Nic Bravo darted from the kitchen, to a table, to the bar, back to another table.
She smiled as she refilled water glasses. She prepped silverware and chatted with two customers who came to see her every week at The Jones Eastside, the restaurant where she worked for about a year.
Her dark brown hair and blonde highlights fell much longer on the left side of her face. The 25-year-old wore a striped pink tank top, a black skirt, bright turquoise tights and black flower-printed boots. She stood at 5-foot-9 with a thin build, broad shoulders and a low-pitch voice.
Regulars at The Jones expected employees who look, well, different. But Nic looked even more different. New customers sometimes did double takes. Children were the most vocal.
“Is that a boy or a girl?”
Children in our society are raised to see gender as binary and expected to express their gender in ways that conform to those roles, said Stratton Pollitzer, deputy director for Equality Florida, an advocacy organization dedicated to securing equality for the state’s LGBT population. “Trans people are the quadrant of our community that experiences the most violence, harassment and discrimination.”
Nic is a non-binary trans lady.
By trans, or transgender, she means she was assigned a gender at birth (male) but doesn’t identify with that gender. By non-binary, she means she rejects gender being divided into two mutually exclusive categories. She doesn’t identify as male or female, man or woman. She falls somewhere in the middle, more on the feminine side.
According to a 2011 study done by the National Center for Transgender Equality, 1.6 percent of the U.S. population has reported attempting suicide, while the rate for transgender and gender non-conforming people is 41 percent.
Nic has struggled with abuse and mental health problems – depression, paranoia, suicidal thoughts. But she points out that because she’s lived most of her life as a suburban, middle-class, white male in the South, she’s had it easier than others.
“Yeah, it can be hard being trans, but yeah, whatever,” she said. “A lot of unhappiness comes from parental abuse and mental disorder, and those aren’t because I’m trans.”
Born and raised in the Gainesville area, Nic was an only child whose parents named her Nicholas. She had a traumatizing childhood, though she remembers little. One thing she remembers clearly: a lifelong discomfort with her body.
Starting in middle school, Nic noticed something different about her relationships with girls she dated. She wasn’t attracted to them in the same way other boys were. It was more like she wanted to be around them, wanted to be them.
Meanwhile, she had a strained relationship with her parents, who she said hated each other, hated themselves and resented her.
“My parents were both very cold,” she said.
Her dad died when she was 14, and after that, her relationship with her mom worsened. Her mom policed her gender, Nic said. For example, if Nic wore a girl friend’s clothes, her mom would say, “You know those are girl’s clothes, don’t you?”
“She was good at being disgusted,” said Nic, who spent less time at home in high school because she was “feeling more and more insane there.”
Nic started sleeping in her truck sometimes or in a friend’s spare room. She spent a night or two at a girl friend’s house, then a week, then a month, then she never went back.
The families of two close friends took her in. She calls them her adopted families and refers to those friends as sisters and their parents as mom and dad.
As a University of Florida student, she started dating boys. By her fourth year, she was dating a boy and feeling depressed and confused. That spring, she watched a YouTube blogger named Freshly Charles talk about sexuality from a trans perspective.
“Their experiences really resonated with me,” Nic said. “It was like, wow, if you forget that Freshly Charles is female-assigned-at-birth, that’s basically where I am.”
“Oh wow, I’m going to have to do something about this,” she thought. “This is exciting and scary.”
She discovered the words to describe her identity online – a common experience for people today who challenge or reject gender norms.
Without social media, “I’d be totally alone,” she said. “If it weren’t for YouTube, I would’ve never figured out I was trans.”
Traditional media sources portray trans people as a joke or a negative stereotype – a cross-dressing murder victim, a drug-addicted prostitute, a pedophile. This leads to the dismissal of important trans people in history, Nic said, citing activists Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera. Even writers trying to combat stereotypes, she said, tend to use a “tragic transsexual narrative.”
