Is it possible for a human being to exist without gender? This is a question Tyler Ford implicitly asks whenever they walk down the street, their slight build and facial stubble confusing onlookers, especially when they dress in clothes that confound expectations.
"I am an agender person with fluid presentation," Tyler told me as I sat down with the hot chocolate I ordered for them at Think Coffee in Union Square. They--and yes, Tyler prefers this gender-neutral pronoun--are but one member of an often ignored yet increasingly visible segment of the trans community, a segment so varied and in flux that we can only be defined by what we're not, which is looking, acting, and/or thinking according to the expectations of a society that rigidly endorses and upholds the existence of a gender binary.
One specific segment of this group that has recently gotten a lot of attention is genderqueer AFABs, short for "assigned female at birth." Miley Cyrus and new heartthrob Ruby Rose (from Orange Is the New Black) identify as genderfluid. This visibility is perhaps because white feminism has made it acceptable for assigned-women to dress like men, a degree of freedom less available to assigned-men and persons of color.
Tyler complicates these concepts as a female-assigned biracial person who began taking testosterone four years ago, then decided it didn't feel right and stopped, after already experiencing some of the effects of hormones such as facial hair growth and a lower voice. So they literally slip back and forth within the various permutations of nonbinary gender. Celebrity trans journalist Janet Mock recently alluded to this segment of the community in an interview with Oprah Winfrey when she said, "I fit perfectly into the idea of what a woman is supposed to look like. So that's a basic story. Now there are some people who exist in the middle part of the spectrum that we don't even talk about often." Trans women like Mock--who both pass as cisgender and whose internal identity generally abides by binary gender norms--are the types of people whose narratives the media tends to uphold, because they're less of a challenge for cisgender people to both understand and accept.
Even as Mock, Laverne Cox, and Caitlyn Jenner bring visibility to the trans movement, those who don't fit into the dominant media narrative find their stories untold--people like Tyler and Persephone Smith, a black trans woman who doesn't go for the glamorous trans woman stereotype, an image that is perhaps a reaction to the increased harassment and threats of violence such women often endure, because passing as cisgender makes them less vulnerable. Trans men's narratives in media are even rarer, though the ones that have made news also tend to conform to conventional expectations of men. Unless it's for tabloid fodder that objectifies rather than humanizes trans lives, It's uncommon to hear a story like Kael Sharman's: Kael is a trans man who embraces his role as mother, who relished the feeling of his pregnant body, who openly appreciates the image of the conventionally attractive woman he once was. These three individuals refuse to be defined by society's established gender rules, not just because they're trans, but also because they defy many expectations about what trans people's lives are like.
I keep going back to the hot chocolate at Think Coffee: That's what Tyler asked me to order when I asked them what kind of coffee they wanted. And though it wasn't an unheard-of choice, the specificity of hot chocolate over coffee was a small indication of Tyler's pattern of independent thinking, one I've grown used to as they and I have come to know each other.
"I don't know anyone in the world who's more true to themselves than Tyler," their roommate Michael Horton told me; Michael has known them since college and seen them through their gamut of identities--from a lesbian-identified woman, to a trans man, and now, at 24, to an agender person.
"I had to be honest with myself and accept that taking testosterone wasn't right for me," Tyler said, when asked why they decided to stop taking hormones, "even though it was a little embarrassing because I made such a big deal about transition."
Yet the dual state of standing out and not fitting in is something Tyler has been used to, even before they came out as trans. They grew up in Boca Raton, Florida, as the only black kid being raised by the white side of their biracial family. They see a connection between their racial and gender identities: The way they grew up helped them adapt to not seeing other people like them.
"I knew even as a kid there was something different about my gender," they said, "but I couldn't define what it was."
It was only as a college student at Vanderbilt University that Tyler came closer to defining themselves as trans. At that time, they thought that meant identifying as a man, which was also synonymous with taking testosterone.
"I transitioned because I thought that was my only option," Tyler said. This phase of Tyler's life was immortalized online when they joined the cast of The Glee Project around the same time. Their only regret about this time is that now, when you Google them, the first pictures that come up are from that period, when their features are more visibly masculine.
This may contribute to people's tendency to gender them with male pronouns on the Internet. "I'm never gendered correctly," Tyler said. "I'm constantly misgendered online even by supportive people. Someone would say, 'Tyler Ford, he's the best,' and I think to myself, no, I don't want to be seen as male, even as a good role model."
Tyler's public image may be changing, as they were recently photographed with Miley Cyrus wearing a black dress with a plunging neckline--they introduced Miley at the American Foundation for AIDS Research annual gala, where Cyrus received an award. I invited them swimming with some friends at our family pool in Connecticut the weekend after their big event, and they wore a bikini bottom that's probably designed for women, but with a bare chest. The outfit incidentally jived with another friend's, a newly-transitioning trans woman who wore her old swimming trunks with a bikini top. These types of outfits can be difficult to wear in public, where trans people, especially transfeminine ones, consistently have to endure stares and comments, sometimes threats.
