Before Will Varnum began transitioning from female to male, he spent a lot of time on the Internet, scrolling through resources, reading people who shared their own experiences, and watching a lot of videos on YouTube.
So it perhaps made natural sense for Will to turn the camera around on himself and begin making videos for his own channel when he started his own transition.
“There’s just this mecca of storytelling for transgender people on YouTube,” Will said. “There is like an endless amount of information that lives online, and so when I started transitioning I knew that I really wanted to make a channel to document mine.”
What began as a personal video blog (Willed Existence) to document his transition, mostly for himself, has since expanded to a broader audience – Will knows that now, his own videos discussing the ins and outs of transition, from detailed looks at hormone replacement therapy to binders to photographs tracking the way his body is changing to coming out, will benefit other transgender people going forward.
“I wanted to share my story,” he explained. “I wanted people to see it and get information and and get my perspective as a social worker and as a clinical therapist.”
Will has an MSW (Masters of Social Work) from Widener University in Pennsylvania, and he now lives in Columbus, Ohio, not far from where he grew up, near Toledo.
Part of what drew him to the Internet was simply a lack of awareness about resources for trans people in Ohio – and now, he knows that by providing documentation of his journey online, he’s helping other people who don’t have much exposure to the community, including transgender folks, cisgender people, and everyone in between.
Talking to allies and potential allies is an important part of the videos, Will said. “In what I’ve experienced, I think the transgender community feels kind of intimidating to non-transgender people because they don’t want to be offensive, they don’t want to say the wrong thing,” he said. “I try to keep that specific idea in mind when I make my videos. I don’t want people to feel intimidated by my identity or the process of what this means. I’m trying to help people who may not know anyone who is transgender, or what that means. And I think I have the experience of what that means.”
A majority of Americans say that they do not personally know a transgender person, and this lack of awareness can be a hurdle to support for full transgender equality. On the federal level and in 32 states, including Ohio, transgender people have no explicit non-discrimination protections, and in order to win these vital protections, the community must work to fully educate others and increase understanding about who LGBT people are and why non-discrimination protections are important.
In his own way, Will is doing that work online through his video channel.
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Will was raised in Whitehouse, Ohio, a small village in Northwest Ohio. “It’s in a blue county in the giant red mass that is Ohio,” Will laughed. “It’s definitely a super small town with lots of farming and agriculture, and while it’s not conservative, it’s also not very diverse.”
“It wasn’t until college that I had any exposure to LGBT people or queer life,” he said. “I guess I knew it existed as an idea, but as far as meeting people who identified that way, I wasn’t totally sure.”
While in college, he met and began dating a woman and was surprised to find himself attracted to someone else who is female. Still, he came out to his parents junior year, and he began dating women while he lived in Cincinnati for an AmeriCorps program. While in graduate school at Widener, he met Chelsea, who is now his wife.
The couple moved to Philadelphia, where Will first became immersed in a social group of people who identified as trans. He had been drawn to the idea for a long time, exploring whether he himself was non-binary or queer, and at some point while living there, ideas on his own gender identity began to slide more into place: “I think that was when I realized that I had a commonality with that group,” he said.
He and Chelsea moved to Columbus, and over the next several years he began thinking more and more about identity and how he saw himself in the world.
“These thoughts on my identity were coming back, and that’s what happens when we try to be silent to ourselves,” Will said. “I saw that my interest in the trans-masculine community was more than just an interest in meeting people and learning about their experience. I realized that my interest was in that experience for myself.”
In the summer of 2016, Will and Chelsea sat outside of their house in Columbus watching the sunset. It was what Will calls an “accidentally romantic night,” with their dog Lucy at their feet and the couple on separate chairs taking in the view.
“Chelsea, I think I need to share something with you,” Will said.
Chelsea looked at Will as he paused, deciding what to say.
“I think I’m trans,” he said.
“We realized that as much of a transition as this would be for me, it’s also a transition for her and for our marriage, and she would need a lot of space to experience the transition, too.” – Will Varnum
Chelsea looked understandingly at her spouse, and she replied that she was not surprised, that she was in fact wondering if this would be the day he would come out to her, that she loved him very much. As a scholar of human sexuality and a queer-identified person herself who has dated both male- and female-identified people in the past, Chelsea was very open to the conversation.
“We spent the rest of the night talking about it and what it meant for me, and it helped connect a lot of dots for me,” Will explained. “We also talked about how that fits into her life. We realized that as much of a transition as this would be for me, it’s also a transition for her and for our marriage, and she would need a lot of space to experience the transition, too. We were able to process and understand what it meant for me as a person, and then understand what it meant for her as a person, and then what it meant for us as a couple.”
One of Will’s recent videos is a Q&A with Chelsea, an entertaining and light-hearted look at being the spouse of a person who transitions, providing some insight into an identity that is not so commonly explored. Take a look:
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Will said that personally, he has not experienced direct discrimination because of his gender identity. He attributes that to living in some larger, more inclusive cities like Athens, Ohio and Philadelphia and Cincinnati – but he still has experienced the fear of discrimination, and he understands that transgender people are confronted with discrimination at alarming rates.
“Most of my struggle has been very internal,” he said. “I was living an identity that didn’t quite match what was in my mind.”
The threat of discrimination can also be very real and tangible. When he began considering a social transition, he worked at a social work agency affiliated with a religious group, and even prior to his transition several of his co-workers had communicated negative feelings and perspectives about the LGBT community. In a meeting about benefits for same-sex relationships prior to the Supreme Court decision on the freedom to marry, for example, he was hold the agency only accepted “normal marriages” for the purpose of benefits. He didn’t have high hopes on how they would treat him during a transition.
Rather than come out at work, he decided instead to transition jobs, a common decision among the transgender community and one that can also lead to disproportionate instability.
“I don’t think I would have been fired or forced out if I transitioned there,” Will clarified. “But I felt like maybe I would not have been supported. I wanted to be safe and heard, or I didn’t want it to happen at all.”
While making the decision, Will consulted a friend who is an attorney. “I was worried – I didn’t know what was going to happen if I came out at my previous employer, and I asked my friend if I was going to get fired. She said, ‘I don’t think you will, but you could.'”
That’s because Ohio does not have explicit protections from discrimination based on gender identity. Legally Will would have had limited recourse if he had been fired – although recent movement in the judicial system has found growing consensus that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination based on gender identity.
“It’s just wild that could have been my agency’s response,” he said. “I just felt this sense of fear that I don’t often feel. We know that discrimination happens and that exists, but to think about having something legally that could stand behind them feels really important. We need statewide non-discrimination protections here in Ohio.”
Now more than five months into his transition, Will is continuing to document his experience on YouTube and Instagram and on his personal website. He wants to provide as much support as he can to other trans people exploring their own identities online. He wants to answer questions for allies and other queer people, from the mundane to the serious. He wants to be the kind of resource that he needed while he was earlier in his journey toward becoming who he is today.