4 People Living and Thriving on the Gender Spectrum

“I feel a sense of connectedness to people around me,” Chelsey told me, “a sense of duty and a sense of purpose.”

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Changes Katherine Trans Man Repeller-13

When the American Dialect Society, a 128-year-old institution, chose “they” — a singular, gender-neutral pronoun — as its 2015 Word of the Year, it was a small but not inconsequential win for a more gender-flexible future. Such a step might seem incremental to an almost defeating degree when LGBTQ rights are still being debated in the public and political sphere, but even tiny shifts in the cultural lexicon can’t be underestimated. Behind such changes are a lot of people brave enough to live honestly and patient enough to educate despite convention being stacked against them.

Thanks to the increasingly mainstream advocacy on the part of activists like Laverne Cox, Janet Mock, Renée Richards, Chaz Bono, Hari Nef and Lana Wachowski, society is inching its way towards better understanding gender identity and the spectrum on which it exists. We have a long way to go before those who identify as transgender, non-binary or gender non-comforming can move through the world with the ease they deserve, but until then (and always), it’s vital that everyone — allies and otherwise — open their ears.

In the case of trans rights (or better put, human rights) advocacy can take many forms, of which one is simply living authentically in a society that urges otherwise. I talked to four people who are doing just that, and asked them to tell me some of the emotional drivers behind who they are and how they’re feeling about the world today. “My younger self had an impression that many things in this life and world were black and white,” Katherine told me. “Now I humorously allow for quite a bit more color.”

Meet her, Exa, Mila and Chelsey below and revel in the colorful case they make for being yourself in a world that’s often too set in its ways.


Katherine Elizabeth Day
Katherine, she/her, is 34, was raised in Mississippi and works as a consultant, writer and artist in New York. Visit her GoFundMe page here.

Changes Katherine Trans Man Repeller-11

What about you hasn’t changed since you were a kid?

The color of my eyes.

Can you tell me about one of the most challenging times you experienced change?

Realizing that I was a woman and that people “liked” me much better as someone I was not. Even today people try to understand me by telling me and themselves that I’m the same person I was before, “just a more authentic version.” But honestly, nothing could be further from the truth. And that’s the most challenging part, having to leave loved ones behind because they literally can’t see me. Those decisions were some of the loneliest, the saddest and the happiest. Coming out on the other side of all that has been one of the most rewarding things I’ll probably ever experience in this lifetime.

I was surprised how after all of this and still remaining somewhat of a recluse, (by the way my Myers-Briggs results report that I’m an INTJ, it was almost the exact opposite before. #truth.) my adult life is beginning to look like I dreamt it would.

Tell me about a conviction your younger self held that you’ve since changed your opinion on.

My younger self had an impression that many things in this life and world were black and white. Now I humorously allow for quite a bit more color. I was raised in a very sheltered and religious home. When it came to God and other deities I did as I was told until those actions no longer served me, which forced me to seek higher and deeper. I laugh at memories of small children asking me if I was a boy or girl in my youth and not knowing how to respond.

What are you currently conflicted or confused about?

There are quite a few things.

People’s wavering support of me following through with my transition.

Some women’s lack of of support of other trans women unless sex is involved.

How Americans terrorize each other daily but are afraid of what ONE man might do while in office, when there’s an entire system in place to keep him checked and balanced (and there isn’t for anyone else).

If we are co-creating this reality are we choosing to be unhappy as a nation?

What do you wish people knew about you?

I am a woman, but stereotyping me and women like me (or anyone) only aids in further alienating us. Stereotypes cure people of the fear of being accepted and smooth over the awkwardness often accompanied by truly getting to know someone, but they’re better left out of the equation. A little bit about who I am: I’ve been singing since I was four, I’m a decent painter, I’ve written two books, I’ve studied medicine, business, art, design, marketing. I’m learning both Spanish and French. I identify as a straight heterosexual woman and I support the gender binary as without it others wouldn’t have the wiggle room they enjoy as gender non-conforming.

Do you feel optimistic about the future?

I do feel quite optimistic about the future. Hope is everything.


Exa Zim
Exa, he/him, is 24, from Nashville, TN, and is an award-winning documentary filmmaker living in Brooklyn. Watch a trailer for his documentary film here.

Changes Trans Gender Exa Man Repeller (3 of 15)

What about you hasn’t changed since you were a kid?

