By Kenzie Cook
Zayden Isaac sips on water in a coffee shop somewhere in Chapel Hill, a long way from his home in Graham, North Carolina. The dim lights dance around Zayden’s face as he tells his story of self-discovery, coming out and transition just weeks after his 18th birthday.
Back in his hometown of Burlington, Ben Xhemaili sits in his living room while his parents are out shopping and his little sister sings karaoke in her bedroom. His eyebrows draw together in a mix of concentration and sorrow as he recounts his struggles of the past two years, just a couple of months shy of 18-years-old.
Across the state, Lily McGilvray pauses “Chill with Bob Ross” on Netflix to share her own story a couple of months after her 21st birthday. Emotions swirl in her eyes as she retells both her hardships and her blessings.
Each transgender person has a different story to tell, and Zayden’s, Ben’s and Lily’s stories are unique to people from deep within the mostly conservative Alamance County. While both Zayden and Ben seem to have somehow known who they were their entire lives, Lily has barely just discovered herself in college. Some transgender people are lucky enough to face little-to-no struggles while coming out and throughout transition, but others must live every day feeling unaccepted and abnormal.
Zayden, Ben and Lily each has an entirely different look than they had just years earlier. Lily had a full beard and several more pounds. Now, she had a slight figure and a face as smooth as silk. Zayden’s case was the opposite. Three years ago, he wore his hair down past his shoulders and coated his eyelashes in mascara. Now, his face was fresh and his haircut was close to his skull. Ben, whose hair was once long and styled with curls, now wore his cropped short. All three individuals have experienced major changes physically, mentally and socially; and, although their stories are quite different, they share one thing in common: all are happier now that they get to experience life as their true selves rather than hide behind their physical bodies.
Alamance County, where these three people are from, is not notorious for accepting LGBT youth. The schools rarely let transgender students use the bathrooms or locker rooms that matched their identity well before the North Carolina government ever enacted House Bill 2. Lily had already escaped to Barton College before coming out, but Zayden and Ben were just beginning high school when they first revealed who they really were.
In December 2013, Zayden, then known as Leslie, stared in the bathroom mirror, trying to figure out who the person staring back at him was. The long hair didn’t fit, the makeup didn’t make sense and the feminine clothes were a catastrophe. He knew who he was and this was not it. It was his freshman year of high school, and it was time for him to finally accept who he was. He decided to chop his hair off, replace his clothes with those from the men’s section and stop wearing makeup.
“I liked it when people assumed I was male; and I knew with my hair being as long as it was, everyone would always just think I was a butch lesbian,” he recalled. “While that’s absolutely fine for some people, it wasn’t for me and it made me really uncomfortable when people called me a lesbian, because that implied that I was a female who was interested in other females, and I wasn’t a female.”
The road to coming out was long and confusing for Zayden. He knew who he was, but he wasn’t sure the world was ready to know as well. At the start of his freshman year, he came out as a lesbian, and his parents and church were surprisingly accepting of it. Zayden didn’t tell anyone he was a transgender male until partially through his sophomore year. This was met with hardly any backlash or surprise, but Zayden still struggled with getting his teachers and parents to acknowledge his true identity. It was not until his junior and senior years that people finally started calling him by his new name, Zayden, or in some cases his nickname, Lee. Peers and teachers started using male pronouns when referring to him, but he still had to use the girls’ bathrooms and locker rooms at school.
“My mom calls me Lee but avoids using pronouns when talking about me,” he said, laughing slightly when asked if his parents were accepting of who he is. “She’ll say ‘Lee’ ten times over in a sentence just to avoid using a pronoun.”
During his junior year in high school, his first year after coming out as a transgender male, Zayden started going to the biweekly meetings of Trans Talk Tuesdays, hosted by the LGBT Center of UNC-Chapel Hill. Although he found slight comfort in being surrounded by people similar to him, he felt he didn’t quite belong in the group.
