At 16, River Fujimoto revealed to his parents that he wanted to transition from female to male. He’d known since the onset of puberty, had found a supportive trans community locally and online, and was ready to present as a man. His mother, Michelle Alfano, documented the experience from her point of view in her book, The Unfinished Dollhouse: A Memoir of Gender and Identity. “At 16, he had a laundry list of what he wanted to do right away,” Alfano tells Steve Paikin on The Agenda. “Name change, advise the school — he wanted to be able to go into a men’s bathroom, because he no longer felt comfortable in a woman’s bathroom … change his physical appearance, change his pronouns.” She says she tried to get him to slow down the process, but ultimately accepted and supported his decision.
Fujimoto, now 20, answers questions about what it was like for him to have the difficult conversation with his family, and what it means to him to have their acceptance.
When did you first understand you were trans, and how did you know?
At around the age of 10, I had a better understanding of what gender meant and which gender I was assigned at birth. I remember during puberty at 11, I became conscious of how my body was changing and how my body was going to change and grow in the future. As I got older, I continued to express myself masculinely, but throughout puberty, I experimented with my femininity as well. When I became more aware of my gender not being female, I wanted to be read as a more masculine person. I felt more comfortable being read as male over female. While I do not identify as male, I do identify with masculinity. I use he/him/his pronouns and they/them/their pronouns interchangeably. I think I’ve known from a young age that I did not identify as a girl, but I did not have the words to express myself. It was at the age of 12 or 13 years old that I actually saw representation of a transgender character in media who had similar feelings to me. Once I was able to find the words or terms that felt comfortable for mine, I was able to refer to myself as them.
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During that time, where did you find information or support about what you were experiencing?
Before I came out as trans, I sought out information on trans people through video blogs on YouTube. I watched videos of people documenting their social, emotional, and/or medical/physical transitions. The majority, if not all, of the knowledge I gained initially about trans lives was from trans people telling their stories and sharing their experiences.
What was it like telling your parents, your friends, and extended family?
When I came out to my parents, both of their reactions were positive at first. They asked me what they could do to support me and reassured me that they loved me no matter what. I think that they just wanted me to feel that I could talk to them about anything. I was very scared to come out to them, because it would mean that it was real. I didn't feel scared because I thought they wouldn't support me, but I was scared because I knew that things would change after that. Coming out to my friends as trans was the easiest. I felt that I was able to be myself around them without feeling judged. My friends started using he/him pronouns for me a lot sooner than my family did.
I have one regret with the way that I came out to my extended family, which was having my parents come out for me. I think it would have been more beneficial for me to come out to my extended family. I believe if I had come out to them personally, it would have opened up a dialogue about trans-related topics and issues. I think that they would not feel as nervous asking me questions about trans-related things had I been the one to tell them I am trans. Most of my extended family was receptive, and while it took longer for some of them to use the correct name and pronouns, with time, they came around to respecting my name and pronouns. Some it took months — others years. I have been out for 5 years now, and things have finally settled.
In your mother’s book, in which she describes her experience of understanding and accepting your transition, she talks about the difficulty she had with pronouns. How was that for you?
My mom had quite a hard time when my pronouns changed from she/her to he/him. I was incredibly frustrated and felt that my identity was not being fully acknowledged. I think my mom felt that it was enough that she had accepted that I had told her that I was trans, but did not realize that she had not fully accepted me as her child who did not identify as her daughter. I was tired and anxious and did not want to engage with my parents if it meant that they would mispronoun me. Once my pronouns were used, I was much happier just being around my parents, because I felt that my identity was actually being validated.
In your opinion, what is the most difficult thing to get across to people about being transgender?
I think there are so many things that are difficult for cisgender people (meaning people who identify wholly with the gender they were assigned at birth) to understand about transgender people. One of the biggest confusions is that gender identity and sexual orientation are not the same or connected. When someone comes out as trans, a lot of the time the trans person is asked questions like "Well, does that mean you're gay, then?" or "So do you like men or women?" When someone comes out to you as transgender, they are telling you what their gender identity is, not what their sexual orientation is. Not all transgender people are gay, not all trans people are straight, not all trans people are bisexual. Just like not all cis people are straight, gay, or bi.
Something that a lot of people don't understand is that you cannot be "transgendered." You can be "transgender" or "trans" or be a "trans(gender) person" — not "transgendered."
Can you talk about your volunteer work with other youth who are going through what you’ve been through?
For the past year and a half, I have been volunteering and working with other East, South East, and mixed Asian youth who are queer and/or trans identified. I work for a nonprofit organization as a peer educator and leader by facilitating workshops and events on mindfulness, mental and sexual health awareness, anti-oppression, and the intersections of being queer and/or trans and Asian.
It’s been important for me to find community. I am someone with intersectional identities, and working with other queer and trans East, South East, and mixed Asian youth has helped me see that there are other people like me, who navigate the world in ways that are similar to me. Sharing experiences, learning about people, learning about the world and where you stand in the world, and knowing that you’re not alone has helped me tremendously.
In your life now, from where do you derive the greatest strength?
A lot of strength that I find within myself derives from community. Over the past four years, I have actively looked to find support from other trans and/or queer identified folks both online and in person. Building solidarity with other trans and/or queer people has helped me learn, find peace, and gain a lot of strength emotionally and mentally.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.