2015: Started out homeless and ended up a staff writer at BuzzFeed
with a lot of help from Medium
My 2015 started with me contending with an eviction notice from my co-op at Cornell where I was finishing up my PhD, the supposed bastion of democracy Telluride House. Because I had the audacity to spontaneously chant “This is what democracy looks like!” with some friends over dinner, after the co-op administration refused even to temporarily remove a resident who called me a man dressed as a woman and made repeated casual and vulgar references to my genitals at meals, I was ordered to leave with 24 hours notice, which was illegal it turned out. So I ended up with a few more weeks and was served papers as I was spending the Christmas holiday with my family.
In the midst of this chaos, I got an offer from VICE Magazine to write about a transgender murder case in the Philippines, which I would have not been qualified for except that I wrote an article for Medium the previous September about a guy who ended up going to jail for stabbing several people, though he claimed it was self-defense because he was being queer-bashed.
I stumbled upon the case while visiting a friend in Atlanta, and I hesitated working on it because my only reporting experience before then was in high school. But knowing I could publish the piece independently where there was at least an audience who would read it motivated me to push forward. Back when Medium still commissioned Jess Zimmerman to run The Archipelago, that piece with her meticulous editing convinced the people at VICE (chiefly Jacob Gross, who ended up being a dream to work with), and the resulting article put me on the map as an investigative journalist.
But I also made the mistake of telling co-op administrators that I was planning to be out of the country, so they got my eviction hearing scheduled for while I was away (thankfully, a pro bono lawyer came to the rescue and helped me postpone). I ended up in a situation where I was writing about other people’s experience of transphobic discrimination and violence while being the victim of the same discrimination.
As awful as this entire experience was, it imbued my writing with a sense of urgency it wouldn’t have had otherwise. And that urgency manifested not just in the quality of my work but also my rate of production, as I found myself unable to focus on anything else other than trans issues. Over the next several months, I wrote more than 30 articles for about a dozen outlets, including my first for BuzzFeed, an essay on performing in The Vagina Monologues as a non-medically-transitioned trans woman.
One of the clips I sent to demonstrate my ability to write personal essays was my first for Medium, on how growing up without gendered pronouns affected my perception of my gender. I also ended up contributing a number of well-received articles to The Guardian, including opinion pieces on Caitlyn Jenner and Rachel Dolezal that led to TV appearances for the BBC and CNN.
BuzzFeed then sent me back to the Philippines to report on a piece about transgender call center workers there (to be published soon!), on the strength of my VICE and Medium pieces. While there, I got an e-mail from LGBT Editor Shannon Keating, who casually mentioned that the LGBT team might be expanding and if we could schedule a visit when I get back. I met with Shannon, then executive editor (now culture writer) Doree Shafrir, and Editor-in-Chief Ben Smith on a Wednesday afternoon. I told Ben that because I write in such a broad range of forms and was generally happy freelancing, BuzzFeed was really the only place where I could see myself working full-time, because of the freedom they gave their writers. He told me this was not an ideal salary bargaining position. The following morning, I got offered the job.
This surprising turn of events coincided with another major project, the We the T! series for Matter that I started working on over my reporting trip to the Philippines, and a two-week vacation in Japan where I spent early mornings in Nagano and Hiroshima speaking with Medium Editors Madison Kahn and Sandra Upson about an ambitious effort to both commission a bunch of trans-related articles and to establish more of a trans presence on Medium. A number of pieces from the series ended up gaining a significant amount of attention, including an interactive feature led by Alok Vaid-Menon about how trans people choose to present called “What I Wanted to Wear,” and Francesca Mari’s gorgeous and sensitive piece about gender-nonconforming teacher Johnny Boucher and their partner Ashley.
The last quarter of my year has been spent acclimating to the wonders of BuzzFeed and trying to publish in as many of its forms as I possibly can. I’ve done list articles, gif-driven short pieces, and even a few videos, but in the end, I’m still drawn to the longform and essay work that I have the most experience in. I’m particularly fond of my first celebrity profile, on Eddie Redmayne and his starring role as trans pioneer Lili Elbe in The Danish Girl, and an essay on what it’s like for me to be in a relationship with someone on the autism spectrum.
There’s a simple saying in Tagalog: “Bilog ang mundo.” The world is round. I started 2015 by getting kicked out of my home for protesting transphobia, and ended up at home in more ways than one — as a trans person, in my vocation, and in my place of work at BuzzFeed. I’ve spent much of my life believing that as long as I keep pursuing what’s important to me, things will work out. But another part of me knew this belief is naive given the forces of inequality at work in the U.S. Having places like Medium where it’s possible to put out ideas and have their worth be judged directly by readers definitely helps, and has been instrumental in giving people like me the opportunity to be heard.