I’m definitely still that weird kid who brings a video camera everywhere. Except now instead of using Bratz dolls as my inspiration, I document the world around me. I recently had a film out in festivals titled “Alexa To Exa” a documentary in which I compiled archival footage of my younger self and told my coming-out story. It was a very personal piece. It’s that drive I have to create and tell a story that hasn’t changed. A friend recently asked me what I would do if I wasn’t a filmmaker and I didn’t have an answer because I’ve been doing what I love from such a young age.

Can you tell me about one of the most challenging times you experienced change?

When I was 18, I moved to New York City for college. I’m from Nashville, Tennessee, so it was a huge adjustment to say the least. In Nashville, people are super friendly and talkative even with strangers, but in New York everyone just stares at you and then privately tweets about it later. Those first few months I was really homesick and wondered if moving to the city was a good idea. I didn’t know anyone except the cashiers at CVS where I spent most of my time buying Pull ‘n’ Peel Twizzlers. As a shy and not-very-assertive person, it took a while before I figured out how to navigate my way through this beast of a city. But I finally did and am so glad I stayed. What’s amazing about New York is how quickly you’re forced to adapt.

Tell me about a conviction your younger self held that you’ve since changed your opinion on.

When I was younger I assumed the only type of “good” films out there were narratives made in Hollywood. However, thanks to the internet and that one “alternative” cashier girl at Blockbuster, I was introduced to all sorts of indie films as a teen and a lot of those movies were LGBT films which ultimately lead me to realize that I was transgender.

Following gender norms was a big thing for me when I was younger as well. I was always so scared I wasn’t going to be feminine enough and often had it pointed out to me that I wasn’t. I always wondered why girls had to do one thing and guys had to do the other. I think if my younger self saw my present self, they wouldn’t even know what to say because of how masculine I dress now. Back then I didn’t even consider that as an option.

What are you currently conflicted or confused about?

I feel very conflicted about what it means to be a man and just a person in general. As a trans man it’s especially hard because my physical appearance doesn’t necessarily match up with who I am. And society tells us at birth that our body parts decide whether we are female or male. Every day, however, it’s becoming a little easier to accept who I am.

I’m finding that while, yes, I identify as male, it’s so much more than that. First and foremost I’m a person and I like all kinds of different things and those things don’t have to decide whether I’m a man, woman, non-binary, etc. At the same time, it’s hard not to see men in the media or even on the street and instantly compare myself to them and think, “If only I was as real on the outside as I am inside.” But what I’m learning is that none of that stuff matters. It’s an everyday struggle for me, but I’m keeping my head up!

What do you wish people knew about you?

I wish people knew how hard and lonely it can be when you’re transgender. A part of me wishes everyone could be trans for a day; maybe the world would be a lot more accepting.

When I went to the movies with my friends the other night and all of us needed to use the restroom afterwards, it was easy for them to walk into the women’s, but I just stood there, unsure, and ended up not going because I got too nervous. Nervous that if I went into the women’s I would get yelled at (since I look very masculine) or that if I went into the men’s I’d get “caught.” I hate going to the bathroom in public.

Most of my friends are cisgender and when we discuss our struggles that’s when I feel most alone. When I’m around my guy friends, I wonder if they see me for who I truly am or someone pretending to be something I’m not. I’ve been trying to get more involved in the LGBT community and meet more queer people. Recently I’ve been going to events at the LGBT Center in Manhattan and also volunteering for MIX NYC, NYC’s experimental queer film festival. So far it’s going well, I even did some gay square dancing (which apparently exists)!

Do you feel optimistic about the future?

I very much feel optimistic about the future! Every day I’m changing and developing into the person I was always meant to be. I’m hopefully going to get top surgery this year and I’m working on a new documentary about mental health in the LGBT community! There are definitely bad days where I think nothing is happening and life isn’t moving fast enough for me, but change is slow sometimes. It all adds up, you know? And the choices you make propel change. I look back on when I moved to New York for college six years ago and so much has happened with me since then when at the time it seemed like nothing.

In the words of Nelson Mandela, “May your choices reflect your hopes, not your fears.”


Mila Adderly
Mila, she/her, is a singer-songwriter, a recording artist and a possibility model living in New York.

Changes Trans Gender Mila Man Repeller (27 of 30)

What about you hasn’t changed since you were a kid?

My spirit. My dreams. Pop music domination.

Can you tell me about one of the most challenging times you experienced change?

The time my parents really understood my journey and “got it.” Yes. A light went on for them. A struggle of right and wrong transitioned to unconditional love. That was challenging! Growing up different, you’re not always prepared for acceptance. You never know where things will land. It’s good to be prepared for conflicting outcomes. On the bright side, time heals.

