Before I came out as trans, I presented as a very masculine lesbian. People sometimes called me Shane, because I had the same vibe and haircut as Shane from the L-word. The first time I went out in public as male, it occurred to me to ask my friends to call me Shane. And when they did, I thought, “This is it; this is my name.” I was excited and calm at the same time—sort of the way you feel when you fall in love. It was very settling, because it felt right.

I was on hormones for seven months before my legal name change was finalized. That was a really hard time. When you don’t look exactly like the gender that is on your documentation, people feel like they can ask you literally anything. I was afraid to go out in public. So when I was first able to start passing—to just kind of exist like every other college guy—I thought I wanted that. For the first time in my life, I could blend. But then I realized that nothing was getting changed; no one’s opinions were getting changed; no policy was getting changed. I started giving presentations to classes at schools around Maryland about my experience as a trans person.

I’ve been met with overwhelming support from my campus, my community—everyone. I will acknowledge that there are a lot of things at play here: I’m passing, so I fit nicely into everybody’s little ideas of what a man should look or talk like; I’m white; I don’t identify as straight, but I’m in a relationship with a woman. All of those things have colored my experience. But because of the way things are set up in my life, being that face to the name is so important to me. Just by existing, I’m starting to open peoples’ eyes to diverse experiences.

For a lot of time, I felt guilty, ashamed and apologetic for identifying as trans. I said things like, ‘These are my pronouns. I’m sorry for requesting this.’ And no, no—I want everyone to unlearn that. Asking that people alter their language a bit so you’ll feel comfortable in your skin is not being an inconvenience. And I know that it’s difficult. But whoever you are, you deserve to be comfortable. You don’t ever have to apologize for that.

I was able to see so much more when I wasn’t hiding. I learned I have things to offer that other people don’t because I’m trans. Even though I never identified as female, how many people can say they lived part of their life in a female body and part of their life as male? That’s such a rich, powerful and enlightening experience. This is how I believe that we need to shift our perspective as a society in general: we should let people be in charge of their own identities, and we should listen to and value stories that are different from our own. That’s something to celebrate.