From Abbey to AJ: a student’s journey through self-identity

By Laura Brummett

Imaginary grid lines split her leg into six sections. Her target, the middle section of the outside of her thigh, about an inch away from a small freckle.

AJ Briggs loaded the syringe, and took a deep breath. She held the needle poised over her leg for the first time, trying not to shake.

“Three, two, one,” Briggs counted aloud, and then stabbed.

She hit her target.

Pain came first, as expected, but excitement overshadowed all other feelings in her body. The pain would last for several days, but the overwhelming relief was the only thing that mattered. For Briggs, this was surreal.

It  then occurred to her that the next time she would have to stab herself would be during spring break. Briggs was going on a camping trip with her school’s rock climbing team.

Her friends on the team still called her Abbey, her birth name.

When she started at UNC-Chapel Hill in the fall, Briggs finally had the courage to go by her preferred name, AJ.

However, a high school friend joined the climbing team with her, and continued to use Abbey. Briggs couldn’t bring herself to correct them.

To her longtime friends and the climbing team, she was still Abbey. To her family, she was still Abbey Anne. But to herself, and any new acquaintances, she was AJ.

Finding her identity

For the first two years of high school, Briggs struggled to convince herself that she was truly straight and actually enjoyed wearing dresses.

She thought she had a crush on a boy named Alex Pryzbylo, and even asked him to her school dance their first year.

They posed awkwardly together for pictures before the dance, their arms barely touching.  Briggs stood with her hands by her sides and her shoulders slightly hunched, her long hair slightly curled at the ends.

Contrasting her black lace dress, she wore a bulky white watch on her wrist. It was her only piece of jewelry.

By Briggs’s senior year of high school, she was comfortable enough in her own style to wear a tuxedo to prom.

This time, her girlfriend, Lauren Levin, was her date. Their arms were wrapped around each other in every photo.

Despite preferring masculine clothing since fifth grade, it took Briggs most of high school to let go of the stereotypes expected by her family and society.

“She felt pressured to be the same image everyone had seen her as,” Levin said. “She was mostly pleasing other people and not wanting to stand out.”

Expressing her true self

Briggs now keeps her hair closely shaved on the sides, while letting the curls on the top of her head loose. She regularly wears flannels, men’s jeans and checkered Vans.

Underneath her loose T-shirts, Briggs’s ribs are squeezed tight, making her lungs feel cramped. Slightly moving her arm reminds her of the blisters hiding underneath her armpits.

The sight of her own chest disgusts her, so she keeps it tightly compressed in chest binding tank tops or elastic tape.

“It doesn’t feel like it’s supposed to be on my body,” Briggs said. “Sometimes it gets so bad that I want to rip my skin off.”

She squirrels all her money away in a large, keypad-protected safe in her dorm room. One day, she’ll have enough money to get transmasculine top surgery, and finally have a chest that she can be proud of.

Even after her careful steps to conceal her chest, she still knows it’s there. Constantly aware of its existence, and her inability to change her feminine features.

In public, the conscious thought that her chest might be noticeable haunts Briggs. She continuously pulls at her shirt, wanting to appear masculine.

While on a beach trip last summer with her friend Marian Gallis, Briggs walked into the women’s bathroom wearing gray basketball shorts and a tank top.

A woman in the bathroom immediately stopped and looked Briggs up and down.

“Are you looking for the men’s room?” the woman said.

The question shocked Briggs, and she awkwardly told the woman no.

“I was alarmed at how quickly people are to assume things about people,” Gallis said. “I’m 100 percent sure Abbey knew where she needed to be.”

Now every time she opens a bathroom door, Briggs questions if her presence is making others uncomfortable.

She avoids drinking water during classes so that she doesn’t have to face awkward looks from other people.

Appearance is everything

For Briggs, there is a fine, but distinct, line between appearing masculine and being a man.

On the first day of her psychology class in January, a student assumed Briggs preferred male pronouns. She addressed Briggs as a boy in front of the everyone, and now the entire class assumes she’s a boy too.

She doesn’t mind being classified as male by strangers, and even takes pride in it sometimes. But in her heart, Briggs knows she is not, and will never be a man.

Appearing masculine is what’s important to her, not specifying certain pronouns.

“That’s what makes me feel good,” Briggs said. “It’s how I feel comfortable.”

However, to Briggs, feeling comfortable is not worth the risk of losing friends. She avoids correcting people who still call her Abbey, afraid of jeopardizing relationships.

“I’m terrified to tell other people especially, people I’ve known for a while, that I’m not exactly what they thought I was,” Briggs said.

The image of who Briggs used to be is a safety blanket she keeps tucked away in the back of her mind.

Confronting her family

Around her family and old friends, she knows that as long as she continues to be Abbey, they will support her. The girl with long hair, slightly curled at the ends, standing in a black lace dress beside a boy, will always be accepted.

As she met more people in college who have only known her as AJ, Briggs slowly became more comfortable in herself.

She went home one weekend in February to take a break from dining hall food, and to visit her family.

She sat in her room that Saturday night, staring at a blank sheet of paper. She had known that she wanted to start taking testosterone for months, but she couldn’t bring herself to tell her mom.

She had settled on writing her a letter explaining how she couldn’t stand living in her own, non-masculine body, but now, the fear was getting too real.

She didn’t want to see the look of disappointment in her mother’s eyes.

When she finally finished the letter, she handed it to her mom and sprinted away back to the safety of her room. This way, she didn’t have to look at her face while she read it.

Though not thrilled, her mom agreed to let Briggs take a step toward being happier in her own body.

