When Google's Your Teacher
By Dani Thompson
I chose to interview Ashlee Edwards who is a co-worker of mine at the Gender and Sexuality Resource Center. I chose her because she is one of the kindest people I have ever met and our relationship has meant a lot to me in terms of finding a community here on campus. Having someone like her who is so giving, hilarious, and shares some of the same experiences as me as a person who identifies as asexual made me want to understand more about her and her life before we met. It is incredibly difficult to meet other asexual people partly since according to one survey “one in 100 people is asexual, although many may not realize they are” (Gordon, 2012).
Asexuality is a sexuality broadly characterized by a lack of sexual attraction for any gender but as an umbrella term, it can also mean a person can only experience sexual attraction rarely or under certain circumstances. Within the asexual umbrella, Ashlee identifies as aromantic, biromantic, and akoiromnatic meaning that she is romantically attracted to multiple genders but does not want reciprocation. Within the realm of gender, Ashlee identifies as a transgender woman and this identity is what she primarily focuses on within our interview.
Ashlee has lived in Germany, Oregon, and recently here in Colorado. Her family is Methodist and according to an ancestry DNA kit, almost completely Western European. Many transgender people deal with intolerance from their communities as a result of their gender identity; here in the US “Americans are the most likely to say that society has gone too far in allowing people to dress and live as one sex even though they were born another” (“Global Attitudes Toward Transgender People”). However, Ashlee’s cultural identity did not influence her as much as someone from a more conservative background. Even still, Ashlee had to contend with heteronormative structures within our society which make it almost impossible for young trans people to even know what being transgender is. Many people within the LGBTQ+ community only ever find out their identity through researching on the internet, the common experience being “googling everything I could” when a person starts to realize that they may not be heterosexual or fit within the gender binary (Brabaw & Armitage).
So essentially I always knew something was different about me. I always aligned more with girls. I had more girl friends (girl space friends), and I always played with more girly toys. For example, I asked for a Barbie Dreamhouse when I was seven for my birthday and then when I was ten I almost asked Santa for a purple skirt for Christmas, I wish I had because then maybe my parents would have seen it and known.
So nothing really happened until I was thirteen, and my feelings kept being there in the background. This was before the internet was super popular and there were no internet resources that I could find. Essentially I just typed into google “boy who wants to be a girl, boy who wishes they were a girl”. I didn’t really get anything back at all and so it was just a feeling that I had, trying on all my mom’s skirts from her closet when she wasn’t home and just sitting down and reading a book on my bed in a skirt. Simple as that, it just felt good.
When I was thirteen I was on the way to a friends house and my mom was driving me. I was in the passenger’s seat and I just turned to her and I was like, “Mom, I think I’m a girl” and she looked at me and she was like, “Okay, alright. So do you like boys?” and I said, “Uh, not really” and she said, “Okay” and then it was silent for the rest of the drive. She dropped me off at my friend’s house and we played the Sims and then after a couple hours, my dad came and picked me up. I remember this day vividly. So he picks me up in the car--which is unusual because he didn’t usually do those things--we drive home with the usual conversation and not really much is talked about. I get home, walk through the front door and my mom is sitting on the couch talking to my grandma on the phone about what I had told her in the car.
At that point, I kind of just freaked out a little bit. I think inside I was like, “I’m not ready to share this with other people!” It took a lot for me just to say that and I had been working up the courage to say that to my mom for months and I just kinda freaked out at that point.
So I was like, “Oh no, just kidding, nevermind! JK!” and kinda just swept it under a rug and it wasn’t discussed again for five more years until I came out officially when I was eighteen.
And when I was eighteen I was like, “I can’t see myself living if I don’t be myself.” So at that point, I sat down and I wrote a four-page letter to my parents which they still have to this day. I taped it under one of the seats in their car and when they were on their way to Portland for a weekend getaway, we lived in Salem at the time, I called them when they were about halfway up. I said, “Hey, there’s something I need to tell you, pull over to the side, look under your seat, there’s something taped there--” really like spy-ish kind of thing--and I was like, “I need you to read this letter and then call me back” and I hung up and that was it.
And then fifteen minutes later they call back and they’re in tears and crying saying “I love you, we support you of course” and then they went up and had their weekend and came back.
They didn’t initiate a lot of things, they were like “we love you” and everything, but they didn’t bring up new clothes or anything, I was the one that was like “alright, can we go shopping sometime?” and all that. And then I wanted to get my ears pierced and then start hormones. At the time you needed to go talk to a therapist for a couple of months. So I was the one who looked into that and was like, “Can we start seeing a therapist to get me a letter so we can start hormones?”
And then I came out to my extended family and my mom actually did it over email. I asked her to because I was like, “I don’t want to handle that so, you just send it and tell me everyone’s responses.” Then I came out to the world. You come out every day, but I came out on Facebook and whatnot literally the day after I walked in my high school graduation ceremony. There were some friends who were really big assholes about it but for the most part, everyone was really supportive. I really didn’t have a whole lot of really close friends anyway, but the friends I did have were super supportive. And that was six years ago. I’ve gone through a lot in six years.
