For transgender people like Emily Prince, even explaining how they identify to the rest of the world is a struggle.
"Imagine going through life every day and having so many of your interactions involve somebody trying to give you a hug and stepping on your foot while doing it," Prince, a 31-year-old trans woman in Alexandria, Virginia, said. "And then when you ask them to step off your foot, no matter how polite you are about it, they respond with, 'Oh, excuse me, I was just trying to give you a hug.'"
Many transgender people, who identify with a gender different than the one assigned to them at birth, feel misunderstood by the general public. As a minority group that makes up less than 1 percent of the US population, they can often feel detached from the rest of the world. And the world, in turn, constantly pushes its prejudices against trans people — by treating them as "others" or identifying them by the wrong gender.
Trans communities are made up of people with stories and experiences to tell — some greatly shaped by their gender identity, some not. With this in mind, I reached out to dozens of trans people to understand what their lives are like. Here is what nine of them told me.
I accepted that being trans is part of my life's journey around 24 years old. It was a long-term realization, from birth to the moment I decided to live socially as a male.
I've always presented my gender by dressing the same and acted like the same person. But it was at that point that I realized I could undergo medical transition. I wasn't aware of that previously.
But I don't know if it was a feeling or anything. At that moment, I was just like, "Oh, this is a possibility for you." I thought it would make sense because I would live a much happier life if I was able to medically transition.
I was totally fine with my gender as a youth, although I behaved masculine. But it's only because I wasn't aware of the possibility.
For me, it was definitely a journey. I use that word — journey — because it contrasts from a definitive time stamp. It's not that simple for a lot of people.
When I was in college, maybe about 18 years old, I saw a book at the LGBT center called FTM. I had no idea what that meant. I was like, what's FTM? I opened the book, and it changed my world. It blew my mind. Ever since, I knew it was a possibility.
I was about 6 years old when I picked up that I'm trans.
You know how kids describe what they want to be when they grow up, like a firefighter? When I was 6 years old, I said I wanted to be a woman when I grew up. Similarly, to have people at that age grow up and realize they're not going to grow up to be a firefighter or that it takes a lot of work to be a firefighter, that's how I identified with being trans.
I realized something was wrong when I was 3 years old. I've always seen myself as female. I tried to come out to family numerous times over the years when I was younger.
I couldn't really tell them, so they took me to therapists. The therapists would say they understood and just tell my parents I'm depressed, put me on all these medications, and ignore the fact that I'm trans.
It was more than depression. It was more about having to fake who I was for so long. But once I started transitioning in 2012, I haven't had any depression of any kind.
The first recollection I have that something was amiss was when I was 7 or 8 years old. I had a dream where I was on board the Enterprise from Star Trek. There was this transporter accident, and I switched bodies with this girl from my second-grade class. Instead of freaking out, I was like, "Oh. Hey, this feels kind of nice. I like this."
I had a lot of vague inklings like that until I started transitioning.
If I knew this was a legitimate thing — that I wasn't crazy — I would have transitioned much sooner. I definitely had that period where I wasn't sure if these feelings were right to have. I wasn't sure if these feelings were a result of something psychologically wrong with me, or some sort of sexual fetish. I had to realize it wasn't a problem.
Ever since I could remember, I'd always felt I'm a guy. From the age of 2, I would tell people I'm a boy. I even came up with a boy version of my birth name, and I would tell people I'm that. It was just never a question in my head. It wasn't until I was older that I got some pushback on that.
I would fight my parents. I didn't want to wear dresses or pink and purple. I would want them to call me "he." It was always a battle whenever it came to gender stuff. I wouldn't play with any "girl toys," as I called them. It was very extreme from the time I could talk.
There were varying points in time when I knew something was different about me. I didn't put all the pieces together in a way that I was ready to declare to anyone until after law school, when I was 22.
I remember when I was 15, being online and presenting myself as a girl in internet relay chat. I also remember around that time watching TV shows that I knew were coded for girls, and hiding it because I knew that wasn't what I was supposed to be doing. At a younger age, I remember playing with Barbies and also hiding it. I remember knowing that my clothes didn't feel right to me, even as a little kid.
But I wasn't able to tell anyone I was trans. The first time I said anything, I said to the Lambda Legal group in the University of Virginia that I'm the "other one" — meaning the other gender. The first time I told anyone I'm trans was my therapist more than a year ago.
I knew from a very young age that there was something different about me. I didn't have a name for it. As a child of the '50s and '60s, I came from a conservative, blue-collar family with a Catholic background. It was a different era than right now. So I never acted on it.
By the time I was 20, I had graduated from high school and joined the military. It was probably during that decade in the '70s that I realized what I identified with.
By that time, it was a bit stressful for me. Being in the military, that was one of the things I would be discharged for. That helped me deeply suppress it.
