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Spotlight on Isis King: Her Journey Into Self-Identity

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Current events on a global level are increasingly affecting our collective experience in how we view and position ourselves and others in the world. Whether we realize it or not, the exposure to new knowledge on a constant and increasingly frequent basis, along with increasing interaction between us all, is making us more receptive to accepting our incredible complexity and diversity. We are beings who have a lot more in common than one might think.

When directing our attention to the transgender experience and focusing on the value that this segment of our community brings to bear, we will come to realize that, as a species, we are not so different from one another. In fact, it makes me believe that once we come closer to understanding one another, we will begin to truly respect each other's coexistence. If we turn our attention towards any number of countries and witness how the transgender community is increasingly becoming part of the mainstream, we will see how these changes are manifesting in very tangible ways.

Looking outward, toward Argentina, where legislation is in place that allows people to identify with a gender other than the one they were assigned at birth (even without having gone through gender reassignment), or to Poland, where there are openly gay and trans parliament members decrying anti-LGBT sentiments in their country, or even to Cuba, where we see how nascent social acceptance has allowed a transgender woman to hold a community-level political position, the message is the same. The topic of transgender equality is an increasingly integral part of the general global conversation.

In the interest of broadening the platform for this conversation in our own country, I seek to find that common denominator that makes us all more relatable to one another, to further open up the channels of communication in order to learn about, understand and accept each other, as much for our differences as for our similarities. I intend to look inward and experience my own humanness. As I do so, I have reached out and talked to someone whom I admire and who can share with us firsthand the experience of being transgender. Her name is Isis King, and she was the first-ever transgender contestant on America's Next Top Model.

2013-03-29-20130325IsisKing23rdAnnualGLAADMediaAwardsArrivalsJYqVVCTl9SWl.jpgMartin Berusch: Isis, there are a lot of terms, definitions, preconceptions, prejudices and misunderstandings to cover when it comes what it means to be transgender in the United States. When thinking about transgender issues, many still seem confused between being transsexual -- if that's even still proper terminology -- and being transgender. What's the difference?

Isis King: To me, being a transsexual doesn't equate to being transgender. A transsexual is someone who changes their body to be more of the opposite sex than the gender they were assigned at birth (born biologically). Transgender is more about how you feel inside, where you don't necessarily have to change your body's genitalia. I personally have never really identified with the word "transsexual," just because of its negative connotation. Therefore, I still identify as transgender.

Berusch: When did you first realize that you are transgender?

King: I've known pretty much my whole life. As a 4-year-old child I realized that I was different.

Berusch: When did you start showing outward manifestations of your true gender identity?

King: During that same time. As a young child I liked playing with dolls, playing with girl things, or playing with girls in general. So I would say that at that point I was already starting to show who I really felt that I was. However, I learned early on to keep it hidden, because I would be "corrected" by family when they found me doing so.

Berusch: You said that you had to keep it hidden when you were young. When you eventually told them, how did your family respond to your gender identity? Were they supportive?

King: I think I didn't tell my mom until I was around 20 years old. So, you know, at first she was very hesitant about accepting it, but at that point I was already living in New York. I was focusing on my fashion career, or trying to, anyway, all while I was transitioning. I wanted to make sure that when I told my family, I was already able to support myself. The fact is that I was concerned with being rejected and losing my family's support. Therefore I waited until I could live on my own and do my own thing in a whole different state before I even mentioned how I really felt.

Berusch: Does your background have any bearing on the decisions you have made: when you decided to talk about it, or when you decided to really show your outward manifestation of your gender?

King: Definitely. I think it has everything to do with it. In the black community, especially where I grew up... I would say my school was probably 95-percent black. Growing up, I witnessed how some people were outcasts in my community. All I had to go by were the examples I saw growing up within that community. There was very little tolerance. Whatever didn't fit into the mold would be "corrected," whether that meant getting beaten up, you know... There really was no good example.

Berusch: Looking at gender identity vs. sexual orientation, when you were biologically a boy, a male, did you identify as or relate to being a gay male?

King: When I was younger I lived my life as a gay male, but that's not who I was, although even though I knew who I was, I just didn't know how to fully express it -- that is until I was actually surrounded by others who were like me. I actually never came across any other transgender people until I moved to New York when I was 21.

Berusch: Could you share some of your experiences growing up female in a male body?

