She wears black knee-high boots over skinny jeans topped with a rainbow sweater. Her long, brown, layered hair lightly bounces on her shoulders as she struts through campus. In most ways, she's an average 19-year-old woman-- except for the "M" marked on her license.
Ashley, a sophomore Winona State University, in Winona, Minn., is part of a small population of transgender youth. While there are diverse forms of gender expression, transgenders do not identify with the gender roles they were born into. While teens and young adults are developing their identities, young transgenders add gender to the mix.
“The term transgender is a very broad term and can really include anything having to do with gender identity,” said Brad Becker, executive director of the GLBT National Help Center. “So that can include people who cross-dress and are comfortable with their biological gender, to people who are transsexual and know that the gender on the outside of their body is not correct and doesn't match the true gender they feel inside in their minds and hearts.
Though a wide-ranging term, the transgender community continues to grow. But with the emergence of gender bending comes an array of struggles.
Ashley has known she was different since she was 9 years old, but like many transgender adolescents she buried her thoughts deep, fearing she wouldn’t be accepted if people knew.
“It was too taboo,” she said. “We’re still a minority. It’s not a happy-go-lucky world for us out there.”
People in the transgender community are no strangers to the reactions they arouse in society. These reactions are often what prolong their “coming out,” but it’s not something many find they can hide forever.
“Every journey is different because we’re all different,” said Dr. Genny Beemyn, director of the Stonewall Center at University of Massachusetts, Amherst. “We’re going to be in different environments and have different families, communities and levels of support. It’s still something that a lot of people don’t understand and don’t respect, and what happens is the child can’t be themselves.”
Ashley fantasized about leaving her home in Woodbury, Minn., and running away to California, not telling anyone where she was going and beginning her life as the girl she always wanted to be.
In late 2008, Ashley decided she needed help. She had been pretending for too long and the agony inside was slowly turning her numb. Because she was a high school student, money was limited and parental support was her only ticket to counseling. She would have to tell one of them.
She knew what she was, but she couldn’t actually say those words: “I’m trans.”
She questioned if they would accept her or if she would be left to handle it on her own.
“You need a support system,” said Beemyn. “You need to find some place where you can get validated”
Instead of saying the words, she asked her mom for money to see a therapist specializing in transgender adolescents. Knowing that Ashley needed help, despite her opinions on Ashley’s newfound identity, her mom gave her the money.
Ashley was told that she had such deep levels of depression, it scared her therapist. But she finally admitted who she was, and that comforted her.
Throughout high school Ashley kept her true gender, her femininity, closeted because she didn’t feel comfortable enough to tell her peers. She hid behind her group of acquaintance adolescent boys and her computer.
“I was extremely fearful about anyone knowing,” she said. “In guy friendships it’s like a totem pole, and I was at the bottom. I was more likely to get ignored.”
And she was.
Her high school acquaintances faded from her life, none of them knew who she really was, and she was left to start fresh in college. College life was different.
“People who are transgender find college to be a unique place to undergo their transition,” said Chernega. “It’s kind of a chance to start over. Here’s four years where you don’t necessarily know anyone from your past and you’re not necessarily going to hang out with these people forever.”
For the most part Ashley was out starting her freshman year.
Hormones took time to change her body. So Ashley continued her boyish disguise though roaming the halls of her dorm at Winona State University, where she lived on a girl’s floor.
Confused floor mates mumbled and whispered but not many knew what Ashley was going through.
“Some people just thought it was weird,” said Rachel Lee, a senior at WSU who lived on Ashley’s floor. “But she was going through a really hard time in her life and she really didn’t need anyone else to judge her.”
Ashley had begun hormones months earlier and people were slowly watching the change. In one semester her skin softened, her body curved and her hair grew longer. Her emotions ran rampant, leaving her crying without a reason. There was no turning back.
“There’s always that second-guess moment,” Ashley said. “It’s such a life-changing thing. You can’t help but think, ‘Well, maybe I’m just thinking the grass is greener on the other side.’”
Second-guessing didn’t stop her. Ashley trudged through the looks and passed through the awkward “in-between” stage because she knew she was on the right path.
“A simplistic way to put it is you’re a very, very ugly person and you despise the body you’re in,” she said. “I was always Ashley on the inside.”
THE ROAD TO TRANSITION IS DIFFERENT FOR ALL
W. Parlow, an 18-year-old Winona State University freshman from La Crosse, Wis., kept her gender identity a secret because “anything not normal is bad.”