I was married. I had two beautiful, wonderful kids and three grandchildren. I worried about my kids and my spouse if I came out in the military, because I would be without a job.
I went through my three-plus-decade career. I deployed twice, in Europe and the Middle East. But as I neared retirement, I became less comfortable with coming home.
Throughout my career, there would be occasional interludes in which I would be my authentic self. I would do that for a very short period of my time. Then the fear would creep in, and I would purge everything and try to get it out of my mind.
When I was 8 or 9 years old, I started to have this feeling that something was different about me, but I didn't know what it was. One time, my dad and I were in hardware store. I had shaggy hair back then. An older guy bumped into me and said, "Oh, I'm sorry, little girl." My dad went off on this guy. "No! He's a boy!" What's funny is I look back at that and remember I wasn't offended. I was a little confused, but I didn't think much of it. So there were little hints even back then.
When I went to college, that was the beginning of the internet taking off. I would voraciously consume all the information I could possibly get about transgender people and the process of transitioning. But I was incredibly adept at making up reasons I couldn't be trans. "You can't be trans because you like girls," I would tell myself. "You can't be trans because you like sports."
As I got older, I went through a process in which I started doing things in part because they were the things that "normal men" do and these things would quiet my feelings. I got engaged, I got married, I had children.
But throughout this entire time, I was absolutely a miserable human being. I was deeply, deeply unhappy. It led to other problems in my life. I had a period in which I was absolutely lost in internet porn. It's not something that's fun to talk about, but it's one of the ways my feelings presented themselves. That led to problems in my marriage, and I was unfaithful in my marriage. All of these things came from this problem of having this hole really deep within myself that I didn't know how to fill.
Looking back, I had a lot of gender dysphoria starting at a young age — probably 5 or 7, I'd say. I wasn't open about it for a long time. Going through primary and secondary school, I was completely closed off even to my family.
It wasn't until shortly after high school when a suicide attempt brought a lot of that to the surface. I was kind of forced to deal with a whole lot more about myself than I usually had. I kind of came out to myself about being transgender.
My family loved me for who I am, and that's how it's always been. Although gender is not your sexuality, they supported me when they thought I was a lesbian. So coming out as someone who identifies as male wasn't as difficult as I probably thought it would be.
I'll post pictures on Facebook. I'm seven years into my medical transition now, but I'll still post pictures of things that have changed. And my family comes up and says, "Looks great," and all these things. It's really a great, supportive environment. I am lucky enough to not have had any issues with family members. I like to think it's quite fascinating for them to have me in the family because I've gotten to educate them through my work and my life experience.
My dad had multiple sclerosis growing up. That took priority in my family. There were a lot of times when I really wanted to open up about my issues with gender but I really couldn't, just because there was something else in the room that took priority.
I was sort of a mess coming out. It came out in pieces. I told strangers a lot. It was a way to work through saying I'm trans without any consequences.
For the most part, my family took it quite well once I explained a lot of it to them. It's been a mixed process.
I used to have a horrible relationship with my mother. Since I started transitioning, it's been very positive, because she's seeing I'm happy now for the first time in my life. Because she's seeing the happiness in me, I guess we now have a closer bond.
But I also have some uncles who refuse to acknowledge my existence now. One uncle refuses to talk to me at all. The way my mom puts it to me is that he thinks I'm dead to him. I was really close to him before, but he cut off the relationship entirely because I'm trans. It still upsets me.
My ex-wife knew about me being trans before we got married. But she just didn't want me to transition. I thought I could cope with it. She wasn't shocked when I finally said, "I'm done being miserable." I still keep a good relationship with her.
With my kids, who are 7 years old, it's been extremely positive. I used to be so miserable that it would reflect in my daily attitude and how they viewed me. They were, to a point, just not happy to be around me. Now they're extremely happy to be around me, and we spend lots of time together. I go to school meetings with them. I'm very involved in their daily lives.
My kids just adapted to it. The first year, I asked them if they wanted to call me daddy or if they wanted to call me something else. They told me they wanted to call me Katie. About six months after I started transitioning, they told me they liked me much more as Katie than they did as daddy.
My mom has been amazingly supportive. She's been pretty enthusiastic about the whole thing. She still remembers the day and date I told her "I want to be a girl" for the first time.
My little sister, five years younger than me, is okay with it.
My father, I was a little bit worried about. He was okay with it, but around the time I started transitioning my parents started going through a divorce. It added more stress to me during my transition.
[My parents] are the most supportive people that I know. One of the reasons they were so supportive is for so long I was very depressed, and my parents realized being able to transition would help a lot. Resources were very limited at the time, so my parents had to decide to support me and be the ones to push the issue in school.
The only real time I've had any pushback from my family is when I started taking hormones. Before, it wasn't anything medical or surgical. I think the medical aspect made it harder for them to accept.
