How Ruex Leon built their gender, found joy in the spotlight, and finally embraced their own untouchable magic.
Ruex Leon arranges their life in a collection of half-vignettes: When they are five, their new foster mother pulls their hair into a rubber band and cuts it off in one snip. "You're going to the barber shop tomorrow," she tells them. "Boys don't have long hair."
When they are fifteen, they wear their sister’s jeans, stitching African symbols into a brown leather belt and wearing it to school as a necklace; when they come out to their biological mother as gay, she says, "You know you're gonna have to dress better, right?"
Now, Ruex’s next door neighbor clicks open a screen door, yelling angry from the porch. Ruex throws one arm out the car window, and when the neighbor, Miss Pauline, sees it’s Ruex, she’s not so mad anymore.
Miss Pauline plants one hand on her hip, mouth bursting into a wide smile. “S’good to see you!” she says, her demeanor changing completely. “How’ve you been?”
“I’m good!” says Ruex. “When it gets warm, we’ll have you over for a cookout!” The neighbor nods, still smiling. Ruex folds their arm inside and the window hums up again.“We love Miss Pauline,” they tell me, pulling their phone from the layered set of scarves wrapped around their hips. “But Miss Pauline don’t play games.”
Ruex doesn’t play games either. They are, in their own words, far too extravagant for only one gender—much too creative to live confined by labels or binary structures. Ruex’s gender is fluid, meaning their expression might change from day to day, dictated by mood or circumstance.
Ruex prefers to use pronouns that don’t tie them to any single identifier or expression. From the passenger seat of the car, a cold sky filling the windshield, Ruex lays out a collection of pronouns that sound sweet as an assortment, like a box of sprinkled donuts: honey, pumpkin, sweetpea, buttercup, babylove. These pronouns are part of Ruex’s persona, part of a larger, deeply layered performance of gender.
Sweetie makes themself vulnerable and then plays up a laugh or tosses out some arbitrary fact (“Did you know that there’s a town where it’s illegal to serve ice cream on top of cold cherry pie?”). They open up, and then pull back, moving seamlessly between the ultra genuine and a heightened persona.
Pulling away from the house, Ruex gives Miss Pauline one last wave, lulling her into the sweet romantic dream of a neighborhood cookout. Ruex can make anybody believe in those kinds of dreams. They can make the best out of anything—it’s all part of their untouchable magic.
“You know,” Ruex says, “I’ve only ever performed one successful spell. But I’m telling you,” they say, wagging a long index finger in my direction. “That kind of thing ain’t no joke!”
Ruex is always half-serious, telling stories that are only half believable. That code switching is partly a survival mechanism, crafted over a lifetime. It keeps the wrong people from getting too close, and lets the good ones catch a glimpse of all the glitter they keep on the inside.
As a kid, Ruex and their younger sister were placed in foster care. “It’s a long story,” Ruex says. “A story for another day.” Ruex was primarily raised by a family of Jehovah’s Witnesses, and for years, they struggled to navigate their identity as a queer and gender non-conforming person. Within the social and cultural context of their foster family’s religion, Ruex wasn't always understood. Because they didn’t have the tools or language to understand themself, they spent years unraveling what it meant to be a man in this world.
Ruex doesn’t speak poorly of their foster family, or their foster father after that; or of their biological mother or grandmother. They all raised Ruex, in one way or another. Ruex respects that; but that doesn’t mean their life has been easy.
Even with their first foster family—lying awake at night, wondering what was wrong with them, wondering why they couldn’t just feel like every other little boy—some small voice pounded against Ruex’s rib cage, whispering over and over, You are something you cannot yet conceive. You are something more.
“All of my friends knew about my gender and my sexuality,” Ruex says. But it took years of unearthing to recognize the legitimacy of their own identities. “With a religious background and the experience of abandonment that foster kids deal with, it was just hard.”
In the most basic sense, becoming who they are now was a noble struggle, to wake up every day searching for something and to go to sleep feeling the same way—roaming and restless.
It was hard to live in places where people couldn’t really see them, places where the complexity of language and identity weren’t on anybody else’s emotional radar. For Ruex, it was about survival. And sometimes it still is.
Ruex wakes up feeling feminine. They dress for the occasion: simpler cuts, more exaggerated accessories. A pair of light-wash jeans sit just at their hip. They’re twirling an opal at the end of a long necklace.
“Fashion is something that speaks to all of us,” Ruex says, one leg crossed over the other at the knee, still twirling that necklace in their fingers. “It’s like playing in paint, or playing with crayons. It’s our most basic form of self-expression.”
