If Renée Laufer had to describe herself in one distinctive quality, it would probably be that she is soft. She is an introvert. She is sensitive. She loves to hang out with her friends and watch “Adventure Time.” She plays Pokémon in her free time and occasionally writes poetry.
Her friends would describe her as sweet, kind and goofy. They would say she loves magic and thrifting. Her friend Madeline would tell a story of how she cried about a tiny spoon because she was overwhelmed by its cuteness. Her friend Evelyn would say she is bold in her efforts to speak about her experiences on social media.
They would also say she is transgender.
The 21-year-old hasn’t always identified as transgender. Her junior year of high school, she started to question her gender identity, coming out as agender shortly after.
“I was just really disconnected from masculinity, and it became a sort of a stepping stone,” Laufer said. “During that time, I was exploring my presentation, and I found that I liked presenting myself femininely.”
During her freshman year of college at Gannon University, she came out as a woman.
Her experience questioning her gender identity, then coming out as a transgender woman, was met with some backlash, but she kept it simple. If her friends didn’t support her, she swiftly cut them out of her life.
When Laufer came out as agender, she was still at McDowell High School. While McDowell is a big school, she found it hard to slip under the radar. She had full facial hair during her high school years, and while experimenting with her gender presentation, she wore skirts and more feminine-presenting clothing on a few occasions. This combination led some students to give her disapproving looks in the halls or go so far as to openly discriminate against her. Even when she did something as simple as wear pink, male students would harass her about it.
While exploring her gender identity and presentation, Laufer said she would go to the Salvation Army to find more feminine clothing that wasn’t overly expensive. She would look for what she described as “grandma sweaters” and things with floral prints on them. Other students tended to make a big deal out of this, which Laufer found hard to understand.
While the students were not the most accepting at McDowell, the staff tended to be more embracing of Laufer’s gender questioning during her high school years. She had to use the nurse’s restroom, because she didn’t feel comfortable using either gendered restroom. At the time, the idea of creating gender neutral bathrooms hadn’t reached Erie County high schools. The nurse’s restroom was near the entrance of the school, which was out of the way of where she spent most of her day in the school. While it was nice that she had a restroom that she felt comfortable using, her life would have been far easier if the school had gender neutral bathrooms while she was there.
“One of the guidance counselors said it was probably going to take a lawsuit for the school to actually implement them,” she said.
Only a few staff members openly disapproved of her identifying as agender, one of whom she recalled a specific encounter with.
When Laufer was applying to colleges, she asked a few of her high school teachers to write her letters of recommendation. One of them was an English teacher she had for class at McDowell. When she asked him to write the letter, she was afraid to ask him to use they/them pronouns, so she wrote her request on a sticky note and left it on his desk. Laufer was disappointed by his reaction.
“Right after that, I went to another English teacher’s room with a few of my mock trial teammates, most of whom I was friends with. I think it was about 10 or 15 minutes after I had left the sticky note on his desk. He comes in, and he’s holding the sticky note, and I think to myself ‘OK, does he want to talk to me about it?’’’
Instead, her teacher covered up her name on the note and showed it to the other English teacher as Laufer was standing with her friends right next to him. She said that her friends did not know what was going on, but she did. When he showed the note to the other teacher, he argued that Laufer’s request was impossible, and that it was grammatically incorrect to use the pronoun “they” or “them” for an individual.
“I talked to him afterward, and I was just like ‘Oh it’s not a big deal, like, it’s fine,’ even though it totally was a big deal,” Laufer said.
As for her family, things got pretty bad right after she came out as agender. Her parents lean more toward Christian and conservative viewpoints, so they were not on board with the idea of her being agender, much less transgender. This caused her to be cautious about how she approached the subject of her gender questioning.
When she came out to her parents as agender, she phrased it like a warning.
“I was like ‘Hey, if you see me in feminine clothes this is why,’ so that they wouldn’t get freaked out,” Laufer said. “But, then, of course they would get freaked out when I did it.
“It was really rough at first.”
When she told her parents that she wanted to use gender-neutral pronouns, they didn’t react severely. That is, they didn’t kick her out of the house or threaten to send her to conversion therapy. Her mom reacted very poorly to her coming out as agender, and even more so when she would present as feminine.