King: I do remember being a kid and seeing a documentary about someone that had a sex change and thinking to myself, "Oh, wow, that's possible. That's me. I want that for myself." As I got older, it was really frustrating because, after a while, some people started telling me that I needed to get a girlfriend. I felt like telling them, "But I'm not a lesbian!" Of course, I couldn't say that at the time, because everyone would have thought that I was crazy. It wasn't until I went to college that I got to explore and research transgender topics and could truly come to terms with myself.

Berusch: And while you were growing up, was there anybody whom you could confide in and share your feelings?

King: No, I didn't even want to set myself up for that. This is why I waited until after college, when I had the money to go move away and support myself, that I finally came forward and followed through on my transition. I ultimately felt that I was safest sharing this information with my family from a distance. My position was and is, "I love you, but this is how it is, and I have to do what's going to make me happy, and I don't want your (potential) pain to affect my decision." Eventually I did develop the courage I needed to tell my family, because I just knew I had no other alternative. I came to realize that I couldn't live my life for other people.

Berusch: That being said, how do you see yourself fitting in today's world, given all the current social and political changes taking place? Let's say, hypothetically, that there was legislation in the United States that protected transgender people, and that self-identity became more accepted by the general population. Do you think you still would have gone through gender reassignment?

King: Well, no matter how politics were to play out or how society would otherwise embrace transgender individuals, ultimately it would not have changed how I felt about my body. It simply wouldn't have affected the choice I made. Therefore, it would not have affected the outcome.

Berusch: Now, going back in time, I'd like to explore a bit of your personal journey toward womanhood. I was reading up on a documentary that NBC did in 2007 called Born in the Wrong Body, and you were featured in one of the segments. Could you talk a little bit about that experience?

King: Yes. I was on the second segment of the series, which was called "Born in the Wrong Body: On the Edge." It was about girls that were in the ballroom scene, which I was a part of, for about a year. The documentary showed me going to visit my family: my mom, my aunt, my oldest brother. It had me designing and getting ready for a ball. It showed different aspects of me: me early on as a designer, way before I was modeling. [Laughs.] It just showed me during the time I started taking my first hormone shots.

Berusch: You and I initially met a few years ago at an event for the Ali Forney Center, which is a shelter and intake center for homeless LGBT youth. Could you talk about your experiences at AFC?

King: Sure. I moved to New York in late 2006, and I was renting out a room for six months. At the time I had a retail job, but I didn't work enough hours to cover the rent, so it got hard for me financially. When I ran out of money, I had to decide whether or not to move back home with my family, or if I was going to stick it out in New York City. I was living full-time as a woman but wasn't far enough into the transition to the point that somebody couldn't dissuade me from continuing with my transition. Because I wanted to avoid all that, I opted to move into the shelter, get their assistance and continue with my transition.

Berusch: So the Ali Forney Center served as a support system for you? Did they also provide you with any kind of guidance as to how to move forward with the transition process you were undertaking?

King: No, I wasn't their typical resident. I already had my mind made up and had a game plan with respect to moving forward with my transition. By the time I turned 21 years old, I had everything mapped out. Callen-Lorde Community Health Center guided me through most of my transition, while the Ali Forney Center served as a safe haven for me.

Berusch: Got it. Now, moving forward to your first stint on America's Next Top Model in 2008. There's plenty of information about your experience, including behind-the-scenes moments. For example, ANTM showed you taking your hormone shots and the nausea that you experienced afterward. You gave us a little bit of insight into what it really means to go through this process.

King: [Laughs.] More than just a little, Martin. It just so happens that these were just circumstances that I fell into; I didn't necessarily want to take hormones on national television, but in the end it [was worth it] because it educated [a lot of] people to some of the process.

Berusch: You returned to ANTM in 2010, and Tyra Banks surprised you by introducing you to Marci Bowers, a fellow trans woman and a top gender reassignment surgeon, who offered to perform the gender reassignment. Is this correct?

King: Yes, but I want to correct you and have you refer to it as genital reassignment surgery. Tyra introduced me to Dr. Bowers in 2008, and then I began the process of the genital surgery in 2009, while I was to appear again on Tyra's show.

Berusch: It was an all-expenses-paid surgery?

King: Yes. As I mentioned, during that time, I was working as a receptionist, saving my money. I'm proud that I was well on my way to saving enough to actually have my surgery on my own. But this opportunity did present itself through Tyra, and I accepted the helping hand.

Berusch: What obstacles did you face, if any, when you decided to undergo the process of genital reassignment?

King: I really didn't have any obstacles.