“I get that concept of high fashion,” Ruex says. “But the actual reality of fashion is just trying to find the right pair of jeans.” It’s some kind of patriarchal conspiracy, they say, that jeans made for feminine people don’t even have pockets.
In high school, Ruex found a bit of freedom. "I remember when I got my nails painted for the first time in high school," Ruex says, rolling their eyes. "Matte black with ice blue tips." They fake a dramatic groan. "But we had Hall that night," they say, “so I sat on the bus scraping the polish off with a key." They laugh a little from their throat, throwing their head back. “I thought about never going home.”
When honey’s clothes didn’t feel right, they learned to make clothes of their own. When they needed to fill out their lines, they worked out a DIY solution. “Before I went to school, I would take saran wrap and make a sort of corset,” Ruex says. “It gave my body the shape I needed.”
Back then, Ruex was looking for a home. Eventually, they found one part of that home in the scene community. Scene culture and music became Ruex’s very own palace, fun and extravagant and queer. At a scene show in Cleveland, Ruex considered the idea of transness for the first time, not their own transness, but the concept itself. Until then, it simply hadn’t occurred to them.
“I still really love the scene community for what it was and what it is,” Ruex says, tapping the ash of their cigarette out the window. “The concept of gender doesn’t exist there. You want raccoon striped hair? Go for it. You need a weave? Honey, pump your hair, cut your edges, do what you need to do!”
Ruex laughs into a small cough, both amused at their own embarrassing choices and grateful to have made those goofy mistakes at all. They cross their legs and adjust a pile of scarves on their neck. “There is no one way for a woman to dress, or a man to dress,” they say. “When it comes to expressing your gender, you have to make that up for yourself. You have to build that, day by day, and moment by moment.”
Ruex’s gender skews masculine more often than it does feminine. And lately, Sweetie’s been learning how to navigate the fluidity of their gender as it relates to those around them.
Ruex sinks into their chair and explains that sometimes, they unintentionally use a partner's gender expression and identity to validate their own, to act as a kind of complementary counterpart, or coupling.
“The issue with that,” Ruex says, “is that I unconsciously exert control over other people's expressions, and how they need to present.”
Highly melanated people of all genders are systematically denied due process under the law. They’re killed by the police, and it never matters if they’re guilty. They’re gunned down, choked out, and killed in the streets. We can’t deny that.
Ruex asks to borrow a pen. They draw the gender spectrum on the back page of a notebook, not as a linear scale but as a triangular space.
They fill in little circles with the pen—multidimensional points on the gender spectrum that illustrate the spaces between certain benchmarks of our identities, rather than some singular point on a line.
“We tend to think of our gender identities as singular points,” Ruex says. “But, really, people are too complex for singular points.”
Our identifiers and presentations simply describe the spaces in which we might live, dress, speak, work, play, and love. They expand and contract who we allow ourselves to be.
“All the parts of our identities are stars in the same constellation, but they also exist separately,” Ruex says, still holding the pen. “That seems to be difficult for straight, cisgender people to understand,” they say, folding the notebook closed, leaning back in their chair.
“Everything is connected,” they say. “And everything has meaning. I think we’re all just trying to work that out.”
LGBTQ+ Youth in the Los Angeles Foster Care System by Race & Ethnicity
Experiences Among LGBTQ+ Youth in Foster Care As Compared to their Non-LGBTQ+ Peers
A Closer Look at LGBTQ+ Youth in the Los Angeles Foster Care System by Race & Ethnicity
According to a 2016 study published by the Williams Institute, there are between 1.5 and 2 times as many LGBTQ+ youth in the Los Angeles foster care system as there are living in the general population. While a sample concentrated in Los Angeles may seem relatively small, it is indicative of a larger societal trend.
LGBTQ+ youth—and, more specifically, trans, gender non-conforming, and non-binary youth of color—often suffer abuse, neglect, violence, and sexual assault within the foster care system as direct results of their perceived sexual or gender identities. Often, LGBTQ+ youth are raised in group homes, because it is difficult to place them with families who are unfamiliar with LGBTQ+ identities.
Even when trans, non-binary, and gender non-conforming youth are placed with families, they often experience the same kinds of abuse, neglect, violence, and assault that forced them into out-of-home care in the first place.
Experiences within the foster care system among LGBTQ+ youth vary drastically by race and ethnicity. It's important to remember that young trans and gender non-conforming people of color are triply affected by homophobia, transphobia, and racism, and are disproportionately vulnerable to sexual, physical, and psychological violence as a result of their intersecting identities.