So I started hormones April 22, 2012, and I remember because that’s Earth Day. I actually took a picture of myself, my face and body, every Saturday for three years, to compare. I still have them on my phone and it's really interesting to just flip through and see the progression from being sad and then getting happier and happier and happier and it’s great to look at. Also in the summer of 2014, I went to South Korea and I had vocal surgery to help my voice to sound more feminine. I had done voice training that summer I first came out and I was pretty happy with it but I had read about this surgery online, it’s the only place in the world that does it. My voice training got me to this certain level, and the surgery just kind of eliminated my lower register. When I was doing just voice training I had to consciously think about raising my voice up higher. After the voice surgery, I don’t have to think about that, which is super awesome. It didn’t actually change a whole lot, it just kind of like made it the standard.
The thing that I’m most dysphoric about still is my voice. I don’t think I’ll ever like my voice but I’ve gotten to a place where I’ve accepted it. It’s still hard sometimes. Also my height, that is also something I’m really dysphoric about.
Right after that, I got bottom surgery, which we call Gender Confirmation Surgery. I know a lot of books still use the wrong terms but its Gender Confirmation Surgery. That was amazing, I went up to Montreal to do that, and at the time most insurances didn’t cover it, most insurances still don’t now, so it was $21,000.00. My Grandpa had recently passed away that Spring and he left my mom some money and she was like, “Yeah there’s no other thing I'd rather use it for.”
There are a lot of identities that I hold. So I also identify as asexual, aromantic, autochorisexual, and biromantic. And breaking my asexual identity down further, I actually identify as akoiromantic which essentially is I find people attractive romantically but as soon as my feelings are reciprocated any feelings I had for them kind of go away. It really sucks, it's a hard one to have because I get crushes on people, I’m attracted to people, I find people really cute. But I can never act on it because if I do then those feelings literally just vanish and I pretty much want nothing to do with that person anymore, like it’s hard to be friends with them. It sucks and it's a hard one, it's nice to feel romantic attraction but knowing that I can never have a romantic partner... it’s really hard.
I see myself having a QPR, which is a Queer Platonic Relationship, because I wanna have like five kids, adopt kids, foster kids, stuff like that. But I also want a partner to help with that. So a QPR is something where I’m open to it but I don’t know how to go about that. It’s kinda hard, you just have to find other aromantic people.
I do feel romantic attraction and I’m attracted to men and women identifying people. For me, the biromantic label still applies and fits and feels good. There’s a split though, I’m much more attracted to women, like 90-93% women and 7% men.
How I found out my aromantic identity, I had been in two relationships previously, from when I was twenty to twenty-three. And they never worked out, they only lasted a couple months each. Afterward, I was like “Ya know, I’m not feeling it, there are no romantic feelings that I’m feeling towards this person anymore” and I couldn’t understand why. Then I was doing some research for the GSRC on flags and stuff and I found a description of an identity that just clicked. I was like, “That’s why! That’s why relationships haven’t been working out, that’s why, whenever I get into a relationship, I then don’t feel anything after the feelings start reciprocating.”
I didn’t grow up around queer culture as I am the only LGBTQ+ person, that I know of, in my close family and my extended family. It was never really talked about much, growing up and the internet was very new, I’m twenty-five so it was still starting out. So I never really grew up with that and there was no representations in media, the first time I heard the word transgender was Lady Gaga’s song “Born This Way”, and Glee was really the first major media representation of LGBTQ characters on television. There had been The L Word and stuff but nothing mainstream.
Culture didn’t really affect me in a whole lot of ways since I just grew up with European culture. We lived in Germany for four years which was super awesome and I loved that. I grew up Methodist who are kind of like the middle of the road acceptance. Religion didn’t really play a big part into my identity, not like a Catholic identity would. But it did have an effect where I would stay up praying late at night like, “God please, if I wake up tomorrow make me a girl.” I just remember praying and hoping and wishing and kind of lost faith as I grew up.
That contributed to how I felt when I was coming out. Like, “Will my parents accept me?” I knew that they supported gay people and everything so I wasn’t too concerned but there was that little bit in the back of my head knowing that religion generally doesn’t accept LGBTQ+ people. But they’ve been super great and they’re actually working with their church to try and continuously advance the rights of LGBTQ+ people and their Church is having a vote later on this week about officially saying that they’re going to be welcoming all identities. My dad has been on one panel at the church and he’s going to be on another this coming Sunday, so that’s pretty cool.
I wouldn’t say that my agency has been taken away, not necessarily by my parents. I would say that society and society’s expectations of gender kind of limited my expression at that time so I wasn’t able to feel comfortable expressing myself and wearing skirts outside, afraid of what society would think. And again, I didn’t have the word for transgender at the time, so I just knew that I liked skirts, I felt like a girl, I wanted to be the girls I saw walking in the hallways. But I don’t think that my agency was necessarily taken away, I feel like society and society’s expectations kind of limited my ability to kind of be myself and express myself.
