Sophia Maier was born under another name, and yet “Sophia” is the truest name she said she’s had.
An English graduate student at Penn State, Maier identifies as a bisexual transgender woman, who has evolved from the conservative Christian family she was born into.
Growing up in Alpharetta, Georgia, she described her primary education as “cult like” — teachers claimed to have the direct word of God and even had a ban on Hershey kisses because kisses alluded to sex.
In this environment, anything that violated the heteronormative standard was not only viewed as unholy but as perverse. Maier described a culture where being gay was equally as bad as being a pedophile, equally as sexually deviant.
“Guilt was leveraged against us and I bought into all of it,” Maier said. “[The school] makes you feel like you are part of something… that the world outside is super untrustworthy and that you could only get the truth from them.”
This thinking played a role in a major event in Maier’s life that impacted her whole family.
Her older brother Noah’s sexual orientation was revealed without his consent when he was 17 years old.
The news of his homosexuality not only devastated their conservative parents, but also led to him being shunned by friends and, ultimately, pressured out of school, where the principal prohibited him from being involved in any extracurricular activities or anything beyond attending classes.
As this occurred, Sophia said she struggled to process the severity of what her brother was experiencing.
“I was numb to the implications,” Maier said. “I was more struggling with the realization that my brother was gay. It was a big deal to me because, at the time, I was super Christian and always felt so guilty. The whole concept was deeply foreign.”
In the LGBTQ community, there is a phrase for what happened to Noah: being outed. Being outed can be a detrimental event in one’s life and a source of immense trauma, according to Maier.
“It’s a violation of trust,” Maier said. “My parent’s reaction was pretty bad, but it could have been a lot worse. It can literally endanger someone’s life. But more than that — even if it doesn’t endanger someone’s life — the idea that you have agency over how you want to exist with your sexual orientation and someone making that decision for you is a breach of your autonomy and dignity.”
Though her relationship with her brother was “awkward” following his being outed, the siblings made an effort to mend their bond.
They set out on a road trip with two rules: no major highways and when someone says “stop,” the pair got out of the car to take photos.
Maier described the trip as a transformative experience and was also, the first time she heard the word “trans,” which was mentioned during an NPR broadcast about a transgender individual.
“He started talking about what it meant for him to be Christian and to be gay,” Maier said. “So I asked my brother what trans was and he went on to talk about his own sexual orientation. I never considered [being transgender] for a long time because it was buried so deeply inside.”
Several years later, at 19, Maier realized she was bisexual.
Scared and unsure of how to move forward, she called her brother to discuss the notion. His immediate reaction of shock and fear — due to his own traumatic experiences — gradually turned to support and assurance.
It wouldn’t be for several years before being transgender crossed Maier’s mind, but the path leading up to the realization was filled with illuminating perspectives.
Maier said her first run in with questioning her gender was quickly dismissed by a transgender peer. Liking femininity, women’s clothing, makeup and feminine accessories wasn’t the same as being a woman, she was told.
At first, Maier, who did not yet identify as transgender, felt comforted by that thinking and backed away from the idea.
With time and exposure, however, Maier would come to terms with her identity.
There’s a term in the queer community: hatching an egg. According to Maier, an egg is someone who shows signs of being transgender but hasn’t come to realize it yet.
In many cases, someone within the transgender community will help to “hatch the egg,” or help this individual come to terms with their identity.
This person was Maier’s former partner.
“I remember panicking and shutting down,” Maier said. “There was fear. There was denial. There was a strong voice in my head saying you’re just faking it for attention, it’s not real.”
Maier emphasized that her former partner’s guidance was critical to getting her through the process
“I’ll always remember the advice they gave me because I’m forever indebted to them for it,” Maier said. “They said to me, ‘For a few weeks, let yourself feel anything. If you feel denial, let yourself feel denial. If you feel multiple ways, let yourself feel them all. Feel anything and everything.’ It helped me sift through all my feelings.”
She first explored being multigendered, then genderqueer — anything to not make the full jump of being a transgender woman because she said that idea was still terrifying.