In order to better understand the depth and scope of experiences among LGBTQ+ youth within the foster care system, it is necessary to conduct more research on LGBTQ+ youth in out-of-home care to help identify commonalities and differences in lived experiences, permanency rates, health outcomes, educational attainment levels, experiences of homelessness, and reasons for placement. If these and other factors can be identified and analyzed, LGBTQ+ youth—especially trans and gender non-conforming youth of color—can be given additional support through newly designed resources and newly implemented policy.
If you or a loved one are struggling to navigate the foster care system as an LGBTQIA+ identified person, these resources may be helpful.
"My sister used to stay on Cedar, right up from downtown,” Ruex says, their shoes slapping over a thin layer of slush on the sidewalk. “I grew up in the ghetto, and there were times when I lived directly in the hood,” they say, pulling a loose cigarette from the pocket of their jacket. “But this was the projects,” they say, cupping a flame with their hand against the winter wind. “And when my former partner, Sammy, decided to come see me,” Ruex says, the cigarette still dangling from their lip, “I had to give her a debriefing.”
Where Ruex comes from, there’s a big difference between the fear of violence and the legitimate threat of violence. It’s about freedom to express yourself, Ruex says—and about taking a real look at who has that freedom, who doesn’t, and how our social systems allot and deny individual freedom of expression in the first place.
“At the time, Sammy identified as bi-gender, operating on both ends of the spectrum. I told her to make sure her nails weren’t painted, and that her hair looked more masculine,” Ruex says. “I told her not to wear anything pink.”
Ruex folds their tall frame into the passenger seat of a car parked at the end of the block and explains that sometimes, our only freedom is in language. “I love the idea of constantly trying to figure out what to call ourselves,” Ruex says. “Because language is one of the best tools and the biggest barriers. I didn’t know about the concept of gender fluidity until it was taught to me. And it just fit.”
When something fits like that, seamless like a second skin, you can carry it with you and inside of you—through jobs and schools and the roughest neighborhoods—even if no one else can see.
“To me, drag is a gateway to another part of my mind,” Ruex says, eating around the edges of a cookie bigger than the plate it came on. “Drag is a window to another experience of the world,” they say. “But I realize there are parts of the LGBTQIA+ communities that don’t subscribe to that idea.”
Long before queer communities had language to describe the intricacies of transness or gender non-conformity, they had drag itself. Drag is an exaggerated examination and reinterpretation of femininity. But it isn’t limited to cisgender men.
Trans, non-binary, and gender non-conforming people can perform drag and always have performed drag. For Ruex, drag is art, sculpture, camp, and self-reliance. In drag performance, every feminine move they were taught was shameful is suddenly made brilliant under the lights. Performing drag for the first time, after all those years of policing and negotiating the subtleties of their own femininity, Ruex knew they’d finally been witnessed.
"Drag lets me be the part of myself that I was never allowed to express as a little gay boy," they say, still chewing on the cookie. Something like glamour flashes in their eyes, and they’re lost in the thought of the ritual—the feel of a brush against the cheek.
But drag’s history is equal parts nasty and brilliant. At its best, drag is radical and inclusive, full of discovery and personal celebration, a diverse, explorative, and brilliant space to transform what gender is, or what it could be.
But at its worst, drag can be racist, misogynistic, and transphobic, erasing or appropriating drag styles and innovations created by trans, non-binary, and gender non-conforming people of color—like vogueing or elements of drag ball culture. Even current mainstream drag narratives—almost single-handedly shaped by RuPaul Charles—are often transphobic and exclusionary, meant to intentionally narrow the space in which drag and personal identity might overlap.
"Drag is part of my status as genderfluid," they say, "and my expression might shift at any time. But at the end of the day, I can take off my makeup, and I can comfortably present as masculine in this world.” Ruex sighs, still half lost in their daydream of transformation.
I’ve heard gay men speak so horribly about trans women. And I say, Don’t come for my sisters. Because if my sister is in trouble, I’m in trouble. If you talk shit about my sister, you talk shit about me.
Here, they touch on one of drag’s deepest complexities: the ways in which it affects how transgender women are portrayed in larger cultural narratives.
While trans, non-binary, and gender non-conforming people can and do perform drag, trans women and trans feminine people are not drag queens unless they explicitly engage in drag performance.
“At the end of the day,” Ruex says, “I can always change my presentation and still be me. But it’s not like that for our sisters who are trans women," they say, palming the bottom of a coffee mug. “For our trans sisters, femininity is not a snapshot in time. Trans women are women,” Ruex says. “And we must never confuse the drag experience with the trans existence."