Soon after watching that video, Nic asked close friends to refer to her with the feminine pronouns she, her and hers. She started with the boys she lived with. “Our relationship wasn’t perfect,” she said, “but they were very supportive – still are.”
For more than a year, she didn’t make any changes to her physical appearance.
“I couldn’t even get my friends to remember I was a girl because I looked 100 percent like a man.”
This was partly a political statement – she believes no one should have to conform to any standards to have their gender identity recognized. She was also scared to make physical changes to her body. Living in a culture that hates trans people, she said, causes trans people to turn that hatred inward to their bodies and their selves.
According to the National Center for Transgender Equality, anxiety, depression or other psychological illnesses do not cause someone to identify as transgender. Rather, those are side effects of society’s intolerance of transgender people and the abuse they may experience at home, school, work and in their communities.
In late 2011, Nic started taking daily hormones – estrogen, progesterone and spironolactone – pills that would change her body shape, soften her skin, lessen the appearance of body hair. She began wearing more feminine clothing.
She quit rock climbing, one of her favorite hobbies, to lose muscle. And after working as a farmer for a few years (she earned a horticulture degree in organic and sustainable crop production), she stopped farming. It wasn’t paying the bills, especially the medical bills.
In early 2012, she held a drag show dance party called Madame Nic Bravo’s Very Queer Transition Fundraiser. She set aside the $2,600 she raised, and a year later, she had spent about $3,000 on doctors’ visits, hormone pills and laser hair removal. Surgery will cost three times that.
When she started transitioning, Nic and her mom weren’t speaking again.
“After I came out as a trans girl, my mom made a point of telling me how handsome I was,” she said, “which was weird and sucked and led to me cutting her off.”
Her mom searched for something that triggered Nic’s feelings about her gender, saying things like “I think your dad was gay” and “He wasn’t a good role model of masculinity.”
“My sexuality is not a pathology!” Nic thought. “That’s not how it works.”
Others have reacted to her transition in positive or neutral ways.
“It wasn’t something that I really thought about too much,” said Eva Suarez, 20, a third-year UF student who became friends with Nic around the time she came out as transgender. Suarez said she immediately connected with Nic over their shared passion for food and farming.
“She’s just so incredibly self-aware and hilarious and helpful, and she’s there to listen to you,” she said, calling Nic a talented writer, full of knowledge and a greater sense of how to better society. “She’s inspired me to actually try to do things that I think should be done.”
Last summer, Nic went to the Philadelphia Trans-Health Conference with a few friends. She found herself in a room with a few dozen trans women watching a panel discussion.
“Oh my god, I’ve never been in a room full of trans women. I’ve never been in a room with more than two trans women,” she thought. “Wow, I’m not alone right now, and I’ve been alone for so long.”
That night, she walked down the street with some of those women. She felt powerful. She wanted to feel that way forever.
“It’s important for me to live somewhere where I have trans women in my daily life,” said Nic, who enjoys cooking and cleaning, biking and blogging.
Already a Canadian citizen thanks to her dad, Nic received encouragement from friends to move to Toronto. There, she could join some of her best friends and a growing community of trans women activists. She’d have access to Canada’s health care system, and if she decides to adopt kids someday, the process would be easier. She would “be in a place where I’m legible as a human being.”
“Normal people look at me like a freak anywhere,” she said. In Toronto, “queer women look at me like a cute girl.”
She’s been preparing to move for months. She changed her legal name to Taylor Moses Rye. (The first name for singer Taylor Swift and because its androgyny would let strangers perceive her gender the way they want to. The middle and last name for the two families who took her in.) But she said she’ll still go by Nic Bravo.
She pulled out an old, black suitcase printed with pastel-colored sea creatures. She rummaged through her supplies – flattened cereal boxes, pipe cleaners, two-dozen kinds of glitter – and started decorating a cardboard box. She covered every edge and crack with neon paper and tape.
