Ansley Pope is a lot of things. He's a rising junior, a women's and gender studies major, and an orientation intern who greets incoming freshmen at the College of Charleston. But Pope also identifies as a transgender man.
Pope grew up in Aiken, S.C., and then moved to Charleston after high school. While living in Aiken, Pope identified as female — the gender he was assigned at birth — but it wasn't until the end of his freshman year at CofC that he realized he was trans. During that time, he had to come out to his parents more than once. "I decided to tell my parents that I have a girlfriend, so they just kind of thought that I was a lesbian," Pope says. "This past February I told them that I was trans. That's why it was so hard to figure out who I was. When I look back on my childhood, it totally makes sense. I thought everyone hated puberty, but I especially hated it."
Pope came out to his parents as transgender through a letter when he went to the Dominican Republic to volunteer with an Alternative Spring Break service project. "People always say that I'm this huge, courageous person, and I don't think that," Pope says. "I thought it was perfect because I wouldn't have to face them, and I've had to come out multiple times in my life to my parents so it's nothing new to be like, 'Oh crap, they are really upset.' They really don't understand, and I'm fine with that. It takes time, you know."
Pope says he still often has to explain himself to people.
"I can't force people to accept who I am because the trans community is like the invisible community that no one understands in the LGBT community," Pope says. "When I tell people I'm transgender, they don't know what that means or their minds drift down south. My parents are educating themselves like any other parents would do, but they have their worries and they have their questions. Most of their worries are about discrimination in the workplace and how are you going to function in life through this."
Growing up, Pope remembers being exposed to transgender people when he watched a segment of the documentary TV series Our America with Lisa Lang with his parents that focused on gender identification. But all of the transgender people featured in the documentary were white, and Pope couldn't find a transgender man of color to relate to. "In my honest opinion there's no way that a documentary, a spokesperson, or any one trans person can speak for the entire community. It just comes to the community. Two trans people may be similar, but they have completely different stories. I may be trans, but I've had different struggles," Pope says. "For example, being a black male in society is weird because there are a lot of misconceptions. There was no person of color on the show, and like I said earlier I didn't see any trans guys of color. I didn't see any trans men of color that showed that I could do it too."
Pope feels that trans inclusion is improving but still knows that there is a ways to go. He adds, "It's essentially such a distinctly white community. I feel like with trans women it's getting better because we have Laverne Cox and Janet Mock, but I don't really see much for transgender men."
There wasn't a click moment for Pope. Instead, discovering his gender identification was a process that took time. "I didn't wake up and say, 'Oh my gosh I'm a guy.' So at one point I was like, 'Screw the gender binary, I'm not going to be a part of it', so I identified as genderqueer," he says. "I knew for a fact that I wasn't cisgender [that is, the condition of being a gender that matches the sex assigned at birth], but I wasn't ready to say yet that I was a man." It took him roughly three or four months to come to terms with how he identifies.
When Pope came to terms with identifying as male, he had to deal with the occasional objectification from people. "Trans people are constantly objectified by people asking, 'When are you going to have a sex change?' Like I've been asked weird questions, like people have asked if I have certain parts that I don't have. A huge misconception about trans is that it's all about the surgery," Pope says. "It's not all about surgery. I feel like when people only focus on that they miss a huge part of being trans."
Once an acquaintance asked Pope if they could introduce him as "my guy friend who doesn't have a penis." The person meant well, but there are still some things that you just don't say," Pope says.
While Pope does not like being asked about personal body parts, he is excited for his body, which is female, to catch up with his male mind. Currently, he takes testosterone, which is not covered by insurance, for hormone replacement therapy. But in December during winter break, Pope hopes to get a double mastectomy, or top surgery, to remove his breast tissue. He'll need to have the surgery done during a break in school since it takes weeks to recover. But top surgery is expensive and insurance doesn't cover it, so Pope came up with the idea for a fundraiser.
Pope initially created a T-shirt inspired by the children's book The Giving Tree with a goal of selling 50 shirts but only managed to sell 19. Pope also has a GoFundMe page where he receives all proceeds from donations; with the T-shirt sale, he only received half of the proceeds.
Pope doesn't just need money for the surgery itself, but travel fees as well since he'll have to make his way to Plano, Texas to have the operation.
Pope raised a little over $500 in 23 days. But he still has a ways to go since his goal is to raise $5,000.
Throughout the fundraiser and coming to terms with being a transgender man, Pope has had a strong support group. "A lot of them are CofC alum and they just stick around in Charleston. A lot of them go to CofC," Pope says. "Chosen family is a wonderful and beautiful thing. I have loads of love for the people that have listened to me, corrected people who have misgendered me, and just being huge advocates for me. The best thing about my support system is they are all different. They're all from different backgrounds. They're people of faith, people without religion, people of color, people who are white, people who are gay, people who are straight. I have a wide range of support, and I think that's the beauty of CofC. Even a couple of them are trans guys themselves. I have a huge range of support and resources."
The environment at College of Charleston and in the city of Charleston in general has allowed Pope to create connections with supportive friends. "I have a deep love for CofC even if I get frustrated sometimes and even if there are certain spaces I don't feel 100 percent comfortable with. There have been times I'm in a classroom and a teacher is constantly misgendering me even though I've corrected them, 'cause there are many times that I was thinking there are other colleges. I can go up North — it'll be great. But there's something about Charleston," he says. "I don't think Aiken has shaped me as much as Charleston has in the past three years. I just grew up there."
To donate to Ansley Pope's top surgery, visit gofundme.com/ad0zcw.