Laith Ashley was assigned the female gender at birth, but grew up, as a girl, thinking she was gay. At age seventeen she came out to her parents as a lesbian, but a few years later, she came out again, as a trans male. And now, at 26, Laith, who began transitioning two years, is a New York model who has walked in shows for Adrian Alicea and Gypsy Sport during the recent New York Fashion Week, and has even posed for a Barney's New York campaign with legendary fashion photographer Bruce Weber.
This is trans.
Laith was just five when he noticed what he called a 'misalignment' with his body and his gender identity; he came out as a teenager because he didn’t know what transgender meant:
'At the time I didn't know what transgender was, so I just told them I had a girlfriend. But I never felt right with the idea of being a lesbian woman.'
And when Laith realized he was transgender and could actually live the life he’d always dreamed about, he began the process of transitioning to male; a year before he medically transitioned, he broke the news to his mother:
'My mom is Pentecostal Christian, and although she loves me she felt it conflicted with her faith. My dad was fine. I told him that if he is proud of me, it takes away the power of people who criticize. Who cares what other people think, if he is proud?'
After two years of being on testosterone, Laith underwent surgery in 2015 and now even his mother has come around, he says, now bragging about her model son to her church friends.
'There was a lot of fear at first. It took me six years from the moment I came out as trans to actually begin my medical transition. Once I got over that fear, there was no stopping me. I am the most comfortable I have ever been.'
And yet he’s a bit thrown off by all of the attention. Since he began modeling, and being open about being trans, he's earned almost 60,000 Instagram followers and support from people like Whoopi Goldberg and transgender actress Laverne Cox. But while the attention was exciting at first, it soon became almost too much:
'I went through a period of being very overwhelmed. I focused on all the negative comments I was receiving and just wanted to disappear. I never thought of myself as a role model. It was a label placed upon me after my photos began circulating through social media.'
Laith, who worked as an insurance navigator at Callen Lorde Community Health Center, is still passionate about being an activist for the LGBT community:
'I know many look up to me, because I may fit the image they wish to achieve, which I find incredibly humbling, but I want them to also know that their life journey is their own. People should be true to themselves - they don't have to fit a box."'
How wonderful when someone, trans, gay, bi, straight, whatever, can find the strength to live their lives as their true selves, loving and accepting themselves, being open about who they are. We need more of that these days, from all sides of gender identity and sexual orientation.
If you speak out as your true self you may just pave the way for someone else to follow, and ain’t that a good thing?