"When I'm harassed on the street, it's usually because people read me as a trans woman," Tyler said. It's a reality that I've heard over and over again in the trans community, that assigned-women who dress butch are generally ignored, while assigned-men who dress femme become targets. This has become another wrinkle in Tyler's identity: how their brief period of being on T has resulted in people reading them as a trans woman of color, and treating them that way.
Maybe that's part of why Tyler has only worn T-shirts and sweats whenever I've seen them in public during the day, whereas they prefer to wear more daring clothes at events or on social media, where they presumably have friends around for backup.
"People stare at me like I'm a puzzle," Tyler said. "And I never say anything. My body won't let me speak. The most I do is stare back."
This attitude is reflective of some of the paradoxes in Tyler's personality as an increasingly visible trans public figure with a singular story. They have a keen drive to express themselves and their reality, having written searing narratives as a regular contributor to Rookie, served as an advice columnist for MTV, and published poems in a number of literary journals. They have also been seen not just with Miley Cyrus but also with Ariana Grande, whom they consider their best friend, as well as Mitch Grassi from the hit a capella group Pentatonix. Despite their famous friends, though, they also exude both shyness and vulnerability, quick to pull their shirt up to cover their face when overwhelmed with attention, and ready to cop to their demons.
"I've dealt with depression and anxiety throughout my life," Tyler said. At the same time, they also don't have the same need for company as many others. Tyler considers themselves asexual and aromantic, someone who prefers to be alone rather than seeking romantic relationships.
"What if I'm agender because I don't like being sexualized?" Tyler asked, as though having a moment of discovery when I asked them about whether their gender had anything to do with their independence. "I know my gender is not the result of my sexuality, but I can see being agender and being aromantic as intertwined."
This reflective quality is something that their roommate Michael considers one of Tyler's hallmark qualities, a facet of their steadfast devotion to being true to themselves. Even though they're aromantic, they also admitted to me that they have a significant yearning to be desired by white, cisgender gay men.
"I used to try to butch it up just so they would notice me," Tyler said. "But I don't even want them. I just want to be desired."
Later that night after I interviewed them, Tyler texted me to say this: "additional thoughts before bed: wanting cis gay dudes to find me attractive is mostly about validation (which is complicated, because I don't want to be seen as a guy... I just don't want to be seen as a girl!). All my intimate relationships are/have been with girls and other non-binary folks."
For me, this text connected to something else Tyler said while I had my soy latté and they had their hot chocolate at Think Coffee: "I don't really feel seen by anyone." It's something I recognize in myself--I used to be seen as a boy, which wasn't real, and now I'm seen as a girl, which also doesn't feel quite right. The difference between me and Tyler is that Tyler is intent on being themselves, while I have a tendency to try to live up to the perceptions of others. Maybe that's why Tyler remains a deeply attractive person to many even though they express all this trouble and vulnerability.
Tyler's roommate Michael agrees. "The whole way they've become friends with all these celebrities, is because Tyler is simply themselves. Tyler doesn't pretend for these people. Tyler is a person that the world needs to see. They are exactly the kind of voice the world needs right now."
Another voice for gender-nonconformity is 46-year-old Kael Sharman, a trans man who lives in Windsor, Ontario. Kael transitioned later in life, when he was 41 years old, after giving birth to a daughter when he was 22. I became intrigued by him because his wife Theo Hummer, an old friend from graduate school, mentioned his story on Facebook; after I posted an article about Caitlyn Jenner, she commented that there's a lot of attention paid to masculine men who transition into women, but there isn't as much on conventionally attractive women, like Kael used to be, who transitioned as men.
Kael and I were already Facebook friends, so I looked at the pictures in his profile and found several of him pre-transition. When I asked him about them, he said: "I keep the pictures there because it means a lot to me to maintain memories and associations of me for my daughter." Every trans person I've met has differing relationships with their former identity. Some disavow any sign of it altogether. More often than not, though, trans people wish to maintain parts of their pre-transition selves they value, either because those parts are important to other people and it doesn't bother them, or they themselves find affirmation in aspects of their former identity.
For Kael, the two most prominent traces of his former self are images of him as a conventionally attractive woman and his identity as a mother--images that overlap yet differ in the sense that one taps into an external idea while the other reaches into aspects of his being that surprise even himself.
