My Interview with Fluidity.Love
Earlier this month I was contacted by an LGBT-supportive publication looking to interview me about my experience as a trans woman and my life leading up to that realization. They asked some great questions and I was surprised at how much I enjoyed sharing my story in a Q&A format. I spoke with their ambassador, Rassellino, who prepared the questions for the interview.
This was also the first time I'd shared any pre-transition photos since coming out. I've laid them in as they were in the original published interview, but the captions are a Samplings-exclusive bonus ;)
If you're interested you can give it a read here:
F.L: We are so happy to have the chance to interview Samara Lindsey Ballen. Samara is such a lovely person and we are glad to present you her story.
F.L: How did you come up with your name that you have now?
Choosing my name was an extremely therapeutic aspect of transition for me. Realizing that I didn’t need to go by my former, traditionally male name wasn’t automatic. It was actually a new friend who pointed out that my name at the time didn’t really fit my feminine presentation and asked if I had considered changing it. That was kind of a wakeup call.
Choosing a name for yourself is not easy! At first I started playing with names I thought sounded pretty or that had deep meaning and I was all over the map. I would try them on for a day or a week within the comfort of my closest friends. I think Samara was the third name I had seriously considered, but it came about totally differently to my other choices.
By then I had decided I wanted to keep my initials—or at least my first and last initials—so I started scrolling through name lists intended for new parents, and focused on the ‘S’ sections. At the time I was very early on in my transition and had a lot of insecurities about my appearance. I didn’t feel I read femininely enough to the average person to use Samara right away, so the fact that I could abbreviate it to Sam without having to change my name again later was a major factor. But that was really an unexpected bonus.
I must have looked through 1,000+ ‘S’ names before I saw Samara in a list, and when I came upon it I absolutely fell in love. I had actually known a girl about a decade earlier named Samara, and at first I was kind of insecure about choosing a name I knew others might associate with another person. But I reasoned there would probably be someone I knew with any name I would consider for myself, and I couldn’t shake how right it felt. I thought it was beautiful and unique, but it still sounded like a name my parents might have given me in another life.
Many years ago for reasons I can’t recall my parents told me that, had I been assigned female at birth, they had actually chosen Lindsey for my name. I wanted my parents to know that my transition wasn’t about separating myself from them in any way, and that I was still proud to be their daughter, so I took Lindsey as my middle name.
F.L.: What was your childhood like? How about your teenage times and school?
Since I had no idea what was going on with me I buried my female identity deep in my unconscious from a very early age, so my childhood felt fine while I was in it for the most part. Looking back I can recall times when my transness poked out now and then, but I had trained myself to stifle it without even knowing I was doing something unnatural. I desperately wanted to embrace my femininity, but all signs I had gotten as a kid told me that would never be acceptable, so from a very young age I started to operate under a manufactured male persona.
It was only once I woke up to what I had been doing my whole life that I realized how much stress and anxiety I had accepted as normal as a kid. But because I was hiding even from myself, and was really good at it, I had a relatively average experience growing up as a little boy—at least from the outside looking in.
When I was 9 I started attending a sports-oriented sleepaway camp for boys. My first couple of summers there I was definitely teased for being effeminate. Other kids called me gay and would give me a hard time because I was very sensitive and far preferred activities like arts and crafts to competitive sports. But I was so committed to forcing my identity to line up with how others saw me that I basically just took it as feedback and used that to improve my maleness.
By the time I reached middle school I knew something was different about me. I actually bought into the possibility that maybe I really was just a gay male, and even came out as gay to a couple of close friends at the time. It took about 3 days for me to figure out that didn’t feel right, but before I understood I was trans my sexuality was the only way I could in any way rationalize how different I felt, so I never identified as 100% straight either.
As I got older my style and presentation started to fluctuate pretty drastically. I hated shopping for clothes and kept changing my style to find something that felt right. I never did, because the problem wasn’t finding the right kind of male expression for myself; it was that I was on the wrong side of the store altogether. I don’t think I liked a single hairstyle I ever had growing up. Looking back I had a lot of body image issues I never really noticed as a bigger problem. Discomfort became my normal and without any exposure to trans people or the idea that I could be trans within galaxies of my mental reach I just went about my life doing the best I could as a boy.