Trans women face disproportionately high levels of violence, harassment, and discrimination. And, many trans women cite the misogyny and transphobia in modern drag culture as degrading and dangerous, perpetuating cultural narratives that frame trans women as “men in dresses.”
“Drag gave Ruex the kind of permission they desperately begged the heavens for every night. Permission to be new and marvelous—or to untie the parts of themselves weighed down by shame. But drag doesn’t work that way for everyone.
Ruex brings the steaming mug to their face. “We need to do better,” they say, wiping a smear of whipped cream from their lip with the back of their hand. “Because our liberations are all connected. We need to protect each other,” they say. “We need to focus outward, and tell people who we are. In the end, we need to lift each other up.”
Ruex lets one wrist go limp and leans into a thick southern accent. “Oh, sweetie,” they say. “Bless your heart!” Ruex closes their eyes and lets their voice drip honey, raising one hand to the sky like a little hallelujah. “He’s gonna show you something wonderful in the future!” Ruex says. “Praise Jesus!”
Ruex scrunches their nose and laughs. “My grandmother taught me that,” they say. “That’s how you curse someone out in Christian,” Ruex laughs.
Ruex's grandmother doesn’t have time to be bothered. “Her cholesterol’s too high to be worried all the damn time,” Ruex says. “But make no mistake, she’ll let you know what she thinks.”
“There were times when I wished that I was white so it would be easier to come out,” they say, crossing their arms.
When they started performing drag, their mother was supportive. The two traded clothes (“That bitch stole my favorite bra!”) and shared makeup tips. And when they introduced a former partner to their grandmother, everything seemed to go well. They even looked at family photos together. “It was true southern hospitality,” Ruex says, and they left elated.
But a few days later, while donating plasma, they got a text. “I won’t speak ill of my grandmother,” Ruex says. “But there are some moments I just can’t forgive.”
In an extended text message sermon that may as well have included footnotes, Ruex’s grandmother outlined the ways in which we all fall short of the glory of God. Being gay, for instance. God, she said, could forgive even that. But gender variance: her god couldn’t overlook. Sugar closes their eyes and hangs their head. “She referred to my partner as 'that.'" After a moment, they snap their neck straight again, squeaking, “I didn’t even know she had a damn cell phone!”
Ruex indulged in what they call a “teen witch moment.” They were livid. And even now, the tone of their voice shifts mid-story. “When you take away the concept of someone’s humanity and refuse to respect them as the living, breathing, blood-red entity that they are—when you refuse to acknowledge their sentience and soul?” Ruex says. “That’s something I can’t forgive in anyone."
"Mother is the name of God on the lips of every child,” Ruex says, still ruminating. “My grandmother is the god of my god,” they say, hunching their shoulders. “And this is the way she treats me?”
“She was dead to me,” Ruex says. “At least for a few hours.” Their grandmother never apologized, but something did change. That day at the donation center, Ruex drew a clean line. They demanded respect, and they’ve received it, at least in the form of silence or restraint on their grandmother’s part.
And for now, that’s enough to quell that little voice in the back of their head, whispering over and over, You deserve to be happy. You deserve good things.
Ruex spent a long time praying that God might change them, their little hands folded at their chest asking God why he made them wrong. They don’t pray that way anymore, but those same stinging mantras still linger at the back of their throat and the tip of their tongue.
“I spent a lot of time crying at night, and praying to God asking him to fix me. Asking him, why am I wrong?” Ruex pauses for a moment, a cigarette pinched between two fingers on their lap.
Wet snowflakes slap against the windshield and slide heavy down the glass. “I just wanted to be loved. And I wanted somebody to love me,” Ruex says, dropping the butt of their cigarette out onto the wet pavement.
"That voice always told me, You deserve to be loved,” says Ruex. “And if these people don’t love you, then fuck them.”
Ruex has come to believe in their otherness, in the fluidity of their gender, its value and captivating power. The sun hangs low and pink behind the houses, lawns patchy with brown snow. Honey points one finger at a crooked white house. As I pull into the driveway, an earlier image of Ruex returns: They are in front of the camera, mesmerizing, every slight shift a new and versatile face. Even in silence, they demand to be seen. Sugar dashes away toward the glow of a porch light, and I watch them go— two scarves whipped around their waist in the wind.
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Statistics courtesy of: The Williams Institute's Los Angeles Foster Youth Study: Sexual and Gender Minority Youth in Foster Care, Human Rights Campaign: LGBTQ Youth in the Foster Care System, Injustice at Every Turn: A Report of the National Transgender Discrimination Survey, The Human Rights Campaign's Youth Report: Supporting and Caring for Our Gender Expansive Youth
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