NEW YORK — Until the last year or so, transgender people were little noticed by mainstream news media, except when they became the victims of hate crimes. But recent articles and memoirs by transgender writers, TV shows with transgender actors and characters, and rights campaigns have increased public awareness - and, perhaps, acceptance.
About 700,000 Americans - less than one-half percent of the adult population - identify as transgender: They feel their male or female bodies don't match their true identities. By early childhood, experts say, many declare themselves to be the other gender "on the inside." They are boys who say they should have been born as girls, and girls who insist they are truly male.
As they grow up, many face rejection by their families, discrimination and often violence.
'The wrong body'
Teenagers Nathaniel Baez and Anaïs Celini met at their church two years ago and fell in love, first as two girls. They considered themselves lesbians. Together, they researched transgenderism and came to believe that Nathaniel, who had always felt male, needed to live as a man.
"My whole life, I felt like I was in the wrong body, I felt like I was a guy, a little boy when I was little. I used to want everything that boys wanted," Nathaniel, who is now 19, said in an interview at a McDonald's restaurant near Anais' house in Brooklyn.
Anaïs, 18, dresses fashionably, dyes her hair burgundy and speaks with the poise and thoughtfulness of someone much older.
Nathaniel's huge glasses and quick smile give him the air of a nerdy, likable young man.
"I used to pray to God night after night after night after night after night that I would just wake up in a boy's body, like, just be a guy, and then everything would be OK," he said. "But it didn't happen, because that's not how life works, you know?"
Mother didn't approve
Nathaniel's father was bemused by her masculine ways, but his mother was at war with them, and partly blamed Anaïs.
In 2012, Nathaniel was a senior at Martin Luther High School, a private Christian school in Queens. A week into the term, his mother learned that Anais was enrolled there, too. "As soon as she saw her, she was like, 'I can't let you go to the school any more.' She parked the car, took me out of the school, drove me right to Grover Cleveland [a public high school] and enrolled me there," Nathaniel said.
"I wanted to make her happy, and I felt like there was something wrong with me," Nathaniel said of his mother. "So I did everything that I could to try to be the female that my mom thought she was raising."
He broke up with Anaïs and threw away his "guy" clothes.
"I bought a whole new $500 wardrobe of girl clothes that still have the tags on them, to this day, in my mom's closet," Nathaniel recalled. "And I was like, 'Yeah, I'm going to do this. I'm just going to dress it until I'm straight, as a female.' "
Nathaniel and Anais reunite
The effort proved impossible. He and Anaïs reunited. Nathaniel moved out of his mother's home, to the Chelsea Foyer, a Manhattan residential center run by Good Shepherd Services for homeless young adults. He began working as a store clerk.
Anaïs, whose mother had rejected her for her lesbianism, moved in with her father and began her senior year at Martin Luther High School. She had looked forward to the senior prom since her freshman year, but worried that Nathaniel would not be welcome.
"We already knew we were going to have a problem with the school, because they don't allow same-sex couples to attend prom," Anaïs said. But because Nathaniel now identified as male, and even had an ID card that said so, she hoped the school would let her bring him as her date.
The answer was no, she said. A school administrator whom she asked for an explanation told her that transgender was "unconventional" and not in accordance with Scripture.
"At first I was upset. I was going to sit there and try to convince him," Anais said. "But nothing I could say could really get to him, he would never understand. He's talking about emotions and a mentality that he's never had to go through. He doesn't understand that ... by telling someone they're 'unconventional' - in a Christian environment where you're supposed to be building people up - it's degrading."
Publicizing tale of discrimination
Nathaniel called a local TV station, and the two appeared on a news programs. Martin Luther officials refused to comment, and Anaïs accepted that she would miss her senior prom.
"So, I decided to throw her her own prom," Nathaniel said. He orchestrated a weekend of fun: three nights at a hotel, a trip to an amusement park, a theatrical performance and an afternoon of laser tag.
And then: an actual prom. The staff at Chelsea Foyer had learned about the situation and decided to hold the center's first prom in a show of support.
"We all came together and brainstormed some quick and easy ideas of how do we put together a prom, how do we transform our meeting room into a little banquet hall," said social worker Elizabeth Garcia, who oversees the Chelsea Foyer.
A week after the Martin Luther High School prom, Anaïs and Nathaniel stepped into the party room, where a deejay was playing house music. A tinsel-covered wall threw splashes of light on the dancers, who were residents and staff members alike.
A royal reception
Some wore masks; Nathaniel had suggested a "Phantom of the Opera" theme. At the end of the night, guests voted Nathaniel and Anaïs prom king and queen.
Later in June, they'll march in New York's Pride parade, a symbol of the increased prominence of trans people in the gay-rights campaign for equality. Anaïs plans to go to college in the fall, and Nathaniel will continue working and saving money for his own apartment. Their fathers both accept their relationship.
"Even though two years doesn't seem like a very long time, we're at the point now where others' opinions, whether they support [us] or not, are irrelevant," Anaïs said. "We know the work we've put into being with each other. We know the fight we had to go through, and what we mean to each other.
"So, yeah, whether they support it or not, I love him."