I hid my transgender identity for years. Then my transition photos went hugely viral.
- One week before beginning a fellowship with Insider, I posted a transition timeline of myself on Twitter.
- The tweet went massively viral, and I received over 622,000 likes and more than 25,000 retweets.
- I never expected to go viral, especially for something so deeply personal that I'd kept hidden for most of my life.
- The spotlight allowed me to connect with young trans people, nervous parents, and allies around the world.
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In January 2020, I was laid off. In the months that followed, I applied for dozens of full time positions and fellowships around the country, hoping to be accepted by just one company. After months of waiting, I was offered a job — this one. I became the new data editorial fellow at Insider.
And then, one week before I began the biggest career opportunity of my life, I tweeted.
Let me back up: I'm transgender. I've spent roughly 22 out of the last 23 years hiding that simple fact because of fear, shame, and concern for my mental and physical safety. But I've been out to the world for over a year, and I've spent the last two and a half years on hormones.
I finally felt comfortable in my own skin and on camera, and I decided it was time to post an update on Twitter.
Little did I know that my photos would soon be seen by more people than currently live in my home state of Texas.
I never expected to go viral over a selfie.
Like many people my age, I've had dreams of going viral for a joke or a meme. Instead, I reached 30 million people by talking about the part of my identity that only I knew about for most of my life.
At the time, sitting in my childhood bedroom in Houston, I didn't feel scared or anxious. I've tweeted photos from my transition before — even a photo of myself on the day I came out — and nothing happened. I had no reason to think that this time around would be any different.
After I posted it, the tweet immediately received likes and retweets from close friends. (I'm fortunate to have the support that I do.)
Eventually, it picked up steam — the mysterious magic of the internet. I went to bed with around 7,000 likes, the most I had ever received at the time. I thought I would be lucky if it got 10,000 by the next morning. Instead, I awoke to a buzzing phone with over 35,000 likes, and it didn't end there.
Over the next two days, my Twitter account felt like the floor of the New York Stock Exchange: an abundance of noise, yelling, anger, and happiness happening again and again and again.
As the speed of the tweet's engagement and likes began to rise, so did the temperature of my cell phone. I was forced to turn off Twitter notifications or risk overheating my phone.
I wish I could say that I handled day one of my newfound online fame with poise and grace, but in reality, much of it was spent messaging "what the f— is going on" to any friend who would listen. Journalism school may have taught me how to interact with audiences and connect with readers, but nothing in life so far had prepared me to deal with anything of this magnitude.
622,000 favorites, the final-ish tally a month later, seemed like a fake number, the kind that other, better people achieved. I never thought a post of mine would ever come close.
Growing up trans, I never particularly wanted the spotlight on my identity.
Going viral felt like the floodgates were opening, and I was receiving 23 years of attention and compliments on my identity and body that I so desperately hid from before.
In high school and college, my outlets were theater and improv. They allowed me to be someone else when being myself felt like too much to handle. With the experience of a literal spotlight shining on my face, going viral and being seen shouldn't have felt like anything new — in theory.
But there's an implicit agreement between the actors and the audience. The audience accepts that the actors are whomever they are portraying, and the actors do their best to ensure their performance matches the audience's expectations.
As a trans woman, I'm not afforded the same treatment. I shouldn't have to fight to be treated the same as my cisgender peers, yet this tacit agreement between myself and the world is somehow up for debate.
While posting transition timelines on the internet can certainly lead to well-wishes and positive responses, the feedback can also become overwhelmingly negative at times. The exorbitant amount of attention left me worried.
As the post grew in popularity, I worried I may lose my job.
The trans community is small and interconnected. I have friends who experience discrimination in their workplace day after day. Being objectified or discriminated against for being trans is not just a passing thought or worry, but an active concern that permeates my — and that of many other trans people's — workplace decisions every day.
Was it likely I would be discriminated against? Not exactly. I'm fortunate to have incredibly supportive coworkers at a queer-accepting publication. But even with newfound workplace protections from the Supreme Court, can any trans person ever be certain that they won't be discriminated against for being themselves? Aimee Stephens' legacy is powerful, but bigotry is everlasting and will always be a concern.
Luckily, I found many other queer-identifying people in the newsroom. Once I connected with them, I felt more comfortable opening up within the company — it showed me I wasn't alone. My fears about the tweet disappeared.
Through this community, I've been able to speak about my fears, my concerns, and more importantly, my triumphs. My new coworkers were some of the first people I told when I filed the official paperwork for my name and gender marker change — they're fantastic journalists and even better people.
The response I received on Twitter was tumultuous, but mostly supportive.
As you might guess, my Twitter inbox amassed hundreds of messages: mostly compliments and passersby who just wanted to offer their encouragement. The tweet did, however, allow me to reconnect with old friends, coworkers, and the parents of children whom I had taught when working at a local Houston preschool.
One unexpected twist of going viral was receiving art from supporters all the way from Brazil and Scotland. I knew that my transition would resonate with some, but I never imagined I'd receive an outpouring of global support via oil paintings and digital illustrations.
What continues to surprise and fascinate me is that, as far as I know, all of the art sent to me was created by cisgender artists. It was eye-opening to receive so much art from outside my own community.
Not all of the responses were positive, though I never expected them to be.
I'm fortunate that comments of support vastly outnumbered the hate and vitriol, but countless replies arguing against my right to exist took a toll on me. Rape and death threats continue to populate my inbox, and all of this hate stems from simply posting two photos of myself.
But keeping my inbox open, even if it became a cesspool, let me interact with and respond to the messages from scared, not-yet out-of-the-closet trans people and worried family members of my trans peers.
Did it take a long time to respond to most of them? Absolutely. But I was once a scared and lonely trans kid in the closet, and I understand how valuable it can be to see someone like yourself pop up on the timeline.
I did not post on Twitter to go viral. I posted the photos because after years of self-loathing and self-hatred, it was time to turn the page and love myself for once. The likes and retweets are great trophies and mementos, but I'm here celebrating that I'm finally able to be me.
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