“I’m going to be filling this box with glitter,” she said, “so it has to be basically watertight.”
This box would be shipped to a “sweetie,” a romantic partner, a woman in Philadelphia.
Nic finds other trans ladies most attractive, she said, then feminine women, then women in general.
Her reactions to questions about her sex life and her body range from bored (“That’s not the defining characteristics in some of our lives.”) to offended (“It’s just so dehumanizing – to know that somebody is imagining the genitals and reducing you to whatever they can discover about that. It’s pretty humiliating.”)
Nic wrapped a handwritten letter, stickers, a vial of perfume and a few other objects with tissue paper, colorful string and gold ribbon. She stuck letters to the box’s inside flaps that read DREAMBOAT and YR A BABE. Then she poured glitter into the box, sealed it and shook it. None of the sparkles escaped.
Though trans people tend to gravitate toward each other, Nic said, the idea of trans community doesn’t really exist.
At The Jones, Nic said she feels lucky to have steady employment and a supportive environment. The rate of unemployment for trans people is double the rate of the population as a whole, according to the National Center for Transgender Equality study.
“Someone made the decision to employ me and keep me employed,” she said. “I think that sends a very interesting message to people. That I’m worthy of something more than ridicule, that I’m a human being worthy of responsibility…not just a freak or pervert or man in a dress.”
“Nic is a very straightforward, beautiful person,” said Maya Velesko, co-owner of The Jones restaurants, who said she took a risk with Nic not because of how she presented herself but because she had no restaurant experience. Velesko said The Jones hired Nic because of her character and love for sustainable agriculture.
“We’re in the 21st century, and people just really need to get over themselves and what their prejudices are,” said Velesko, who said Nic encountered confusion, misunderstanding and disrespect from both patrons and co-workers. “What matters is there’s a human in front of you.”
Nic dreams of someday living in a large old house with other ladies like herself, selling food they farm to a local co-op and raising kids together.
“It’s really important to me to be a mom at some point,” she said.
The best part about serving at a restaurant is interacting with kids, she said. She loves catching babies’ eyes and giving them a smile. She likes letting parents know their toddlers aren’t bothering anyone.
“Kids are curious,” Nic said. “What they’ve figured out about gender from culture doesn’t seem to add up about me.”
At a very young age, they learn that “transgressing gender is dangerous and shameful,” she says, so they don’t ask Nic about it directly.
You’re not a girl, said a 5-year-old boy at the restaurant with his family.
Yes, I am a girl. Some girls have deep voices, Nic said.
Noooo, he said. You just wear girls’ clothes.
“On a good day, I’m not thinking about my gender all the time, just like you’re not,” Nic said. “We’re always performing gender, but we don’t think about it all the time.”
Sometimes the kids’ questions and comments make work hard. She gets lost in her head, thinking about how others perceive her, not present in interactions.
A few months ago, she avoided shaving the stubble on her face in preparation for a laser hair removal session. A child’s confused reaction sent her to the restaurant’s back cooler where she cried. She left work early that day.
Why does that girl sound like a boy? one little girl recently asked her mom.
Sometimes girls have deep voices like boys, like Tracy Chapman, the mom said.
Oh yeah, the girl said.
Nic was happy the child saw her as a girl with boyish characteristics instead of the other way around.
“That was rad,” she said later, “and I was so impressed with that mom’s way of explaining it.”
For the most part, she enjoys having a chance to show kids they are not bound by society’s rules.
“If I can get across the message that you can’t always tell if somebody is a boy or a girl by looking at them, then that’s a good thing,” she said. “If I can get a kid to think, like, ‘Boys look all different kinds of ways. Girls look all different kinds of ways.”
“I wish somebody had told me that as a kid.”
Editor’s note: On Tuesday, Nic Bravo boarded a plane and started a new life in Canada.
Transgender Glossary of Terms GLAAD Media Reference Guide
Spectrum – a group raising awareness about transgender issues in the Gainesville area