Photo illustration of photographer's pre and post operative faces

‘This is me, as I am’: A photographer documents her own gender transition

In 2015, Allison Lippy realized who she had always been—and turned her camera on herself to understand her journey as a transgender woman.

Two points in time, an image of my pre-operative face on the left, depicting my former self in 2014, and a post-operative face on the right taken in 2018 after my facial feminization surgery. Both stand as bookends of a journey represented by the transformation of a visage and the changes that lie beneath. Using art as a way of making sense of what I had been through and where I was going was therapeutic and provided insight.
Photo Illustration by Allison Lippy

It took 27 years for me to realize I was transgender. It took a month or two to decide to physically transition. It took even less time than that to understand that I should document my transformation—for myself and for anyone else who needs to see it.

I should start at the beginning.

Growing up in Baltimore in the 1990s and early 2000s, I wasn’t aware that people could be anything other than the gender they were assigned at birth. There weren't resources or role models available to me at that point to even begin to understand who I was. 

However, there were little hints of my queerness, a feeling of being different, something intangible. I never shared nor had the opportunity to explore those feelings until my early 20s. When I was 21, I came across videos of trans women on YouTube talking about their transitions. I would return to the videos periodically to see their updates, which intrigued me. I was telling myself that this was just research for a story that I wanted to do on trans identity. I wasn’t yet ready to confront the truth about myself.

I moved to New York City in 2011. Keeping my mind and body occupied by working in the photo industry distracted me from introspection. In 2015, I was sitting in my therapist’s office when she casually mentioned a person—a celebrity—who had come out as trans. I don’t remember what the context of that conversation was. I don’t think I was even paying particular attention to what she was saying. But I remember thinking, ‘Oh, that’s interesting.’

That throwaway comment was the spark that forced me to stop ignoring what had been burning in my subconscious. When I was at home, alone with my thoughts, I pondered my identity. Asking myself over and over again, ‘Am I trans? Am I a woman?’ I told myself probably not. Then I thought, ‘Maybe?’ I went back and forth, but as the days and then weeks progressed, the answer became clear: ‘Yup, that’s you.’

Finally, I realized I needed to accept who I was. 

All the confusion I’d felt made sense; all the puzzle pieces fit for the first time. Everything just fell right into place. Confident and excited, I started moving quickly to make up for lost time.

I came out to my therapist first, just to test the waters, and then to my mother, who gladly was my rock throughout my transition. I’m fortunate that everybody in my life—including my parents, brother and friends—was really accepting.

Fundamentally, I owe my very existence to my trans elders, especially queer Indigenous, Black, Asian, Latinx, and POC people. They were in the streets and in our communities doing the hard work,paving the way for the rest of us to discover and live authentically as ourselves. Trailblazers, like Marsha P. Johnson, Sylvia Rivera, and countless others, stood up and fought for our community in a time when visibility and representation were next to none.

Within a few months of coming out, I started taking hormones—and I began making self-portraits. Turning the camera on myself was a way to understand where I started and where I would end up. As a photographer and someone who didn’t encounter positive images of trans people as a kid, I felt I had a responsibility to tell my story through my own queer perspective.

I don’t intend to be representative of all trans people. Just as there isn’t one way to be human—there isn’t one right way or one wrong way to transition. We each have our own path.

My path happened to be a medical transition. In 2016, I went through facial feminization and gender reassignment surgeries. The facial feminization surgery reconstructed my skull, shaving bone to remove the effects of testosterone. While this might seem extreme, imagine discovering who you truly are and then looking in the mirror and seeing someone else. The surgeries were painful, but the journey to be yourself always includes some pain, sometimes mentally and physically.

It’s difficult to look back at old family photos now. I wish I could have been me earlier. But when I look at photos from early in this project, I see a person who is on a journey to being their true self. And toward the end of the series, there’s a few images where I think: ‘This is me, as I am. I have zero regrets.’

Allison Lippy is a Brooklyn-based photographer whose work explores the convergence of identity, culture, and science within transitional spaces. Follow her on Instagram

Read This Next

Do spiders dream? A new study suggests they do.
Why monkeypox cases are still rising at such an alarming rate
Thunderstorms are moving East with climate change

Go Further

Subscriber Exclusive Content

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet