First Published in The Guardian, Friday 7th August.
This morning, I got out of bed, put on a yellow vinyl miniskirt with a tight black-and-white striped crop top and posted a picture of myself on Instagram. I often post selfies online and today the comments range from “Slay, Tyler!” to “WTF! Is this a boy or a girl?” to “rehab would be the solution”.
Later, on the street, a man standing two feet behind me yells, “Damn, I wanna smack that ass! You look so good!” I don’t respond. I am a poet who sings, and later, after a performance, a 60-year-old hugs me and tells me how wonderful I am. But on the train home, the people sitting opposite whisper about me, trying surreptitiously to take pictures of me on their iPhones.
Five years before actor Laverne Cox became a household name, five years before Miley Cyrus said, “I don’t relate to being boy or girl, and I don’t have to have my partner relate to boy or girl” and five years before Caitlyn Jenner would share her transition with the world, I came across the term “transgender” for the first time. I was 20 years old and attending Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee – if it is possible to “attend” when you are depressed to the point of not being able to get out of bed. I happened to discover a YouTube video of a trans man documenting his first year on testosterone. When I shared the video with some of my close friends, they mostly replied, “Oh, wow, that’s cool.” I didn’t know how to tell them what I was screaming internally: “This might be me!”
I was brought up in Florida, the only daughter of a single mother, who was always working to support us. I spent 11 hours a day in school and, during holidays, at summer and winter camp. I was very solitary – the quiet, smart kid the teachers used as an example to others – so I had plenty of time and freedom to experiment with my clothes and my identity.
At 17, I was sitting in a psychology class when I found myself admiring a girl in the corner of the room. I spent weeks struggling to pull my eyes away from her and, every afternoon, would spend hours Googling my way into my sexuality: I think I like a girl. Am I gay? Over the next two years I voraciously watched The L Word and South Of Nowhere (both dramas that centre around lesbian characters), trying to work out where I fitted in. I read autostraddle.com – an entertainment/news website and community resource for “girl-on-girl culture” – and was part of an LGBTQ messageboard, but I knew something was wrong. Instead of feeling relief upon discovering that I was what other people would call a lesbian, I felt guilt, as though I were an impostor. I knew I was not like the girl I admired from the back of the classroom. I was not like any girl I had ever known. I did not know any more than this.
As time went on, I attempted to embrace the word “lesbian”, but it wriggled away uncomfortably. I didn’t know how to embody sexuality like the girls I attempted to identify with on television. I wondered if I needed to have sex with a girl to finally feel like a lesbian, but the idea of having sex with anyone felt so distant from my everyday desires that I was not sure how to, or if I even wanted to. Every day was more isolating than the last. Where could I find a place to exist if I didn’t even feel at home within myself?
I have always felt like a walking brain, living in my head while everyone around me seemed to have some innate understanding of their bodies: how they moved, what they desired. As a young child, the only desire I had for my body was to grow a penis, but as soon as I hit puberty and came to an understanding that this would never happen, I gave up on the fantasy. I replaced those dreams with dreams of bigger breasts, thinking that if I somehow developed attributes that were deemed “womanly”, I would start to feel that way, too. Neither the breasts nor the feelings came, and I wandered through adolescence feeling absent and hollow.
As a young child, the only desire I had for my body was to grow a penis
Learning about the existence of transgender people for the first time, at college, allowed me to start imagining a future for myself. Researching trans issues became a round-the-clock hobby: instead of going to class, I endlessly watched videos of trans men at various stages in their transitions, read blogs about gender identity, researched the effects of hormones, and tried to piece together my identity and my future. After eight months of exploration, I decided I wanted to start hormone replacement therapy, and I started coming out to friends and family as a transgender man.
To help them understand, I opened up about the gender dysphoria I had experienced throughout so much of my life, and I asked them to use a new name for me, and new pronouns (he/him instead of she/her). Most, though not all, of my friends were understanding, and I have always had the support of my mother. She was the one to help me with all the logistics, from legal paperwork to doctor’s appointments. After just one appointment with the gender therapist, I was deemed “transgender enough” (meaning I knew how to say “I feel trapped in the wrong body”) and was given a prescription for testosterone. I was thrilled at the prospect of hormones – I imagined they would bridge the gap between my body and my true self.