“Whenever she saw me wearing a skirt, she would yell at me to take it off and tell me how weird and bad it was and how no one would like me,” Laufer said.
Her dad also reacted negatively when she told him she was agender, but in a more transphobic manner. When she told him that she wanted her pronouns to be “they/them,” he replied by saying that as long as she was not transgender, he didn’t care.
“I knew that what he said was bad, but I didn’t know I was transgender at the time, so I let it go,” Laufer said. “That may be why it took me awhile to come out as transgender.”
It was not until her freshman year of college that she started to identify as a woman. She came out to her dad as a transgender woman while driving home one night. She did not explicitly say she was a woman; she simply said that she wanted to start hormone therapy.
“I didn’t tell him like ‘I’m a chick’ or anything,” she said. “I just told him that I wanted to go into hormone therapy. He was like ‘OK,’ and let me start.”
While she came out to her dad as transgender and lives with him full time, she never talked to her mom about her transition.
“I was so disenfranchised from her at that point, that I just let my other family tell her or let her see it on Facebook,” she said.
Laufer’s parents had 50/50 custody of her and her siblings, so before she turned 18 and graduated from high school, she had to spend an equal amount of time with each parent. Through this, she learned about how each parent handled her change in gender identity. She noticed that her dad seemed to be more OK with it. Her mom, on the other hand, made it clear that she did not support Laufer’s transition in comments she would make toward her daughter.
“She would say really horrible things, but she never kicked me out,” Laufer said. “She would tell me to take off my feminine clothes and put on ‘boy’ clothes and to stop painting my nails and stupid stuff like that. She told me at one point, when I was a senior in high school, that if I continued to dress femininely, I would only attract gay men at college. And, part of me was like, ‘What’s the problem?’ It was transphobic and homophobic of her, so it wasn’t a good thing for her to say at all.”
Although her parents are not very supportive of her gender questioning and subsequent transition, she considers herself lucky because the thought that they might disown her never crossed her mind.
“I don’t know if they considered kicking me out,” Laufer said. “They never expressed it, and I never picked up on it, but that is something I’ve thought about. I have other trans friends and they would tell me that they heard their parents talking about kicking them out of the house.
“I would think to myself ‘That wasn’t my experience.’ So, I’m really lucky for that. But, were they thinking about it? Were they ever close to doing it? So, I don’t know if they ever thought about it.”
Still, she said her parents have never fully accepted that she is their daughter and not their son. They treat her transition like a phase and as something that will go away with time.
“I don’t think they authentically see me as a woman,” she said. “I think they’re still in denial and have a biological essentialism mindset. It still feels like they’re just humoring me, which is obviously degrading.”
Laufer said that she doesn’t go out of her way to include her parents in her life, and, if she did not still live with her family, she would not include them in her life at all. She attributes this mindset to their treatment of her identity as a transgender woman.
“I wouldn’t miss them,” she said. “I know they don’t really take this seriously, so I don’t really take them seriously. I don’t really involve them much in my life or tell them about what’s going on in my life.”
Even though her dad did not lash out or act extremely opposed like her mom did, Laufer said that he also failed to provide any help with her hormone therapy. She tried to get him to help her because she did not know how to do anything related to it, but he was very reluctant.
“I know that he just thinks the hormone therapy is unnecessary, and that it’s frivolous,” she said.
From the beginning, he refused to let her use his tax-exempt medical card to pay for the treatment. For anything related to her transition, she has to use her own money. This, she says, she does inconsistently.
Sometimes insurance covers her therapies, and sometimes it does not. One of her younger sisters just went into remission after battling cancer, so a lot of the time her family would max out how much medical care they have to pay for before her insurance starts paying for it. Typically, she has to pay for her hormone treatments at the beginning of the year, but insurance does not start covering it until October.
“Hormone therapy is just replacing the hormones that your body naturally produces with those that are consistent with your gender identity,” Laufer said.
Currently, she is on estrogen, progesterone and spironolactone, a male hormone suppressor. She has been taking estrogen and spironolactone for 2½ years, but she just recently started progesterone.