Berusch: Could you speak of the process itself, from pre-screening to the psychological treatments that you might have undergone, to hormone therapy, to the actual operation?

King: You know, it's funny. A lot of my experiences from that time are really a blur by now. I do recall the evaluations and obviously having the hormone therapy. I think at that point I just wanted to get it out of the way. I remember speaking in depth to counselors at Callen-Lourde, to my mom, to Tyra and others, the day before the operation. Then I remember going through the surgery, having my mom taking care of me and just going home after that.

Berusch: How do you feel about your decision post-op? Any complications?

King: Haven't had any complications. I am completely happy with this one most important decision I made in my life and have no regrets.

Berusch: As you've gone through your transition, what changes have you witnessed in how you view life?

King: It's not so much what has changed but what has remained constant. I knew for a long time what I wanted, and that was to present myself to the world in my true image. Everyone who I've interacted with, pre- and post-surgery, realized that I had been born in the wrong body. This has only reinforced that I am now in my own rightful body.

2013-03-29-20130325IsisKingGoldChoker.jpgBerusch: We now know that you now identify yourself as a heterosexual woman. Am I correct in saying that?

King: Yes, correct. Well, I should also say that even though I am transgender, I've always identified as a heterosexual female, even before my surgery. That's just how I've always seen myself.

Berusch: Are there any differences that you perceive in your day-to-day life?

King: I can't say that I view anything in life any differently, because my mind hasn't changed. Mentally, my view of the world hasn't been altered.

Berusch: How do you see others accepting you? Obviously you've become a role model and a celebrity in the LGBT community, and even beyond, into the mainstream audience. What kind of comments have people made to you about your journey?

King: I've always received positive feedback from people. Many have approached me and told me how my actions have inspired them and have even prevented them from despair and from considering suicide. That, in fact, was the beginning for me to realize the power I had to make change. I became a motivational speaker and have become more outspoken about offering support to anyone willing to hear me out.

Berusch: Any negative feedback?

King: Any negative feedback has been minimal. I just don't give anyone the opportunity to make discriminatory remarks. That said, I always make the effort to always portray myself in a positive light and as a positive person.

Berusch: No matter who we are, whether we are in the LGBT community, the mainstream or the rest of the world -- and when I say the rest of the world, I mean the Western world -- we are increasingly pressured into a youth- and beauty-oriented society. What are your thoughts on aging, and how do you think you will grapple with getting older and possibly losing your physical attributes?

King: Good question! You know, my mom is my greatest role model. I always look to her and see how she herself is aging gracefully. The way I see it is that if I have half of her genes, then I should be OK. [Smiles.] Also, I think that I won't have a problem with getting older, because I am such a young spirit.

Berusch: So, basically excluding the maintenance that you've committed to in order to optimize your feminine attributes, let's say, using hormone therapy, you won't be running to the doctor's office to get a facelift when that time comes. Am I correct in saying that?

King: Yes. And I'd like to add that my hormone dosages are lower than before I had my genital reassignment. But to answer your plastic surgery question, to reverse aging? No, I don't think I see that happening. I actually like the person I now see in the mirror, flaws and all. [Giggles.]

Berusch: But barring that, you are telling me you wouldn't be that 50-year-old rushing to get a touch-up?

King: Well, hmm, I don't know. Who can say? All I know is that I don't dislike the person I see in there; I like who I see in the mirror, imperfections and all. You know, I don't have body dysmorphic disorder. I'm happy with who I am. Of course, that's not to say that I don't wish that I was curvier [laughs], but this is my body type. I could drink all the protein shakes and eat every meal in the world, but I'm skinny. These are things that I just have to accept, and I'm fine with that. So what do I do with that? I use it to my advantage and model.

Berusch: Now, even though you say you don't suffer from it, you did mention body dysmorphic disorder, or body dysmorphia, which is when someone is preoccupied and excessively concerned with their body image. This is very different from body dysphoria, a clinical term (likely on its way to becoming outdated) that is pinned on transgender individuals to classify them as being depressed or otherwise emotionally distressed because of the incongruence between their body and their gender identity, and therefore deserving of treatment. The usage of "body dysphoria," and potentially further confusing it with "body dysmorphia," may conflate and perpetuate fundamental misunderstandings that exacerbate the prejudices faced by the transgender community.

