Being Marissa

Marissa Taylor has known who she is since she was four years old. It was the rest of the world that had trouble figuring it out

Erica Viegas - 19 December 2015

Marissa Taylor opens her front door with a warm, welcoming smile despite being nervous. She politely offers tea and a short tour of her home. Introductions are made. Questions are posed. Throughout, she is composed, thoughtful and slightly cautious. And then she is asked to sing.

Suddenly, she has an air of sophistication beyond her 24 years. High soprano tones, honest and vulnerable, soar through the room. She holds her head high as all eyes are glued to her.

Marissa struggled for years to find her voice. Once she did - onstage in front of a crowd at the University of Alberta's Camp fYrefly - she was determined to help others find their own voices.

Marissa was born Chad - a bright-eyed baby boy with thick, ebony curls. Adopted by Carmen Gerrard and her family, his life at home was filled with love and affection. In the community beyond, fitting in was not quite so easy. For one, his racial heritage was different than that of his adoptive parents.

But there was more than that.

As a child, when Chad chose his own clothes, he picked out dresses and high heels. Gerrard brushed it off as a phase, until the day they visited the zoo. Her son climbed onto a high, rocky ledge, poised to jump, and told his startled mother: "I want to die so I can go to heaven and talk to God. I need to tell him he put me in the wrong body. I'm supposed to be a girl."

He was four at the time.

Psychologists confirmed a diagnosis of gender identity disorder, not suprising to Gerrard, who had written her nursing degree thesis on transexuality.

And so began a double life for Chad: pants and T-shirts for kindergarten, tutus and glitter after school. Despite the solace found at home, he struggled to keep up two identities. Depression and suicidal thoughts came frequently throughout elementary school.

The family fought for permission to have Chad register for junior high school as Marissa, a female student. Her student records were recreated under a new persona. Only select teachers knew the truth, but it didn't take long for word about Marissa's identity to leak out. Some teachers treated her horribly. Even the thrill of being asked to her first sleepover quickly died when she was cornered by classmates demanding to know why she used the staff bathrooms.

Fearing for her own safety, Marissa was forced to continue keeping the secret of two identities, though she was now living only one.

She was 22 when a psychologist first told her about Camp fYrefly. She was skeptical. But even though she'd undergone gender reassignment surgery, Marissa was exhausted by years of living a double life. She thought the youth leadership camp run by the Institute for Sexual Minority Studies and Services at the University of Alberta sounded like a place where she might feel less alone.

More than 1,000 young people have attended Camp fYrefly since it was founded in 2004. The camp - funded entirely through philanthropic support - offers sexual and gender minority youth the opportunity to develop leadership skills as well as personal resiliency and the tools to challenge prejudice wherever they find it. There are currently camps in Calgary, Edmonton and Saskatchewan, and the University of Alberta is working to raise the funds to expand Camp fYrefly into a national program.

For Marissa, the camp was truly life-changing - an opportunity for her to meet other young people with stories like hers. Her moment of truth came onstage. "For the camp talent show, I planned to sing," she says. "When I was introducing my piece, I said, 'I'm Marissa and I was born a boy.' The feeling of saying that out loud was incredible. A lifetime of keeping secrets, and it was the first time I had ever said that."

Two tear-filled standing ovations followed.

During the car ride home, Marissa vowed she would never be silenced again. Now, she does what she can to inspire others, sharing her story with hundreds of young people through fYrefly in Schools, a donor-funded Camp fYrefly outreach program for both young people and educators at junior and senior high schools. She is also helping her mother write a book about her experiences.

For Gerrard, the camp - and the donors who had the vision to bring it to life - were nothing short of her family's salvation. "Camp fYrefly saved Marissa's life," she says. "We decided to personally support the camp because it could help other young people like Marissa .… They welcomed our daughter and gave her the tools to thrive as the person she was meant to be, and now we are helping others in the same way."