Amy Schneider: Trans journey couldn’t begin ‘until I saw other people like me’

I was 37 years old before I realized that I was trans. Why? How could I live so much of my life being unaware of one of the most fundamental things about me? After all, the signs were there. As early as first grade, I formed friendships with girls more easily than with boys. I always played as Princess Peach when I could, and loved “being” Lara Croft while playing Tomb Raider. When I got married, I didn’t have a best man, but instead chose a close female friend as my “honor attendant.” And yet, during all that time, the idea that I might be trans never crossed my mind. But actually, it makes sense: I couldn’t think of myself as trans because I didn’t know that was something a (normal) person could think!

“The Silence of the Lambs” came out when I was 12, and for many people, myself included, it solidified the image of what trans women were: mentally ill, dangerous, fantasists, not “really” women but scary men with freakish impulses that separated them from society and drove them to do terrible things. The serial killer Buffalo Bill, dancing in the mirror wearing a suit made from human skin, was the farthest possible thing from a positive role model. If trans women were like that, how could I possibly be one? And that was far from the only example.

ExploreVOICES: Use media to highlight transgender role models

In countless movies, TV shows, standup comedy acts, dirty jokes circulated among my classmates, the message was driven home, over and over again: trans women are just disgusting men with a sick fetish, who trick men into having sex with them before revealing the horrifying truth that they aren’t a “real” woman at all. At best, they were drag queens: flamboyant, effeminate gay men who got some sort of kick out of dressing up like Judy Garland or whomever. And since I wasn’t a gay man, and obviously didn’t think of myself as some kind of monster, it was clear that I didn’t fit in that category.

Representation — accurate, diverse, honest representation — is incredibly important for everyone, but especially for those people in the LGBTQ community. As a trans woman, you could even say I was lucky in some ways. However distorted their image was, the existence of trans women was at least acknowledged in the society I grew up in. Had I been a trans man, or nonbinary, I wouldn’t have known that there was anyone like me at all.

We are all born knowing nothing, and we have no choice for the most part but to believe what we are told. And when what we are being told doesn’t fit with what we know of ourselves, that dissonance is incredibly painful. I was told that I was a boy, and that boys’ minds had certain characteristics, certain interests, desires, dreams and tendencies. I knew that my mind didn’t work that way, but in the absence of any other option, I could only assume that I was a failed, flawed boy. And that belief, planted in me so deep and so early, took decades to let go of — and for all that time it made me miserable; robbed me of confidence, self-worth, optimism, hope.

ExploreVOICES: There was no one in the media I could look up to

Learning that I’d been wrong, that I wasn’t flawed, wasn’t broken, but a perfectly normal trans woman like many others, is one of the greatest things that’s ever happened to me. But it couldn’t happen until I saw other people like me, until I realized that there was a different category out there that I fit into. And so my hope is that my “Jeopardy!” run has shown some people, who might not have known otherwise, that being trans isn’t a myth, an illness, a perversion or a problem to be solved. Trans is just a thing that some people are, and those people are just like anybody else, and can do anything they want to do. Even become a champion!

Amy Schneider was born in Dayton and attended the University of Dayton. She had a 40-game winning streak on the game show Jeopardy! from November, 2021 to January, 2022.

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