“Hormone therapy is not too bad,” she said. “It’s maybe like $30 to $50 for a refill, but they’re three-month refills, so it’s not horrible.”
Laufer does other treatments related to her gender transition, but they’re all considered “cosmetic” by her insurance company, so she has to pay for them out of pocket. As of right now, she is undergoing speech therapy.
She recently started speech therapy to make her voice sound more feminine, and she has been undergoing laser hair removal, as well as electrolysis to remove her facial hair and make it so she no longer has to shave.
“I’ve had six or seven sessions of electrolysis, and before that I had laser treatment,” Laufer said. “Electrolysis is a lot more effective and lasts longer. They go in and make it so the follicle can’t grow any more hair.”
Laufer said she’s also planning on having facial feminization surgery, in which the surgeon assesses the patient and tells him or her which few facial alterations would make his or her face look more like the gender they identify with. Laufer said she is planning on getting an Adam’s apple reduction, as well as any other recommendations her surgeon gives her.
She wanted to get the surgery before the end of the year, so her insurance could cover it completely, but there is not enough time to squeeze in both the consultation and the surgery. She will most likely be getting it done next year, when it will cost $1,000 out-of-pocket.
Her insurance doesn’t cover sex reassignment surgery, speech therapy, and hair removal, so, she is paying out of pocket for her hair removal and speech therapy that she is doing right now. She is trying to get her insurance company to cover the treatments she has to pay for herself, but it will not give her a straightforward answer as to whether or not it can cover those treatments.
Her insurance does cover facial feminization surgery, which is the only reason she is able to get it. Otherwise, the surgery would be exponentially more expensive than it is when covered by insurance.
“As much as I want the facial feminization therapy, I wouldn’t be able to pay $50,000” she said. “That’s a lot of money that I don’t have. $1,000 is much more affordable for me.”
Besides her parents, Laufer also has three sisters: one older sister who is 24, and twin younger sisters who are 14. She said that because her twin sisters were young, they accepted her being transgender pretty easily. It was easy for them to switch to her new name, and they were pretty easygoing with the pronouns.
“They would constantly correct my parents, which is really funny,” she said. “I feel like kids are more accepting and more malleable, so they can accept these things easier.”
Her older sister, however, was not as accepting.
At the time Laufer graduated high school, she was dating a girl who was a year younger than her. During the ceremony, her sister sat with her then girlfriend. Laufer had to walk with the boys, which she didn’t want to make a big deal of, but her older sister made a comment to her girlfriend about how it was weird that she dressed femininely.
In a similar situation, Laufer was messing around with her older sister at her dad’s wedding in July of 2018, just poking sibling fun. Then, her sister started intentionally misgendering her.
“I was like, ‘Hey that’s the wrong pronoun,’ not realizing she was doing it intentionally,” Laufer said. “Then, she turned to me and said, ‘It’s he when you make me mad.’ So, I got up, threw my plate of food at her in front of everyone, then I left.”
Laufer said that she still does not have a very good relationship with her older sister, but her younger sisters are still very supportive of her.
When the time came for Laufer to go to college, she chose Gannon to save money. She said that she was really set on going to the University of Pittsburgh, but it did not give her enough financial aid, and her dad did not want to co-sign her loans. Gannon was tuition-free for her at first because she did speech and debate at McDowell, and the local tournaments are Catholic-affiliated. Placing in the local tournaments meant receiving a scholarship that Catholic universities would accept, and Laufer placed in several. Now, in her final semester, she only had to pay a few hundred dollars. She said she only has about $3,000 in loans.
While she has lived with her dad most of the time she has been at Gannon, she did move out briefly during the spring semester of 2019 to live with a now ex-girlfriend. They lived in an apartment with a mutual friend for a few months until their eventual breakup, which resulted in the dismantling of the apartment and Laufer moving back in with her dad.
“It took me a long time to realize that it was abusive,” she said. “We dated for about eight months, and we lived together for about four or five months. I think it was not a good situation and emotionally painful.”