I know my mom had a hard time adjusting. She's not questioning the fact I'm trans. I think it feels for her like she's losing a daughter — and I think she's been struggling with that. It's when she had to see it actually happen. But she's come a long way. I think it's finally come to her that she's not losing me; it's just I finally look like I should have from the start.
I came out to my family in October 2013. They threw me a party to celebrate, which should tell you how supportive they are.
My mom — I love you, Mom! — was a little confused at first. She didn't get I wasn't telling her that I'm gay. She thought I was telling her that I'm gay. But she realized pretty quickly, because we started talking about hormones.
My immediate family — my mom, dad, and brother — is very accepting. It was hard for them at first getting the pronouns and the names correct, just because they were scared of telling someone who didn't know. But they did a fantastic job in the end and were fantastically supportive.
I came out to my extended family several weeks later.
I should mention I have a very communicative family. We chat online with iOS's messenger service. If you ever lose your reception, you'll come back to 100 or so messages waiting for you.
No one messaged me specifically for about a week. At first, I thought it was rejection. But they were just living their lives. Some also didn't know what to say because they were worried about offending me. But I took it the wrong way, and I cried so hard. My mom had to talk to them and clear up how I felt about it. They then let me know that I'm still part of the family, and it's been fantastic ever since.
Several months later, I came out to my grandmother in person, who, not surprisingly, isn't on the messenger service. I drove up to New England and told her I'm Emily now. She, who's turning 90, was fantastically accepting and has completely adopted me as one of her granddaughters. She has been amazing.
So my entire family has been accepting. I don't have any family member who has rejected me.
After I retired, I began to work as a teacher in the US Army Force Management School. At this point, I began experimenting more. I only presented as a man in the schoolhouse. I was always a female outside the work environment.
I came out to family to very mixed emotions.
My older brother told me a few things that stuck with me because they were so hurtful. He told me he wanted to keep his children from me. Then he told me he had to protect my grandchildren from me. Subsequently, when we still had communications, he tried to avoid telling people about it.
My younger brother was accepting, although I'm not totally sure to what extent.
My ex-wife was accepting at first. But in the long run, peer pressure from her sister and brother caused her to recoil. I haven't had any contact with my ex for eight or 10 years.
The bright side is my two kids are very happy. They like me more. Not that I was a bad, but they like me better now. That makes total sense, because I like myself much better now.
Around 2008, I came out to my then-wife, now my ex-wife, and told her, "I have to transition." For a period of time there, I thought we might stay together despite everything else — the things I had done to really wreck the marriage. At that time, I also came out to my parents and close friends.
But for a lot of complicated reasons, I had a freakout and scrambled back into the closet — a couple months away from starting hormones. In July 2012, I started hormones again. I went full-time as a woman in December 2013.
I haven't talked to my biological father for 10 years. So I'm not sure if he even knows about this.
With my mom, who's much more central in my life, it's been a process of steady evolution. At first, she didn't really understand. There wasn't outright hostility, but there was a lack of understanding, questioning whether it was a phase, and concern about my well-being. To give some credit, she had read about how difficult life can be for trans people, and she was really worried about me going through that.
But my mom has really come around. She's one of my biggest supporters. Our relationship is a lot better now. It's closer. My stepdad has also been very good.
My little brother, who's 18 years younger than me, has been great. He didn't skip a beat. He went from calling me bro to calling me sis, just like that.
One person surprised me a lot: my very, very conservative grandmother. I was girded and expecting some unpleasantness with her. But she has been really, really supportive.
They weren't receptive to me transitioning or me being trans for a little while. The relationship was very tense then. But they didn't cut off communication or attempt to tell me flat-out that I was wrong.
It's still awkward with my siblings. They don't like to talk or really acknowledge it. I wouldn't say they aren't supportive of LGBT people, but I don't think they've had any contact with trans people before me. The lack of communication might have a lot to do with me being different now than I was a year ago, more than being uncomfortable with transgender people.
My parents have come a long way. For a while, they just didn't talk about it. In a lot of ways, I think they were just hoping it would disappear if they didn't acknowledge it at first. It wasn't until I tried to start hormones that they started arguing with me, saying it was a mistake. I wasn't a minor anymore, so I could proceed with it myself — although it was a little tricky financially without their support. Once I started transitioning socially, I think they got a lot more comfortable with the fact that this was something I wanted to do and that this was more than me just trying something.
I've experienced racism in a completely different way than I did when I was perceived to be a woman. I definitely have more sympathy and compassion for black men than I did when I wasn't one.
People police me a lot more than they did before — by that, I mean literally police. People feel they can touch me more without my consent. I'm physically stopped a lot. People are visibly uncomfortable around me. I'm always considered to be stealing things.
