Elizabeth Hadfield at her family’s holiday party in 2015, left, presenting as male, and as Liz, right, a year later. (Photo courtesy of Elizabeth Hadfield)
Columnist, Civilities

I’d like to introduce you to a friend of mine: Elizabeth Hadfield, a 21-year-old senior at Duke University, my alma mater, in Durham, N.C., who is majoring in cultural anthropology and psychology. She has a 3.7 GPA. Her parents and younger brother live in New Mexico. She is also transgender.

On Christmas Day last year, Elizabeth, who goes by Liz, posted two side-by-side photos on Facebook. On the left, she’s at the family holiday party in 2015, when she was still presenting as male. On the right, one year later, she’s now Liz. I asked if she’d speak with me and she agreed, “because the best way to help people understand what being trans means is to help those around me understand my experience as a trans person.”

Liz’s public coming-out coincides with Katie Couric’s compelling new documentary, “Gender Revolution,” to be broadcast on the Nat Geo Channel on Feb. 6. I asked Couric in an interview why she made the film. “More and more, thanks to greater visibility, you’re hearing stories about transgender kids, gender confirmation surgery, and being gender-fluid,” she said. “Maybe we need to take a closer look and connect the dots for people, because it was so hard for me to wrap my head around it.”

I think that Liz also helps us connect the dots and understand what it means to be transgender today. Our conversation has been edited and condensed:

You grew up with a boy’s name and often dressed like a girl. How different did you feel as a kid?

I felt uncomfortable with my gender from a young age. As a preschooler I typically presented as female, with my long hair and the pink cowboy boots I loved to wear. In kindergarten, every Friday I wore a Powerpuff Girls jacket, because that was my absolute favorite show. I was made fun of a lot in elementary school. When I was in third grade, I wanted to dress up as a “girl wizard” for a Harry Potter book-release party. I had long hair, and most people thought I was a girl anyway, so why would this be a problem? But my parents, who were generally accepting, were displeased with this. I remember my mom telling me, “No, you’re a boy.” From then on, I knew I couldn’t dress like that anymore. It finally clicked that it was wrong.

Let’s jump ahead to college. How did you start to express your changing sense of self and gender identity?

I first came to the realization when I was studying abroad in 2015. I was looking at this woman who had her hair done up in a cool way. I thought, “Hmm, that would be a cool way to do my hair!” In the past, I’d say to myself, “No, you’re not a girl, you’re a guy, so you can’t do your hair like that.” But this time I kept thinking, “What if that is the way you want to do your hair?” And I let myself think that. And I realized that I would love to do my hair like that. In fact, I would actually like to be like her. It was that moment where I thought, “This is what I want to be, what I really am. I’m a woman.”

How and when did you start talking to others about all this?

I called my best friend and told her. Soon after that I called my mom and told her, and asked her to tell my dad. In my final week abroad, I texted all my close friends. Finally, in March 2016, I publicly came out via a Facebook profile picture as part of a women’s rights campaign. I am extremely lucky — my family and friends were all ridiculously supportive. I know it was a little harder for my parents at first — mostly because of the lack of information in the mainstream media about what being trans means.

You officially started your transition a year ago. What’s that year been like?

I have taken four hormone pills every day and one estrogen injection a week for a little more than a year. I feel much more whole with the hormones. Last summer I had a long enough break from school to realize that I was ready to begin presenting as female. I haven’t looked back since. Still, this past year has been one of the most emotionally trying times of my entire life. There were times that I was so low, I didn’t think I would make it out.

From your experience, what is the most common misperception about trans people?

That we are defined by our genitals. Some women have penises, some men have vaginas. Some men and/or women have both. Some have neither. Some identify as neither a man nor a woman. Some identify as both. Some identify as somewhere in between. Some may identify as genderqueer, gender non-conforming, or non-binary. There is a difference between gender and sex. And the person who knows one’s gender the best is oneself — not anyone else.

What is your advice to others about promoting trans understanding and acceptance?

Meet trans people. Talk to trans people. Bear witness to their stories. Empathy is the first step to understanding and acceptance. Learn what you can, and trust that transgender people do not pose a threat to you — we are just normal humans here hanging out on Earth like you.

Email questions to Civilities at stevenpetrow@gmail.com (unfortunately not all questions can be answered). You can reach him on Facebook at facebook.com/stevenpetrow and on Twitter @stevenpetrow. Join him for a chat online at washingtonpost.com on Feb. 7 at 1 p.m., when Elizabeth Hadfield will be his guest.