What helped her to come to terms with her identity was a group in State College.
“One of the first things I did was go to the LGBTQ center and find Beyond the Binary,” Maier said. “I was so terrified to go, but they were super helpful.”
According to the Student Affairs website, Beyond the Binary is a discussion group that “provides a safer space for students who do not identify as cisgender to talk about topics regarding gender identity and expression.”
If there’s one thing Maier noted, it’s that there is no one narrative that defines the transgender experience.
She described a common idea that transgender people have always known who they are but were misgendered.
For Maier, and many other transgender individuals, it was a little more complicated.
“I think my first gender non-conformity was when I was little — one of my first memories is me going up to my mom and saying, ‘Are you sure I’m not a girl?’” Maier said. “And I remember the look of horror on her face as she said, ‘Why would you possibly think that?’”
At the time, Maier questioning her gender stemmed from a simple fact: she had long hair. To her, long hair was associated with femininity and when Maier began her transition, growing out her hair again was representative of this construct.
“The long hair enters the symbolic realm of the feminine,” she said. “It says to people, ‘I am feminine.’”
Where Maier struggled, however, was with clothing.
In the past, she hated shopping for clothing, which she later realized stemmed from the fact that she hated shopping for masculine clothing.
“When I first tried putting on feminine clothing, people thought it was a joke because I was so poorly dressed,” Maier said. “Clothing shopping was so scary because I felt so incompetent as a woman. It made me feel illegitimate, all those voices in my head saying, ‘you’re a fake’ — it reflected that.”
Like many other things in Maier’s transition, her fashion took trial and error. Now, she loves clothing because she’s learned to trust herself and her aesthetic.
“I was able to get to that point from the encouragement of friends,” Maier said, explaining that she and her transgender friends shop together. “As soon as I could get that voice from shopping together and supporting each other that helped me feel legitimate and clothing became a form of self-expression.”
In the beginning of her transition, Maier met Christine Zavada, the grassroots organizer for Planned Parenthood PA, at a happy hour for the Coalition of Graduate Employees.
“My first impression of Sophia was that she was pretty wild, very open and affirming in a really beautiful way,” Zavada said. “She was very upfront about her Tourette’s and she had recently come out as a trans woman and was really celebratory about that.”
Maier began hormone therapy in January, which is usually the first medical step of the transitioning process. Although not all transgender people do hormone therapy, it’s the most common medical procedure within the community, according to Maier.
She is taking estrogen, progesterone and Spironolactone, which blocks testosterone.
What Maier is currently in the midst of is commonly referred to as “second puberty” because the hormones take a similar toll on the body.
Hormone therapy for transgender women is “intended to feminize patients by changing fat distribution, inducing breast formation and reducing male pattern hair growth,” according to the National Center for Biotechnology Information.
Maier is considering breast augmentation in the future but said that she was not a “transmedicalist”: a term within the transgender community that represents a medical definition of what it means to be transgender.
In this definition, non-binary people don’t exist, and one must adhere to the standards of one gender, typically through surgeries.
“Transition is not just medical — it’s a broader phenomenon of coming to understand oneself,” Maier said. “For me, transition is a process of self-conceptualization, conceptualizing my biology as being feminine even if I don’t actually change anything medically.”
As someone who’s known Maier in both the beginning and current stages of her transition, Zavada has seen the ways Maier’s confidence has grown.
“There have been a couple of events where she’s spoken, and I’ve noticed that every single time it’s gotten more and more impressive and inspiring,” Zavada said. “She’s gotten more confident and beautiful, and it’s very cool to see.”
Maier said transition is a “delightful” process – except for when it’s not.
She described the relationship between mental health and transitioning as a sort of “paradox.”
“On one hand, it’s very good for my mental health and I wouldn’t replace it for the world because it’s so important to me,” Maier said. “But on the other hand, the further I go into this process and the more trans I become, the more danger I am under and the more bigotry I will experience.”
These threats include suicide — between 22 to 43 percent of transgender people have attempted in their lifetime, according to the Centre for Suicide Prevention.