Prisoner to her own body since first grade, the depression hit harder than ever during her junior year of high school. Her parents’ divorce, her sexuality and her gender were all competing for her emotions and it was overwhelming. On average, 1.6 percent of the general population attempt suicide, but for transgender students those odds don’t count.
Parlow was alone and she soon joined the 41 percent of transgender people to attempt suicide; her weapon of choice: a razor blade.
She went through therapist after therapist prodding her with questions to try to understand her pain, but none ever knew and she wouldn’t tell. Eventually, the facade was too hard to keep and she told her fourth therapist.
By telling someone, it became real. Parlow began to accept what she was: transgender.
“Many times we find that they just need someone to talk to,” said Cindy Killion, professor and Safe Space provider for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender, or LGBT, students on the WSU campus. “The challenge is overcoming their own homophobia.”
The homophobic norms of society deter many transgender adolescents from admitting their gender identity early on. While they may not be gay or lesbian, many are perceived to be.
According to Kelly Kirby, a counselor at WSU specializing in LGBT issues, most students do not come to counseling until they have already endured the struggle of finding their identity.
Acknowledging the person trapped under her overweight, male body allowed Parlow to leave behind antidepressants and she became comfortable with herself.
“If you try to kill off one part of yourself, you kill all of yourself,” she said.
There was only one problem: She still hadn’t told her parents.
Her family, her friends and life as she knew it were at stake if she spoke.
“You won’t come out until you’re ready to lose everything,” said JamieAnn Meyers, a retired geoscience professor at WSU who is transgender and active in mentoring transgender students. “I try to make it clear that the coming out will be for life.”
Not ready to lose everything, Parlow decided to start her transition herself by losing weight. At the time, Parlow was an introverted 260-pound, soft-spoken, computer-savvy teenager. After a year of biking and exercising, Parlow lost nearly 100 pounds and transformed into a lanky high school student with long hair and perfectly maintained bangs jutting across her forehead at a precise angle.
By her senior year of high school Parlow had never felt better about her body. She had always been offended by the constant remarks made by fellow students calling her gay, but now she played on it. She knew she wasn’t gay, but no one needed to know what she really was. Her only problem: she still hadn’t told her parents.
James Parlow may seem like an intimidating father on paper, but he has a soft spot for his children. A former police officer and current criminal justice professor at WSU, he has always been one to take action, but the news that his son was transgender left him speechless.
Beemyn said, “We’ve gotten to a point in our culture where for most parents if their child was gay or lesbian they would have no problem with that. Transgender we’re more at this freaked out place.”
James Parlow didn’t know what to think of his son’s news at first and thought maybe it was a cry for attention.
“To me there were no signs,” said James Parlow. “He was my son. We did father-son things.”
W. Parlow hid behind facts, her defense mechanism, after she came out to her family. She became an encyclopedia for transgender terms and processes. Her family nicknamed her “Wikipedia.”
After the shock wore off, James Parlow knew he needed to do something. He saw the tears dripping down W. Parlow’s face each time he referred to her as “he” and decided it was time to listen.
“This is still the same person, just in a different container,” he said. “It’s like the death of a child and the birth of a new one. I’m starting a life with a new daughter and as difficult as that may seem to accept, I can’t accept losing my child.”
To W. Parlow, using the correct pronoun is important. She is a she and always has been. But for her dad, the switch has been a struggle.
“To me there’s still a maleness that I’ve seen for the last 18 years,” he said. “It’s taking me time to wrap my head around the fact that that’s basically an illusion.”
W. Parlow, with her parent’s acceptance, could finally begin the official transition process. She began taking progesterone, estrogen and spironolactone in the summer of 2011, right before her freshman year of college. She spends nearly $50 each month on hormones, none of which are covered by insurance.
Because of the slow and costly process of transitioning, Parlow will present herself as “gender queer” until she looks completely feminine. But completely transitioning from male to female can be expensive. Parlow hopes to begin electrolysis for her facial hair, but at $45-$125 per hour with multiple sessions needed, she has been forced to wait. In the future she hopes to get facial reconstructive surgery to shave down her forehead and chin, a procedure that could cost more than $5,000.
“Gender neutral comes from passibility and general feelings; it’s not that I feel fully male or fully female,” she said. “I’m definitely pansexual but I’m more attracted to female or those who identify as female, just my gender is queer.”
James Parlow, like any parent, worries about his child’s safety and acceptance.
“People deemed different are threatened differently,” said James Parlow.
