Zaftyg Magazine readers, it’s my pleasure to introduce Alexandria Sherwin. As a writer, one of my biggest goals is to share meaningful stories with those who read me. For this series of interviews, I decided to feature personal stories of amazing people who crossed my path, both online and in real life. Alexandria is one of them. A woman, transgender, artist, and currently pursuing a Master’s Degree in Clinical Mental Health Counseling, she opened up to Zaftyg about the complex, nuanced and intersectional reality of her experience as transgender.
My name is Alexandria, but my friends call me Allie! My pronouns are She/Her/Hers. I’m 25. I engage with art on a lot of different levels, and I like it that way. I’ve been acting, singing, dancing, directing, choreographing, teaching, writing songs, writing poetry, writing other types of literature, and making visual art— in some form or combination thereof— for most of my life now. I graduated from the University of Michigan with a BFA Degree in Musical Theater back in 2018, and I spent roughly two years after that in New York City. Currently, I’m in Atlanta, Georgia where I’m pursuing a Master’s Degree in Clinical Mental Health Counseling. I hope to work with people from all walks of life and promote fully intersectional holistic healing. The interconnectedness of mind, body, heart, and spirit are the highest priority for me. I’ve been sober for two years. My recovery from substance abuse, trauma, and issues of mental health would not have been possible without that. I’m a big reader. My favorite books that I read this year are “Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity” by Julia Serano, “Untamed” by Glennon Doyle, “White Fragility” by Robin DiAngelo, “How To Be Anti-Racist” by Ibram X Kendi, “On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous” by Ocean Vuong, and “The Body Is Not An Apology” by Sonya Renee Taylor— in no particular order. I also consume music. I can’t get enough. I’m constantly listening to songs and artists of every genre. I’ve been playing the guitar for the last three years; songwriting has been a massive source of liberation, joy, and comfort for me. I’m in the process of recording and producing my music as we speak.
When did you first know you wanted to be female?
Well, I’ve always been female, so at the end of the day, it’s kind of a complicated question to answer. I think the words we use to talk about this are really important. For any marginalized community facing undue scrutiny, severe stigma, prejudice, and discrimination, words have the power to make us feel respected, cared for, and valued, just as they have the power to make us feel the opposite; they have the power to ensure future equity in treatment, or uphold draconian systems of oppression. We see the negative play out in discriminatory action on a personal, socio-political, and policy level every day. That is the full weight behind un-programming the unconscious gendering of strangers and respecting people’s pronouns. So, I would say that my subconscious sex has always been female. In terms of gender identity, I only came to understand that essence as such in 2019. That’s when I came in to myself, to my family, and my immediate circles. Bringing us back around to language— the 23 years of my life prior were spent lacking it. I didn’t see others reflecting my internal experience externally in the world around me. I didn’t hear the language I use to communicate about myself, and I didn’t see it displayed in action that resonated with my inner self. I made meaning of the world in the best way I knew how. The world is steeped in these aforementioned systems of oppression, and I was no different. For 23 years I was drinking sexist-misogynist-homophobic-transphobic-xenophobic-patriarchal poison. I’m still detoxing. Mindfulness, intentionality, and love, are the name of the game. I like to think that I never had to “come out”… I just had to exist — brave enough to be myself in a world that has historically denied that existence — and other people came in.
How did you feel during and after the transition process?