From an early age growing up in Windsor, Ontario, Kael has felt alienated from his assigned gender. But as he grew into an unusually attractive young woman, both his family and surrounding culture pressured him to cling to the privilege of attractiveness, in ways that mirror trans women like Caitlyn Jenner who clung to masculine-identified traits like athleticism. Both Kael and Jenner speak to the experience of using their gender-conforming traits to shield them from their transgender identification--though it's telling that Jenner in her male role was valued primarily for what she could do, while Kael as a woman was valued for what he looked like.
"I definitely fall into the narrative of trying to live up to archetypes," he told me when we spoke over Skype. "It was not uncommon for people to tell me how gorgeous I was."
The gap between Kael's internal gender and external presentation only grew over time, as he became obsessed with bodybuilding and trained obsessively at the gym. Ironically, having a muscled body put more pressure on him to maintain feminine traits such as long hair and makeup.
"People were okay with my masculinity if I could feminize in other ways, and that contradiction got more extreme as I got older," Kael said. "Then there came a point when I couldn't go any further. That was when I needed to transition."
It was at this point, near the beginning of Kael's hormonal transition in 2011 when Kael and Theo met through an online dating site, a point at which Kael gave Theo the impression of seeming more like a butch lesbian, rather than the more physically masculine presentation he currently has after several years on testosterone.
Though Theo said that it was less Kael's gender presentation and more his outlook that attracted her. She said, "He was so happy with his life. He was so happy with himself. It was like an aura around him."
There's no question that Kael is happier with his body and identity now that he is seen as male. Yet paradoxically, he still reminisces about a specific time when he identified as a woman. "I was happiest when I was breastfeeding," Kael said, recalling the time after he had his daughter Tessa, now 22. "I had this weird sense of exactly how my metabolism worked. I was fascinated with it. I thought, this is what my body was meant to do. It's so strange and contradictory, and I can't explain it."
Kael's fluidity in his perception of gender extends to his image. Theo describes how, in addition to pictures on Facebook, Kael's mom still keeps old pictures of him as a gorgeous twenty-year-old woman all over her house, where Kael frequently visits. Kael also keeps pre-transition pictures around his own house for Tessa so she won't forget to associate his role in her life with that of a mother.
Tessa agrees. "When he was first transitioning I really struggled with figuring out how to place in my life and how to identify who Kael was to me now," she said. "I felt like I'd lost my mother. So keeping photos around was nice at the beginning--I didn't feel like everything was forced upon me all at once, and I had to fully cut ties with my association of Kael as my mother."
For his part, Kael doesn't seem perturbed. "I don't have too many sensitivities about these pictures. When I look at them, it's a reminder of how happy I am now. I don't have to do it anymore. I'm looking in the mirror, and I love what I see."
At the same time, Kael also recognizes that not feeling trauma over old images of himself is a privilege, one that he connects to being a trans man who hasn't often been subject to ridicule or discrimination as a result of transition. He sounded almost apologetic as he described his worst experiencing transitioning as a teacher. "There was a secretary in my school who would call into my room and misgender me. I had a short conversation with her once, and she made the mistake once more, but nothing else has happened since."
Kael talks about keeping his job through transition, having great benefits, and making a good living. It's a far cry from the experiences of many of his trans woman friends. At the same time, he still experiences moments when he doesn't feel like he can't live up to a masculine ideal. He recalled this one time when he and Theo were at a restaurant for lunch and the waitress said, "What would you ladies like?"
"I don't even think she was looking at us when she said it," Theo said.
It just so happened that Kael was supposed to meet his brother-in-law at a bar called Little Memphis that evening, which Kael describe as a "man's man" bar, where all the Chrysler workers hang out to drink whiskey and beer." When the time came, Kael couldn't bring himself to go because he didn't have the confidence. "I was bent out of shape for days," Kael said.
Nevertheless, Kael agrees that the positives more than outweigh the bumps in his transition, even as someone who doesn't fit all the norms expected of his new gender. This is a marked difference from Tyler's experience. Blending in seamlessly as a man in public affords Kael security, and being white also shields him from the racism that causes both Tyler and my next subject, Persephone Smith, to be more heavily scrutinized.
The 44-year-old Smith and I met last winter at the Brooklyn Community Pride Center at an event called the Trans Ladies Picnic, which is held monthly in various locations throughout New York City. I couldn't help but notice that she was the only visibly black woman there, and I made a point to introduce myself as she tidied the space and made sure everyone had enough to eat.
"I'm just motherly that way," I remember her saying.
Though as we've gotten to know each other both online and off, Persephone readily admits that she doesn't fit the stereotypical idea of motherhood, or the common stereotype of trans women being "passable," meaning that they generally strive to appear like cisgender women, especially on the street where they are vulnerable to harassment.
"Passing is a big thing among black trans women," Persephone told me over lunch at Mud Cafe in the East Village. "A lot of them won't hang out with you if you're not passable."
