MANHATTAN — Youth activist Katherine Chambers travels to schools, city agencies and other organizations across the boroughs conducting trainings on sexism, homophobia, transphobia and more.
But the 20-year-old — who began her transition from male to female two years ago — struggles to gain acceptance in her own community, a predominantly Muslim area in Ditmas Park, and with her own family.
Though she still lives with her parents, immigrants from Bangladesh, she barely speaks to them.
“The only type of interaction we have is when I give money for a bill or if they need me to translate something,” said Chambers, who is one of four transgender young people at the center of a new documentary “Becoming More Visible," set to have its New York premiere at the DOC NYC Film Festival on Nov. 11.
Director Pamela French, the who got the film started after raising more than $30,000 through Kickstarter, understood the stakes were high for Chambers.
“She risked everything when she invited me into her home," French said. "Her parents came here hoping their eldest son would be the breadwinner. [Now] Katherine is homeless in her own home.”
But Chambers, who decided to try out for the documentary after seeing a flier for it through her group therapy for transgender adolescents and young adults at Mount Sinai, craved the community that came from participating in the filming of it, no matter how painful.
“Previously, when I wasn’t out to anyone, I didn’t want to do anything because of depression and anxiety,” Chambers said. “At the beginning of my transition, I decided I would do things. I thought, my life is just beginning, so why not?”
From the time she auditioned for the film in 2014 through when it wrapped early this year, Chambers struggled with her transition, at one point stopping her hormones for six months because of the stress she felt about disappointing her family.
“I didn’t know who I was even during the transition,” Chambers recounted. “I knew I was a woman, but I didn’t know what kind of woman I was. I had to define myself. I give a lot of credit to the documentary for the work I do now.”
She has since gone on to become a leading voice for transgender youth in the city.
Chambers got a job for Project Reach, a nonprofit dedicated to fighting discrimination and empowering disenfranchised youth. As an anti-discrimination trainer and LGBTQIA+ (Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Queer Intersex Asexual) and youth coordinator, she leads trainings not only for government agencies and other companies, but also works in faith-based communities trying to tackle homophobia and transphobia.
As part of her position, she'll be working on a city-funded initiative to make safe spaces for transgender, gender nonconforming and intersex youth across the boroughs.
"I want to be able to see a place where a young person can walk into the Arab-American support center when questioning their identity and know that they can be supported there, and not have to fear and be shunned or disempowered like I was growing up in the Muslim community," she said.
The lack of support from her own family, however, still weighs on Chambers, who acknowledged that she made her second suicide attempt in August.
Unfortunately, such feelings of despair are not uncommon among trans youth. More than 50 percent of transgender youth make at least one suicide attempt by their 20th birthday, according to the Youth Suicide Prevention Program.
In Chambers’ family, mental health was never a priority, she said.
“They’re more worried to be able to get enough money or get food on the table,” she noted.
Even with all that outreach work she does, Chambers continues to be surprised with the lack of awareness at facilities across the city.
For example, when she checked herself into the hospital at Mount Sinai in August, staff insisted on calling her "young man" because her insurance card listed her birth name.
“I had to explain why I wasn’t a boy and why calling me ‘young man’ and by my birth name wasn’t helping,” she said of the experience that still upsets her. “I haven’t recovered since.”
Mount Sinai officials told DNAinfo New York they are committed to meeting the health care needs of the LGBT community and treating patients with dignity and respect.
But not every institution has been insensitive to her gender identity.
She found unwavering support through two teachers at her former high school, Edward R. Murrow, in Midwood.
After helping her cope with her struggle, the teachers presented Chambers with the gift of her first dress and make-up and the encouragement to put it on, which she wore for the first time when auditioning for the documentary.
“Like most of us, she had feelings of duty and obligation to her family. She would tell me how they wanted her to achieve certain goals. But those weren’t true to who she felt she was at heart,” said English teacher Lisa Willner, who leaned on the school’s guidance staff and school psychologist to help her support Chambers.
“By sharing her story I think she's going to really reach other trans students,” Willner said. “She already has.”