Panic washes over 21-year-old Alex Koontz when the idea of going to the bathroom approaches. Koontz barely ever passes as a guy so going into the men’s restroom is extremely stressful. It’s even worse to use the woman’s restroom with all the stares and constant whispers. Keeping his eyes to the ground and doing what has to be done is Koontz’s only way out.
Being a college student who is transgender, Koontz had to put some things aside because he could not afford tuition and transitioning from female to male at the same time. Koontz used all his money for tuition, so he created a project called Just Say Knot to Boobs, for which he designs bowties to raise money, not only for his top removal surgery but also for younger trans guys who can’t afford chest binders. The project began this past summer with Alex’s love of bowties and the realization that they are not difficult to make.
“The bowties represent a bit of cheekiness and sophistication,” says Koontz. “I’m a very silly individual and at the same time I like to present myself as a dandy young gent and bowties bring that all together.”
The main audience Koontz is aiming for is his friends in the community who want to help him reach his goal of top removal surgery, but also just people who think bowties are “snazzy”. Koontz says the community also wants bowties for pets. Just say Knot to Boobs is still in the stages of production and will be gaining steady momentum by word of mouth and support from friends.
Koontz makes bowties with Tanya Ruiz, who is charge of production, and with Mandy Zhou, who is in charge of advertising and media.
“It’s literally just three people hanging out, planning and designing bowties,” Koontz says. Networking, advertising and general “hustling” are mainly Koontz’s responsibilities.
Zhou met Koontz through Gamma Rho Lamba, a Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgenered (LGBT) sorority at California State University, Northridge, and she was intrigued by his Just Say Knot to Boobs idea.
“He came up to me and said ‘oh I have this idea’ and since I’m the archivist for the sorority, I have a camera, I can take pictures and we can make something big,” says Zhou.
Ruiz is the “magical genius” behind all the fabrication and Koontz came up with the concept.
Zhou supports Koontz’s top removal surgery.
“As a fellow sibling in the sorority I support my brother 100 percent,” says Zhou. The transition from female to male is expensive. Surgery, seeing a therapist and monthly hormone treatments cost money, around $250 or more a month, and up to $12,000 for chest removal. Koontz started off with a chest binder to flatten his chest.
“I feel really dysphoric about my chest,” says Koontz. “And I had to wear a chest binder, which is extremely uncomfortable and very expensive, and I’m not wearing one now because my mom threw mine away.”
All together the amount comes out to thousands of dollars and in Alex’s case insurance won’t cover anything.
Professor Hengameh Rabizadeh teaches Communication and the Sexes at CSUN. Transgender is often hard to understand and Rabizadeh helps students understand the terminology of sexuality.
“Though individual cases often vary, someone who is transgender feels as if they were born as a member of the wrong sex,” explains Rabizadeh. “In other words, psychologically, they feel as if they are one sex, but anatomically they are the other sex. Gender is an integral part of our identity, so this experience must be challenging and complicated on many levels. Many of us cannot even begin to imagine what someone who is transgender feels, since we so often take our sex for granted.”
Gender stereotypes also take a turn for the worse, and for Alex and other transgender students it takes away their comfort level in their society.
“As an instructor for a course that focuses on the relationship between gender and communication, I can say that gender stereotypes are still very prevalent in our culture,” says Rabizadeh. “In many ways, we all participate in perpetuating these stereotypes that are often harmful and limiting for both men and women.”
The first step to breaking free from these stereotypes is recognizing that they exist. It was very hard for Koontz’s family to break away from the idea of gender stereotypes and being transgender.
Koontz was the youngest out of four children with a 20-year age group from the eldest, which set him apart from everyone in his family. Amusing himself was his only option to have some sort of playful interaction.
“I was more into the sports and if we played make-believe games, where we pretended to be somebody else, I always wanted to be … not one of the girl characters,” says Koontz, who loved to play Luke Skywalker from the famous franchise, Star Wars.
“I remember being in my backyard and I had this giant stick and I pretended that I was Luke Skywalker and it was my light saber and my dog was Chewbacca,” says Koontz, who wanted to be the hero that saved the princess from the “bad” guys.
Koontz remembers being around 4-years old and saying to his dad, “Why am I not like my brothers? You know? Why can’t I be like them? I’m a boy but I’m different.” Alex’s father told him to forget how he felt and to act like the girl he was supposed to be. He never brought it up again until high school.
“So, I’m a girl who likes girls?” wonders Koontz. “And all my classmates were telling me, you’re a lesbian. I went from being a tomb-boy to wearing make-up and heels, doing my hair and all sorts of crap.
His junior/senior year changed him into a completely different person.
“I was a good looking girl but I wasn’t happy,” says Koontz. “And I did it to blend in because it was what everyone else wanted.”
Alex’s father had become increasingly negative towards him during high school, to the point where he began abusing him.
“He left when I was 17 and I haven’t talked to him since,” explains Koontz, his eyes diverted to the ground. “And the reason why he did everything he did was because I’m trans, because I’m different, because I am what I am.”
Alex’s mother doesn’t accept him being trans, but she will always love him.
“I’ve come out to my mother and she does not accept it, she does not like it and she still calls me her daughter. She still uses my birth name,” says Koontz.
He recalls his mother saying, “I’m not always happy with the things you do, but regardless whatever you do with your life, one, I will never be ashamed of you, two, I will always be proud of you and three, I will always love you.”
No one in Koontz’s family is accepting of his transition except his second older sister, Erin.
Alex is the co-founder of the LGBT sorority at CSUN where he feels comfortable.
“My sorority sisters were there for me and when I founded it four years ago,” says Koontz. “I was still a girl and they’ve seen me being ‘that’ founder (Koontz prefers not to use his birth name), to me being Alex, the founder and brother.”
It became a matter of letting the rest of the sisters know and introducing them to the idea of Alex being transgender. He says that the warm reception and love he has gotten from his “siblings” in the sorority has been amazing.
Karlee Johnson, a student at CSUN, met Koontz through the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgendered Alliance (LGBTA) at school, but she didn’t know him as Alex then.
“I really didn’t think much about it, until this past winter break when he transitioned,” says Johnson. “He changed his Facebook and didn’t really tell anyone. He just changed his Facebook name and his gender to male.”
Wheather it’s through bowties or having conversations about stress around something as simple as going to the bathroom, Koontz is always advocating LGBT awareness.
“Every day I educate someone on trans issues,” says Koontz. “And I’m an activist in that community and I try to educate people based on my experiences.”