Tell me about a conviction your younger self held that you’ve since changed your opinion on.

Fitting in will solve your problems! When we’re young, we learn things by emulating those around us. When we discover what makes us different we must embrace that. We’re going to face adversity no matter what life we lead. But it will be a lot easier dealing with life’s curveballs if we can do it while being true to who we are. Conformity does not make us immune to life’s problems. I’ve been that different kid my whole life and have realized conforming to be like others is not only boring but restricts my uniqueness.

What are you currently conflicted or confused about?

How a bullying reality TV President with selfish personal agendas will benefit the great diversity that is America.

What do you wish people knew about you?

That my super dope and super short weekly advice series “HEY JAM” is up on IG. I’d love if people sent me topics they wanted to hear me ramble about.

Do you feel optimistic about the future?

Every day! That doesn’t mean there isn’t an hour or two that I feel the opposite…but hey! Isn’t that life? Come through balance!


Chelsey Kent
Chelsey, she/her, is 28, works as a CPA, is from a small farming town in West New York, and currently lives in Brooklyn.

Changes Trans Chelsey Man Repeller-14

What about you hasn’t changed since you were a kid?

Being particular about my socks. When I was little, my dad would, much to my chagrin, stuff my feet into those socks with lace around the ankle. They are so thin, they have the worst seam under the toe, and the lace felt so alien to my tomboy, Adidas-loving soul. To this day if I feel a bump or seam under my toes I become disproportionately upset.

I’ve also always waited until the last minute to do things. Like answering these questions. My girlfriend kindly says that I’m just “optimistic” about how much I can get done in a certain amount of time.

Can you tell me about one of the most challenging times you experienced change?

Coming into myself was challenging. When I was little, I resented the lace and the dresses. I knew that the girly things did not feel right, but it’s not that I wanted to be a boy. Oppositional sexism is hard for gender non-conforming people like me. Traditional sexism says that men/masculinity is better and more desirable than women/femininity. Oppositional sexism, however, is the belief that men and women are these rigid, mutually exclusive categories. It is the belief that a certain set of characteristics and desires only belong to men, and a different set only belong to women.

When I finally cut my hair and started wearing polos and button-downs, people thought I was either “confused” or that I “wanted to be a boy.” As if only men are allowed to have short hair and wear a polo! It was hard when people felt like they could vocalize their discomfort with me, or stare. But I’ve gotten used to it and don’t really notice it anymore. Now I love when kids in airports look at me with scrunched eyebrows, cocking their head, “Are you a boy or a girl?”

Tell me about a conviction your younger self held that you’ve since changed your opinion on.

That if I went to church enough, the pastor’s daughter would like me back. I’ve changed my opinion based on the result of many trials throughout 7th grade.

What are you currently conflicted about?

Family. I had a rough dinner conversation with my brother and his wife in Tennessee this summer. They are biblical literalists, so the fact that I date women is hard for them to reconcile with their religious beliefs. I wish they could approach the Bible understanding its context and culture, and see that loving God does not preclude them from loving all of me.

Navigating family is hard, especially after this past election. Sometimes it feels like I have to amputate an entire part of myself in order to avoid conflict. But then it’s strange to feel like you’re only partly seen by people who have known you the longest.

What do you wish people knew about you?

That I have a feminine side. For a while, I did feel pressure to only show my tough, boyish side. Because I’m masculine of center, sometimes it feels like I have to fight for my masculinity to be seen as credible. When dating some women in my past, I worried that if I expressed any femininity they would no longer believe my masculinity. That it would somehow emasculate me, or that all of a sudden they would lose sight of me as a whole. The patriarchy affects everyone. My girlfriend says this is the power of femininity — to scare masculinity that much. But really, we’re all a mixture of masculine and feminine traits. Carmen sees my masculinity and believes in it. This has made it easier (and relieving) to express the feminine side of myself.

Do you feel optimistic about the future?

During the Women’s March in New York, I saw these two little girls on their parents shoulders holding a sign up together that said “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun-damental Rights.” This new generation makes me feel optimistic. This past election was sort of like a diagnosis. After the initial shock, we were all able to admit we have a problem. We have issues that were far more serious than we realized. The election sparked conversations that needed to happen and it motivated people to take action. I don’t know if I feel optimism as much as I feel a sense of connectedness to people around me, a sense of duty and a sense of purpose.

Go here to learn more about the transgender movement and find out how you can help.

Photos by Krista Anna Lewis.

 

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