As AJ Young wakes up in the morning, he looks in his journal to find his life’s mantra written on a sticky note: “Hard work, dedication.”
This applies to all aspects of his life, from pursuing his Ph.D. in sociology at Temple, to the half-marathons he competes in, the flag-football team he’s a part of or his advocacy in the LGBT community.
He said this very motto has remained important to him since last August, when he began his transition from female to male.
“This year, those have been words that have really kept me going and kept my head in the right place,” he said.
Young comes from a liberal family that was active in his community and high school, he said. He was raised right outside of Chicago, and is the oldest of five kids. Young describes it as a “fairly normal Midwestern upbringing.”
He said his parents were adamant about him and his siblings meeting many people, and talking to them regardless of any judgment.
When he was an adolescent, Young considered himself a tomboy, but never felt uncomfortable in his own body, as he said tends to be the case with transsexual stories.
“I really liked sports. I really liked Ninja Turtles and I played with Barbies and things like that. There was never a moment where I was like, ‘I’m not a girl. I’m not going to play with Barbies.’ But I didn’t like wearing dresses. I remember throwing big fits having to wear Easter dresses from my grandmother,” he said. “I wanted to be comfortable. I wanted to run around and play football and soccer and all of those sorts of things.”
It wasn’t until he was an undergraduate at American University that he had a moment of realization. There, Young said the university offered an LGBT Resource Center, safe space training and a Trans 101 training that he took. The course was video-based and documented the stories of many trans individuals.
“There was a moment where I was watching these videos and listening to these people talk about themselves, and I felt like I had been punched in the stomach because that was my story. That was what I was feeling at that point,” he said.
Young said he felt panicked, and confided in very few. Though he said he had a very tight-knit group of friends that was accepting, there were some, especially from high school, who told him they were not ready to maintain friendships, which he said hurt him.
Young said he and his parents discussed the topic in the past, but they were still surprised at his decision, though they eventually came to terms.
“My dad was amazing. He basically said, ‘I don’t totally understand this, but I understand feeling like you’re not happy and that you feel like you can do something about it, so you should do that,’” Young said.
Young said his body has gone through dramatic emotional and physical changes due to hormone therapy. Emotionally, he said his “baseline” happiness has just increased, leaving him the happiest he’s ever been. Physically, he’s noticed that his shoulders have become much bigger; his fat distribution has shifted from his hips to mid-section; his thighs and legs have slimmed down; and he feels stronger without even trying. Even while running, he notices he can do so faster than ever before. Young said he still has a long way to go, and has a lot of anxiety toward how much is left.
In addition, male grooming has become part of his morning routine.
“It’s almost more maintenance now than when I was identified as a woman because I didn’t really care too much about shaving my legs and I never wore makeup,” Young said. “Having to keep tabs on a beard is more work than I thought it was going to be. It’s just sort of funny the things that have been easier and harder, and they’re not always what I expected them to be.”
When he began to transition, Young said one of the most overwhelming parts was just figuring out what public bathroom to use. Though he said now the decision is easier since he’s further in the transitioning process, he didn’t know what to do initially, considering Temple has a lack of gender-neutral bathrooms.
On campus, Young said he feels there’s a lack of a central trans center, where students with stories similar to his can go and confide. Currently, he is working with allies, staff, students and administration to change that. He said the process can be very “isolating,” considering that many aren’t “out” yet, and those people could benefit from having a place to go on campus.
This summer, Young is taking his knowledge to the classroom. For Temple’s Summer I session, he will teach a general education Human Sexuality course that still has open seats. During the session, he plans to talk about the “hot button” sexual, and perhaps taboo issues and plans to ask some of the “hard questions” about sexuality.
Aside from teaching in a classroom, Young is telling his story through a new documentary Web series called “A Man Who Takes the Place Of,” directed by Temple student Samuel Angus Campbell through Mirrorwall Films, a student-based production organization.
Young said his main goal in agreeing to film his trans process was to inform others and increase visibility on the topic. Many times, he said the research can be complicated and those reading can get “bogged down” by medical jargon. His Web series hopes to break the process down in simpler, but still informative terms.
“I think it’s also important to tell my story, and individual stories in general, because the trans community is so diverse, and nobody’s story is the same, and that transition looks different for every single person,” Young said. “There’s no sort of magic, single path to transition and being happy.”
Another reason Young said he wants to share his story is because he feels privileged by his acceptance, and he doesn’t feel afraid for his safety on a daily basis, whereas some other transsexual individuals might be subject to much more harassment.
“I think telling as many stories of trans people as possible is really important to show that it isn’t just a cookie-cutter process,” Young said. “You can’t just sort of add hormones, add surgery and be happy. You really need to do what’s right for you and your body and your needs.”
In his spare time, Young said he enjoys running half-marathons and plays on a flag football league in the city every Saturday that accepts all genders and all skill levels. He has aspirations of completing a full marathon in the future.
Another hobby of his is exploring new food habits, as he has recently decided to become vegan and explore what restaurants in Philadelphia have to offer.
In terms of his love life, he said there’s nothing “exciting” going on, considering his hectic schedule. However, he identifies himself as queer and is most attracted to masculine people, especially other trans men. He considers his home the gay and queer community in the city.
He said that many trans individuals want nothing more than to hide who they were in the past, but he said he fully embraces having been Kathryn – his legal female name.
“Being that person has shaped my ideas, my beliefs, my values, my experiences. And I think that as a man having experienced life in society as a woman for so long, I think I just have a better, maybe a bit more critical eye on some things. Taking on male privilege was something I was a little scared of,” he said.
After he graduates, Young’s larger goals include running an LGBT center on a college campus. Now, he looks to remain active in promoting awareness and visibility and his educational pursuits.
Young encourages any students with questions, curiosity or who want to talk to someone about transsexuality to contact him.
Patricia Madej can be reached at email@example.com.