Overall I have to be grateful for my childhood. My parents loved me, encouraged me, and showed up for me to the extent they could based on what they knew. I had friends, food, and good health, and through it all I’m happy with who I’ve become.
F.L.: Can you tell us about your experience of coming out as transgender?
My gender identity wasn’t a choice, and in my case neither was coming out. Not because anyone outed me or anything, but because I have a really strong need to be authentic. I’m a terrible liar and masking truths about myself has always come with horrible anxiety and physical stress. When I started down the rabbit hole of questioning my gender I knew from the outset that if I came out the other side knowing I was trans, I would need to be transparent about it.
That’s not to say it was easy. It wasn’t. It was a long and complicated process involving circles of loved ones I told in different ways at different times. It was exhausting. The epitome of an emotional rollercoaster. One day I would wake up sweating and shaking because I was planning to come out to someone, only to finish the day flying because they surprised me by being accepting and supportive. Other days I would wake up with Thor-like ego strength and spiral down to suicidal ideation by bedtime.
Even though I knew I wanted to be public about my identity and experience I was terrified of the invisible banter I was sure would occur amongst people I hadn’t seen in years or longer. I worked on that part for months and still had trouble not being consumed by the idea of some nightmarishly awful worst-case scenario.
After I finished telling my closest family and friends in person it was time to rip the Band-Aid off. I had been working on a blog called Samplings—a play on my name—centering around trans issues, social progress and the humanities for a few months and I had decided the best way to let the rest of the concerned universe know about me was to write an introspective piece and post it publicly. I paired it with a couple relevant educational pieces geared toward my initial audience (people who had known me at some point or another), changed my name and gender on Facebook along with a link to my site and went to sleep. No exaggeration. I had been up for 26 hours beforehand.
F.L.: Tell us about your experience transitioning. Does everyone in your community know? How did they react and feel? How do you feel about that?
I began my transition in August 2017, starting with my clothes, then moving to name and pronouns amongst friends. I started hormone replacement therapy on January 4th, 2018.
It’s safe to assume everyone who is in any way still connected to me is aware that I’m trans and identify as female. My family was a mixed bag. I assumed coming out to my parents would literally kill them. It didn’t, of course. Love prevailed for them and I think they pretty quickly decided they’d rather have a trans daughter than one fewer child in their lives. It’s still new for them, and considering how thoroughly differently they see me now I think they’re still a bit shaken up over it, but they’ve been loving.
My siblings haven’t been in the picture in a year or more. I can’t speak to their reasoning, and I’m sure it’s unique to each of them, but we don’t speak. I’m not happy about that and I wish it were different, especially for the impact it’s had on our family overall, but I can’t control both sides of the issue and they haven’t showed any willingness to open a dialogue in spite of my attempts. I’ll leave it at that.
My grandparents—my grandma on my father’s side and my grandpa on my mother’s—were the two easiest people to come out to in my whole family tree. Ironically (or not) they were the two people my parents were most terrified of me telling. I think with age often comes perspective and wisdom, and the degree to which anything stands to threaten love and family shrinks in every dimension. At 86 my grandma had my name and pronouns down within 2 weeks of me coming out to her, and we have lunch at least every two weeks despite our physical distance. She loves to compliment my makeup and is always there for me. She’s definitely my biggest fan.
My 91-year-old grandpa practiced my name every morning for a month so he could be sure he wouldn’t slip up despite knowing me by another one for almost 3 decades. When he first saw the real me I was already 6 months on hormones and about 10 into presenting as female. When I sat with him to talk about it he interjected, “Of course you didn’t love how you looked before. You weren’t how you were supposed to be. Now you are how you were always supposed to be. And by the way you are a beautiful woman!” I almost passed out.
It’s amazing how much fear affects our perspective, and how much our perspective creates our reality. When I feel at my best, it’s as if my confidence creates a tractor beam of good energy, and my interactions with both loved ones and strangers mirror how I feel about myself. The reverse is definitely also true.
F.L.: Did you get any push-back or backlash from transitioning?