I think just growing up and finding my voice and getting to a point where I was like I can’t continue- I can’t imagine myself in ten years as a male and going on living this life without being myself. So I think I kind of had to take control of my own agency and it just took some time. So really taking control of that narrative and being like “Hey, this is who I am” it took a lot of work.
It took me eighteen years for me to do that. It got to a point where I had to take control of my own narrative, I had to take control of my own agency or else I wasn’t going to be happy. I mentioned before that when I was struggling to decide--because it was a huge decision trying to be like am I trans or am I not trans--I took quizzes online and stuff.
One of the biggest things that stood out to me was that there was a forum topic where someone said one of the main differences was looking at girls and wanting to be with them or wanting to be them. And for me walking the hallways, I admired all the girls, and I look back on that and I was like, “Hm, no I didn’t wanna be with them. I wanted to be them and have that life.”
One of the hardest parts for me still right now, dysphoria wise, is looking back at the childhood I could have had. The childhood I should have had and really just feeling sad about that and regretting not coming out at thirteen. Because I could have gone on hormones then, could have been much more feminized facially, could have had my voice not as low and also just grown up being able to wear skirts and twirl around and have pink bikes. Looking back on my childhood it’s hard for me and it’s bittersweet, and only recently I’ve been able to look at old childhood photos. Right after I came out I told my mom to take down all the childhood photos of me in the house because it was just too hard for me to look at. It’s still hard to talk about and look at photos because I look back then and I’m like, “What would have happened if I had been genetically born a girl? What kind of life would I have had? Would I be happier?” There’s so many what if’s and if I focus on them I can go down a dark hole, a dark black hole, and I try not to focus on them.
I’m very lucky to have come out when I did at eighteen because there are still some people who don’t feel comfortable to come out until they’re like fifty-six and with three kids. And I’m not trying to rag on them or anything. But it’s much easier to come out younger than it is to come out older. I work at a camp for transgender youth, and you see these wonderful amazing trans kids who are like ten, eleven, twelve who are just able to live their lives and just go to school as who they are. It really, really hurts and hits home and makes me wish that I had the courage to come out sooner. I think I put a lot of blame on myself for not being able to come out sooner, for not having those words. I know it’s not my fault- for not having those words. For not being able to adamantly say to my mom and dad “I am a girl”. It took me eighteen years to solidly say that. I’m an indecisive person in the first place, I’m shy, and I didn’t wanna let my mom down and there’s so much that contributed to it. But I do wish that I had come out sooner and it’s interesting to think about the what if’s but I can’t focus on it too much or else it gets really sad.
I began this project with the hope of learning more about a colleague of mine and to try to understand who this person that many people admire was. Listening to Ashlee, I realized how willing she is to give out her story to other people in order to help them. We first began with her coming out speech which is a quick rundown of our coming out experiences that we give at Speak Out panels for the GSRC. Within the GSRC, Ashlee is someone who people look up to and from seeing how willing she was to share these personal details and how she responded to this interview, it’s obvious she cares very much about helping other people. In particular, I think she honestly wants to help people dealing with their own issues surrounding LGBTQ+ identities whether it’s with educating those in the UNC community or queer-identifying people with personal struggles.
As an anthropology student, I realize now how personal ethnographies can be even when you don’t share the same experiences or identities as your subject. It was also surprising how much I learned despite me having had a lot of personal experience within the LGBTQ+ community. I imagine this is an experience that cultural anthropologists must have in the field as well.
This was also another instance of me realizing just how fortunate I have been with my identities, in particular as someone who is cisgender. I have no idea what it is like growing up as a trans person without representation or words to express myself or being an adult and not being able to look back at my childhood. I was affected by this as well because I’ve dealt with a person who is very close to me go through these exact same things. Having this told to me again as well as seeing it in some of the research I was doing for this essay, I had a moment of realization that I can never really understand what these experiences must be like.
I was very much affected by Ashlee’s reactions to the impact that her culture has had on her identity. It’s sad to think I’ve become so accustomed to hearing such terrible and negative stories about the responses from people’s families to them coming out. Hearing how supportive and kind her family was made me very happy and also makes it very clear how Ashlee can be so giving and open to everyone I’ve seen her with.
Brabaw, Kasandra, and Ashley Armitage. “7 People Talk About The First Time They Knew They're Transgender.” Marijuana Legalization State Vs Federal Law, Scheduling, Refinery29, www.refinery29.com/en-us/2017/08/167540/first-time-knew-transgender.
“Global Attitudes Toward Transgender People.” Ipsos, www.ipsos.com/en-us/news-polls/global-attitudes-toward-transgender-people.
Gordon, Olivia. “'The Moment I Realised I Was Asexual'.” The Telegraph, Telegraph Media Group, 12 Nov. 2012, www.telegraph.co.uk/women/9651265/The-moment- I-realised-I-was -asexual.html.
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