Matt Wood // Staff Writer
For two years, he has kept a small note in his wallet as a token to summon strength when it is most needed.
The note, found in the folds of a gender identity book in Willis Library, reads:
“You are not alone. Stay strong. Be true.”
A.J. Aguinaga, 21, identifies as a male. Biologically a female, he realized his gender identity did not match his sex at age 19.
Aguinaga is one of 700,000 transgender individuals in the U.S. The transgender demographic has been poorly represented in the past, with acknowledgements being primarily made for male and female genders. Recently, Facebook introduced the option of to select a custom third gender to accommodate for those who do not fit in the binary.
Sex refers to the physical anatomy that denotes an individual as male or female. However, gender refers to the social definitions of what it means to be a man, woman or anything inbetween.
Transgender individuals do not have matching sex and gender identity, and embody a different gender than the one they were assigned at birth. Some undergo hormone therapy and surgery to help match their appearance and biology to the gender they identify with.
Aguinaga, a physics senior, was born in South Carolina and moved between several states until coming to Texas at age 8. He said he was unaware the idea of being transgender existed until fourth grade.
His mother was watching an episode of Oprah that featured identical twins, one of which was a transgender male.
“I remember seeing that and thinking ‘Man, one day I want to be like that,’” he said. “But it didn’t really click.”
At age 14, Aguinaga came out as a lesbian. He said his mother struggled with the news and his father ignored it.
“My mom would just look at me and cry. She couldn’t look at me for a while,” he said. “And that was just the reality of it.”
Aguinaga said he heard stories of teenagers coming out and being kicked out of their homes.
“I would wake up and wonder if that was going to be me one day,” he said.
Though the conditions improved with time, Aguinaga said he was never permitted to talk openly about relationships.
At 19, Aguinaga studied abroad in Calgary, Canada, where he met another transgender man who had also not realized he was transgender.
The two shared similar sentiments about feeling out of place in their bodies. Curious, Aguinaga turned to social media outlets like YouTube and Tumblr to further understand the transgender community.
“It sort of opened my eyes to a whole new world I had no idea about,” he said. “I realized this is possible. This is a thing I could do.”
However, Aguinaga had to endure the process of coming out to his parents a second time.
“I was just distraught and I was really angry. I was more angry than anything,” he said. “I felt like that emotion I felt when I came out as lesbian sort of fermented into just some anger.”
When Aguinaga came out as transgender, his parents didn’t understand why his reasoning.
“To this day they don’t use my preferred name, they don’t use my preferred pronoun,” he said. “And the verbal abuse from my dad became more common when I came out as transgender.”
With time, Aguinaga said the relationship with his parents has improved. But bulwarks remain as he considers options like surgery, which would be costly without the support of his parents.
On Feb. 13, Facebook allowed users to select a “custom” gender option, which provides 50 genders beyond male and female. The option also asks what gender pronoun the user prefers.
Some of these options include “transgender,” “intersex” and neither.
Maia Cudhea, an adjunct instructor in women’s studies, said the change is great, and a step in the right direction toward the inclusion of individuals who don’t fit into the gender binary.
“One of the hardest things for people who are gender-nonconforming is the stigma,” she said. “And that’s exacerbated when their identities aren’t recognized, when there are only two boxes to check.”
Cudhea said the change would help transgender people who feel unrepresented. Something as simple as deciding what bathroom to use can be a struggle for transgender individuals who may be in transition and exhibit physical characteristics of both a male and female.
She said these issues build up into the oppression minority groups face. She referred to a quote that said, “All the little things throughout the day slowly murder your soul.”
Gender in other cultures
A third gender identity is recognized in the cultures of more than 30 countries in the world.
Anthropology lecturer Andrew Nelson said one example is in Thailand, where a third gender called the “Kathoey” is recognized.
“They’re very celebrated,” he said. “They’re seen as beyond gender and can mediate between the two genders.”
He said a distinction in transgender culture in the U.S. is that individuals typically change their name and identity along with physical alterations. In foreign cultures, he said identity stays static because the categories of male and female are less rigid.
Nelson said the reason the U.S. is less flexible with gender is because of a similar history with race, where mixed race people were not recognized until more recently.
“You’re either white or you’re black, you’re male or you’re female,” he said. “But a lot of cultures in the world have a much higher tolerance for ambiguity.”
Aguinaga is currently working to create the Transgender and Intersex Alliance of Denton. He said one of the first steps to helping transgender people feel more comfortable is increasing awareness.
“I want to make the transgender community visible so we aren’t seen as a taboo,” he said. “We’re people too and it seems like people tend to forget that when they ask inappropriate questions.”
Integrated studies sophomore Courtney White identifies as neither male nor female, and said the most helpful thing for a transgender student is to find a support group.
“Having someone who understands me and my struggles with my gender is so helpful,” White said. “I think that’s something that’s really made me okay with my gender and who I am.”
Aguinaga hopes that through what he has learned, he can help other people accept who they are and create a space where they are understood.
“What I’m going through eventually helps someone else,” he said. “And that’s all I really want.”
The article has been updated to reflect that Aguinaga’s parents did not understand his reasoning behind coming out. The original version misstated that they misunderstood Aguinaga’s choice to be transgender.
Feature photo: Physics senior A.J. Aguinaga realized he was a transgender male at age 19. He hopes to share his experience to support other transgender individuals. Photo by Trevor Garza / Intern Photographer