Of course. At first my parents didn’t understand what I was going through, and I think they looked at it like a lifestyle choice. So they were terrified that I’d just thrown all of my potential out the window, and they weren’t quiet about it. They weren’t angry or mean, but they were absolutely distraught at first, and it made me feel terrible. Coming out to my parents spun them into the worst state I had seen them in since my rebellious teenage years, and of course in the moment I couldn’t help but feel like simply being me was a horrible thing to do to them.
From a much clearer place of course I understand where their heads were at, and I’m not hurt by it anymore, but that’s how it felt in the beginning, and there’s no more vulnerable place to be than the beginning of transition.
To this day I don’t know how I made it through my most awkward phases of transition. I’m so lucky in so many ways. I’m petite (barely 5’5”), many of my facial features aren’t discernibly male, makeup has come really easily to me, I have a passion for feminine fashion and I know how to style myself. But those things weren’t always true, or if they were they weren’t always enough to help me avoid negative attention.
Before starting transition my hair was brutally short, I didn’t know a thing about makeup, and despite my best efforts I was still considerably muscular. I stuck out like a sore thumb. Fortunately or unfortunately I had trouble seeing all of those glaring inconsistencies between my appearance and the socially expected expression of my gender identity, because as soon as it became clear that I was female it was like a dam had burst and millions of gallons of water were gushing through with unstoppable force. The idea of presenting like a man after that point made me want to vomit. I just couldn’t do it anymore—for my own benefit or otherwise. As a result I was “living full time” as a woman from really early on, and that came with plenty social drawbacks. Tons of glances and disgustingly prolonged glares, being constantly misgendered, even being outright laughed at by strangers in public. Thankfully to date I haven’t been assaulted or followed while walking alone in New York City at night, which most trans women have to constantly be prepared for.
F.L.: What are some of the best things about transitioning?
So much! Most importantly I’m me for the first time in my entire life. I can’t explain what that feels like if you haven’t experienced life behind a mask, and really if you haven’t lived for decades thinking that mask was your actual face. The best I can do is to say that it’s incredibly freeing. It’s like the movie, Pleasantville, when they step into color for the first time, having only ever known black and white. My optimism and engagement with the world and people around me have shot through the roof.
For me living as a male version of myself was way more than my appearance—it was a whole persona. Imagine having to keep up an act all the time. A friend of mine puts it in a way I really resonate with: I was a male impersonator. The analogy I give for this is a bit techy: if you were a computer, imagine a portion of your processing power is walled off to constantly drive this false layer of yourself. You can’t use it at all because it’s dedicated to powering this persona and running checks to make sure you’re doing it well. Because I was so concerned with being convincingly male, I was never 100% present in the moment. A portion of my mind was constantly analyzing how I was behaving and correcting me based on feedback I got from my environment. That’s gone now. It’s just me, authentically and fully. So I’m not only more present, I’m sharper and more capable. All of that processing power is available again.
That has had tons of positive results! I used to have terrible social anxiety, but that’s gone now and as a result I make friends really easily. My life has never been so full of wonderful, positive relationships. Because I live authentically, I act authentically, and I think people see that. Opportunities have begun presenting themselves, and I’ve been able to do some of the most meaningful work of my life. I’ve helped people in ways I never expected to be able to, just by being me and showing up for them. Knowing I’ve touched someone’s life—that I’ve relieved some of their suffering or given them a bit of strength—is the most rewarding and validating feeling in the world. Zero instances of that would have been possible had I not allowed myself to transition.
Then there’s the surface-level stuff. I absolutely love fashion and makeup. Beauty is far from the most important thing in life, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be awesome! In a way I look at myself as an evolving work of art. I can try different looks and ways of presenting based on my mood or my growth, but unlike in my childhood now I actually enjoy it.
F.L.: Can you tell us about your support system?
I learned an important term a few months into my transition: “chosen family”
I love my birth family with all my heart, but they’re going through their own versions of my transition in addition to their own stuff and right, wrong or indifferent, I haven’t always been able to turn to them for the kind of support I’ve needed. There’s a lot of good fortune in my life and I try to always be conscious of all I have to be grateful for. To that end nothing in my world compares to my closest friends. My group of friends—90% of whom happen to be queer cis women—have become my chosen family, and I don’t say that lightly.
