From fear to freedom: Transgender UB student Amy O’Leary comes to terms with gender identity
Amy O’Leary always felt like square peg in a round hole.
No matter how hard she tried to fit in with guys, she said it always felt wrong.
“Growing up I always knew there was something kind of different about me,” O’Leary, a junior psychology major, said. “I kind of knew that I was a normal kid but, I didn’t fit in with everybody else.”
O’Leary began transitioning from male to female in April 2016. Before her transition, O’Leary often found herself faced with body image issues, anxiety and depression. When she started college, these feelings only intensified.
O’Leary described herself as being very “sporty” as a child. She played basketball, soccer and a few other sports. But she said no matter what, she always hated being on the male team, being forced to socialize with guys and being grouped into a category where she didn’t really fit in.
“When I got to the fifth grade we had sexual education and male puberty was described to me and the girls were in a different room. When I heard about growing body hair and growing tall and having a deep voice and an Adam’s apple I cringed and I thought ‘I don’t want that, I can’t let that happen to me,’” she said.
O’Leary said it took a while for puberty to catch up to her.
“I was kind of a late developer,” she said. “I didn’t really grow until I was about fourteen and I shot up like seven inches in one year and my voice deepened around that same time and my parents were always saying ‘you’re growing up to be tall and you’re a good looking guy.’”
All of these compliments were supposed to sound good, O’Leary said, but she never really liked them.
She took the compliments in stride and pretended she was OK with them, but quickly began to experience gender dysphoria once she hit puberty.
Gender dysphoria is clash between a person's physical or assigned gender and the gender they identify as, according to the American Psychiatric Association.
O’Leary started having intrusive thoughts and said she should be female when she was around the age of 16. She tried to shrug away these thoughts but remained “really unhappy” most of the time.
“I had a lot of depression from the end of middle school until the end of high school,” she said. “ I couldn’t deal with what was happening to my body and I couldn’t put it into words, I didn’t really know what was going on.”
O’Leary had an “internalized transphobia” that stopped her from telling a doctor or her family that she wanted to be a female. Her fear of being seen as different prevented her from verbalizing her feelings.
She had an “incredible fear” of becoming an adult because that would mean she was a man.
“I got confused for a girl a lot growing up and that always made me smile, but I had to pretend it pissed me off,” O’Leary said.
The suppression of O’Leary’s feelings eventually caused her to become “dead inside” and “emotionless.”
She started using drugs to a small extent in high school.
“I did it as a form of self-harm honestly,” O’Leary said. “It wasn’t because I was enjoying it, it was because I really didn’t like who I was and I didn’t care what happened to me and I just kept trying to numb the pain of getting old.”
O’Leary finally realized she wanted to transition around the age of 17, but didn’t act on it until last spring.
By the end of her freshman year of college, O’Leary had dated a few women. “I had a couple of girlfriends, all of them were awkward relationships because they thought I was gay because I didn’t want to have sex,” she said.
Although sex with women was “uncomfortable” for O’Leary, she says she was still attracted to them. She was attracted to women, but couldn’t have sex as a man.
O’Leary identifies as pansexual, not gay or bisexual.
“I don’t care about gender identity. I will date anybody regardless of their gender or sexuality,” she said.
By her sophomore year of college, O’Leary began developing more masculine feature and she resorted to extreme prevention methods. She started shaving her chest twice a day and her face sometimes three or four times a day. She also stopped exercising in an effort maintain a thin figure.
She began hormone therapy on April 20. As soon as she started taking hormones, she said her gender dysmorphia disappeared.
“It kind of cured this mental anguish that trans people constantly go through,” she said. “I suddenly feel normal. I don’t have this baseline depression and anxiety all the time.
O’Leary presented herself as a female for the first time on July 11 in front of the 180-person Psychology 101 class she is a teaching assistant for.
Despite O’Leary’s contentedness with herself, she continues to struggle to be fully accepted by society.
She said people hurl transphobic insults at her daily.
“Yesterday somebody told me that it was hard to use my pronouns because of what my face looked like. They literally said ‘I would use your pronouns but have you seen what you look like?’ And it just made me burst into tears.”
The use of public restrooms has also been difficult and uncomfortable for O’Leary.
“At first when I started presenting as female, I didn’t feel comfortable using the women’s bathroom because I didn’t look female enough,” she said. “If it was just me and another person in the restroom someone would call me a faggot or a queer or a tranny.” O’Leary has even found some people are attracted to her solely because she is transgender.
“[There’s] a scary number of men who are into trans people for being trans,” she said. “There’s lots of people who will hit on me and say some really horrible things like “I always wanted to sleep with a girl with a penis.”
Some of her male friends will come to her house, but don’t go out with her in public.
“People either don’t want to be seen with a non-passing trans person because of toxic masculinity and people will think [they’re] gay for being with a trans person or people will think they’re dating.”
O’Leary’s family is slowly beginning to accept her as a transgender woman. The first person O’Leary came out as transgender to was her friend Sidney Bloch.
“I made her scream ‘I’m trans’ walking along the edge of Lake Lassalle,” Bloch, a sophomore communication major said. “I live under the assumption of the quieter you keep something the more it’ll affect you, so if you say something loud, it’s a little bit easier on yourself.”
O’Leary said the media’s portrayal of transgender people is immensely inadequate. Whenever the media reports on transitioning or transgender people, she said, they only want to know about the process, what they’ve changed, how they’re going to appear more male or female.
“Whenever you see pictures of Caitlyn Jenner in a magazine or on the Internet you’ll see pictures of her putting a bra on or a dress or trying to do her makeup because people want to hear about the transformation,” she said. “They don’t care about the person’s life and their feelings and how much they’ve suffered to get where they are.”
She feels the media should focus more on the emotional distress of being transgender, rather than the transformation.
Jenner is an insufficient representation of most trans people, O’Leary said, because most trans people are very poor and don’t have the access to her surgeries and lavish lifestyle.
“Everyone assumes that I’ve gotten the surgery,” Oleary said. “People question why I’m not wearing frilly pink outfits and high heels and lots of makeup because people think that trans women have to be hyper feminine. And it’s because of the media’s portrayal of us that this happens because people feel like they have to fix into a [gender] box. There’s no ambiguity.”
But she does think visibility of transgender individuals is good, but Caitlyn Jenner is not a good visibility.
O’Leary’s transition has produced several positive outcomes.
Her experience has inspired her to become a gender psychologist specializing in transgender youth.
“I had a really difficult time coming to terms with myself and I want to teach other transgender kids growing up that they’re not freaks and they don’t have anything to be ashamed of and that it’s OK to be trans,” she said.
Since her transition, her grades increased dramatically and she was recently elected to UB’s LGBTA e-board. LGBTA has allowed her to foster close relationships with people who understand her experience.
“I learned from [O’Leary] to be more OK with myself as well,” Bloch said. “Just watching her go through really emotionally stressful events in her life and I see her just trooping through it like no other soldier I’ve ever met.”