My biggest competition in kindergarten was Jessica. Everyone thought she was the best reader. She loved Junie B. Jones and rocked hot pink capris and a major bowl cut. She valued honesty and hard work. I also rocked a bowl cut and clothes that my mum picked out for me. I loved attention and mischief. I thought I should be regarded as the best reader, so I took up reading Junie B. Jones books too. It didn't change anyone's opinion and I couldn't help but be annoyed. The phrase "worry about yourself" never clicked for me — I was always trying to emulate someone else.
So, naturally by eighth grade, I lost any sense of self I could have had — but I was friends with the "popular kids," so I must have been doing something right! Every weekend I lied to my parents about whose house I was staying at. I was exclusively hanging out with girls, and my father neither approved nor understood. My friends and I would have sleepovers where we'd gossip and gush about who we were in love with that week.
I only ever gushed about one person. He was the star athlete. He wasn't the first boy I had a crush on, just the first one I ever told someone about. We had eighth period together, and by second semester, I finally got seated next to him. A lot happened in three months. Moments that still give me butterflies. I told a couple people. OK, maybe 13. I still believe that he was the first person to see me for who I really was.
The gay label people had given me never felt true, but I lived in that box for four years. I felt I had no choice but to become who people thought I was. I began watching Lady Gaga's HBO special for the Born This Way Ball every night before bed. She always made me feel like I belonged.
Growing up, school was my refuge. I loved being in an environment where I was taken seriously and commended for my hard work. Especially when my home life was far from stable, nurturing or positive. New York became the goal. I was told that's where I'd find "people like me." Before long, school became an even bigger obstacle than my family. Due to attendance, I lost my first credit sophomore year, and by senior year I lost every credit for second semester. My parents told me I was nothing without a diploma. Working a full-time job gave me the credentials to get approved for a six-month lease on an apartment with a friend. I moved out two months before my graduation.
Finally, I had space to explore, no longer living under someone's thumb. Things naturally fell into place, and the week of graduation I told my best friend my truth: I was transgender. I spent the next four months taking a crash course on womanhood, through timid doctors, online forums, and a tango with a creepy therapist. Before I could blink, my apartment lease was up, which left me and my budding breasts back in my parents' house. They did their best to "accept" me. Still, every word began to gut me. I lost my sense of purpose. I couldn't accomplish a single thing I set out to do. I could barely get out of bed. I was embarrassed to be alive.
One night, after a 13-hour shift at work, I grabbed a slice from my favorite pizza place. Exhausted, I began dozing off on my drive home. I decided to play a game. How long can I close my eyes driving on this highway? I realised I lost when I woke to the wails of metal on concrete at 40 miles per hour, my sobs in discord. Both passenger-side tires exploded. I told my parents and myself that I just fell asleep . . . I only managed to convince them of the story. I sobbed for an hour with my bedroom door open.
A month later, I attempted for the second time. Now, too scared to win, and too tired of losing, I decided this wasn't a game worth playing. It became clear that Oklahoma was never going to fulfil my dreams, but I knew a city that could. I put my two weeks in at work and booked a flight. Everyone thought I lost my mind. My dad told me I'd never make it. "You'll be calling me to get you home in two weeks. I promise you."
I moved eight times in the first 10 months. I was unemployed for six. I wrongfully believed that everyone had my best interest in mind. I grew more as a person in mere months in New York than I did my whole life in Oklahoma. Within 13 days of being in NYC, I was signed to a modelling agency. Six days after being signed, I had a feature editorial shoot with Paper magazine.
This April, I celebrated my one-year anniversary in the city that never sleeps. I am signed to one of the world's leading modelling agencies. I walked for luxury brands like Marc Jacobs and Philipp Plein during Fashion Week. I've graced the pages of magazines like Vogue and V, and I spoke at NYU: a school that I used to dream of attending. I've become committed to thinking positive, affirming thoughts. I've slowly learned to trust in myself. I've stopped taking no for an answer, especially from myself.
I threw a party one night. I called it "Who Isn't She?" A testimony to my disdain for labels, and my refusal to ever be put in a box again. New York has brought opportunities that before were unimaginable, though they wouldn't have been possible without the people who believed in me. My community has taught me that power is channelling a weakness into strength, that we must always choose love, and that we can never forget who we are or where we come from. My cup of pride overfloweth.