By Erin Rook, PQ Monthly
When he first learned about gender transition in 2006 from a character named Max on “The L Word,” Kendon Fisher was a lesbian-identified teenager who had never met or spoken to a trans person. Seven years later, he has a large circle of trans friends and an extended family of brothers on YouTube.
“When I first discovered YouTube I was scared. I would try to convince myself that I wasn’t transgender – even the word transgender freaked me out,” Fisher, now 21, says. “I know it’s ironic because I live in Portland, but at the time I honestly felt like the only trans person on this planet. It’s crazy how only a couple clicks around on YouTube and instantly I knew I wasn’t alone.”
Fisher lurked on the recently launched video site for three years before posting a video of his own. He would spend hours each day watching the lives of strangers change on his laptop. With the volume down low and no interest in leaving comments, Fisher wasn’t ready to be seen.
But eventually, he began posting personal video logs about his struggles with identity, family, and the world around him, as well as connecting with other users via comments and private messages.
Many of the videos from Fisher and others like him feel like one-half of a video chat between close friends. In between updates about transition-related milestones are everyday life updates — getting a puppy, having a frustrating day at work, meeting someone cute, catching a cold. Nothing is too mundane, too profane, or too intimate.
Wesley Chernin, a 26-year-old trans man, says that level of vulnerability can be scary. But it’s gotten easier as he’s grown more comfortable with himself.
Like Fisher, Chernin’s engagement with YouTube’s trans community evolved along a familiar arc — support seeking, story sharing, documentation of physical changes, discussion of social and theoretical concepts — as his own transition unfolded.
The two first met at a downtown Portland Starbucks not long after Fisher posted a video about his experience at the 2011 Portland Pride Festival. At this point, he still hadn’t met any other trans folks, and was disappointed with what he saw as a lack of trans visibility at Pride. Chernin reached out and the two shared a nearly instant bond.
“We hit it off right away and kind of became attached at the hips for a few months. Come to think of it, Kendon was the first friend I made as a guy,” Chernin says. “It was kind of like meeting my best friend at 3 years old — we were stepping foot into this huge, unknown world together and we had our whole lives ahead of us. Sticking by each other provided irreplaceable support and made things less scary; more laughable.”
Together, they navigated through pronoun and name changes and even accompanied one another to their first support group meeting at Q Center.
“We talked for hours … I’m sure we could have talked all night,” Fisher says of the now-best friends’ first meet-up. “Under any other circumstances, I would never meet someone in real life that I met on the Internet, but when Wesley left a comment asking if I wanted to meet up I knew it was time I created real life community for myself.”
While the meeting helped Fisher find his way to a larger community, it also sparked a lasting “bromance.” He jokes that it’s hard to talk about Chernin without making it sound like they are partners, but the love the two have for one another is apparent.
“Wesley has been my rock for the majority of my transition and has always been there for me,” Fisher says.
Chernin was even there the night Fisher first met his now-fiancée, Lissy Richards. The two mention the cute girl with the scarf working at Q Center’s front desk in a video filmed with a friend in the summer of 2011. All parties agree she’s attractive, but only Chernin is single at the time.
YouTube has played such an integral role in their transitions that the two young men struggle to imagine life without it. For both, the online community served as a primary source of information about big questions around identity as well as the day-to-day logistics of things like chest binding, hormone shots, and coming out to friends, family, and dates.
“YouTube was such a safe haven for me,” Chernin says. “It provided me with incredible knowledge on the transition process and some of the people I’ve met on YouTube are my best buds now. It’d be wild to have never jumped into that.”
Fisher agrees: “I couldn’t count the ways YouTube has changed my life. YouTube gave me community online and eventually in real life too,” he says. “If I had never found YouTube, I would still be that scared, confused, lonely 15-year-old with an ace bandage under my shirt.”
Both men hope to keep their YouTube channels up indefinitely, even as their interest in posting wanes — not because there is a shortage of transition stories on the site, but because each one is different, and that diversity is important.
“Prior to watching YouTube videos I was under the impression that in order to be trans I had to have known I was a boy since I was a toddler,” Chernin says. “Having access to YouTube videos enabled me to learn, straight from the source, the diversity in transgender stories. I then was able to figure out my own.”
As new generations of trans youth turn to the internet to find stories that resemble their own, Fisher and Chernin’s videos will join the vanguard of voices young people look up to.
“I don’t think of myself as a role model,” Fisher says, while acknowledging that he has shifted into the role of the people he once looked up to. “I just think of myself as a queer kid with a camera.”