Transitioning is a funny word to me. The way some people use it makes me bristle. The way I see it, realigning your language to communicate about your identity — from she to him, from he to they, etc. — is the whole transition. It’s done. All that’s left is existing and interacting with people — verbally communicating yourself as you so choose. “Coming out” is not a prerequisite to “transitioning”; “transitioning” is not a prerequisite to “looking different”. None of these things is a prerequisite to being 100% real, valid, and deserving of respect. This idea that “transitioning” has somehow become synonymous with clothing choices, and surgeries… makes my skin crawl. There’s nothing wrong with either of those things, but clothing choices are just that: clothing choices. Surgeries are surgeries. They have no gender. I’m just Allie. There are some things I didn’t love about myself, so I’m changing that. I’m doing it because I love myself. That’s it. Separating gender norms and beauty standards from a long history of oppression is extremely important to me. When we don’t agree with these systems of oppression but are mindlessly led by them, we run the risk of perpetuating them. It’s about education, mindfulness, and intentionality. It’s a practice, more than a destination. I think the important thing is to be asking those questions, though. I try to factor what comes up into my decision-making processes, and once I’ve made peace with my “why”, I own my truth from a place of love. I think it’s up to us to do that, extend our love outward to other expressions — with equity and respect, and take a stand against oppression. That journey feels like an “inside-out” job to me. All gender and body-image related issues seem to originate from these same spheres of oppression… with regards to the Trans community, I look forward to the day that someone can go get a penis or a vagina because they wanted one, and that was enough. In terms of my current life experiences and choices regarding hormones, surgeries, overall expression of myself, etc… I feel great.
What was it like coming out to friends and family?
Absolutely terrifying. I am so grateful to have had a supportive family and social network. I went into this experience fully prepared for any reaction that came my way, and I found myself overwhelmed with love and support. I am deeply grateful. It’s also a privilege that many do not have. The truth is, it never ends. Until we live in a society where it is no longer the norm to assume that people are heterosexual, or of any particular gender identity, LGBTQ+ people will have to keep coming out every day; initially, and then in every new environment, they meet. The term “coming out” itself, is laced with cis-heteronormative privilege.
Describe a moment that was life-changing for you.
When I was 19, my best friend passed away. Max was my soulmate. Truly… a connection like the kind we had is so rare! We were driving to his grandmother’s house in Florida, on a very major highway, and a vehicle from the opposite side of the road drove across the grass median. It hit us head-on. We spun out. We were both knocked unconscious. Max didn’t regain consciousness, and went into a coma, passing away five days later in the hospital. It was deeply traumatic. Trying to navigate the next several years with no handle on trauma was traumatic. I suppressed a lot. I wanted things to go back to the way they were before he passed away. His death brought up a lot in me. I turned to drugs. Admitting I had a drug problem — admitting I was in an amount of pain I would never have previously admitted to — became the first step (unbeknownst to me) on my journey of realizing who I was. Getting sober successfully would mean processing the things I had been trying to avoid. When I entered recovery from addiction and began a long intensive process of dedicating myself to the healing of trauma, I fully recovered a memory. For any readers who might not know, the brain can store traumatic memories atypically after a person experiences trauma. Without going too much further into the neuroscience behind the process, trauma can result in something called a repressed memory, or a memory that is forgotten. These memories can be recovered through certain trauma processing modalities. What I remembered from the accident, was opening my eyes, looking at Max, and thinking that I was in love with him, as a woman. The trauma boiled down to two truths. The first truth was that Max was an amazing, incredible, person. His was a loss felt by an entire community of artists, family members, and people. The second truth was that being Trans in a world that does not want Trans people to exist, is utterly overwhelming. In many ways, I have learned that existing as a Trans person can become a trauma — in and of itself. The human brain is powerful. Somehow, it registered the information present in that memory as potentially life-threatening and tucked it away just out of reach. All I can remember from the time following was that — something was there, and it was not safe to try and take it out.
Today, I understand more fully the potential harm it might’ve caused me to begin processing it in the time immediately following. Should I have chosen to explore my experience, there would undoubtedly have been overwhelming disbelief that I could be a woman; that — somehow — that truth was unrelated to this massive personal grief I had just experienced. That potential response would have overwhelmed me; the invalidation of my existence — in addition to my grief — too much to bear. It was deeply traumatic watching the person I loved die, and it was deeply traumatic waking up to a truth about who I am under the circumstances.