“It seemed like everyone else was struggling way more than I am,” he explained. “Plus, I’d prefer people just think I’m a guy than know I’m transgender.”
In the summer of 2015, Ben Xhemaili, then known as Yllza, faced a similar situation as Zayden. Though he came out as a lesbian the year before, he didn’t feel that term was quite right. He, too, made the conscious decision to chop off his long brown locks and ditch the mascara, and he loved the results. His parents attempted to make him grow his hair back out, but he refused. He finally felt closer to the person he really was: a transgender male.
While Ben’s journey to figuring out his identity followed along a similar path as Zayden’s, he faced a few more obstacles along the way. Zayden was lucky to be in a family that initially accepted him when he first came out as a lesbian before he knew who he really was. Ben came from an Albanian family who followed the Islamic faith, which included a strong discrimination toward anyone of the LGBT community even if it was their own child. Miraculously, Ben managed to hide his sexuality – and eventual gender identity – from his parents until his junior year of high school.
“Coming out wasn’t something I had decided to do, but rather a choice by my ex-girlfriend,” Ben explained. “I wanted to wait until I was 18.”
In the fall of 2015, Ben cowered on his bed shortly after his parents discovered a picture of him hugging his girlfriend. His father barged into the room, demanding he tell the truth of his relationship with the girl. Ben swore up and down that he wasn’t dating a girl, and that the hug was simply friendly. His dad snapped. No daughter of his would be a lesbian, especially not with an American.
Ben, who had been considering the idea that he might actually be a male born into a female body, knew immediately that if his parents could not accept him as a lesbian, they definitely could not accept him as a transgender person.
Flash-forward to a year later, to the fall of 2016. Ben’s mother helps him pick out a new name and helps him get access to hormone injections to begin his official transition. Even though Ben believed his life would never get better since he was a transgender teen in a Muslim family, over the course of a year he managed to change the minds of his conservative parents and turn his life around.
Two years after Zayden’s initial self-revelation and just a few months after Ben’s, in the fall of 2015, Lily McGilvray started on a long road to her own self-discovery. She had just started her freshman year of college and couldn’t shake the feeling that she was parading around as someone she was not. She tried to convince herself that she could just ignore it, and it would eventually go away.
“I was trying not to think about it,” Lily recalled. “But, then I started thinking about it a lot. Then, by the summer of 2016, I was certain.”
Despite her friends being mostly accepting of her new identity, coming out to her family was an entirely different experience. Her mother found out before she had the chance to come out. The doctors had mailed her hormone pills to the wrong address, and her mother forced her to come clean. Her father found out soon after, when her mother made her switch to his insurance.
“Telling my family was nerve-wracking,” said Lily. “My dad is completely cool with it, and my mom completely hates me.”
Her twin brother Justin didn’t outwardly react to Lily’s revelation. He simply changed pronouns for her. Justin explained: “She told me that she was transgender, and I just said, ‘Okay, cool. Do you want to play Rocket League?’”
Lily’s not completely out yet. At school, she still goes by male pronouns and her old name. She doesn’t plan to come out completely until she looks more feminine so that less people are confused. “My school was a Christian school until recently, so everyone here is really conservative. But I have my own bathroom and my own shower, so it’s not a huge deal.”
Back in Alamance
Transgender people across the world have different struggles, whether they are in a transphobic environment or not. Alamance County doesn’t seem to be bursting with people identifying as transgender, but that could be because it’s not necessarily an inviting place to the LGBT community and many could be are afraid to come out. Zayden, Ben and Lily prove that transgender people are incredibly brave in the face of adversity. Even though Zayden didn’t experience the same backlash as Ben or Lily, he still struggles simply by having the wrong body. Now with House Bill 2 hanging over their heads, their lives are even more in limbo, which only makes them braver. Perhaps one day, Alamance will be more accepting so these three are not alone and no longer have to struggle.
Edited by Samantha Miner