The next year was incredibly exciting. My body was growing and changing, and my life was shifting along with it. I dropped out of college, got a role on The Glee Project 2 (a reality TV show in which contestants compete to win a guest-starring role on Glee) and moved to Los Angeles. Every day brought new surprises. Waking up with a different shoe size? Cool. Waking up to shoot a music video? Cooler. I was singing every day and my vocal range became unpredictable; I mourned the loss of my high notes, but was ecstatic every time the lower end of my range increased. Everything was changing so rapidly that I could barely keep up, and the fact that I still felt disconnected from my body did not help. As a result, I rarely reflected on whether or not I had made the right decision by transitioning. As my voice became more stable and my beard filled out, the novelty of manhood and of puberty slipped away, and I found myself slipping back into depression. I attributed this to everything but my newfound identity: the pressures of being on TV, hating Los Angeles, feeling lost in terms of my career when the show ended (I didn’t win the role on Glee). It wasn’t that I was in denial; I just assumed that my identity was a done deal – that I had figured it all out.
After being on hormones for a year and a half, a voice in the back of my head told me to stop taking testosterone. I didn’t feel like a man; I didn’t even know what feeling like a man meant. My breaking point came when I sat in my closet for two hours, talking to the camera in my laptop about feeling lost. This video was solely for catharsis, and for my own eyes. During that two-hour session, I came out to myself as a non-binary person: someone who does not identify with either binary gender (man or woman).
I had recently come across the concept of non-binary gender identities while reading blogs written by trans people. At this point, gender fluidity and gender neutrality was not being discussed in the media as it is today by celebrities such as Miley Cyrus and Shamir Bailey (a singer who said, “To those who keep asking, I have no gender, no sexuality and no fucks to give”). Back then, I had never seen the topic addressed publicly, or by anyone in my life.
The pronouns I use are not ‘he’ or ‘she’ but ‘they’, ‘them’ and ‘their’. These feel as neutral as I do
Realising that I could no longer live as a trans man was both terrifying and freeing. What next? What would people think? I had never seen anyone transition from a binary trans identity to a non-binary trans identity, so I had no point of reference. I was completely on my own, unaware of how my body or my brain would change post-testosterone.On my first day off the hormones, I shaved just one of my legs. To me, this symbolised my confusion and made a statement about the current state of my gender identity: in flux. Rather than trying to force myself into any gendered stereotype, I allowed myself the freedom to experiment with how I looked and which pronouns I used. Some days I would sport a beard and bright red lipstick; others, I would shave and wear a beanie with a button-down shirt. I stopped asking myself what it meant to want to do certain things or look a certain way and just let myself follow my desires without analysing them. My journal entry from 13 May 2013 reads: “I’ll figure it out someday. And then I’ll be confused again someday. Maybe that’s just how the cycle goes.”
I have been out as an agender, or genderless, person for about a year now. To me, this simply means having the freedom to exist as a person without being confined by the limits of the western gender binary. I wear what I want to wear, and do what I want to do, because it is absurd to limit myself to certain activities, behaviours or expressions based on gender. People don’t know what to make of me when they see me, because they feel my features contradict one another. They see no room for the curve of my hips to coexist with my facial hair; they desperately want me to be someone they can easily categorise. My existence causes people to question everything they have been taught about gender, which in turn inspires them to question what they know about themselves, and that scares them. Strangers are often desperate to figure out what genitalia I have, in the hope that my body holds the key to some great secret and unavoidable truth about myself and my gender. It doesn’t. My words hold my truth. My body is simply the vehicle that gives me the opportunity to express myself.
