Transgender in Mississippi: A Story About a Girl

Being transgender in America is challenging. Straying from the rigid gender roles assigned at birth is often ignorantly viewed as abnormal and perverted. Being transgender in Mississippi is just plain courageous.

Video by: Jessi Hotakainen.

Walton talks about what it’s like to be transgender in Mississippi and the process of transitioning.

In a state where there are no laws protecting members of the trans community, living openly may seem dangerous, perhaps illogical. The thing is, it’s not a choice, it comes down to survival.

Athena Leah Walton, 19, who has been transitioning for two and a half years, considers herself lucky thus far.

“I knew there was a possibility of getting hurt physically. You see every day that people are getting beaten and killed, or put out on the streets for being trans.”

Of course, that doesn't mean it’s been easy. Over the course of her transition, there have been many instances of emotional and verbal abuse.

One factor that often influences whether or not violence takes place is tied to a term that Walton prefers not to use: “passable.”

“I try to avoid that word because there are a lot of women out there who aren't, and that’s not the main goal. The goal is to be happy with who you are.”

Walton grew up in Sardis, but attended high school in Batesville, and when she made the final decision to begin presenting as female, fellow students met her with protest. An act that her mother, Kim Hood, thinks originated from the parents.

“I had a lot of so-called friends make snide remarks and say ‘how could a parent let their child do that,’ and I said put yourself in my shoes. You see your child sinking into a deep depression, knowing suicide runs in your family, how could you not stand by your child?”

The protest comprised of a group of kids wearing clothing considered unacceptable at school. They claimed that Walton dressing as a female violated the school dress code, so they should be able to as well.

Hood made a call to the Human Rights Campaign and hired a lawyer to help her challenge the archaic rules.

It was no small victory when the school decided that, as long as she maintained the guidelines, Walton could dress as a female. A step that was essential for her to move forward in her transitioning.

Misunderstandings about what it means to be transgender often put a strain on dating as well.

“There is the misconception that trans women are gay men playing dress up. That puts a strain on dating because there are cis men, who think that just because you have a penis, you’re still a man.”

Although she currently lives and works in Oxford, a university city that boasts progress, when it comes to the dating scene regular trips to Memphis are a necessity.

“My biggest fear right now is not finding a significant other. Dating as a trans woman, it is so hard to find someone who sees you as a woman and disregards what’s in your pants at the moment.”

She says that one of the ways to change that is for people to be more vocal about being trans, and not living in stealth (as a cisgender). Although she admits to having entertained that idea herself, she knows it won’t help with the movement of making it more known.

Audio & photo by: Jessi Hotakainen.

Another way to improve visibility is to cast trans actors to portray trans characters on TV and in movies.

Not everyone has to be an activist, she says, but trans awareness in the South can benefit from more people standing up and telling their stories. Also, teaching people the terminology will help erase ignorance. Education is to promote understanding not acceptance, which Walton says comes from within a person.

“When I tell people I’m trans, they are like ‘what does that mean?’ They don’t even know what that means! But Lord forbid if I told someone I’m a tranny, they know exactly what that means.”

Even at such a young age, she is completely satisfied with her decision.

“I’m really glad that I transitioned when I did and I've got this long life ahead of me.”

A decision that Walton’s roommate, Hanna Goodbar, acknowledges has its benefits. At 44-years-old, Goodbar, who is also a trans woman, can see those advantages in her young friend.

“I’m approaching the age where women become invisible. Leah has the advantage of being young in a college town like Oxford.”

By transitioning in high school, in a tiny town in rural Mississippi, Walton opened a door for other people to be who they want to be.

“Everybody has a purpose and everyone wants to find happiness. I found my happiness transitioning. When I leave, I hope people can see that I made a statement.”