of high school, about eight years ago. He could only put a name to what he felt his whole life after doing some research online: transgender.

He came out to his parents at age 16.

“They were as lost as I was,” Afton recalls. “They [were] just seeing their teenager struggling with self-injury, suicide, drug use…they thought lots of different things and [were] just trying to help.”

For more assistance during that rough period, Afton came to Fan Free Clinic; it remains the only free clinic in Virginia offering hormone therapy and other transgender-specific healthcare.

Fan Free Clinic Medical Director Dr. Mary Colfer explains, “Transgender people do experience a lot of discrimination, violence and just rejection from all aspects of the community. From family, friends, coworkers and the medical profession.”

Being a patient at Fan Free Clinic empowered Afton to get a master’s degree in social work. He came back here to help others like himself make a positive name for themselves. He doesn’t want trangender people known exclusively for the hate crimes and controversies that often push that group into the spotlight.

“You see the trans community as an ‘other,’ as something constantly being oppressed,” Afton says, all of these negatives attributes. “And one of the things we work on is catalyze and empower identities and communities.”

There shouldn’t be a distinction between transgender people and any other group of people, Afton says.

“The trans community is just as diverse as any other community,” Afton says. “We have people who have Ph.Ds, we have people who dropped out of high schools. We have people who are incarcerated, we have people who run companies, who are grant writers, who are mobilizing, and we have community leaders and others who are struggling.”

There are support groups across the nation for trans people and now, Aydan O’Connor is starting his own for young transgender people in our area. He keeps a list of all the known transgender teenagers nationwide who took their own lives this year.

“These kids are my child’s age..what kind of society do we live in when our babies are killing ourselves because they can’t be accepted?” Aydan asks. “I’ve been there. I’ve been to that dark place where nobody cares, you think nobody cares and look where I am now.”

Aydan is determined to keep the conversation about gender going in Richmond. His walks through the cemetery make him hopeful about his future.

“There have been people here who made it 100 years; maybe it gives me hope that I can make it that long.”

Fan Free Clinic is currently providing services to 70 transgender patients in the Richmond area. There’s such a need for services that Dr. Colfer is working with other physicians in the area to help with this specialized care. If you or someone you know needs their help, call 804-358-8538.

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