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The Emancipation of Shea Diamond

Shea Diamond

The rising transgender vocalist reflects on coming out & surviving the foster care system.

As told to Justin Moran

I had a rough start with my family. My mother, who endured a very rough childhood, had me at 14 years old and ran away from home, but her step mother wanted to keep me. When her sisters and brothers came down from Memphis to take her to Arkansas, she wanted to take me with, but her step mother wouldn't allow it. She got a shot gun and said, "You're not taking my baby," so my mother decided to leave without me.

Five or six years later, I was reunited with my mother when she came back to Arkansas and stole me. When they found me, I didn't have any clothes on--I was walking barefoot in a dark room, wearing only women's pink panties. I don't know if that means anything to my older self, but that's all I had on. They grabbed me and brought me back to Memphis.

I knew very early on that I was different. I was a curious child and that curiosity was largely towards boys. I was always told I was too feminine when I was walking, talking and gesturing, so I played a more masculine role to hide that. I was 7 years old at the time, and putting on a facade. I lived most of my childhood in my imagination, so although I pretended to be the gender I was assigned at birth, I created moments to live my truth in privacy. I often used the women's restroom, although that always got me in trouble.

Related | Shea Diamond, No Longer In the Rough

Because my family knew there was something different about me, my five uncles were told to roughen me up. It was, take the boys out and play football, but I didn't connect with that. I was overly sensitive, I cried a lot, and I explored my sexual curiosity very early on. At 14 years old, I couldn't hide my truth anymore--I didn't want to hide my truth anymore. My mother found semi-nude photos of this drop dead gorgeous guy I was in a play with. She whooped me and that was the last straw. I wasn't living. I'd spent my entire existence trying to make everyone else happy, so I ran away from home and never looked back.

The night I ran away, my school was having a talent show. It's the biggest day our school had, where everybody would come from surrounding parts of the city and state. Everybody was looking forward to me being in the show, because although I was shy, music was always my thing. I was an outcast, I was awkward, I was too feminine to hang with the boys and even too feminine to hang with the girls sometimes, but people were drawn to my music.

I called my best friend that night, who'd been in a play with me where I played a character coming out and considering suicide. I was considering the same scenario I had performed in that role, and my friend was very understanding of the situation. This was a person I sang with--we sang in churches, we sang in schools, we sang at the mall, we sang on the bus. To come out to him that night was very uncomfortable for me, but I had no where else to turn.

He told me about a place in the city for runaway kids, but said I had to be in the talent show first. I didn't have anything to wear because I literally ran away from home in a jumper. I wasn't dressed for a talent show whatsoever, but went ahead and performed anyway. My performance turned out good and it was my first time singing alone in public.

Afterwards, I went to the runaway shelter, but it was temporary. Once I'd exhausted my stay there, it came to the decision: either I could go back home or I could become a temporary ward of the state. My mother never came to visit and we never reconciled, so I chose the latter. I was tossed from foster home to foster home, but only the worst ones. I couldn't have access to the better homes, because I was one of the undesirables. I wasn't small and I was dark-skinned. These were homes where you didn't know if the foster parents would return home at night or not. At the time, I was in plays and doing really good--I'd go to auditions or rehearsals, and by the time I'd get home at night, it would be too late for me to eat. The refrigerator was locked, so I'd go to bed hungry.

The center for foster care had awesome counselors, so I communicated my situation to them, and they removed me from that home. I was transferred to an emergency home, which was a caucasian family. Back then, they didn't mix races in foster homes, either. This was a rich family and a complete unit. They had a mother and a father, caucasian children and swimming pools. I was like, Oh my God, this is amazing. But there was a situation that was traumatic for me in the home, where the kids knew I couldn't swim and threw me into the water. I was about to drown because they couldn't pull me up and carry my weight. The foster father jumped in and saved me, but that was only a temporary home, so I ended up homeless once again.

There was a sweet, sweet woman named Mary that came to the foster center and saw my spirit. During a meeting with the counselors to talk about my home placement, she was listening in on the conversation. At this point, I was fully in my transness. I remember she said there was something about me. She said to me, "Don't cry. You are destined for greatness," and that was the first time anybody had ever told me that.

Throughout my life, religion was thrown into my face, and I was told my lifestyle was an abomination. I was told I'd go to hell. I was told I wouldn't become anybody because I'm trans. This one person, who I'd never met before, told me I was "destined for greatness" and took me with her. That was my last foster home ever. Mary cared for all her foster kids, and she cared for them even after they were out of the system. When I was emancipated at 17 years old, the state helped me get off my foot and attend cosmetology school, but Mary helped me get my apartment and furniture. She was truly a mother and really believed in me--finally.

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