JACKSONVILLE – Ryan Stalvey, a transgender high school student from Jacksonville, Fla., is doing all the things a typical teen does as they start a new school year. He is getting new clothes and catching up with friends he hasn’t seen since last year, but Stalvey is also worrying about whether the state is going to force him to live in an abusive household.
Stalvey, who is 16, currently lives with a foster family. In May 2014 he came out to his parents as transgender.
“I didn’t know what trans was,” Stalvey says. “I knew that I was queer in some way and my biological mother knew it, too. That’s when she stopped showing me any kind of affection.”
When Stalvey discovered what transgender meant and realized that’s what he was, he told his biological mother. That is when, according to Stalvey, the abuse started.
“I was at school and I was dressed in male clothing,” Stalvey says. “When she saw me, she dragged me outside and started swinging on me in the parking lot.”
Stalvey says the abuse continued from May 2014 all the way to Jan. 2016. That’s when Stalvey got the help of another transgender student at his high school.
“We met in my school’s [Gay-Straight Alliance] my freshman year; he was a junior,” Stalvey says. “I didn’t think I would meet another trans person when I went. I just stood up and said, ‘Hey, my name is Ryan; I don’t really want to be here. I’m probably the only transperson at this school.’ He stood up and said ‘I’m trans too,’ and I hugged him, and we were kind of best friends from there on out.”
Stalvey became close with the entire Dennis family. They eventually became his surrogate family and he told them of the abuse. In Jan. 2016, they helped Stalvey to record it.
“My foster family helped me catch my biological mother choking me, hitting me, basically abusing me,” Stalvey says.
Stalvey’s biological mother was arrested for domestic abuse and Stalvey went to live with the Dennis family. The charges were dropped in May after Stalvey’s mother completed 28 hours of community service and attended two training sessions at a local LGBT center. Stalvey says that his brother leaked the video of the abuse on Tumblr.
“Immediately it went viral. I got a lot of support from my peers at school, and my teachers, because a lot of people didn’t really know what was going on, but I guess it kind of shed a light on what happens behind closed doors for kids,” Stalvey says.
Stalvey says even though his biological parents have indicated they do not want him back, they are refusing to give up custody to the Dennis family.
“They are making my life very difficult,” Stalvey says. “Now that I’m 16, I wanted to get a job and get my driver’s license, but I am being blocked by them because they are still my legal guardians.”
The Dennis family is in the middle of a custody transfer right now, but the process is going slower than normal because of Stalvey’s biological mother.
“We have a joint custody paper that’s been signed by my foster family, and we’re just waiting for my biological mom to sign it; she’s holding off on signing it, but it’s a process,” Stalvey says. “If I follow a few rules –I have to stay in school, I can’t get into any legal trouble, stuff like that – as long as I keep my grades up and I keep doing what I’m doing by Feb. 15, I should be out of all this.”
The attention Stalvey has gained as a result of the video has been a double-edged sword for him.
“When the video and everything went viral last year, my teachers found it and they started treating me differently out of pity, which I don’t like,” Stalvey says. “Same thing happened with some students. They all start treating me differently out of pity and I was like, ‘Look, this doesn’t change who I am; this has always been happening.’ I’m alright now. I’m out of the situation, kind of.”
The spotlight has also allowed Stalvey to be an advocate for LGBT youth rights, especially for teens who are experiencing situations similar to his. In a Tumblr post, a 14-year-old female-to-male trans teen wrote that he was also being abused by his parents.
“I want to help in any way I can,” Stalvey wrote back to him. “Sharing my situation wasn’t just to raise awareness for my abuse, but the abuse of others as well. Please stay strong and please message me. Hang in there and know I’m rooting for you in the meantime.”
On social media, Stalvey’s supporters are using the hashtag #RiseforRyan to raise awareness to his case, and even organized a rally for him late last school year.
“We had a lot of support, although we also had a few people show up and threaten us,” Stalvey says. “Surprisingly it was all old guys. Luckily, we had the Jacksonville Sheriff officers who were there to protect us and even some local bikers came to watch out for us and support us.”
Stalvey says this situation has taught him a lot, but most importantly it has taught him what family really is.
“Family isn’t always blood. Your family is people who have your back and you also have their back. Someone you can trust, not someone you’ve grown up with. They’re just people who care for you, people who genuinely care for you,” he says.