It was 2007. I sat down on my bed in the 7 X 10 square feet bedroom I’d just started renting in Chicago. I pulled out my computer and powered up. My mind began to race– YouTube, transgender, sex change. All of these terms that I’d never heard before were now in front of me. Earlier that week, my then girlfriend (now wife) had told me about several of her friends in college who were transgender and their transitions. At the time, I had no idea what the hell she was talking about.
My previous experience with the online queer community was on LiveJournal, and I was a proud member of the “Boyish Girls” group. My identity to this point had been as ‘something in the middle’– no label. As I look back on it now, I felt like the blown wisps of a dandelion floating through the air. To others, I was a lesbian on the butch side. I’d allowed others to define me based on my outward appearance.
My Mac computer started buzzing. On its last bit of battery, I opened Yahoo, typed in “YouTube,” hit ‘enter’ key and waited. Within five seconds, a window of links popped up. I clicked on the first one. I was redirected to a strange page full of videos. I clicked on a few of the homepage links– a cat running around someone’s house; a demo of a self-directed vacuum- the Roomba? Of course the next video I watched was of a pack of dogs being goofy, the pugs were tilting their heads back and forth to the different intonations of someone’s voice. Finally, my eye diverted to the search button. My fingers sat on the keys thinking….which term should I use? I hesitated, but decided on Transgender. I hit enter and in stormed a window with 10 videos– five from the same person. Clicking on the first video, I met “Mel” a person from the southeastern part of the US.
As I watched my first V-Log, my jaw began to drop. For the first time in my life, I’d heard someone else describing what it felt like to be perceived as a woman but not feeling like that identity fit them. Mel’s description resonated strongly with so much of my own experience. I couldn’t believe it. My mind began to race. What did this mean? How can this be? Had I been living under a rock? The ability to change from female to male exists? Could I possibly have a different gender identity? I felt like this could be a piece of information that could change my life.
Mel was the first person I’d ever seen (to my knowledge) who was transgender. Watching his journey as he filmed a weekly video, I soon saw the changes that hormones had on his body. They were amazing. At the time, I wasn’t ready to accept why I was so enamored with watching these videos. My fears of addressing my gender identity overpowered my ability to accept what I knew to be true deep down. I was terrified of what might happen if I even thought about transitioning. Would my family accept me? Could I find happiness? Would I be successful in my career? These questions were a constant merry-go-round in my head. I decided I needed to take a step back and keep this information to myself.
Over the next few years, I secretly absorbed others’ stories and the transformation of their bodies and identities. Watching week to week, the noticeable changes were fascinating. With medical intervention, I watched some with quickly dropping octaves within a few months. Others were challenged to attain the changes they so desired and struggled while the hormones helped them live more authentically. Aside from the medical aspect of transition, I noticed how comfortable in their skin these ftm and mtf individuals became. I wanted, and hoped, that someday I could feel a sense of identity and not be a lone ranger in the middle. With each video I watched, the greater I felt conflicted about what I needed to do.
At this time, I didn’t have a support network and my current therapist wasn’t well versed in working through gender identity development. Being a very shy person, I was too scared to reach out to others and find other resources. I appreciated the Internet and the ability to share information, but I wanted to keep my life offline. Instead of participating in videos, I watched and absorbed. Intermittently, when I found someone I felt that I really jived with, I sent them a personal message.
I continued to watch Mel and his journey. He became one of the most documented transmen I’ve ever known. Over the years, his V-Logs became more about long term transition. He discussed the inequality of resources depending on where one lived in the US. I didn’t know if I would have accessibility to medical care or if I would be able to afford any aspect of transition. Although I still hadn’t decided to transition, I searched for more information from others navigating this process. I lived in a city and figured out through some online research that there was only one clinic where I could get access to hormones. However, I’d need to go through about a year of therapy and paperwork before I could to talk with a doctor about the medical aspects of transition. I simply wasn’t ready for that level of introspection and change. I continued down my journey of watching others.
By the middle of 2009, there were thousands of videos available for viewing from hundreds of trans people. Each one was chronicling their process for transition, but the theme I kept hearing over and over from transmasculine people was: “I’ve always felt like a boy.” This statement puzzled me. I’d always felt different, but I didn’t know if I could describe that as feeling like a boy. I pushed that thought aside and continued watching. Every once in a while, my mind would come back to these stories of people talking about what they wore, how they craved being able to walk around with their shirts off, craved the muscle mass of a man. I’d always worked towards attaining a male physique, but were these the characteristics that make people male? I searched for a broader definition of what it meant to be ftm and others’ stories.
Some of the YouTube channels have thousands of followers. Those whose videos took off seemed to have one thing in common – they were sharing their story. What began to interest me was not only the options of physical transition, but also how their transition impacted their emotional, spiritual, and identity development. As I went searching for this information, I struggled to find these topics being shared. Being someone who thoroughly researches something before making a decision, the lack of information about these non-medical aspects of transition presented a roadblock for me. I needed to know that others had transitioned and were successful in their relationships, careers, and emotional lives.
By 2011, I was ready to seek out more resources that the digital voices I had relied on for the past five years. I had to engage with the community and make decisions about what I needed to do to be happy. Still, I struggled with how to meet people in the ftm community and would I be accepted? After a move to a different part of the US, I found a community of trans people through a support group to converse, discuss, debate and who define themselves by how they are authentically. I’d broken the wall that had been built from 2007 from being an observer of the trans community to finally working toward acceptance of myself. As I walked into a room of self-identified trans people, my anxiety disappeared. For the first time in my life, I felt calm and like I belonged. Still, I was fearful of throwing another loop into what had already been a challenging upbringing with finally getting free from a mother who had severe mental illness. There was no denying it I had to push forward and work through my identity.
As I began a period of deep reflection, I took a break from YouTube, as I was getting more out of face-to-face connections with the people I had met in the support group. In addition, found that I could keep my personal and work life more private than when I solely interacted with others online, which as an elementary school teacher, was very important to me. In talking with individuals, I l gained more of the narrative stories of transition that I had searched for among the YouTube videos.
Shortly thereafter, I made the decision that having top surgery was necessary. I logged onto YouTube once again and started searching double incision and top surgery. My interactions this time were for data collection. I began a spreadsheet to collect information about others’ experiences with different surgeons. What technique did they use? Did their work fit my goals on a body type similar to mine? What were their aftercare protocols? I wanted to see as many timelines of recovery as possible. I spent the twelve months before my top surgery watching hundreds of videos. Even after I chose a surgeon and paid the deposit, I continued to watch top surgery related videos. Hearing others’ stories and seeing their results calmed my anxieties as my surgery date approached. Six days post-op, I saw my chest for the first time. It was a powerful experience.
YouTube is a powerful means of interaction for the trans community. It’s created a means of information sharing for people who may have never found others they can relate to. As I reflect back on my own journey and transition, I am immensely grateful for the trans community, especially those who were willing to share their stories on YouTube. I don’t know if I’d grown in the way I have without them. Although I never participated in creating V-Logs, I utilized them and have been able to connect to others through them and appreciate those who share their lives publicly to help others. In my day-to-day life now, YouTube is not something I utilize often. In times when life isn’t too busy, I check back in on people who I’ve followed for many years. I’m grateful for the resources they shared and the intimate look into their personal transition.
This piece was first published in the Crab Fat Literary Magazine.