Looking back, it’s become a symbol to me of the true depths of misogyny, homophobia, and transphobia of the society which we live in. It’s the prejudice that I was taught — reflected by my trauma — and reinforced by experiences I’ve had thereafter. The fact that — a Trans Woman — might live in fear that her proximity to traumatic death would be perceived as having an adverse mental reaction to the event; that her identity — her existence — would become less valid… is a tragic reflection of the world in which we live.
What do you wish people understood about you?
I am deeply spiritual. There’s deep trauma around the word “God” in the LGBTQ+ community. It comes from a history of prejudice, intolerance, hate, and persecution of LGBTQ+ people by organized religion. It’s mired in these same systems of oppression. I’m still navigating how to speak on my deepest held beliefs about the importance of spirituality, though. I believe in the importance of belief itself. I don’t subscribe to organized religion or titles, but I find the messages underlying most of the world’s religious practices to be fascinating and beautiful — especially with an applied historical and socio-political lens. My grandparents were Holocaust Survivors. I was raised Jewish. My spirituality is everything to me. It got me through my worst times. It got me sober. I meditate frequently. The importance of mindful belief, and the power inherent in our beliefs — our conscious experience — fills me with awe.
How did your support system back then impact what you are doing today?
I only fully came in to myself a year and a half ago. For the last year and a half, I have had strong support. I was 23. The most significant way that I would say it has affected me, is by providing me with a drive to do what I can for those without that. As time has gone on, however, I have had progressively more mental and emotional space to reflect. I recognize where the environments I was in weren’t supportive. That has impacted what I am doing today too. I mentioned that for most of my life I’ve been a part of the artistic community — communities of actors, dancers, singers, theatre artists, and musical theatre artists. Anyone can make art, anywhere, anytime, but, I’ve always had aspirations to perform on a larger scale. The truth is, these industries are competitive. Anyone on that journey can tell you that. I can’t help but wonder if I might’ve come into myself sooner had there been better representation, inclusivity, and awareness. Gender diverse characters were practically non-existent, and gender diverse stories were not being told; because they were not being told, the training was not concerned with preparing artists to tell them (to say nothing of awareness and inclusivity). If the industry is not concerned with Trans stories, representations, and truth, it makes sense why educational institutions would not be concerned with preparing artists to tell them. If society is not concerned with Trans stories, representations, and truth, it makes sense why the industry would not be concerned with telling them. Capitalism at it’s finest, I guess. All of this has impacted me in that— I’m Trans, I’m an artist, and I hope to see change. I believe that change needs to happen on a socio-political level, but I believe it also needs to be made from inside the artistic community. I want for Trans people to be included with awareness and respect in other’s creations. I want to see a proliferation of stories accurately and positively depicting Trans experiences. I want to see Trans artist’s creations valued the same as cis artist’s creations, regardless of the presence (or lack therein) of Trans related content. I want to see art that challenges the status quo.
Why is Representation so important?
I previously shared that I didn’t see my internal experience reflected back to me externally in the world around me. I wasn’t particularly sheltered growing up. I was a part of the theatre community from a very young age. The theatre community has historically been hailed as one of the most LGBTQ+ accepting environments, right? There was next to zero Trans representation. That should tell you something. It’s so important for young people to have positive examples of Trans individuals to look up to. To me, that is why representation is so important. Trans people deserve to see their existence, their bodies, their hearts, their minds, and their culture — celebrated. Cis people get that message from the moment they open their eyes; they have that privilege. Trans people should too. Also, the majority of our representation has been a misrepresentation. It’s been damaging, demeaning, demonizing, and degrading. It all goes back to these same systems of oppression. There is a documentary that premiered at The Sundance Film Festival titled Disclosure. It’s on Netflix. You can watch it with your Netflix account. Please make popcorn and watch it with your Netflix account. The film documents the way Transgender people have been depicted in Hollywood, media, and stories, for as long as the mediums have been around — as well as the ways these narratives have impacted Trans people, and shaped American culture. It’s masterful and crucial.
