Learning to Treasure My Own Life
Gabriel Vidal gains the courage to live true to himself.
by Gabriel Vidal
Living Buddhism: Thank you for sharing your experience with us. Can you tell us what life was like growing up?
Gabriel Vidal: At an early age, I knew I was different. I struggled with my gender identity, and I found it difficult to accept myself because I based my happiness on whether others accepted me. Because I lacked self-worth, I engaged in reckless behavior, like drinking excessively and abusing drugs to the point where I found myself in life-threatening situations.
When did things change?
Gabriel: I accepted the fact that my gender assigned at birth did not match my true gender identity; inside I knew with all my being that I was meant to be a transgender man. I was 20 by then, but even with this realization, telling others was painfully difficult and scary. Some friends were confused and rejected me outright, while others wanted to support me.
Fortunately, I had grown up in a family that practices SGI Nichiren Buddhism. During this difficult time, I instinctively knew in my heart that by receiving the Gohonzon and practicing consistently, I would be making the greatest cause to embrace myself first and foremost.
How did things progress from there?
Gabriel: As I began transitioning into my true gender identity, common things like using a public restroom filled me with anxiety. I was verbally and physically attacked while waiting in line for the women’s restroom. Even when I tried to explain my circumstances, I was repeatedly told that I didn’t belong. These experiences shook my life. At other times, I was followed on the streets, questioned about my gender and harassed, and even denied employment due to my identity. All this abuse made it easier for me to devalue my life.
My Buddhist practice became my lifeline, and through solidifying the basics of faith, practice and study, a sense of mission and hope for my future began to emerge from within me. As I chanted Nam-myoho-renge-kyo every morning and evening, studied Nichiren Daishonin’s writings and SGI President Ikeda’s encouragement, participated in SGI activities, supported behind the scenes through Gajokai and Soka Group shifts, and shared this practice with others, I reaffirmed that my life was meaningful.
My efforts in my Buddhist practice also began to inspire me to have determination and hope for the future. I began challenging myself at work, and pursuing my dreams and goals with the same spirit as I did my Buddhist activities. As a result, my self-destructive tendencies began to diminish.
How inspiring! What did you learn during these difficult times?
Gabriel: In early 2016, I hit rock bottom after a breakup, and my feelings of worthlessness resurfaced. I was still letting other people determine my happiness. I would give so much to others with the expectation that they would accept me and confirm my self-worth.
Around this time, I moved to another part of the city, and fortunately, the young men’s leaders of Northeast Los Angeles Chapter began contacting me. They encouraged me to attend SGI activities. With the support of many SGI members, I began chanting earnestly to transform the negative tendencies in my life.
One day, while sitting in front of the Gohonzon, I read the following encouragement from SGI President Ikeda: “Buddhism concerns itself with winning. When we battle a powerful enemy, either we will triumph or we will be defeated—there is no middle ground. Battling against life’s negative functions is an integral part of Buddhism. It is through victory in this struggle that we become Buddhas” (Buddhism Day by Day, p. 218).
Then it hit me that it’s up to me whether I win or lose, and, ultimately, I wanted to win!
How did your life develop after making this determination?
Gabriel: First, I realized that my problems didn’t stem from the fact that I was transgender and that people didn’t accept me. I came to realize that, on a fundamental level, I didn’t accept myself.
Based on this realization, my life took on deeper meaning, and I began viewing my mission as a youth organizer on the Eastside of Los Angeles in a different light. As I embraced the purpose of the SGI as my own—to help all people break through their struggles and become absolutely happy—I began to experience an incredible joy I had never felt before.
I understood that supporting others in faith was helping me to become happy and see my own value. The SGI and President Ikeda’s guidance showed me how precious my life is. With a new sense of confidence about who I am, I embarked on a goal I set two years earlier to have gender-affirming surgery.
This must have been a difficult process for you.
Gabriel: Yes, it was. Even financially, I did not know how the surgery would be possible, but through persevering in my practice, I had an incredible breakthrough: I learned that I was eligible for health insurance through my mother’s employer that covered transgender care, a rarity among insurers.
