"I Realized The Only Person Who Can Change My Life Is Me"

Photo: Brad Barket/Getty Images.
Daniella Carter is 20 years old, but she seems to have lived several full lives. Raised in foster care, she came out as transgender at age 14, and was cut off by her conservative Christian parents. For the next several years, she lived in the New York City subways — while attending high school every day.

After finishing high school, she founded a global advocacy group, Gender Global, appeared in a Laverne Cox-produced documentary, and is currently working with Start From Here, an organization fighting youth homelessness. She has spoken at awareness-raising events around the world. Last week, she spoke at the White House. Now, she's speaking with us.

Daniella told us about the hardship she faced growing up, how things started to turn around for her, and why she’s dedicating her life to helping others.

You're in a car right now, just coming from an event at the White House.  How'd you end up here? 
"My story starts in foster care. I grew up in foster homes, from when I was 18 months old until age 14, when I decided to leave. I left because I was facing a lot of trauma — physical, emotional, and sexual abuse from the very individuals who were instructed to keep me safe.

"My foster parents at the time were very, very religious, Pentecostal, and I knew that to express myself authentically, I couldn’t live under a religious roof. I had the understanding, from early childhood, that my gender identity was not going to be accepted.

"So, I made the choice to live on New York City subways."

How did you get by?
"I started engaging in survival sex at a very young age...at night, so I could have a place to stay and pocket money. Sometimes, I would take showers in the street and sometimes I would steal food from grocery stores. It was completely for survival — it was a lifestyle of survival." 

But, you stayed in school?
"I did. While I was homeless, staying on the subway, I went to school every day. I didn’t have a lot of support at that time, but there were faculty and others who helped me — fed me, and gave me car fare. No one knew that I was homeless; they knew that I was struggling, but not the extent of it.

"I realized that the only way I’d be able to redefine my life, my role as [either] a victim or a survivor, would be to get an education."

Were you completely out of contact with your foster parents?
"Well, I started transitioning around sophomore year. I remember I called home after one time I’d been brutally attacked by some peers at the place I was staying, and I called my mom and said I need to come home. She told me that I’d made a choice and I needed to deal with what happened to people who chose to be gay or transgender. I said that I didn’t understand, growing up I’d experienced sexual abuse. I said to her, 'One of our family members molested me for several years when I was a child — what about that? Was that a choice?' She said, 'What?' and hung up the phone. And, I knew that when she hung up the phone it was her way of saying she was walking out of my life."

When did it start to turn around? 
"I was raped and robbed in the street last year, held at knifepoint, in New York City. And I had this moment: I remember, I was standing on the street, on East Tremont in the Bronx, and I said to myself, This is your life, Daniella. Right now, [people] look at you and they see a transgender, African-American victim. What are you going to do differently? Not what is my social worker going to do or what is my mentor going to do, what am I going to do?

"I ended up applying for an internship program and getting into it, and there I found a friend, who’s part of my support system now. I remember opening a Marie Claire and telling him, 'I’m going to meet her,' Janet Mock. He was like, 'Girl, she wouldn’t give you the time of day.' Two
months later, I met Janet Mock. I went to her book signing. A year later I was in Laverne Cox's documentary. [Ed note: The T Word, which was just nominated for a Daytime Emmy.]

"That year was when I started doing advocacy work. I realized I had a powerful story and that I was either going to take this pain and trauma and turn it into freedom and success, or I was going to end up committing suicide. I just asked: Are you going to allow all these organizations to do the work for you? No. The only person who can change my life is me."

There's a stat in the video you made (below) that's pretty surprising: There are 2.5 million homeless youth in the U.S. What's one thing you'd want our readers to know about youth homelessness?
"This is an issue for all of us. We need to have a conversation — one that's not age-specific or gender-specific or race-specific. I mean, 2.5 million, that number must have grown, and that means for years we weren't having that conversation. The first thing is to talk about it." 
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Correction: An earlier version of this article wrote that Daniella was in Janet Mock's documentary. The documentary was produced by Laverne Cox.
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