In a survey on transgender discrimination done by the National Center for Transgender Equality, 35 percent of transgender students in higher education report harassment and bullying and 90 percent of the transgender people surveyed reported harassment or discrimination in the workplace.
And W. Parlow has had her share of discrimination, not just in the men’s bathroom.
Dr. Deborah Wilke, licensed counselor specializing in transgender health, said, “Between parents who ice kids out and teachers who look the other way, I am not sure how such betrayed youth can continue being brave in their attempts to live an authentic life.”
Parlow meets a wide array of people working at FedEx, most with misconceptions about her identity. She recalls being called “faggot” and “totally fucking gay,” and being given confused looks and stares. She was once told, “I hope you die of AIDS.”
“If it’s continual, you learn to accept it,” she said. “But we have feelings. I want to eat and go to the bathroom in peace.”
ACCEPTANCE IS HARDER THAN IT SOUNDS
Since her transition, Parlow and her dad have been closer than ever.
“She still jokes and laughs and she’s still a damn good computer whiz,” said James Parlow. “That relationship is still there, but now we can discuss this, we can talk about this and I’ve learned.”
That concept was not so easy for Patrick Daly to understand. With one of his sons deemed a juvenile delinquent, all he wanted was “normal kids.”
Andrew Daly was always a tomboy growing up. At 5 years old, when people asked what he wanted to be when he grew up, Daly’s response was “a boy.”
“Throughout my entire life I felt like I didn’t fit in,” said Daly, 24 -year-old Rochester native. “When puberty hit all the boys I felt really different, like I went the wrong way.”
Daly masked his masculine tendencies by being more feminine. He wore skintight Abercrombie shirts and skirts, makeup, tight jeans with fashionable holes and purses.
Eventually, despite the feminine charade, Daly came out as lesbian.
After high school, he began to stir up suppressed gender issues. Being in a relationship with another woman, Daly was familiar with his sexual orientation, but something was missing. He refused to hold hands with his girlfriend or kiss her in public. He didn’t feel lesbian.
Once he admitted to himself that he was transgender, the decision was instant.
“Testosterone was the cure to my disease and I didn’t want to waste any time,” he said. “I was determined.”
In March 2007, 20-year-old Daly came out as transgender. By October 2007, he began taking testosterone.
The decision to change was quick, but waiting for the change took time. It took six months for his voice to deepen and even longer for muscles to form and hair to grow in places he’d never had hair before.
People often avoided calling him “sir” or “ma’am,” at his hotel job, for fear of using the wrong one, but as the change became obvious the word “sir” slipped in every once and a while.
“You know who you are, but the problem is people don’t see you for who you are,” he said. “Finally getting acknowledged as who you always felt is a successful moment.”
In December 2011, almost five years after hormonal changes began, Daly had a $6,000 chest surgery procedure. After eight nights in the hospital and an hour-and-half procedure, Daly gave up his breasts.
He walked around in a binder, with tubes draining fluid into a container that needed to be emptied twice daily. He couldn’t lift his arms without the risk of stretching the scars that crossed through the middle of his pectorals. Those scars will never go away.
Now that the change is permanent, Daly, a small, stocky boy with buzzed hair and sideburns, struggles with looking back on his life as a girl.
“It’s hard looking back on old pictures,” he said with a trembling smile. “You want to have all these family pictures, but it’s not you you see anymore.”
Looking back on childhood memories Daly said he envisions himself as a boy, even though the photos say otherwise.
“I forget that I used to be a girl,” he said.
The hardest part about his transition is the toll it took on his family.
Chernega said, “Most people who are transgender feel themselves OK about the process, but what it tends to do is change the relationships with the people around them Those relationship shifts are one of the most difficult parts of it.”
Sometimes Daly likes to think things happen for a reason.
“My dad needed someone like me as his son,” he said. “To open his eyes. I’m just a guy, that’s all I’ve ever wanted to be.”
Daly, Parlow and Ashley know what they want, but they’re battling with a society that won’t allow it.
Chernega said, “If there’s anything that feels like it should be set in stone in our society, it’s that there are males and there are females. They’re aliens to each other and transgender defies those expectations and makes us really uncomfortable. But when you think about it, it really doesn’t make sense that we would create a society of people that are completely different from each other.”
Even today, Parlow can’t always be one gender. She smiles as each confused guy stops at the urinal, takes a second glance at the sign on the door and walks out to wait for her to finish. She says she’s proud of the confusion because it means her identity is right where she wants it.
Brianna Klapperich contributed to the information of this story
In their own words: Ashley and W. Parlow
By: Brianna Klapperich