The COVID-19 pandemic is scary, so it’s strange to admit that it has had a weirdly positive impact on my life. I have been living in poverty for a while now. I did not grow up poor but rather became poor.
I grew up in a white middle-class family in rural Mississippi with both parents alive and together. We lived in a small town and went to church every week. I was fortunate enough to get an amazing high school education not typical of the state, and I got into my first choice of college on a scholarship. Based on all of that, it seems unlikely that I reached this point. At worst, you would think I could move back in with my parents, but that is not an option for me.
The Cost Of Not Being Allowed To Be Yourself
After doing more research, I wrote a letter to my parents coming out to them.
From a young age, I remember having issues with gender roles, and I started questioning my identity as early as seven. In third grade, my school kept me inside during recess every day — I was being attacked on the playground by a larger group of boys for my perceived queerness. After that school year, my parents pulled me out of school to homeschool me. Homeschooling meant sitting down with a book and teaching myself the material while my mother was working. From this, I learned how to teach myself whatever I wanted to know and developed a passion for learning.
Around eleven, I discovered the term transgender. After some research, I realized that this term described how I felt, and I learned about the conflict between the transgender community and the Christian religion I had grown up in. After doing more research, I wrote a letter to my parents coming out to them. I provided multiple resources I had been researching, using religious explanations about why who I am is okay. I had hope that they would accept me, that I would be able to finally be myself. But that was not the case.
What followed my coming out was years of conversion therapy, self-denial, and development of escapist coping strategies. During my freshman year of college, I began drinking excessively and doing everything I could to not deal with the reality of my life. Towards the end of my second semester, my grades were dropping and I was on the verge of losing my scholarship. I was struggling to get by, and I realized I was gradually killing myself. If something did not change, I was going to be dead soon, and none of it would matter.
Coming To Terms With My Identity
Suddenly the world became a much more hopeful place.
Over the next year, I started seeing a therapist in order to come to terms with my identity. I started coming out to friends and getting ready to tell my family that I was going to transition. When I told my family I was starting to transition, I lost their financial support. With the stress, my grades had fallen and I had lost my scholarship. I knew this was coming, but saving up a safety net for it meant admitting it was true — that my family was going to cut me off and not accept me. When I came out, I had enough money to get through another month and that was it. I had several thousands of dollars in student loans, and I was unable to cover the cost of continuing school.
To get by, I started working in cafes full time. I knew a lot about coffee, and it was something I was passionate about. I thought that discrimination laws would protect me, and everything would be okay. But then I got fired because of customer complaints, then it happened again, and again. Job hunting became even harder, and keeping a job became impossible with my transition. Despite how the cafe owner or manager might feel about me when customers threaten to stop coming because I work there, that was the end of my job.
When the U.S. shut down, I was between jobs, and I could not find work anywhere. I was getting by on my tax return, then the stimulus check, and support from support funds and a virtual tip jar. Then my application for unemployment was finally approved. Suddenly, the world became a much more hopeful place. Even just the $600 a week provided by the CARES act is more money than I ever made working.
Because of my low and often sporadic income, I learned to keep my expenses as low as possible. Most people budget by seeing how much money they are able to spend out of their income and managing costs, but for me, budgeting was simply making sure my income could meet my basic needs. This meant living with little to no discretionary spending. For example, I have not spent any money on clothes in over a year. I was only able to spend money on basic resources I needed to maintain enough physical and mental health to keep going.
This necessary, frugal lifestyle allowed me to save up the first emergency fund I have ever had, and because I have not worried about what I am going to eat, I’m able to spend time on myself and my health. I’ve been taking the time to learn new things. I’ve been able to network and look at starting a new career outside of the service industry. Without this money, I would have never thought about leaving the service industry because I couldn’t plan for the future beyond survival. For all the talk about bootstrapping, the truth is, a lump sum of money would help many people living in poverty get on their feet more than anything else.
While much of what is happening is scary, this time is giving me hope for the future. Soon I hope to find work in a new field related to my goals with the comfort of a financial safety net. I will be able to pay off my loans and save to cover medical expenses that might as well be another debt. These medical expenses have been a dark cloud over my head that I thought I would never be able to afford, adding to my sense of hopelessness. Now I see a way forward, however long it may take.
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