This Is My Voice: YouTube and the Transgender Autobiography
The serial nature of vlogging makes it the perfect way for people to take control of their own stories, and document the process of transitioning as it happens.
On a sunny morning in September, Skylar Kergil turns on his computer. He fills up his “BONK!” coffee mug while peering at the camera with a grin on his face. As he sips his drink, he begins to tell his YouTube audience about his weird dreams the night before, his cat, and his upcoming Kickstarter project—all with that playful smile he’s become known for. “So if you want to be in my Kickstarter video for my music that’s coming out,” he says, “then please read below for the description, or go to my Facebook page.” After another heartfelt plea, Kergil breaks out his guitar and sings a quick cover of “Two Lips” by Hoodie Allen before the camera fades to black.
Kergil is a musician (he released his first full-length album in 2013 through another Kickstarter campaign), a visual artist, photographer, and recent graduate of Skidmore College. Kergil is also a transgender man (female-to-male) who has been documenting his transition—and his budding creative life—for the past five years under the YouTube name skylarkeleven. His audience of about ten thousand has been tuning in for almost as long as his laptop camera has been rolling, watching his change as it happens. These YouTube videos, started on January 21st, 2009, have become Kergil’s ever-evolving autobiography.
“From the beginning, making videos was about recording a video diary of my body as it went through changes that I could hardly articulate—but I could see and hear them through my various mumbled thoughts, voice changing, and smile growing,” Kergil told me. “The process was one of both self preservation and creation. I have been preserving this timeline so that I can remember where I have come from while simultaneously encouraging self-reflection, creation, and the exploration of my identity as I grow. These two elements put together have been a very cathartic experience for me during my transition while also juggling the basic throes of life.”
Kergil is one of many in the transgender community to use the serial nature of a YouTube vlog to document his transition—a trend that, because of the nature of vlogging, turns the standard transgender narrative on its head. Rather than focusing on the end goal of surgery, these videos put the focus on the process of transition, and put the power in the hands of vloggers to define how their story evolves.
The autobiography has become a standard part of the transgender narrative over the past 60 years. You only have to look so far as Chaz Bono’s 2008 Transition to see this genre in action. These books often evoke the same trope (“trapped in the wrong body”) and end with the final revelatory surgery. They’re why people are tempted to ask a transgender person if they’ve had “the” surgery yet. Many see it as the inevitable conclusion to their story, and like a good audience member, they want to know how far away they are from applause.
The problem with these tropes and older transgender narratives is that they are, by definition, tied up in the medical institution that created them. In order for transgender people to get surgery, they are required to explain themselves repeatedly to doctors and therapists. When telling their story, they must be as convincing as possible or else surgery will be denied. The transgender narrative our culture has come to know is not always the one that transgender people want to tell, but instead what the doctors, counselors, and now us as a culture want to hear.
“When I was in high school, I took an elective class called ‘Media & Society,’” Kergil said in his email to me. “Basically, I learned that every type of media has power and importance, but is not always true. Prior to that, I used to believe almost everything I heard on the news/TV/radio—not so much that I am gullible but I know that I am a very trusting human being who takes words as they are, believing everyone to be genuine.”
The feelings that lead someone to gender transition are very real no matter how they end up expressing it. But coming out as transgender often leads to conflicting ideas about what it really means to be transgender. Within the medically dictated and standardized storyline, the rest of us often miss the nuances of gender identity, the small moments of realization, and the many years that transition often takes.
YouTube changes that. These small videos add color, motion, sound, and feeling to stories that once used to be static on a page or rendered in an over-dramatic TV movie. Now, the person going through the transition has control of the camera and what they want to include, what they want to take out, and how they want to show it. “If making videos changed me in any conscious way, I would absolutely say it has led me to live a genuine, honest life and to never fear speaking my truths,” Kergil says.
YouTube is a serial medium. There is no distinct beginning or ending—there is only the time between when the camera starts rolling, and when it stops. YouTube frees the often stagnant narrative structure of the autobiography and allows the transgender subject, and their audience, a better window into a world where people really live.
In a YouTube video that quickly made its way to UpWorthy.com, Kergil talks at length about his five-year transition. “This is me,” he says as a picture of himself as a young child with a broom flashes by, “sweeping away the gender binary.” He goes on to document his childhood as a “tomboy” who demanded to be called “Mike” and how he came to the difficult decision to transition. “I made an attempt to be happy [as a girl], even though I didn’t think something was right.” After meeting someone else who was transgender, Kergil realized he could “actually be how I feel.”
Now, after the many years it has taken to get this far, Kergil states that “Being out, being proud is what I wanted to do. I was already out there on YouTube. People would find it eventually and I really just wanted to own my present, my past, and my future.”
Other transgender vloggers have also added their contribution to this collective form that rewrites the standard autobiography. When starting testosterone, uppercaseCHASE1 took a photo of himself every day for a year to document his transition. Once completed, he linked all the photographs together, set it to music, and then uploaded it for others to watch. His video emphasizes the fact that gender transition doesn’t happen overnight. Kergil has also noted the allure of self portraits: “When I was on testosterone, I began taking a lot of selfies.” Much like vlogging, selfies give people control over their image.
Another common feature in these YouTube autobiographies is counting and marking dates. In many of his earlier videos, Kergil utters some form of the quotation, “This is my voice, [x] months/weeks/years on T.” His declarations are used to document the ways in which T (testosterone injections) have changed his vocal chords. This is something deeply personal (“my voice”), but the act of speaking to an audience also suggests that his change means nothing unless it is heard.
This is why YouTube and the small community of transgender people making, commenting, and forming this online community is so important. By having a YouTube community freely accessible to those with an internet connection and the willingness to look, it’s possible to begin to understand our coworkers, friends, neighbors, and even ourselves a little more. Kergil notes that at the end of his transition video, too:
“So through this roller-coaster of a life, from transitioning from female to male, through everything, I finally am happy and looking at where I have been, where I am now, and where I am going, I can honestly say that every single bit of this journey has been worthwhile. I hope someday that it won’t be as hard for others as sometimes it was for me. But it’s been worth it, and I wish this sort of happiness for anyone regardless of your identity.”
This is not the end for Skylar Kergil; merely the end of one video. He will continue to make music, art, and drink from his “BONK!” coffee mug in the morning. And with the help of YouTube, his fans will hopefully continue to see his future, as long as he allows us to look.