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She doesn't care if you accept her, as long as you respect her

Mary Jane Taylor finds strength walking quietly among the dead.

In dark times, she visits Oaklawn Cemetery in downtown Tampa. She stares at names on cracked and dilapidated headstones. The 18-year-old sits and imagines she is among the bodies there, underground. She thinks about the desperate night she almost put herself among them. She wonders: Which of the people under these headstones died with regrets? What color was their skin? Could they live out their true identity? What did transgender people do 100 years ago?

"Do I want to leave this earth being another transgender woman that was a sex symbol, that was uneducated, that was not taken seriously? That was considered a joke?" she asks herself. "Or do I want to be the transgender woman . . . the person . . . that opened the door for the young boys behind me, for the young girls behind me?"

She imagines some of these bodies were like her. Trapped, judged, preyed on, disrespected and denied opportunity because of who they were. Being among them steels her. In the end, she will not lie down with regrets. She says the people buried in Oaklawn pushed her to stop sleeping with multiple people, to stop being that girl in the car with married men, to go back to school, to raise her grades from F's to B's.

She doesn't care if you accept her. She respects your beliefs, whatever they are. She says that you don't have to love her, or even like her. But you must respect her rights. Do not deny her the chance to succeed. Do not block her way as she strives to better herself.

Mary Jane recently graduated from Jefferson High School. She is enrolled in summer classes at Santa Fe College in Gainesville, studying international business. She plans to transfer to the University of Florida, attend law school and become a civil rights lawyer.

Contact John Pendygraft at Follow @pendygraft.