The pronouns I use, and that other people use to refer to me, are not “he” or “she” but “they”, “them” and “their”. These pronouns feel as neutral as I do; any others feel like sandpaper against my skin. Friends say, for example, “Tyler? They love to sing, and I love hearing their voice.” Many people tell me that my pronouns are grammatically incorrect; however, they use “they” as a singular pronoun on a daily basis without thinking twice about it. When telling a story, Person A will say, “I met up with a friend from college last night!” Person B will respond, “Oh, cool! What’s their name?” In this scenario, Person B does not know the gender of Person A’s friend, therefore defaults to a gender-neutral pronoun. This is the only appropriate way to refer to me. Upon meeting people for the first time, I typically ask, “What are your pronouns?” and inform them of mine as well so we know how to correctly refer to each other. I also use only neutral terms to describe myself including: person or human (not boy, girl, man or woman), child (not son or daughter) and sibling (not sister or brother).
Reactions are incredibly varied. Some people use my pronouns correctly, some use them on and off, saying they find it too hard, and some flat-out refuse, which I feel is a way of invalidating my identity. When Miley Cyrus brought me to the amfAR Inspiration Gala (for Aids research) as her date earlier this summer, posting on Instagram that I was “a queer, biracial, agender person, whose pronouns are they/them/their”, I was pleasantly surprised that the conversation around my gender and appearance was positive overall (though I knew I looked fantastic in my plunging dress). However, I feel as if I am constantly defending my humanity to people who refuse to attempt to understand me, and who perhaps wish I did not exist at all.
Using a public bathroom requires a mental script every time: “Yes, I did read the sign on the door.” “I’m just here to pee, please leave me alone.” “I don’t want to be here any more than you want me here, but there is no gender-neutral bathroom in this vicinity.” I often feel drained and defeated by this ordeal – the anxiety of trying to avoid bathrooms, waiting until I can’t bear the pressure on my bladder any more, the discomfort that comes with using a bathroom that does not align with my gender identity, all on top of the potential for harassment. When getting dressed in the morning, what I wear does not always align with how I feel, but how safe I will feel upon leaving the house. Going out at night often requires swapping that yellow vinyl skirt for black skinny jeans: I know what happens to people who look like me on public transport, or while walking home at night (they are assaulted, and sometimes killed).
Though I do experience things that most straight cisgender people (those whose gender aligns with their assigned sex) will never experience, I would not trade who I am for anything. I am proud to have challenged what I was taught to believe in order to figure out what resonates with me, and for the first time I feel at peace with my body and my identity. In the mirror, I am just Tyler: a beautiful brown person with curly hair and sparkling eyes.
Growing up, I had no idea who I could become, because I never saw anyone in the media who looked like me. I wish I had even known the term “transgender”, or had access to information to better understand myself as a child and as a teenager. It is not easy to gather statistics on the numbers of people who identify as agender. Non-binary people have always existed, but we are only just beginning to be acknowledged by the media and only just gaining mainstream visibility. Had I seen people like me – or Ruby Rose, who appears in Orange Is The New Black and identifies as gender fluid – earlier in my life, I would have had context for my feelings. Perhaps I would have spent fewer years feeling alone.
This is why it is important for me to be an out, visible non-binary trans person, and to use the platform that I have to express my genuine thoughts, feelings and experiences. I write an advice column for LGBTQA+ youth because I want young queer trans people to see me doing what I love and think, “Wow, someone like me exists and is surviving and thriving.” It is important to hold a mirror up to trans youth to show that being who you are and following your dreams are not mutually exclusive.
Tonight, I went to a small nail-painting party with two trans friends. We modelled different colours, complimenting each other’s choices and coordinating our nails with our outfits. Sitting cross-legged on the floor in a white T-shirt and black shorts, I pasted a black nail transfer on my middle finger that reads, “Go away.” I didn’t feel secure enough to throw this finger in the face of the man who laughed and took a photo of me on my train ride back, but upon arriving home safely, I take my own photos. Looking at myself, I see love, resilience, strength and beauty. I smile, finally recognising my essence in my own reflection.
The Guardian. Friday 7th August. Tyler Ford