“My name is Gemma, and I’m a proud Transgender Woman. By looking at me you might think I’ve lived most of my life this way. I’m happy, successful, and confident in who I am! My life, however, was very different 8 years ago. When I realized I needed to make such immense changes in my life I never thought it was possible to get to where I am today. With support, hard work, therapy, and life-saving medicine, I’ve grown into an empowered woman who is dedicated to letting the world know that real and positive personal change of all kinds is possible. My mind and body are finally aligned and my future has never been brighter!
I’ve known deep down I was different for my entire life. In my dreams I had always appeared as a woman, but I figured it wasn’t worth talking about because everyone’s imaginations run wild while they sleep. After all, how was I supposed to bring that up? Growing up in the 90’s, positive representation of transgender people was almost impossible to find, and the visibility that was readily available was overwhelmingly negative. This led to me bottling up my feelings and burying my leanings toward the effeminate which over time decimated relationships and ultimately sent me into a deep depression. It wasn’t until I hit rock bottom in 2013 and my therapist urged me to explore my feelings that I finally began to see some light in my cloudy future. I had no idea that the sum of my tumultuous experience unknowingly prepared me for what was to come.
I grew up a military ‘brat’ in a family of six and I was the third child of my four siblings. My father served valiantly in the US Coast Guard for 25 years which had my family moving every three to four years around the northeast United States. In 1993 my family moved to NYC where my siblings and I got involved in a local theater company and I found my love of acting. I got experience on stage doing concerts and musicals with the children’s choir in the city, and as my skills grew I joined the adults of the company in their main stage operas. We took those shows on the road and I had so much fun being someone else for a few hours every day.
Once in high school I became a relatively successful professional actor. I spent time going on countless auditions in NYC, eventually booking several spots on radio and TV all over the country. These fantastic experiences were great for spending time around all types of people both gay and straight. Sadly, outside of those experiences I had next to zero exposure to the LGBTQIA community. Any kind of leaning I had towards the effeminate was still buried deep and only snuck out as a secret crossdressing obsession as I got older. This cycle had me collecting clothing from the Women’s section at the store, but the shame of the secret had me dumping said clothes into public trash cans every few months.
When I got into college and moved away from home I started to amass a larger collection of feminine attire. I came out as a crossdresser to a close friend in NYC and actually spent a few days in late 2006 as Lila, the ‘no fun girlfriend who didn’t dress up for Halloween,’ according to what my cohort was telling strangers at the yearly Halloween Parade through the Village. I had a blast! I was surprisingly comfortable with being viewed as just one of the girls and it was somewhat disappointing to return to reality after that.
I moved back home the summer of 2007 and enrolled at my local Community College with my secret stash of clothes hidden far far under my bed. By the following summer I started dating a wonderful girl from my older brother’s college. We had a blast hanging out and traveling together so we planned to return to NYC for the Halloween Parade. This round I was dressed as a Gangster in a suit, but I could not stop thinking about my experience in 2006. My girlfriend and I had our fun but once we got back I spilled my secrets to her. Needless to say, she had a lot of questions I didn’t have good answers for. This turned into a fight and it resulted in my dumping my stash of clothes once again. I vowed to never talk about it or give into that side of myself again. I was sure I was done with it. Our relationship never recovered and we broke up about a month later, me still shoving my feelings down as deep as they could go.
I jumped back into school and things were going well. My classes were ones I enjoyed and my acting career was still giving me opportunities to step out of myself for a while. Once I finished my Associates degree in 2009, I started up at a four year college and started going to the school gym to see if getting in shape could help me avoid my shameful secrets. I started dating a really nice girl, but that eventually fell apart when I wasn’t ready to have another difficult fight by sharing my secrets with her. The gym was making me feel worse, and as I sank into loneliness I came to realize I needed to do something about my now obsession with my secret clothes.
I’d love to tell you that I went into therapy and untangled my identity at this point, but that would be a lie. In reality I quit acting, ditched my forbidden clothing, and grew a really nice beard! It was easier to hide behind a fuzzy mask than it was to face myself. I saw it as a logical step since I was too socially anxious to be a ‘starving actor’ type constantly seeking new jobs in the service industry. So I began leaning into my job in the technology industry with my newfound beard confidence, finding success quickly. Heading into 2013 life looked like it was getting better.
My career and confidence seemed to be getting better and better to people on the outside but things were falling apart behind the scenes. I was supposed to feel great with all this success but I had slipped into a deep depression with so many shameful feelings crowding my brain. Deep down my bearded life was fighting with my secret feminine side and I ended up in therapy by August a confused mess of a human.
Through tears I begged my therapist to help me as I unleashed everything I’d been holding in my whole life. Those girly nights in NYC, my many stashes of clothing over the years, and the swirling questions I never wanted answers to fell out of me like how water bursts through a broken dam. He calmed me down and helped me get all of my deep shame out in the open. At the end of the appointment I was prescribed, ‘Go online and look for people who have similar feelings to yourself. Open your mind and read it all. Don’t reject anything you see and see if you can find something to identify with.’
