Koya is a lithe, tall woman with an angled bob that emphasizes cheekbones that would make Rooney Mara weep. She’s a whip-smart, Leo Moon Virgo from Denver who studies psychology at Fort Lewis College. Koya’s college experience is not only about moving from practical studies to a career path, it’s about embracing her female self. Koya is a trans-lesbian, a transgender woman who identifies as lesbian. At 26 years old, she is in the process of a full transgender transition. “Towards May, I’m going to get the reassignment surgery. That’s going to be the end of my journey. Well, there’s never really an end, but the end of this part.”
There are over 1.4 million transgender folks who live in America. Nearly 21,000 live in Colorado. Most cis-gender people don’t think they’ve ever met or a know a transgender person, but the odds are that you do.
Transitioning is a process that takes a long time, and even after you’ve finished the surgeries, “There’s always legal work you have to do,” Koya said. “I’ve changed my name, updated my birth certificate, and I will need to re-update my birth certificate and my license after my surgery to ensure I receive the proper gender marks. There is a lot of paperwork.”
Paperwork is the easy part. It’s getting to the place where you can safely admit out loud who you are that can be hard. Koya’s trans journey began when she was 8 years old and had kidney surgery three times over the course of two months. “I spent a lot of time in the hospital. A lot of time in pain,” Koya said. She wasn’t outwardly thinking of how her gender assigned at birth did not match her internal gender, but the surgeries did begin a body awareness that other children her age didn’t have. “It wasn’t until I was 12 that I realized when I was looking at girls it was in an envious way rather than just lustful.” Koya began collecting questions like “Why can’t I look like that?” and “Why can’t I be that?” But she shoved the thoughts to the back of her mind.
Koya didn’t have access to the information or terminology that would help her process all of the questions she was collecting. “I thought I might be bi,” said Koya. “I lived with that idea until about 16. I had two boyfriends during that time. Both were bad experiences. I was about to date another guy when I had a soul-searching epiphany in the middle of the night. Everybody was asleep and I was going through Wikipedia and eventually I saw a transgender article and was like, ‘Oh my god, that’s me.’”
Knowing a term for what she was going through didn’t solve Koya’s problems. “I thought I was like one of 50 people in the world. I decided that I would take it to my grave and nobody would know about it.” Silencing herself set Koya squarely on depression’s path. For six years, she kept quiet about being transgender. “I didn’t fully come out until I was 22,” Koya said. First, she told her older brother and he demanded she tell her parents. “I worded it very carefully. I’ve always been told that guile will get you everywhere. Be careful about how you present and what you say. So I said, ‘I’d like to see somebody about this,’ and my parents set me up with a therapist.”
After a year, the therapist confirmed to Koya and her parents what she was going through. But, “My parents still didn’t fully support the idea. Nor did my brother.” A second therapist was seen and family appointments were part of the deal. “The big breaking point was in a family session. I remember saying to my parents, ‘I feel like no matter what I say you’re not going to believe me.’ That kind of helped them turn on a dime. From then, they worked very slowly and carefully in understanding me.”
Now, Koya’s family are supportive of her, or at least she thinks they are. Just like a lot of families, “We are a don’t-talk-about-it family, a push-it-under-the-rug family. If there were further issues, I never got to hear about them. As far as I know, we’re good.” No matter what though, Koya’s got Dominique, her long-term girlfriend. “Dom was the first person to accept me as who I am. Dom said, ‘I never really saw you any other way than how you saw you.’”
Though she has spoken at gender and sexuality panels and is open to conversation, Koya does not think of herself as an activist. “My goal is not to change people’s minds, but it is to make myself a source of education for anyone who wants to learn.” Mind you, just because Koya may be willing to talk to a person with a kind inquiry, it doesn’t mean all transgender people want to talk about their experience with you. Everyone has boundaries and it is unfair to expect every person with an identity flag to wave it all of the time and become an all-purpose representative of Today’s News Topic. Instead of leaving the weight of education on the trans population, perhaps Durango could take a cue from FLC and host Common Ground diversity training for the public. Koya said, “Common Ground discusses diversity and how to approach different cultures. If we could figure out how to incorporate that idea into the rest of Durango, past the campus, that would be a good idea.”
Koya’s a gamer and a writer. She loves fashion. She’s a psych major. Right now, she’s looking at research psych with a segue into media psychology, though her dream job may take her into behavioral color psychology. She’s intensely funny, can swill iced coffee with the best of them, and she slings poses like a model. She’s a woman in Durango, living day by day, and the next time you see her, she’ll probably have blue-purple hair.