A brand-new storytelling campaign for transgender youth called TRUTH launched Tuesday (August 4). The national project from the youth leaders at the Transgender Law Center and the Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) Network consists of three awesome components: short video profiles of young trans people and their families, a storytelling toolkit designed to help you figure out whether you're ready to share your own stories online, and an Instagram selfie campaign like none other.
MTV News caught up with 18-year-old Pat Cordova-Goff, an organizer for TRUTH, and 17-year-old Zeam Porter, a trans high school activist, to talk about what it's been like for them to open up about their own stories online, and how selfies can help make the world safer for trans youth.
"This campaign is so important," Pat Cordova-Goff told MTV News, "in part because in the bigger queer movement and the bigger trans movement, we’re often focused on adults who are already set in their lives."
The #TransTRUTH Instagram selfie campaign asks trans youth to express themselves by posting selfies holding signs printed with their name, preferred pronouns and gender identity.
"As the trans community keeps gaining visibility, there are more and more people who are considering their own gender identity ... and a lot of those people are youth," Pat said. "It’s important to have youth speaking out in order for other youth to have someone to look up to."
The secret power of selfies
Zeam Porter, a senior in high school in Minneapolis, remembered a recent conversation with a friend who was preparing to post a #transTRUTH selfie.
"They were so into it," he recalled. "They were doing their makeup, and trying to figure out what font to use for the text in their poster, and it just brought them so much joy."
"And it was bringing me joy to see my friend so proud of themselves ... so proud to be trans," he continued. "It made me realize, oh my gosh, we’ve both struggled so much with our identities, and cried many a night, but right now this is making us so happy ... and this is so simple.
"How amazing is it to live in a time where media is not only so accessible, but through an organization [like the Transgender Law Center] that really cares about you, you can feel so much self-love just by taking a selfie?" Zeam asked.
Sharing can be scary ... but it's worth it
Pat, who's a sophomore at Citrus College outside L.A., first found the national spotlight as a senior in high school, when she fought to help California's School Success and Opportunity Act become law. The law prohibits schools from discriminating against students on the basis of their gender identity when it comes to sports, extracurriculars, bathrooms and locker rooms.
News reporters started calling Pat after she became one of the first openly trans high school students to benefit from it by playing on the girls softball team -- and it wasn't always awesome.
“No matter how much I tried to prepare, having reporters show up and shout personal questions at my softball tryouts or having adults I’d never met shame me in national publications took a toll," she explained in a TRUTH press release. "I lacked a support system of peers who had similar experience in the public eye."
Since then, Pat has taken ownership of her own story by writing about her own experiences, and about issues affecting trans youth, for national media outlets like The Advocate and Mashable. After organizing a GSA at her high school, she also became a member of the Youth Council for the National GSA Network, which is how she came to be a leader of the TRUTH project.
"Overall, it's been so positive," she told MTV News. "I think the reason I keep going and sharing my story is because of the youth who come up to me to share their own stories, and to tell me that I've been an inspiration."
Zeam shared a similar story.
"I first shared my story at the request of others, testifying for a state policy," he wrote in the Trans TRUTH storytelling toolkit. "I was successful at changing minds, but I lost a lot emotionally. I was forced to be proud of my trans-ness before I was ready, and to speak out in a room full of transphobic haters. ... When I share my story now, it’s for myself and my community -- not for anyone else.”
Like Pat, Zeam reiterated that even though it can be emotionally draining at times, he still believes the power of stories makes it worth it to tell his own, and he shared how other people's stories have changed his own life.
"Subconsciously, for a long time, I thought I was either going to die by 18, or be homeless, or in jail," he said. "Because that’s the only representation I ever saw in the media of trans folks -- and especially black trans folks."
But then he started seeing more positive stories about trans people leading successful, fulfilled lives, and it made a huge difference.
"It affected me on a daily basis," Zeam said. "It affected how I planned my life, and how I saw my life going...I could see myself alive, and I could see myself thriving...I could love my family and be loved by my family and feel welcome and loved, and not like a ticking time bomb. It even changed how I was starting to apply to college. It broadened the horizons of what I thought my future could look like."
Advice for trans teens
If you're thinking about sharing your own story online for TRUTH, be sure to check out the TRUTH storytelling toolkit, which will help walk you through important considerations like making sure your family is ready and you have a support system in place, being careful not to inadvertently out anyone else, and considering all the benefits and risks of your story finding its way to your classmates and your community.
"So many trans people feel like they're expected to tell this one trans narrative in the media, and that’s dangerous, because all of our stories are different," Pat said.
When asked what advice he'd give to teens who may be feeling confused about their own gender identity, Zeam said, "It's OK to feel like, 'I’m not sure I want to question my gender identity, I’m not sure I want to be trans.' It’s not something you choose, and when you start to realize that it can be scary -- it’s OK to have those nervous feelings and thoughts and emotions...sometimes, it's brave to just click on an article, and read it, and sit with your emotions."
"But if you are questioning your gender identity," he continued, "it’s more than OK ... It’s brilliant."