I went home, hopped onto Google, and started searching for anyone, anything that could make sense of my experiences and feelings – and I came upon Laura Jane Grace, the front woman of the punk band Against Me!. She too had thought about women’s clothing from a young age and she used words I’d never heard before when relating to those feelings; Gender Dysphoria. Laura had gone through the same process of collecting clothing, dressing up in private, and purging it throughout her life. The article I read felt like someone had taken my secret life and framed it within someone else’s real life experience. As I read on I realized her story went beyond the darkness I felt trapped in. Things got better for her when she came out as a transgender woman.
I let those new ideas sink in as I kept searching for answers but I kept looping back to that article like it was trying to tell me something. Was it truly possible to transition and remain successful and happy? A few days later I went for a drive and something clicked in my brain. I realized that all this time I’d been a woman, but invisibly so. I had never loved my body and I needed to change some way, somehow. I could feel my identity shatter into a million pieces. What was I supposed to do now?
Over the next few months I worked with a few therapists to move beyond shame and into finding the right words to describe what was going on in my head. Entering December, I had enough figured out to begin coming out to a few non-family members to get some experience before telling my close-knit family. Everyone I talked to offered their support and recommended I wait to tell family until after the holidays to avoid the reminder of this painful period every year. I was sad to hear it but they were right. It had to wait until 2014.
Having the wonderful support of my friends I ended up coming out to my family on January 12th. It was a long and stressful day coming out to each member of the family individually, a strategy I came up with so no one person would have to hold onto this secret with me for too long. I shocked everyone, but they all offered their cautious support and I slept better that night than I had in years. No turning back now!
After that whirlwind of an experience, my therapist challenged me to make decisions about my future. Did I intend to come out publicly? Would I begin medically transitioning? I realized that, yes, all of that needed to happen and more. Shortly thereafter I got in contact with Callen-Lorde Community Health Center in NYC and started making appointments towards the ultimate goal of beginning Hormone Replacement Therapy (or HRT) to bring my body in line with my mind.
Soon, with a couple appointments under my belt, I began HRT in April of 2014. Even after the first dose I was able to relax. My body was now on my side and the future looked promising. My hair had been growing out since the prior September wedding so by mid-May I had a cute little bob of a haircut and I was itching to climb out of my shell. I came out publicly May 31st via Facebook, lucky to receive a huge surge of love and support from my friends. I was finally free!
With my newfound freedom also came the next bumpy road: Existing as a woman in public. Somehow, I wasn’t seen for my transness, but immediately viewed as the woman I was now introducing myself as. It was overwhelming being hit on by strange men and having eyes on my (very small) chest. Public bathrooms were impossible without a female friend because of the fear of being recognized as a man and being kicked out. Figuring out what to do with my hair and how to use makeup took looking at hundreds of videos and thousands of pictures.
Personally, the first few months out in public were difficult but freeing. I was happy to be able to exist as myself and I grew into my new societal role quickly. All of this is only possible due to the amount of privilege I’ve received as a blue-eyed redhead with a small army of supporters in my family and friends. By the end of the year I’d made moves to bring my Identification in line with my Identity and I headed into 2015 with a restaurant job that gave me an opportunity to gain confidence through a job I’d previously been afraid of: waiting tables.
Now with the changes from HRT, my documents in order, a new sense of purpose, and a new boyfriend, I began interviewing for full time jobs. Three months after obtaining a great job in NYC I moved into the city and began living on my own for the first time. Life was moving fast and I was loving it. I had friends over often and I adored hanging out on my rooftop in Harlem. I made new friends at work and had a few great coworkers show me the ropes on doing better makeup for our holiday party. By 2016 I wasn’t thinking too much about gender anymore, and I was living a full life. I had finally become the person I’d hoped to be!
Since then, life has been mostly good to me. I’m now an aunt! My personal struggles day to day are not that different from other women my age: I worry about finding someone with whom I’d like to spend my life, and I try my best to stay in shape to maintain a young and fashionable appearance. I’ve lost jobs and found others, grown professionally and now I work for a wonderful company. Still, I’ve had some nasty run-ins with aggressive men including being sexually assaulted by a friend of mine on my Harlem rooftop and being harassed online often. Through all of the ups and downs, I always remain positive and offer compassion in the face of hate. I constantly remind myself that I am lucky to be able to live my life the way I do and I hope to continue living for quite a long time.
I hope my story has shown you that all people are deserving of love and support. Without the support I’ve received in my life from friends and especially family I could never get to where I am now. In my experience I’ve learned to use my privilege to be visible as a transgender woman to help others understand that being transgender is not a bad thing. All transitions should be celebrated because it is beautiful to be able to find and become your true self!
Thank you for reading my story. I hope it is not the last one you read about my wonderful transgender community.
This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Gemma Prentice from Jersey City, NJ. Follow her on Instagram. Submit your own story here and be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories.
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