It took her a long time to realize the relationship was abusive, and it wasn’t until almost a year after the breakup that she noticed that her ex-girlfriend was controlling. At first, Laufer and her ex-girlfriend decided to stay in the apartment together even after the breakup because they still had the lease, but her ex-girlfriend changed her mind days later and backed out. Her other roommate could not afford to stay there, which resulted in her not being able to afford to stay there, so she ended up moving back in with her dad, and she has lived there ever since. As for future relationships, she has hope. After a year of not seeing anyone, she recently started dating a boy, something that is very new to her.
“I’m noticing some of my own behaviors that I feel like I didn’t do before with my ex,” she said. “So, I’m kind of realizing that this was a way for me to cope with the situation. I wasn’t put in similar situations because I wasn’t with anyone for so long. Being with him, I realize that certain behaviors I had in response to specific things she did were probably survival tactics.”
Being transgender at Gannon is definitely something that isn’t common. Laufer said she’s only met a handful of other transgender students during her time at Gannon, and most of them keep quiet about their identities. She said that her experience at the university has been a little rocky, especially when she first came out as a woman. Her gender presentation would be inconsistent. She would go to class with a full beard while wearing a skirt, something she said elicited stares from classmates. Sometimes, she would wear makeup and have a full beard while dressing masculinely. Even though other students gave her critical looks or snickers, she can only remember one specific instance when she was directly discriminated against for being transgender.
She was in the commuter corner in Palumbo Academic Center with a female friend who was a year older than her. Her friend’s boyfriend was also there, and he was more conservative than her friend was. Laufer said she was going to the bathroom to fix her hair, and her friend’s boyfriend immediately made a transphobic comment.
“He said, ‘Oh yeah, the men’s restroom is right around the corner,’ and this was like well into my transition,” Laufer said. “I talked to her afterward, and she defended him, saying that he had the right to think that. So, I was like ‘OK, I’m not friends with you anymore.’”
Despite having a hard time with some fellow students during her first few years at Gannon, she did find a light in the darkness with some of her professors. One particular professor she bonded with was Alexandra Holbrook, Ph.D., in her freshman year.
Holbrook said she first met Laufer in the fall of 2016 when she was enrolled in her History Without Borders class. At that time, Laufer identified as non-binary, something that was new to Holbrook.
“That was my first time learning to use they/them pronouns for an individual,” she said. “Obviously, since then, she’s been transitioning, and it has been such a privilege to see her become truer to who she is.”
To Holbrook, Laufer has always had the ability to refrain from alienating other students, a trait which she has seen her refine and perfect throughout her years at Gannon. She used her job as a Writing Center consultant as an example, saying that it is clear Laufer does not shy away from helping and training other students.
Holbrook has also seen her advocate for the transgender community simply through her daily life. Though she does not think Laufer should have to advocate for the community, she thinks she does just through her experiences.
“The mere fact that Renée is being open about her transition and her experiences is more than she owes any of us,” Holbrook said. “She has been such a powerful example to me personally, and surely to many others as well. I have learned a lot from her, and I’m so grateful for her presence here on campus.”
Laufer said that the first few years of her time at Gannon were the most difficult, but it has gotten better since then. She no longer gets disapproving looks or snickers. If she does, she does not notice. She attributes this to her hormone therapy and finally being sure in her gender presentation.
“This semester is the first semester I’ve been ‘full-time,’ or consistent with my gender identity every day,” Laufer said. “I hate that phrase, because I am who I am no matter how I’m presenting or how people perceive me.”
Despite the hardships she’s endured during her time in college, Laufer is graduating a semester early on Sunday. She said that she did not do anything special to make this happen, things just fell into place.
Originally, she planned to dual major in philosophy and political science. She did not switch to psychology, her current major, until her junior year. When she switched, it just so happened that she had enough credits to graduate early.
“I had always taken really full semesters and pretty much as many credits as I could,” she said. “I guess that kind of just caught up to me. But, it’s not like I’m going to be doing anything. I’ll still be here in town right after graduation.”
After she graduates, Laufer plans to attend graduate school. She intends to use the extra time graduating early gives her to apply to the schools she has narrowed down, including the University of Pittsburgh, New York University and George Washington University.
She has a few different areas of study she is looking into. Right now, she is trying to decide between mental health counseling or women’s studies. Her dream is to work with queer people, but she is not sure how she can do that.