There are a lot of moments of my life where I'm like, "Wow. How are all black men not crazy at this point? How have they not been driven insane by racism?" The way they're treated is so sad. Everyone thinks you're a criminal all the time.
A lot of my work is in the tech industry, where there aren't a lot of black men. I was recently going to an event here in Oakland that was held by a private group. I walked in the place, and this woman literally grabbed me, stopped me, and said, "This is a private event. You're not supposed to be here." Those things happen to me all the time. People always tell me I'm not supposed to be in places without even asking me.
It's a whole new experience. Living in this world being perceived as a black man, I'm still learning. I think that's the major focal point of my transitional journey: how to remain sane living in this world that discourages black masculinity so much.
The more time I spend as a woman, the more of a feminist firecracker I become, and more involved with women's issues. It really shocked me when I transitioned and started passing as a woman how differently women are treated in society compared with men. I knew I was passing well when men started harassing me.
My overall opinion of the male gender has steadily declined ever since I started transitioning. Preparing to go out on a walk around the block in a city or in a downtown area, I now worry about whether I'm alone and whether it's dark and whether I'm safe. And even if men don't street harass, there's a lot of leering. Even if I stare at them back with a look that's asking them what the fuck they're doing, they continue to stare at me. It bothers me. Stop staring at me!
Another huge pet peeve that really, really bothers me is how people assume I'm straight. Before I transitioned, I was a straight male. Now I'm a woman and still prefer women.
But people assume I'm attracted to men. People ask if I have a boyfriend and what I look for in a man. It's a really uncomfortable position to put me in. If you assume I'm attracted to men, it puts me in a position in which I have to come out, which can cause some sort of awkwardness or tension, or I have to keep my mouth shut and give you the wrong image of me throughout the conversation.
I don't understand why people assume other people's sexuality. It drives me nuts.
I don't believe in "it gets better." I think it's too simple. Life gets better in a number of ways as we get older, but it's messy. It will get better, it will get worse, it will get difficult, it will get confusing. It's fucked up. It will be beautiful at times, but it's not always going to be.
Be so stubborn. Be unbelievably stubborn. Be so stubborn that you're screaming your heart out every chance you can get. Do everything in your willpower to get the resources you need.
When I was younger, my dad was really sick. His situation took priority in the room. If I could do it all over again, I would have been aware that his situation took priority in the room — but I would have screamed at the top of my lungs that I'm trans. It would have saved me years of defense mechanisms that I had to build up and eventually had to break back down.
If you're trans, be so unbelievably stubborn that somebody has to listen to you.
Don't be afraid of wanting to be yourself. That was a fear that was shoved on me when I was younger whenever I showed any sign of being feminine.
Even if you have friends or family who push you away, there's always going to be people who love and care about you in more ways than you can realize.
A way to get people to understand is by making them aware of their own gender identity. You ask them about what it would take for them to change their gender. Would a woman take $5 million to start growing a beard and never cut it off? Would a woman take $100 million to have surgery to remove her boobs and never have them back? Would a woman take $500 million to change into a man and never change back? Most women would probably say no.
If you go into why they're answering no, they'll usually say that it wouldn't feel right. That's what you lock into. Take that sense and imagine if you had been born in the opposite body. Imagine if you wanted to stay a woman but you had been born into a male body. That's what it feels like to be transgender.
When I ask people that and go through that process, they'll say, "Oh, I get it now." It can go a long way to making people more understanding.
I spent many years hating myself when I was younger, and I was sure it was never going to get better. But I'm so glad I'm still here, because I never could have imagined how happy I could be with myself, my body, my friends, my life, the experiences I've had, and the people I've known.
Find a support group. That might be your family. If it's not, that's good, too. My life is filled with people who have made their own families.
Build up a social network outside of your family of origin. You don't know how your family of origin will respond, so you need to have people who will have your back when you do come out to your family of origin.
Another thing is to let those support groups know when you are coming out. So if people try to shut off their kids from the social network or do something else that's bad, at least someone on the outside would know and could try to help.
It gets better. It really does.
I admire the younger people who are much more forward and open with their gender identity. It's just wonderful that they can do it.
But for those struggling, it really gets better. It's much better now than it was years ago. There are lots of open transgender people now who are really successful. There's no reason why being transgender should stop people from being the best person they want to be — and, in fact, it can enhance the person you want to be. It certainly did for me.
I've met a whole lot of people who attempted suicide, hurt themselves, or are on the verge of it constantly. It makes me really sad to think people see that as the only way out because of the way people reacted or the way society reacted to them being trans.
If you're in a position like that, get to someplace with more support. There are plenty of places that have a lot of people who want to help. I found that in my community. There are a lot of people who've gone through what I've been going through. They know how to help. I wish people would find that.