She cites her Hawaiian upbringing as a reason for the difference in the way she approaches her trans identity. "A lot of black trans women in New York are influenced by ball culture," Persephone said, referring to the drag pageant scene famously depicted in the Jennie Livingston documentary Paris Is Burning. "But my aesthetics are really different. I don't really go for glamour."
Persephone also doesn't feel that she passes in most situations, being taller and having a larger build than most cisgender women. Lunch gave me an indication of why other black trans women value passing so much: I noticed at least two people in the relatively liberal neighborhood give Persephone openly hostile stares. This wasn't something I'm used to as someone who passes as white and cisgender, even though I'm Asian and trans. It's a well-documented phenomenon that black trans women are particularly vulnerable to harassment because the intersection of racism, misogyny, and transphobia all conspire to make them prone to rousing people's anger for simply existing.
Our mutual friend Kara Tucker, a white trans woman in her 50s, has also witnessed people treat Persephone with a type of vitriol she doesn't experience herself. Kara told me that she witnessed a man shaking his head openly as Persephone passed him while the two of them were at a restaurant. It seems that people who don't agree with Persephone's gender presentation are more than willing to express their disapproval openly.
"That's just the tip of the iceberg compared to the stories she's told me about," Kara said.
Indeed, street harassment and threats of violence are a daily reality for Persephone. "I'm always worried someone's going to attack me today," she said. "I've been in more fights than I've ever been in my life since transition two years ago, because people want to pick on the defenseless tranny."
While other trans women rely on passability to navigate these threats, Persephone uses her martial arts training from many years in the Navy to defuse potentially explosive situations. Like many trans women, she chose a hypermasculine profession earlier in life to try to deny her transgender identity.
But Persephone also had another motive. "Looking back, I realize that because I couldn't accept myself, I literally was finding a way to get myself killed," she says, "but that didn't work." This image of pain stands in comparison to the life she leads now, where being her authentic self also routinely leads to violence. Persephone told me about a particularly harrowing experience last New Year's when four men tried to attack her as she was walking home alone. They backed down after she knocked one of them out by hitting them in the nose.
"I just want to live my life," Persephone said. I've seen her go through depressive spells on Facebook, times when she has trouble getting out of bed because of the trials she faces on a regular basis. Persephone recently split with her wife, who said she could no longer handle the extent of Persephone's transition, and she's lost all of her close friends as well.
"I feel like I don't fit anywhere," Persephone said, referring not only to her life as a trans woman, but also to her immediate social circle. "I don't really get along with other black trans women, but there are ways that the women from Trans Ladies Picnic don't always understand my experiences."
Nevertheless, the trans women from the picnic have become the core of Persephone's social life, as the group strives to be inclusive of all transfeminine identities. She has also made close friends from the group, who admire her for her independence and benefit from learning about her perspectives. "Persephone has more than anyone opened my eyes to the struggles of trans women of color by sharing with me in detail openly and honestly all the terrible harassment and violence that happens to her on a daily basis," the poet and academic Trace Peterson told me. "Hearing that someone I cared so much about was in this much constant danger had a visceral effect on me. It caused me to look at my own situation differently and encouraged me to stand up for trans women of color and speak out on issues pertaining to race in trans communities."
Persephone has also recently been able to channel her experiences towards more productive ends, working as a counselor at the Ali Forney Center, which provides emergency housing for LGBTQ youth. "I'm the only full-time trans counselor in the house where I work," Persephone said, "and I feel like my words mean more when I talk to our trans residents, because they know I speak from experience."
Certainly, part of that experience for Persephone is being true to herself, despite the costs. It's a lesson she embodies along with Kael and Tyler, though they all do so in different ways, despite enduring the judgments of others. And even though becoming more visible figures in the trans community has made them more vulnerable, all of them emphasize the importance of telling their stories, so that other trans people can be aware that there are many ways to be trans.
"The media has co-opted black trans identities and are trying to dictate what we all should look like," Persephone said. "I get so much pushback from people who say it's not just trans people 'because the media does this to everyone.' Sure, but your livelihood and life are not contingent on people perceiving you as who you are."
Persephone's words resonate with me, and they also echo Tyler and Kael's desire to tell their individual stories. Doing so is key to our survival, as we're constantly under pressure from mainstream society to conform to its expectations, even as people have become more accepting of our trans identity. Complicating established narratives allows the public to be more aware of the many possible ways to be trans, and also reminds trans people--the vast majority of whom defy gender stereotypes in some way--that we shouldn't need to conform to established media narratives to be accepted by others. Regardless of how our gender expression looks to the outside world, we deserve to live our genders on our own terms. Telling our stories, so the rest of the world can understand us better, moves us closer to the goal of living better lives, free from oppressive gender expectations.