These girls have dropped everything to be there for me when I’ve needed them most, as I have for them. They’ve supported me, consoled me, encouraged me, and pushed me to be me. I can say with absolute certainty that I would not be here today if it wasn’t for them. We share our ups and downs, our milestones and setbacks, our victories and losses, our laughter and our tears. I have made it through days I couldn’t see the other side of because of their unconditional love, strength and presence. They define support.
Beyond them, I have some really awesome cousins and the coolest grandma on Planet Earth who are there for me in big ways, and at times when I really do just need my parents they never hesitate to show up day or night despite this awkward phase in our relationship. That doesn’t surprise me at all because they’re the ones who showed me how to love and taught me the value of family—and they are amazing, selfless people.
F.L.: Did you come out for second time as a lesbian or was that part of your coming out as trans?
In no way do I mean to diminish the significance of anyone’s identity—whether it’s rooted in their gender, sexuality or otherwise—but essentially once you’ve come out as trans coming out as gay doesn’t really show up on the map for most people. Considering my sexual orientation wasn’t affected by my gender identity the hardest thing was accepting the change in terminology. I mean nothing had changed for me in that department but on paper I basically went from a straight, cisgender male to a lesbian trans woman overnight.
It was only words that actually changed for me in terms of my sexuality. I liked women before I knew who I was, and I like them now that I’m a more complete version of myself. As a woman that makes me gay, and I readily tell people I’m a lesbian when it’s relevant or useful. I guess I’m also a bit desensitized to “coming out” from being trans, so it’s not difficult or scary at all for me. I actually really like that about myself. I always thought the word ‘lesbian’ was really pretty, and now it describes me.
My presentation at the moment is pretty femme, so most people assume I’m straight. I’d say the situation in which I find myself coming out most is when I’m approached by cis men who want to date or be physical with me. Then it’s like a can of pepper spray. I’ll find myself in a club setting dancing my ass off and pretty often some guy will try to grab or make out with me, so I’ll just back away and politely but loudly say, “OH I’M A LESBIAN, THANKS THOUGH,” over the music. It can be nice because about half the time after that a cute girl who overhears me will step in and start dancing with me.
Honestly I think I have it easy. Having gone through what I have I can’t express how happy I am to not have any dependence on men.
F.L.: Can you tell us about your current relationship?
I’m actually in my first ever polyamorous relationship at the moment with two cisgender women who themselves have been together for 12 years. It’s very new but so far it’s been really sweet—and hot! I never saw myself as a fit for a triad, but I think it’s very much a factor of mindset and communication. The relationship has developed totally organically with no expectations on any side. We respect each other and there’s genuine affection there, which has grown in ways that have really surprised me. I find them both attractive on multiple levels, but we’re just getting to the point where I can pinpoint aspects of each of their personalities and expressions that specifically stimulate me and turn me on.
Before meeting them I had put romance on hiatus for awhile to focus on myself while my transition started. In the beginning it’s all-consuming. It still is to a degree, but it’s been interesting to put my mind in the backseat and let my spirit and intuition lead me into something new with them.
F.L.: How's your life now? What are some of your hobbies, career goals and dreams?
Life is good, albeit very different from what I had ever known before I started this journey. A lot more than my gender has changed in the last year, so I’m in the process of rebooting my life. After leaving my former job I traveled through Southeast Asia for 5 weeks alone, getting back to New York at the start of April 2018. I love to write, and I publish my work on my blog, Samplings, which I launched in May. At the moment I’m focusing on writing about my experiences both as a trans woman and someone who’s now experienced life on opposite ends of the gender spectrum, which is incredibly interesting to me. I also pepper in pieces on my passions like animal welfare, environmentalism and technology.
I expanded Samplings to offer a growing collection of resources for other trans people as well as a home for curated news geared toward shining a light on the constructive social evolution of humanity. That mainly focuses on trans and general LGBT+ issues but isn’t entirely exclusive to that.
What I didn’t see coming was getting involved in social work and activism. Currently I work for The (LGBT+) Center in Manhattan as a group facilitator, where I run support groups for other trans people about 5 times a month, and I’m really proud to be joining up with the London-based organization LBWomen.org, which is an online network created to inspire, inform and celebrate the success of lesbian and bisexual women. They do a lot of great work to empower and provide mentorship for queer women of all tracks and backgrounds, and some of my work will be part of an upcoming project called TRANSatlantic. Sometime in the next couple of weeks I’ll be up on their site as a Role Model.