A week and a half later, Briggs was in a doctor’s office giving herself the first shot of testosterone. Broader shoulders, a more chiseled jaw line and a deeper voice would soon confirm her masculine identity.

The dream that had seemed so far off to her for so long had become a reality.

Edited by Nick Thompson

House Shows: Providing greener futures for lesser-known artists

By Madeline Pennington

“Do you think spirit colors are a thing? Because I think mine is green.” Grammy-nominated musician Courtney Hartman calls to the crowd of the grungy Chapel Hill bar. In response, the audience of college kids, donning their wire-framed glasses and Doc Martens, whoop and holler in affirmation.

Hartman grins bashfully as she strums the intro to the next song on her set list. The energy is youthful, and electric. However, just two days ago, her show was much different.

February 3, 2019- while the rest of America gears up for the Super Bowl, Courtney Hartman taps her bare foot on the hardwood floor as she goes through the motions of her soundcheck. Her stage, a living room in Huntersville North Carolina,. her audience- about four rows of six chairs. In a room so small, Hartman contemplates whether she should even use a microphone. She croons part of a verse into the mic, and then does it again sans mic.

The scene begs the question- why would a Grammy-nominated artist choose to play a house show?

Founder of Passion House Concerts, Matthew Seneca, believes his concerts give artists a more intimate, low-stakes environment to play at in addition to their other tour dates. He adds that his shows attract artists because he keeps none of the profits.

Hartman feels similarly. Though house concerts come with their fair share of challenges, she enjoys experimenting with her set list and sound during these shows.

Low production, High quality

For both the artist and the audience, a Passion House concert is a unique experience that prioritizes music above all. Seneca seeks to strip away the bells and whistles of a traditional concert venue, put the audience as close as they can get to the performance, and give the artist creative freedom with their set.

As Hartman sound-checks, Seneca bustles about his kitchen setting out bowls of snacks and cases of seltzer. He finishes his spread with a basket of his mother’s homemade scones.

Though Seneca tries to refrain from putting out too much of a spread that could distract from the musician’s performance, part of him can’t get over the feeling that he’s just inviting friends over to his house to hang out.

He isn’t the only one supplying food either. Often, some of his more dedicated concertgoers offer to bring snacks as well. For the Hartman show, one concertgoer brings a platter of barbecue sliders and encourages the room to indulge.

A sense of community nurtures each guest as they enter Seneca’s home. Seneca greets each person with a handshake or a hug and thanks them for coming. He then directs them to the Donations basket in his foyer, reminding each guest that all profits go directly to Hartman.

Seneca and Hartman look like yin and yang, chaos and calm. While Seneca bounces from person to person, chatting amiably, Hartman is a still image. In the same way Seneca seems to energize people with his presence, Hartman calms.

Seneca recalls how it has always been this sort of dynamic with Hartman. They met two years ago at the Swannanoa Gathering in the heart of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Swannanoa is a folk arts summer workshop where musicians of all ages and skill levels go to take varied guitar and songwriting classes.

In the Summer of 2017, Hartman is an instructor at the gathering. After Seneca sees her perform, he becomes mesmerized with her skill. He describes her as a “quadruple- threat,” noting how her songwriting, singing, guitar playing and composing skills are unmatched with most other performers her age.

During their lunch break at the camp, Seneca sits with Hartman and approaches her with the idea of playing a house concert. He hands her his business card and they part ways, losing touch over the next two years, until Hartman finally reaches out wondering whether Seneca’s offer still stands.

Washing away the Past

In the two years in which Hartman and Seneca lose touch, Hartman pilgrimages to “The End of the Earth,” the northernmost peninsula in Spain. It is during this pilgrimage where she writes almost every song she plays during her Passion House Concert set.

She notes how this pilgrimage began as a way to force herself to write, but ended up as a way to find her way back to herself. She arrives at the Camino Finisterre, bathes naked in the river as is tradition, burns her old clothes and immediately goes to write what is the first song in her set list for her 2019 tour.

She tells this story to the crowd of twenty-something people in Seneca’s living room as she softly picks an  acoustic melody on her guitar. The audience is enraptured in the performance, in Hartman’s skill, her demeanor, her energy.   The beauty of the Passion House concert is how intimate the performance feels. Every twitch of the musician’s hand, every dimple- revealing smile- the audience catches it all.

These minute details keep audiences coming back to Seneca’s house in the suburbs. The appreciation from the audience and ability to really connect keeps Hartman playing house shows, while love of the music keeps Seneca opening his doors every few months.

Small Venue, Big Impact

After each show ends Seneca wonders if he’ll be able to do it again. Can he convince people to take a chance on mostly lesser-known artists and drive out to his house? Sometimes the answer is no.

Before the Hartman concert, Seneca was devastated because a good amount of his audience who had reserved tickets could no longer come.

That’s all just a part of the process though. Despite lower attendance than expected, Seneca’s love for music fuels him to continue his concert series.

While packing up her equipment, Hartman peers at the electric green walls in Seneca’s living room. “I’ve always loved the color green. It’s so hopeful. It’s my hope color.” she muses.

The concert catches Hartman at a turning point in her career. She’s just left her Grammy-nominated band Della Mae, and is venturing into the unknowns of a solo career. House concerts like her show at Passion House make her hopeful for the trajectory of her career.

No matter how many people come to see her play, what matters to Hartman most is the way she makes each individual feel. Whether she’s playing a bar or a living room, Hartman spreads hope with her music.

Seneca wonders where she may perform on her next tour. Hopefully, the walls of the venue will be green.

Edited by Nick Thompson