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Online videos offer a lifeline for transgender teens and 20-somethings

LOS ANGELES – Behind the counter at Starbucks, Niko Walker wants to be seen as “just a guy.” A guy who craves In-N-Out Burger and burns it off with P90X. A guy who dreams of making films.

On YouTube, he bares his chest to show his mastectomy scars, tracks his shifting hairline and shows how he injects testosterone. Hundreds of people watch. Questions pop up from strangers. At his Westchester home, facing the tiny camera on a laptop, the 21-year-old feels safe.

“I almost forget that I’m trans because I’ve had surgery,” Walker tells his YouTube audience. He keeps making the videos anyway, to support his transgender “brothers” still looking for help.

“I can’t be quiet when three or four years ago, I was in the same position,” he said one afternoon before he started to record.

Thousands of teens and 20-somethings who are transgender – identifying with a gender that is different than their sex at birth – have turned to YouTube as a kind of public diary. As they start taking hormones or using new names, many are documenting their journeys on video.

Their videos tell stories that were once routinely hidden: Transgender people were told to abandon their old lives and craft a new history after making their transition.

As recently as a decade ago, “you lost everything if people knew that you had transitioned,” actress and activist Calpernia Addams said. “You eliminated dating opportunities. You exposed yourself to violence.”

Three years ago, a national survey of more than 6,400 transgender and gender-nonconforming people found that 71 percent had tried to avoid discrimination by hiding their gender or gender transition. Sharing their stories remains risky: More than a third of people who were gender-nonconforming or had a transgender identity before graduating from high school said they had been physically assaulted, the National Transgender Discrimination Survey found.

Violence and bias aren’t their only worries: If “coming out” for gays and lesbians means being recognized for who they truly are, many transgender men and women feel that telling new people they are transgender does just the opposite, making people think of them as less than a “real” man or woman.

But sidestepping the past has become much harder for a generation that has had digital footprints since childhood. And many teens see little reason to do so, embracing their transition as an essential and even celebrated part of their identity.

“I’ll always be trans,” said Naomi Ngoy, a Utah 15-year-old who uploads makeup tips and videos about her transition on YouTube. Other “vloggers,” or video bloggers, have removed their videos once they are regularly recognized as their identified gender, but Naomi plans to keep hers online. “There’s no point in trying to take them down in the future.”

The videos are part of growing visibility for transgender people, but they are also a reflection of a younger generation used to broadcasting much more about their lives, trans or not.

Nearly half of Americans ages 18 to 29 have shared their own videos online, much more than among their elders, a recent Pew Research Center survey found. Another Pew survey found that among teens, nearly a quarter had put videos of themselves on Facebook or other social media.

Though some teens and 20-somethings are eager to share their stories with the world, others have ventured into such a public space only to find community, said Tobias Raun, assistant professor of communication studies at Roskilde University in Denmark.

He calls the videos a kind of “private public,” available to all but sought out by few.

“I’m not the kind of person who stands up and says, ‘I’m trans,’ ” said one Long Beach vlogger who uses the alias Kat Blaque and didn’t want her real name used for fear of losing work. “YouTube was my place to vent when I couldn’t say anything to anyone.”

During college, Kat gabbed regularly on YouTube about crushes, taking estrogen and retooling men’s clothes to suit women, even as she fretted about classmates finding out she was transgender. In the years since, the 23-year-old has told some of her friends but still worries about employers finding out. Slurs in the YouTube comments needle her.

Despite such worries, Kat said she keeps making the videos because she wants to show women like her – particularly black trans women – that an ordinary life is possible.

And airing her troubles helps Kat, too. Someone once sent her a box loaded with things to style her hair – blow dryers, flat irons and even a wig – after she shared hair woes. It was the kind of thing a mother might do for a teenage girl. The kind of thing Kat said her own mother, uneasy with her femininity, never did.

“As bizarre as it sounds,” she said, “a lot of people who watch my channel know me better than my family does.”