As the courts and the Trump administration grapple with transgender rights issues focusing on bathrooms, 19-year-old Neddy DeSalvo is living his life. He wants what everyone wants — respect, understanding and love.
“I’m a boy,” the Lake Stevens teen said. “I just want to be me.”
DeSalvo contacted The Herald on Monday after the U.S. Supreme Court announced it wouldn’t decide whether a transgender teen in Virginia could use the boys’ bathroom at his school. That decision, which leaves the issue to lower courts for now, follows last month’s move by the Trump administration to roll back federal protections for transgender students.
For DeSalvo, bathroom debates are less significant than how people are treated in all aspects of their lives.
“I’m looking for equality across the board,” he said. Born in Russia, considered female at birth, and adopted at 18 months old, DeSalvo was raised in Chicago. His mother, who adopted him after serving in the Peace Corps, still calls him Natalia.
DeSalvo said his gender identity has been male for nearly as long as he can remember. “I knew I was a boy at 7. I came out and told everyone when I was 12,” he said.
Yet DeSalvo said it wasn’t until he was 16 that he heard the term transgender. “It was the first time I realized there were other people like me,” said DeSalvo, who has a girlfriend and considers himself a straight man.
He has used boys’ and men’s restrooms since age 12. “All we want to do is go to the restroom,” said DeSalvo, adding that it’s more important that people wash their hands than whether or not they’re transgender in a public facility.
To meet DeSalvo is to come face to face with a young man. It’s more than his hooded sweatshirt, baggy jeans or shorn hair. An hour spent with the kid who calls himself “Lil Neddy” is a powerful lesson: Who you are is not a choice.
DeSalvo, who now lives with friends, is about to take a next step into manhood.
Later this month, he is scheduled to have blood tests in preparation to start taking testosterone. On his Facebook page, he posted a document signed last month by a Seattle psychotherapist. It’s a professional recommendation in support of his use of hormone therapy. Later, he said, he may undergo gender reassignment procedures known as top surgery and bottom surgery.
With testosterone, he’ll have a deeper voice, more masculine muscles and facial hair. “I’m excited about that,” he said.
DeSalvo has worked in food service, from dishwasher to line cook, at Fuddruckers in Chicago, a Waffle House in South Carolina, for Panera Bread and other restaurants. His career goals include training in nursing and fire science, and possibly working with Doctors Without Borders.
Growing up, he faced big challenges related to both being transgender and his difficult start in life. DeSalvo said he earned a reputation for fighting in school, in part because he was bullied — and worse. “When I was 12 years old, I was molested by some high school seniors. They thought they could turn me into a straight girl,” he said.
He spent time in residential facilities for troubled teens, the Allendale Association in Illinois and Calo in Missouri. At Calo, DeSalvo had therapy for reactive attachment disorder, which he said stemmed from his infancy in a bleak Russian orphanage.
“I’m proud to be Russian, but I’m glad I’m here,” he said. In recent years, Russia has cracked down on LGBT people with harsh legislation.
DeSalvo also is glad to be in Washington state, where Attorney General Bob Ferguson has vowed to maintain protections for transgender students despite the Trump administration’s change in federal policy.
At 65, Marysville’s Phoenix Benner is glad to see people learning more about transgender issues. Born female, Benner didn’t identify as transgender until after turning 50. Benner, who has been involved with the Pride Foundation in Seattle, credits Caitlyn Jenner’s high-profile revelation as a transgender woman in 2015 with helping educate people. “Thank goodness for Caitlyn Jenner,” Benner said.
“It’s the same way people feel about being male or female or heterosexual,” Benner said. “You don’t choose those things. You just are.”
Today, parents find information and help in supporting transgender children from such mainstream sources as The New York Times and the journal Pediatrics. DeSalvo has his own words of wisdom. “We’re human beings, and just want to be respected,” he said.
For parents of transgender children, his advice is even simpler.
“Love them,” he said. “Everybody’s different.”
Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460; firstname.lastname@example.org.