King: Exactly. Thank you for pointing that out. It's important that people understand this, so they don't say, "I knew it, I knew it," referring to the issue being that the transgender individual is potentially acting out of a place of misguidance. I do want to say that dysmorphia is very prevalent among females, and perhaps and more so with transgender individuals, because they are kind of a "blank slate" due to their transitive state. Like biological women, some trans individuals might be looking for an ideal of their version of perfection, which is unrealistic. But then again, in our society, this is happening more and more, not only with women but with men as well.

Berusch: Now, speaking specifically to the changes we are witnessing in the LGBT community, in your opinion, what are the biggest hurdles that both transgender women and men still face despite the progress we have seen so far?

King: I think that the negative and deprecating tone in how the transgender community is referred to by others is a tremendous hurdle to overcome. Coverage of trans problems and issues by the media is also horrible. Transgender is the new segregated subculture. We are still at the bottom of the totem pole. I would like to see more positive and well-informed coverage on us. It's important to depict us in a positive light instead of portraying us as victims, so that more transgender people surface as role models, ones that we will be able to look up to and see that they are an important part of society with much to contribute.

2013-03-29-20130325Picture1.pngBerusch: What changes would you like to see in how media covers the transgender community?

King: Well, using proper terminology, being sensitive to the difficulties that transgender people live through, to see that we're human. I'd like media to research with more accuracy what they're actually talking about. They have a huge audience who are greatly influenced by what is shared in the news, and this audience has a huge impact on us transgender men and women. There is a direct correlation between how the news depicts the trans community and how the mainstream public reacts and treats us. We are treated like we are nothing, like we don't matter. Just by confusing transvestites with transgender, for example, or calling a transgender woman a man, or vice versa, the media is perpetuating prejudices. This dynamic continues to fuel ignorance, fear and potential violence against us. Bullying, rape, murder and suicide is a huge problem in the transgender community that must be reversed immediately.

Berusch: What advice do you have for those who are considering genital reassignment?

King: I'd say wait. Be strategic; timing is key. Give yourself the time and space to make informed decisions. Also, I want to point out that transitioning requires all your mental energy; it becomes everything in your life. When transitioning, you don't want any distractions from that. You want to be able to keep your focus, not letting other people's opinions influence you or have outside forces in general to get in the way.

Berusch: When is the right time? When is it too young to transition?

King: Looking back at my experience and my life, if I could have, I would have wanted to transition earlier had I the financial means and emotional support. But on the other hand, there's also the question of children who go through phases. So I don't know what is too young for transitioning. That's beyond my scope of understanding and experience. But personally, I'm glad that, as of now, they don't give hormones to kids; instead, they are able to give them hormone blockers. Again, I feel that it's important for people to make that decision for themselves. I get giving blockers to slow down puberty, but in my opinion, I think people should wait until the children are older to make the actual transition.

Berusch: In other words, it is a very individual experience, and we still don't have all the answers.

King: Exactly.

Berusch: So where do you see the transgender community in the future -- say, a year from now, or five, or 20 years from now?

King: That's hard to tell. I'm just yearning for everyone to become more accepting, to have more unity and more normalcy in everyday life.

Berusch: You mentioned before that you are a rather positive person, and that you get little negative feedback. However, I did want to bring up some peripheral criticism you got for wearing a T-shirt that said, "Gay Is OK."

King: [Laughs.] Mmm-hmm...

Berusch: I'd like some input from you about what that criticism meant to you. What was your "takeaway" from that experience?

King: Well, for me it was great to be a part of that huge campaign. I was a little shocked that the only criticism I got actually came from inside the community. So, with that being said, I wasn't wearing the T-shirt as a transgender woman saying I was gay. I was wearing it to simply show that I'm an ally of the gay community. With it I was saying, "Hey, I'm a top model, I'm a public figure, and I'm saying this is OK." So, despite the few negative comments, it turned out to be an amazing campaign, and I'm happy for it.

Berusch: Great! Now what's next for you? What can we expect from Isis King?

King: I've been freelancing as a model for a number of years now, but I just signed with JB Models in New York, so, I'm very excited about that. Also, I recently designed a women's collection for fashion week, which was very well-received. I will be designing a follow-up collection this coming fall for Spring 2014, and I'm really excited about that too.

Berusch: For those of us out in the blogosphere, where can we find out more about you?

King: You can read up and learn more about me through kingisis.com.

Berusch: How about other social media?

King: I can be followed on both Twitter and Instagram; [my] usernames are MsIsisKing. On Facebook you can reach me at facebook.com/IsisKingFanpage.

Berusch: Awesome. This has been great. Thanks again!

King: My pleasure! Ciao!