“I said in my speech for the Trans Day of Remembrance that I used to be scared every time I crossed the street wearing certain things that someone would get enraged and run me over… after a few months, I wished they would,” Maier said.
Ben Wideman, campus minister for 3rd Way Collective, which is a student organization that creates space for both faith and justice, has seen the effects of mental illness in the transgender community at Penn State. When he arrived on campus five years ago, he said he met a transgender student that later died by suicide.
“That experience shook me in a way that I couldn’t have imagined,” Wideman said. “When you lose someone in that way, it makes you think what are we doing, not just in religious spaces, but in all spaces to do a better job at being more inclusive?”
In addition to the high rates of suicide, sexual violence is a danger for members of the transgender community.
According to the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey, 47 percent of transgender people will be sexually assaulted at some point in their life. This number doesn’t reflect unreported or misreported sexual assaults.
Maier herself is a victim of sexual assault and knows firsthand how perpetrators can use transgender individual’s orientations to victimize themselves.
“Before that happened to me, I was literally just waiting for it to happen,” Maier said. “I would wonder not if, but when I’ll be sexually assaulted because I just knew the numbers were so high and that it’s part of some many trans people’s lives.”
What did come as a surprise was that the assault came from someone she intimately knew, which is a common occurrence for violence within the transgender community.
Half of the transgender people killed since 2013 were killed by an acquaintance, friend, family member or intimate partner, according to the Human Rights Campaign.
“So often it’s a betrayal of trust,” Maier said. “The people, who you trusted in your life before, turn on you and it freaks you out because all of these attachments you had previously are suddenly put into question.”
Maier highlighted that the numbers are disproportionately high for transgender women of color, and though she doesn’t identify as a woman of color, she said they are critical to her.
Maier is a common face in the advocacy scene in State College. Whether it be for disability rights, abortion access, economic equality or police violence, Maier is likely to be there.
“Sophia is someone who has deeply changed and influenced me because of the way she’s always striving for a better world,” Wideman said. “She carries a lot and would have every right to be righteously angry at the world and separate herself, but instead she chooses to speak up for others who don’t feel whole or don’t feel fully welcome and it compels me to do the same.”
In her graduate studies, Maier teaches the public speaking course CAS100A, which she said she loves. She described how teaching public speaking is a unique experience for her because she’s able to bring awareness to her Tourette’s syndrome.
If there’s a word Maier would use to describe her coming out process, it’d be “gradual” — especially regarding her family.
She called Noah first and told him she was transgender. She said he reacted the same way as when he learned she was bisexual: shocked and distant at first, but later, supportive.
When she confided in her other siblings, her sister begged Maier to not come out because it would disrupt the family.
She saved her parents for last.
“I called my parents while on a trip to go see them so that when I got there, we could talk about it more,” Maier said. “I had friends on call ready, just in case my parents didn’t want me to sleep there, which may have been unjustified, and it says nothing about my parents per say, but it’s a real fear that trans people have in case their parents get mad or end up hating them.”
She described the experience with her parents as “relatively fine” as their reactions were similar to when she revealed she was bisexual. She could see it was hard on them, and that it would be a fight for them to treat her as a daughter, not a son.
The beginning wasn’t easy — her pronouns brought them trouble and her mother blamed just about everything, even her Tourette’s, for being the cause of her transgender identity.
But in the year and a half since she came out to her family, Maier described progress.
“They are trying to say my name now,” Maier said. “They’ve gotten more used to the idea that I’m trans, especially since my therapist called them to say this is really who I am and that it’s valid and that it is not my fault or me just being rebellious. Hearing that helped a lot.”
One thing Maier emphasized is that now she’s no stranger to standing out in a crowd. She doesn’t mind it and in fact, often times she takes pleasure in it because it’s in those moments, she said, she feels the most seen.
“I think I want people to look at me and see a beautiful woman, but one that is challenging — one who doesn’t exactly conform to expectations of womanhood and pushes the boundaries a little bit,” Maier said. “But one who’s still distinctly beautiful and powerful, in her own unique way.”