“I could definitely go to a counseling program and get a certificate in queer studies or women’s studies and try to specialize in that,” she said. “But, I also might just go into women’s, gender and sexuality studies and work in direct care.”
Being transgender, Laufer said, has affected not only her career path, but her entire life. She is always hyper-aware of her gender, which makes her particularly sensitive about if she is presenting femininely enough or if her voice sounds feminine enough.
“I feel like it shouldn’t affect every aspect of my life,” she said. “Passing is a really big thing, so that’s always something I have to be concerned about. It’s pretty easy for me to pass visually most of the time because of my hormone therapy and facial hair removal. Walking in school or down the street, no one gives me a second look. After that, my voice is the biggest thing I’m concerned about.”
According to Laufer, being hyper-gendered is something that is specific to being transgender. This means that they are expected to present as extremely feminine or masculine at all times. This can cause them to walk around constantly thinking about whether they look or sound feminine or masculine enough.
“You really always have something to prove when you’re trans,” she said. “I do consider myself really feminine. I like pink, flowers and necklaces, so that isn’t a big problem for me. But, if I sometimes wear just jeans and a hoodie, I’m wondering, ‘Oh, am I not feminine enough? Does this hide my boobs too much? Are people not going to be able to tell that I’m a woman?’ But, I don’t think a cisgender person is really going to be thinking about that about me anyway.”
Laufer did not experience the stereotypical trans childhood of knowing that she was supposed to be a girl from a young age. She does not remember wanting to dress up as stereotypically feminine Halloween costumes, and she did not lean toward dressing like a girl. Instead, she said that she always knew something was off when she was younger, and when she realized she was a transgender woman, everything made sense.
“It was really confusing because it felt like I wasn’t masculine,” Laufer said. “Especially in elementary school, I had to fake being masculine in order to fit in with the other boys.
“And, you know, boys aren’t supposed to be friends with girls, but as I grew older, and especially throughout high school most of my friends were girls. I definitely had to put up a front of being masculine. I pretty much just played pretend. And, in retrospect, it makes sense now.”
Laufer’s friends say that her transgender identity makes her all the more inspiring to them. Her friend Evelyn, who is also transgender, said that Renée’s boldness when it comes to speaking about her transgender experiences really sticks out to her.
“She makes it very clear that she won’t tolerate transphobia or any justifications of it,” Evelyn said. “As another trans person, it’s nice to see someone else make progress transitioning, especially in the same town as me.”
But, Laufer’s trans identity isn’t all that encompasses her in her friends’ eyes.
Her friend Katherine, whom she has been friends with since high school and before her transition, said that Laufer has always been sincere. Even before her transition, she never hid any part of herself and was always open and affirming with her friends.
“She pours a lot of energy into loving and discovering herself, and she inspires me to reflect more upon myself, who I am, and what I want,” Katherine said.
Upon seeing her go through hardships, those who care for her say there are things they hope for her during her lifetime. Some hope that she sees a world that accepts her, while others hope she sees one simple thing: happiness.
“It may be an overused expression, but my greatest desire is for her to be happy,” Holbrook said. “I want her to be able to live and work and share her abilities with the larger community at Gannon and elsewhere without impediment.”
In the 2 1/2 years since she started her transition, Laufer has become more comfortable in herself and her identity. It is clear that she prioritizes her safety and self-acceptance above everything else. She is steadfast in her removal of those who fail to accept her as she is and those who hold her to a higher standard simply because she is transgender.
To Laufer, it is black and white. Those who attempt to persuade her to fit their idea of who she should be, or who refuse to accept her as she is, do not have the privilege of getting to know her any further.
“My time and energy are limited resources, so I’m not going to waste it on someone who doesn’t accept me,” she said.
This mindset and her experiences have led her to be very open about her life with her friends but remain closed off when it comes to strangers or acquaintances.
She said that, at this point, she is so annoyed with everyone who refuses to accept her that interacting with people outside of her group of close friends feels like a waste of time and energy. She is burned out when it comes to handling people who try to change who she is, so she simply has no patience for them anymore.
“I know who I am,” Laufer said. “And you don’t have the ability to tell me who I am.”