I’ll also be speaking on a panel at the LGBT+ professionals and leadership conference EurOut in London this November!
F.L.: Have there been any moments, experiences, or people that have majorly changed your life or how you live?
Becoming myself from a gender standpoint was only one spoke stemming from the hub of a greater awakening. A few years back I started reading Eckhart Tolle’s Stillness Speaks, and it drastically shook my worldview. I kept exposing myself to Eckhart’s philosophy while taking up meditation, and it expanded my mind pretty significantly.
When I first began transition I called my entire value system into question and reevaluated my career, goals, and entire life. I had spent 8 years in the corporate world in an executive leadership position in a medium-sized company on Long Island. It was known that I was next in line to be CEO, and I probably would’ve taken on that role within the next 5 years had I stayed. But I caught a glimpse of myself turning old and gray manipulating business dynamics behind a desk for material gain at the expense of my soul, and I submitted my letter of resignation 2 weeks after that.
From that place it was an easy decision, but it wasn’t free. I had to give up everything. I was earning a lot with great perks. Most of my lifestyle was afforded by that job, so deciding to leave the business world meant accepting that I may no longer be able to afford most if not all of the comforts I had gotten used to in early adulthood. But the fact that I seemed to be unable to avoid changing my entire life all at once is a major sign to me that the universe is sort of unfolding as it should. I’m not commenting on religion here—just suggesting that on some scale things tend to come together in an order that makes sense if you’re clear enough and your motives are pure.
Through that paradigm shift that forever changed my mind, body and spirit, all of a sudden I didn’t care about material wealth anymore. I used to drive an Audi S5. Right before my Southeast Asia trip its lease was up. I had a gorgeous brand new one on order, this time even paid for by the company. But I left, the new car was canceled, and my old one went back. That was the first thing that got me a little anxious. I had always loved cars and mine especially, and having my own gave me a degree of freedom and comfort. But once it was gone it didn’t faze me. In a way having less can be its own luxury. If we aren’t careful possessions become restraints.
"All in all I realized that no amount of career success, intelligence, material wealth, status, peer admiration or experiences would ever make me feel whole if my baseline—who I am—was stifled and neglected."
That realization simplified my entire world, and all of a sudden my course was clear. “Get back to baseline. Repair my foundation. Become myself fully.” That was the only way I would ever be able to build something meaningful outside of myself. So that’s where I’m at, and I think it means something that in this moment—the riskiest, most uncertain freefall of my existence, standing amongst the ruins of the life I could have lived—I’ve never been clearer, happier or more confident.
F.L.: What about your role models? Are there people you look up to?
My core group of friends
They’re strong, unique, brilliant, and beautiful inside and out
For his philosophy and understanding of humanity
For her perseverance, pride, optimism and glowing confidence
For her strength, reasoning and articulation, not to mention stunning beauty
For his ingenuity and ability to create the world he wants to live in
For her beautiful worldview, enormous heart, and formidable authenticity
F.L.: Talk about your hopes for people today & for the future.
Every day I hope for the end of suffering. Pain is the root of all evil. Pain breeds hate, and people in pain cause pain to others. It’s the human condition, but I hope every day that we find the clarity to evolve beyond it. That’s why I only focus on positive developments on Samplings Pulse, the section of my site where I curate news. I want people to see that the current of our existence is flowing toward love.
As a teen and into my early adulthood I was a very angry person. I was miserable but I didn’t know why, so I took out my anger on the world. I blamed others for everything, and subconsciously felt relieved when I saw others lose. It was only after I gained real clarity and became more conscious of myself that I was able to heal and then look back to see that relationship and how monstrous it makes people. Fear, judgment, discrimination oppression and violence all come from misery and pain.
If we as a species are able to continue to wake up and elevate our consciousness, we can help those who live in suffering without judging them, and eventually love will dominate our collective motive. I truly believe we can grow to achieve that, but there are still so many signs of pain radiating out into the world from those consumed by it. I guess that’s why I’ve found myself getting involved with progressive causes and providing emotional support.
You can read the original published interview on Fluidity.Love here.