With this victory, my surgery was set for March 2015. However, I didn’t want the surgery to be another moment where I was seeking happiness outside myself. Once again, I challenged my fundamental darkness and, as difficult as it was to accept, I turned down the surgery. I broke down, feeling conflicted, disappointed, embarrassed and selfish for turning down something I had wished for all my life. But I remembered my determination to win, and that I needed to trust the power of the Mystic Law.
I chanted with every ounce of my being, with an unshakable spirit, with the desire of a happiness that is not dependent on what others expected of me. For the first time, my prayers in front of the Gohonzon were filled with deep courage.
Months passed and, by September, I was once again ready to follow through with my surgery. In December, I had not received a call to schedule my surgery. I was nervous, knowing that in January I would turn 26 years old, and would no longer be covered by my mother’s insurance.
What happened next?
Gabriel: I continued to chant with all my might to fulfill my mission for kosen-rufu and to not be defeated regardless of the outcome, and, out of the blue, I received a call from the doctor scheduling another surgery for mid-December, exactly one month before I would be taken off my mother’s insurance. The procedure usually takes four to six months to be scheduled, but they offered me a surgery date within two weeks!
By this time, I had defeated the feeling that I was doing this surgery for someone else. I was able to fully embrace my life for all it was, whether I had the surgery or not.
My gender-affirming surgery was a complete success. It was covered at a low cost and the timing couldn’t have been any better.
Through this process, I gained conviction in my inherent value and that of others. This has been my greatest benefit.
On December 31, 2016, shortly after my surgery, I was appointed the Northeast Los Angeles Chapter young men’s leader!
What kind of efforts have you been making as a chapter leader?
Gabriel: I truly enjoy home visits and sharing Buddhism with others. And through our united efforts, our chapter has welcomed 41 people to the SGI this year!
The young men always teach me something about myself, and I feel it’s my fortune to have this responsibility. Leadership also helps me deepen the oneness of mentor-and-disciple relationship in my life because I can look to the guidance and example of the three founding Soka Gakkai presidents to learn the spirit of leadership.
If I’m ever discouraged that someone doesn’t answer my calls or texts, I remind myself that it’s not about me, but about their happiness. It also pushes me to chant more for others and make efforts to raise capable youth.
Sometimes, I have the fear that guys won’t want to connect with me because I’m different. In those moments, I have to remember that if I think that way, I’m not seeing my own Buddhahood and the unlimited potential in others. I return to the Gohonzon and seek guidance. That always opens up something in my life.
Recently, I took on responsibility as the Los Angeles North Coast Lion’s Roar Zone future division young men’s leader. I want to do everything I can to uplift the future division members and support them in the spirit of the oneness of mentor and disciple. It’s such a crucial time for our kosen-rufu movement, and I am determined that the future division will play a critical role in advancing peace, together with Sensei!
Next year, we have the 50,000 Lions of Justice Festival. Have you set goals toward the event?
Gabriel: With the tremendous breakthrough I had last year in confronting my fundamental darkness, I’ve developed a new sense of hope in my life.
I will advance my dream to build value-creative cultural spaces and communities for youth, particularly for those who lack access to music, art and education. And I will continue to do my human revolution by winning over myself and in my work as a youth mentor and organizer with a nonprofit organization that seeks educational change in the community of Boyle Heights on the Eastside of Los Angeles. You can also count on Northeast Los Angeles Chapter to bring 75 young men to the festival!
What does this festival mean to you?
Gabriel: I am deeply inspired by second Soka Gakkai President Josei Toda’s Declaration for the Abolition of Nuclear Weapons and the SGI’s peace efforts for the past 60 years. Through studying this history, I’ve realized how important it is for us to be proactive and stand up to injustice as well.
Martin Luther King Jr. stated, “All that needs to happen for evil to prevail is that good men do nothing.” I believe that this is what our gathering of “50,000 Lions of Justice” represents—people coming together to take action for the happiness of their lives and others.
My SGI family always encourages me to take full responsibility for my human revolution, and it has become clear that the expedient means for my inner transformation lies in how I contribute to our kosen-rufu movement.
With our gathering of Lions of Justice, we have the opportunity to shine a beacon of hope for all of humanity through sharing the philosophy of Soka and helping one more person believe their life is valuable. This is what Buddhism has done for me.