I hid my transgender identity for years. Then my transition photos went hugely viral.

September 12, 2020

I’m fortunate that comments of support vastly outnumbered the hate and vitriol, but countless replies arguing against my right to exist took a toll on me. The exorbitant amount of attention left me worried. They allowed me to be someone else when being myself felt like too much to handle. I had no reason to think that this time around would be any different. Going viral felt like the floodgates were opening, and I was receiving 23 years of attention and compliments on my identity and body that I so desperately hid from before. My fears about the tweet disappeared. Luckily, I found many other queer-identifying people in the newsroom. Little did I know that my photos would soon be seen by more people than currently live in my home state of Texas. Instead, I awoke to a buzzing phone with over 35,000 likes, and it didn’t end there. And then, one week before I began the biggest career opportunity of my life, I tweeted. I knew that my transition would resonate with some, but I never imagined I’d receive an outpouring of global support via oil paintings and digital illustrations. Rape and death threats continue to populate my inbox, and all of this hate stems from simply posting two photos of myself. I did not post on Twitter to go viral. Not all of the responses were positive, though I never expected them to be. I’ve spent roughly 22 out of the last 23 years hiding that simple fact because of fear, shame, and concern for my mental and physical safety. While posting transition timelines on the internet can certainly lead to well-wishes and positive responses, the feedback can also become overwhelmingly negative at times. As you might guess, my Twitter inbox amassed hundreds of messages: mostly compliments and passersby who just wanted to offer their encouragement. I have friends who experience discrimination in their workplace day after day. After I posted it, the tweet immediately received likes and retweets from close friends. As a trans woman, I’m not afforded the same treatment. But even with newfound workplace protections from the Supreme Court, can any trans person ever be certain that they won’t be discriminated against for being themselves? I finally felt comfortable in my own skin and on camera, and I decided it was time to post an update on Twitter. I’m fortunate to have incredibly supportive coworkers at a queer-accepting publication. I was forced to turn off Twitter notifications or risk overheating my phone. 622,000 favorites, the final-ish tally a month later, seemed like a fake number, the kind that other, better people achieved. I went to bed with around 7,000 likes, the most I had ever received at the time. The audience accepts that the actors are whomever they are portraying, and the actors do their best to ensure their performance matches the audience’s expectations. My new coworkers were some of the first people I told when I filed the official paperwork for my name and gender marker change — they’re fantastic journalists and even better people. Was it likely I would be discriminated against? Once I connected with them, I felt more comfortable opening up within the company — it showed me I wasn’t alone. I became the new data editorial fellow at Insider. Not exactly. I posted the photos because after years of self-loathing and self-hatred, it was time to turn the page and love myself for once. Being objectified or discriminated against for being trans is not just a passing thought or worry, but an active concern that permeates my — and that of many other trans people’s — workplace decisions every day. (I’m fortunate to have the support that I do.)
Eventually, it picked up steam — the mysterious magic of the internet. Over the next two days, my Twitter account felt like the floor of the New York Stock Exchange: an abundance of noise, yelling, anger, and happiness happening again and again and again. Aimee Stephens’ legacy is powerful, but bigotry is everlasting and will always be a concern. Through this community, I’ve been able to speak about my fears, my concerns, and more importantly, my triumphs. The tweet did, however, allow me to reconnect with old friends, coworkers, and the parents of children whom I had taught when working at a local Houston preschool. The response I received on Twitter was tumultuous, but mostly supportive. Like many people my age, I’ve had dreams of going viral for a joke or a meme. Absolutely. I never thought a post of mine would ever come close. A lot can change in two years pic.twitter.com/ZC4u5oH25i — Madison Hall (@byMadisonHall) July 20, 2020

I never expected to go viral over a selfie. In the months that followed, I applied for dozens of full time positions and fellowships around the country, hoping to be accepted by just one company. As the speed of the tweet’s engagement and likes began to rise, so did the temperature of my cell phone. I thought I would be lucky if it got 10,000 by the next morning. Read more:
The biggest thing critics continually get wrong about transgender athletes competing in women’s sports
8 viral transgender coming out stories that will warm your heart
Here’s what happens when your joke goes massively viral on Twitter
Join the conversation about this story » NOW WATCH: How architects use feng shui to design famous buildings Let me back up: I’m transgender. But there’s an implicit agreement between the actors and the audience. But keeping my inbox open, even if it became a cesspool, let me interact with and respond to the messages from scared, not-yet out-of-the-closet trans people and worried family members of my trans peers. I shouldn’t have to fight to be treated the same as my cisgender peers, yet this tacit agreement between myself and the world is somehow up for debate. One unexpected twist of going viral was receiving art from supporters all the way from Brazil and Scotland. Summary List PlacementIn January 2020, I was laid off. I’ve tweeted photos from my transition before — even a photo of myself on the day I came out — and nothing happened. Journalism school may have taught me how to interact with audiences and connect with readers, but nothing in life so far had prepared me to deal with anything of this magnitude. At the time, sitting in my childhood bedroom in Houston, I didn’t feel scared or anxious. Growing up trans, I never particularly wanted the spotlight on my identity. What continues to surprise and fascinate me is that, as far as I know, all of the art sent to me was created by cisgender artists. The trans community is small and interconnected. I wish I could say that I handled day one of my newfound online fame with poise and grace, but in reality, much of it was spent messaging “what the f— is going on” to any friend who would listen. Did it take a long time to respond to most of them? But I was once a scared and lonely trans kid in the closet, and I understand how valuable it can be to see someone like yourself pop up on the timeline. After months of waiting, I was offered a job — this one. In high school and college, my outlets were theater and improv. Instead, I reached 30 million people by talking about the part of my identity that only I knew about for most of my life. As the post grew in popularity, I worried I may lose my job. The likes and retweets are great trophies and mementos, but I’m here celebrating that I’m finally able to be me. But I’ve been out to the world for over a year, and I’ve spent the last two and a half years on hormones. It was eye-opening to receive so much art from outside my own community. With the experience of a literal spotlight shining on my face, going viral and being seen shouldn’t have felt like anything new — in theory.

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