The brave lives of transgender students

By Javaughn Gray/El Inde

Nikkie De Jager is a beauty influencer from the Netherlands who has been sharing her makeup skills online since 2008. De Jager does makeup tutorials on her YouTube channel and has a total of 13.3 million subscribers.

This past January, De Jager’s subscribers found out she was transgender, as someone in the makeup industry threatened to blackmail her for money. This prompted De Jager to come out on her own.

Meanwhile, Ella Snyder, a young college student and social media star from New York, decided to come forward with the fact that she was also transgender by sharing her life story on YouTube from when she was about 8 years old.

Photo via Youtube @ Ella Snyder.
Photo via Youtube @ Ella Snyder.

While the secret of having transitioned was a crucial part to both De Jager’s and Snyder’s identities, the beauty sensations felt as if they did not need to share the information with their audiences for fear of being identified by the label or becoming targets of violence and hate.

Both videos received a great amount of support with comments on Snyder’s video reading, “So crazy that when I first started my transition you were one of the girls I wanted to be like, and it turns out you were just like me the whole time. So proud of you.”

At the University of Arizona, De Jager’s and Snyder’s stories resonate not just with students who may be transitioning or thinking about it, but also with LGBTQIA youth who have chosen to come out.

Hazel Coffin, a junior at the University of Arizona with a preference for red-plaid flannel and combat boots, went to high school in Scottsdale and decided to come out during her freshman year, while still a teenager.

“I came out pretty immediately, so I went through all of high school pretty much openly trans, roughly speaking,” they said. “I started out thinking I was non-binary and then I realized that just being one thing isn’t necessarily the right thing, but most of my high school experience was interacting with people who knew I was trans, or could very easily find out from anybody that I was trans, which was a bit of a rough experience sometimes.” 

As she went through this period in their life, Coffin would try to identify their inner feelings, especially when their loved ones were not around. “I have very distinct memories,” they recalled. “I have pictures from that time where I’d wait until both of my parents left the house and I’d go and I’d put on more of the feminine clothes that my friends would loan me.” Coffin would take pictures in them while their parents were gone, and then they’d quickly take them off when they heard the garage door open.

Coming out in a society as transgender (transfeminine, transmasculine), queer or non-binary can present potentially life-threatening outcomes.

For Coffin, coming out meant facing this violence head on. “There was this one time I was hanging out with some of my friends and I was walking, and these two frat dudes were in the dorm behind me and they started talking about me in this disgusting transphobic way,” they said. “And I was like ‘Oh, OK… Time to go back into my dorm room and lock the door for a bit and just sit there because I feel very unsafe.’”

This is not an uncommon interaction, as many trans individuals are faced with adversities and threats to their safety every day.

When Coffin was still in high school, some people would be physically violent towards them, yet they wouldn’t go tell the principal or the counselors about the incidents. “I didn’t feel like I was in a position where I could say, ‘Hey! Someone beat me up because I was trans,’” they said.

One of Coffin’s close friends, Amelia Jamie Pytosh, would relate to Coffin during those years, as both of them transitioned or faced hateful reactions from others. Pytosh always felt she had to hide who she was in fear of her family’s criticism.

“I had this momentous realization at 15, that I did not give a s*** about anything, other than my own personal goals,” recalled Pytosh. “Perhaps with the exception of the well-being of my family, which was very important to me and is still very important to this very day.” Still, since Pytosh was the oldest of her siblings, she grew very concerned about her two younger brothers and her younger sister, who was 11 at the time. If she was to come out to her family, Pytosh thought the news would haunt her little sister throughout her school years. That weighed a lot on her.

The struggle of coming out to one’s family is a battle for most people, so often many transgender and queer people will plan on waiting until they come to college to join a group of people they can call their own. And while some students find a sense of community by attending LGBTQIA centers on campus, there are others who don’t see how these centers can truly bring people together.

Pytosh tried visiting the LGBT Center at the University of Arizona but found it unhelpful. “The people who managed it were kind,” she said. “But I felt very excluded.”

Being trans is a personal and intimate experience, as it is creating one’s own identity in a society where most of our experiences are already created for us. This is an experience that warrants some type of awareness and sensitivity, both by universities and the cisgender students that go there, as well. 

Although there may be a lack of resources and social stigma around trans and queer college students, there are efforts to change this at most schools. Many of the students I interviewed for this story still have a lot of hope for the future, including Oliver Horner, a junior and Tucson resident.

I would hope that in 10 years some of the normativity (we see) will go away,” he said. “People will realize that when you’re asking someone about their significant other, don’t assume who that person is attracted to. Coming out may seem very scary but it is something that you have to do in order to be you, and if you can’t and you’re not in a safe situation to do so, that’s OK too.” Horner also has advice for anyone who is finally ready to transition despite all the challenges: “Just reach out to any people you know are safe, and hold onto those people as tight as you can.”

Whether they be social media stars or regular college students, the decision to come out as trans is a very special, intimate, and hard thing to do for anyone.

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