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A Journey Within

monica_1 - chosen family

Meet Monica. A strong young woman who was not always so. Her journey for self-acceptance includes rejection from church and family. At a very dark time in her young life she was homeless, suicidal and vulnerable. However, an inner drive to survive and live a life that was true pushed her through the depression, and fueled her search for a brighter future.

I first met Monica at The Attic Youth Center in Philadelphia, the city’s only independent lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning (LGBTQ) youth center. The Attic provides a safe and supportive community for young people, and promotes the acceptance of LGBTQ youth in society. I’ve always felt drawn to The Attic, grateful for the services it provides to such a deserving population and wanting to somehow connect with the institution. Leah Alexandra Goldstein, a contributor to this website (as well as the site’s designer and site administrator) once worked at the Attic, and she introduced me to the staff there. Staff members, in turn, introduced me to Monica.

When Monica first expressed interest in our site (and told me of her love of drag) I was intrigued. Her story of rejection and search for acceptance of her authentic self touched me. She possessed equal parts of strength and vulnerability. As a transgender youth, she is part of a community that doesn’t often have a voice in today’s society. Throughout her young life she has had to advocate for herself, finding a path that felt true to her gender identity and sexuality, while navigating the essentials of life in a city — food, shelter, and education.

Reflecting on her past, Monica stands with her friend Dash on the New Jersey side of the Delaware River gazing at the city of Philadelphia. - chosen family

Reflecting on her past, Monica stands with her friend Dash on the New Jersey side of the Delaware River gazing at the city of Philadelphia.

At one time in Monica’s life, her mental health was not good. Monica experienced isolation and fear, depression and anxiety. When she “came out” as Monica, all of the “traditional” support systems for youth — family, school, church — abandoned her. Without a future in sight, she tried to take her life, an all-too-common attempt for a transgender youth. According to The Trevor Project (a leading national organization providing crisis intervention and suicide prevention services to LGBTQ youth ages 13 – 24), suicide is the second leading cause of death among young people ages 10 to 24. Nearly half of young transgender people have seriously thought about taking their lives, and one quarter report having made a suicide attempt.

Near a homeless shelter she once stayed at in North Philadelphia, Monica prepares to talk about some of the more painful passages in her recovery journey.

Near a homeless shelter she once stayed at in North Philadelphia, Monica prepares to talk about some of the more painful passages in her recovery journey.

Monica has bravely taken steps to shape a future, and I wanted to be a part of sharing her story. She was excited about creating something that could provide hope and inspiration to other youth who may need the help and support that she sought at one time.

When I brought up the idea of creating a video together that somehow reflected her life, she immediately came up with the idea of tracing her past, and documenting her journey from hardship and chaos to a healthier place. I thought it was especially courageous of her. As we filmed together, however, I realized that was also her way of introducing me to her “chosen family,” and honoring those people who helped her stand tall, and move forward, including her best friend Dash; Christian, her mentor and counselor from Camden AHEC (Camden Area Health Education Network); and Mr. Jay and Ms. Ingrid, counselors at the Attic Youth Center. There was sincere brother/sisterly affection and a kind of parental pride in Monica’s achievements to date, and it was clear that she now had a chosen family, filling in many of the supports she needs to make it through life.

Monica talks to her mentor Christian from Camden AHEC while her friend Dash looks on from the bench on the right - chosen family

Monica talks to her mentor Christian from Camden AHEC while her friend Dash looks on from the bench on the right

It was Monica’s idea to include an excerpt of her drag performance in the video, an activity she enjoys immensely. The song she wanted to perform, Journey to the Past, is from Anastasia, her favorite animated musical. The film is based on an urban legend that claims that the Grand Duchess Anastasia Nikolaevna of Russia, the youngest daughter of Tzar Nicholas II, survived the execution of her family. It follows the adventures of an 18-year old orphan named Anya who searches to find some trace of her family. The lyrics are especially poignant when read in the context of Monica’s story:

“Heart don’t fail me now! Courage don’t desert me! . . . Home. Love. Family. I will never be complete, until I find you . . . ”

monica_2 - chosen family

Monica performing Journey To The Past

By reaching out to key area health agencies, Monica was connected with wonderful counselors, supporters and a network of friends that helped her work through her dark days and significant challenges. Today, she is out of the shelter, living in a group home, and has dreams of someday living on her own. She is loved by a group of friends and admirers. And now, surrounded by a chosen family, she now faces the future with hope. She is Monica. She is unique. She is strong. Now complete.

Monica's recent tatoo says "Complete" - chosen family

Monica’s recent tatoo says “Complete”

Monica wanted to call this post “Miracles Do Happen.” However, I don’t think Monica’s story is about a miracle. The changes in Monica’s life didn’t happen by themselves. Monica made them happen. She has an inner strength that has helped her work through incredible challenges, and a determination to face the future (college, dreams of a career in fashion design) filled with possibility, very different from the days of the past. When I suggested a different title for the post, “A Journey Within,” she smiled. “That’s better,” she said. “I like that.”

Monica and Dash sit on the steps outside of The Attic Youth Center - chosen family

Monica and Dash sit on the steps outside of The Attic Youth Center

Follow these links for the resources mentioned in this post:

The Attic Youth Center — LGBTQ youth center in Philadelphia, PA

Camden Area Health Education Center — Promotes health education and services to underserved populations

The Trevor Project — A leading national organization providing crisis intervention and suicide prevention services to LGBTQ youth ages 13 – 24

Transgender Mental Health Blog — Discussions on Mental Health Issues for Gender Variant and Transgender Individuals, Friends and Family

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Glenn Holsten

Glenn is an award-winning director who loves to create compelling documentary story experiences of all lengths for screens of all sizes. He is an avid reader, studied literature in college, and his passion for stories with strong characters and interesting narratives stems from those years. His career as a visual storyteller began at WHYY (the public television station in Philadelphia) where he worked for 15 years before becoming an independent filmmaker. In addition to his PBS documentaries about arts and culture, he has directed films about justice and human rights, and now, mental health. He was emboldened to undertake his current documentary project, Hollywood Beauty Salon, a colorful feature-length documentary about surviving mental illness and finding the courage for recovery, after his transformative experience directing OC87: The Obsessive Compulsive, Major Depression, Bipolar, Asperger’s Movie, along with Bud Clayman and Scott Johnston.

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  • Monica

    C I love me. Don’t be scared. Of life

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