For once in my life, I was "the other."
I was first introduced to the word transgender in 2011 when I was in my freshman year at college. I was browsing YouTube for cosplay videos (short for "costume play", which sometimes leads to live action roleplaying or LARPing; yes, I'm a nerd) to get costume ideas for my university's annual Sci-Fi and Fantasy convention.
I discovered Twinfools, a Transgender cosplayer from Canada. I didn't know what the word meant — either because of my own ignorance or my conservative upbringing — but I was curious. Aside from watching Twinfools' cosplay videos, I watched his videos as he transitioned from female to male.
Bruce Jenner’s recent interview with Diane Sawyer about his struggle with gender identity reminded me of the memory of hearing Twinfools (whose preferred name at the time was Kai, but now goes by Lucas) talk about his own struggles.
I remember watching a Barney's department store ad that featured two transgender models: Arin Andrews and Katie Hill. Both tried to live by the societal expectations of their assigned sex at birth but felt very uncomfortable in their own skin. It reminded me of my senior capstone project about the transgender community in New York.
There was only one problem: Nobody wanted to talk to me.
Professors denied my request; counselors made excuses not to speak with me. They were afraid to say something that might come off as offensive.
The only ones who didn't deny me were transgender individuals. I was eventually connected to three transgender people in New York: a dental assistant, a clinical social worker, and college student taking time off from school. I was happy to have the opportunity to hear their stories, but I wanted something more.
After following the Facebook pages of several LGBT Centers and Transgender Community Centers, I came across the poster for a panel on TransHealth, which would cover areas such as health care, where to find Transgender-friendly clinics, and how to handle discrimination from health professionals.
I emailed the event organizer, explained my project, and asked if I could come in, take photos and videos, and talk to attendees. I got the okay.
My friend and I arrived at the event and I immediately sought out the organizer. I introduced myself as the college student who e-mailed him.
As soon as he saw my camera, he immediately told me to hold off until he could talk to the attendees, as some may be uncomfortable with being photographed and placed on a public website. So, I relented and resorted to taking notes.
Before the panel began, the audience was encouraged to share their name, preferred name, and preferred pronouns. Most of the audience were transgender individuals, members of the LGBT community, and their friends.
Then something happened that I'll never forget — and something at the time, I couldn't wrap my head around. Individuals who were not transgender were asked to give up their seats to the transgender individuals who arrived late.
The responses from the transgender individuals were mixed. Some cheered, others protested, and others stayed silent. What were we supposed to do? Of course, we gave up our seats and all eyes were on us as we moved to stand in the back.
Being singled out like that was embarrassing and some of the trans-individuals there realized it and offered me their own seats during the second half of the panel.
I also asked to take a photo from the back, where I promised to take extra caution to not capture any faces but my request was denied, as the vote to do this had to be unanimous. Although a good majority didn't mind, a few transgender folks were uncomfortable.
It suddenly dawned on me: Despite my good intentions to be a supporter and document their community in a positive way, I was an invader.
The panel was not just for information about healthcare and where to get the best medical attention; it was a safe space for these transgender people. In a world where being cisgender is the norm, here, their identity isn't questioned and scrutinized. They're accepted.
In a very bizarre way, I was now experiencing what it felt like to be an outsider, the "other." I remember the discomfort and wishing that I belonged.
For a brief moment, I was ashamed for being cisgender. That feeling was fleeting, of course, because I knew that as soon as I left the event, I’d be going back to my own safe space: the rest of the world.
And that made it sad. Individuals at that event would leave that safe space to a world that questions, scrutinizes, and sometimes denies their identities.
Despite evolving mainstream acceptance — we're nowhere near totally there, of course — of transgender people today, especially amongst celebrities (Laverne Cox, Janet Mock, and now Bruce Jenner, to name a few), there's no denying that people and society still see them as "the other," due to ignorance or simple refusal to educate themselves.
I left that event with one photo, no videos, and no interview. But, you know what? I didn't care.
Sure, I was a little bummed because it meant back to square one and I had nothing to present to my professors on Monday. But I wasn't annoyed because I learned so much from that experience.
My respect and admiration for individuals like Twinfools, Laverne Cox, and Janet Mock multiplied by one-hundred-fold. It reminded me to take extra care in telling the stories of my three subjects — not to present them as "other," but to present them as the wonderful and brave individuals that they are.