On your role in LGBTQIA+ rights advocacy…
The personal is the political and the political is the personal. Ignoring that fact — refraining from participation in politics — is passively contributing to the status quo, and the status quo is a problem. It’s a vantage point that can only be taken from a place of privilege in oppressive systems of power.
Is U.S health service transgender friendly?
Health service isn’t Trans friendly for the most part. If it gives you an idea, I currently work a minimum wage job to receive the health benefits from that company… Their insurance departments have a Trans Advocacy Center, where they will advocate on behalf of their Trans employees to ensure that Trans-related healthcare is insured medically, and not written off as cosmetic. That is the only way I can afford medical procedures without taking out massive loans, raising money, or saving for many, many years. In addition, several surgical procedures for Trans individuals require written letters from one — sometimes two — therapists. They require you to have had Hormone Replacement Therapy for a minimum of a year before they will even consider consultations for an operation. “Transsexualism” was only removed from the “Mental and Behavioral Disorders” chapter of the World Health Organization’s ICD manual in 2018.
Do you face any type of discrimination online?
No. I was off of social media completely for two years before the first week of April 2020; I logged on to my profiles, updated my gender, and “came out” online. It was a very low-stakes moment for me. I’d been living as my authentic self for some time at that point and had arrived at enough peace to do it. It felt like a chore I just had to do. I didn’t plan to return to social media with any kind of regularity, and it’s wild how few of the people on there I saw or spoke to in the years without it. I was prepared for the worst, should it have occurred. People’s responses were overwhelmingly supportive, though, and I’m still moved to this day by the unexpected outpouring of love I felt. One of the most significant things I learned from the last two years is who I am — and how to live — without social media. I live the same way now that I’m active on it, as I would if I weren’t. I do think online spaces are especially important for Trans individuals, though. In a lot of ways, it seems to function as a bit of a makeshift solution for our representation issues. It’s awesome to meet, see, connect with, and talk to other Trans people. I’ve found it to be a really powerful place for connection in general if you let it be. Especially during COVID-19.
What can we expect next from you?
Right now, I’m focused on getting my degree, paying my tuition, and volunteering my time elsewhere as much as possible. The next project is putting tomorrow’s eyeliner on evenly. The truth is, having conversations like this one is massive. I’d like to do more of that, and I feel like I can do it. A day-to-day existence for me looks like navigating awareness of much of what we’ve discussed and choosing not to let these realities become excuses for poor mental health. I’ve spent a great deal of energy cultivating perspective to be able to do that; it’s ongoing — daily mindfulness for me. Some days, I don’t have the energy to do anything else above that — and that’s okay. Those days are some of my most present, joyous, and filled with gratitude — they are the days that fuel me to be able to have conversations like this one. My experience — that most people won’t think about, learn about, or take the initiative to educate themselves on a lot of these realities if people like myself don’t speak on them — is frustrating. I think that making them known is of the utmost importance: for those who are struggling, for the education of others, and future change. Choosing to be a person who speaks on personal experience with them, if-and-when I have the capacity — is the biggest project I’ve ever started. Thanks for choosing to be a part of it.
What can you say to the people who are struggling right now to become who they are?
You are real. You are worthy, and you are valid.
No matter who knows: you are worthy, and you are valid.
No matter how many people know: you are worthy, and you are valid.
No matter how you look: you are worthy, and you are valid.
No matter what people think: you are worthy, and you are valid.
No matter who those people are: you are worthy, and you are valid.
You are also — loved. So loved.
You are love-able. You are beautiful.
You are sacred.
You may not be able to see it, but you are.
There is love. Out there. In the world.
I’m thinking of you right now.
You have a family who loves you.
You may not have met them yet, but they love you.
They are thinking of you. They are excited to meet you.
In a world like this one… as it is, like it is, right now…
the most radical thing you can do,
is love yourself.
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