I stand at the door on my way to school, tears rolling down my face. A long skirt grazes my small, thin legs; a knot clenches in my stomach. It’s the first day of school, maybe second or third grade. Every year, my family insists I wear a dress or skirt to school on the first day, presenting myself as the proper female student. I am not.
What I didn’t know then — and what I am just now starting to explore — is that my discomfort on those first days of school was about more than just clothes. It was about who I am, and, as I now suspect, it was likely about my gender identity.
I do not want to write this now. I want to write another story: one that inspires, one that shows strength and clarity instead of confusion and trepidation. Putting my uncertainty into words is terrifying, yet I know the value of this exercise. Others have shared their stories with me so honestly. Now it’s my turn.
I’m a photographer who has spent the past three and a half years photographing and interviewing transgender and nonbinary youth. I believe this project, which I call “Transcending Self,” has saved lives. Young people write to me often. They tell me that reading others’ stories, seeing trans folk portrayed as whole humans, not outsiders, helps them remember that their lives have value. Transgender and nonbinary youth ages 18 to 24 have a suicide attempt rate of 45 percent, according to a 2014 survey. Learning that they are not alone can be the difference that keeps them on the safe side of this terrifying statistic.
“I would identify as nonbinary or genderfluid — terms I knew nothing about two years ago — if I was your age … I think?!” I tell Leo, an outspoken and assertive 19-year-old trans teen. We’re in his dorm room in Manhattan shooting pictures. It was something I’d been mulling over: I identify with what nonbinary and genderfluid people tell me: not understanding gender, feeling like others are faking it. The effort to fit into categories important to other people that seem constricting to you.
“Why can’t you know?” he asks. He doesn’t understand my uncertainty about how to describe myself. Binaries and their limits don’t exist for Leo or many of his generation. To him, my diffidence may as well be a foreign language. For the past year and a half, I haven’t been able to get his question out of my head.
When I was born, abortion was legal in just four states and only in cases of rape or the health of the mother. A woman could not have a credit card in her name. Being actively gay was still considered both a crime and a mental disorder, and interracial marriage had just become legal. Now young LGBTQ youth not only live in a more socially progressive world; they have access, at least virtually, to endless resources to help them make sense of their lives. And the internet gives them an unprecedented platform.
I had never considered my gender identity until I started this project. When I heard stories of trans boys, forgotten scenes from my childhood flooded my mind. I remembered wanting to dress like a boy: pants, no dresses, no pink, wanting to go topless, taking my fashion cues from celebrity boys or not-yet-out lesbians. I wanted to do “boy things,” like play sports. I wanted to be strong and fearless.
I also chose to paint my room pink and purple. I played with Barbie as well as Spock and GI Joe. I still like a miniskirt with Doc Marten combat boots. I do not fit into boxes.
Tara Brach, an author and Buddhist teacher, talks about what she calls the “spacesuit self.” She says that as we grow, we create a shielding barrier, a spacesuit, to help us navigate the world and protect ourselves. When our needs — for love, security, safety, identity — aren’t met, our spacesuit grows stronger and more protective. The trouble is that at some point, we may become one with the spacesuit and forget who’s inside. We then experience the separation of our true self, and we are left with loneliness, anxiety, and shame. I know too much about all these feelings.
In middle school, I began to craft a spacesuit self so strong that the very being I was disappeared. I borrowed others’ personalities to see if they would fit, if they would fix me. I tried to dress and talk like other girls — and felt like I was wearing drag. I cried when I got my period.
As an adult, I avoided any job that required me to dress nicely. Skirts and dresses, even masculine-inspired suits, seemed to rob me of my very self. My friends and therapists told me I should wear more revealing clothing to show off my body. They told me over and over that this was all because of my low self-esteem. I was told over and over again that I’m “difficult,” or “challenging.” My spacesuit hardened.
A lot has changed this past year, including the election of Donald Trump, the death of my father, the #MeToo movement, and, of course, lessons from my ongoing project. I was blind to a lot of truths. I am now being forced to see them.
In Paths of Life, author Alice Miller says about childhood trauma, “the truth about our childhood is stored up in our body, and although we can repress it, we can never alter it. Our intellect can be deceived, our feelings manipulated, and conceptions confused. But someday our body will present its bill, for it is as incorruptible as a child, who, still whole in spirit, will accept no compromises or excuses, and it will not stop tormenting us until we stop evading the truth.”
Jay is a transgender 5-year-old featured in my project. When his mother asked how he knew he was a boy, he replied: “My heart told me I’m a boy, and I’m copping it.” Jay will be free of the trauma Miller describes.
All humans need mirrors and screens and pages that reflect our inner and outer being. A young black girl who wants to be an artist needs to see black women who are artists. The less we are reflected, the more we are gaslighted, and the harder it is to form our solid selves.
I can’t say how my sense of identity, and my life, would be different if I had grown up in this generation. But I know I wouldn’t be pondering the question. Kids nowadays don’t feel like it’s a big deal to explore your gender. For people of my generation, doing so is much more fraught with anxiety.
I don’t know what my gender identification is. Does genderfluid fit? Yes. Gender-expansive? Absolutely. Nonbinary? I suppose. But I have no idea what that means to me now, and I don’t know if it matters.
I am no longer that young girl. I am older, and what people think of me has become less interesting to me. I’ve also lived nearly half a century as a woman. In that role, I have been harassed, assaulted, and belittled, and had to fight harder for my place in the world. I have made deep bonds with other women. I don’t know that I can leave that space.
Is there a box I can finally put myself in? That I can’t say. What I do know is that in working to create a space for young people to feel like they can express themselves fully, I needed to do the same for myself.
Annie Tritt is a freelance photographer based in New York and since 2014 has been working on “Transcending Self,” a project of photographs and interviews with nonbinary and transgender youth around the world. Follow her on Instagram here.