Putting down the mask

One Syracuse University student finds truth in his identity as transgender.

Note from the writer:

October marks national LGBT History Month and observes National Coming Out Day on Oct. 11. As a reporter for The NewsHouse, I reached out to transgender students to help our community at SU better understand what gender identity means for our colleagues regardless of appearance. Each of the three students I worked with shared their personality and passions with me, and now wish to share them with our NewsHouse readers. Follow the profile series on Oct. 15, 22 and 29. Also, don’t forget to listen to transgender advocate Laverne Cox speak on Oct. 29!


Meet more participants in our Transgender series:

Kicking around a soccer ball with the guys didn’t stick. Zipping into outfits like the other girls felt unnatural.

But shifting from character to character on the theater stage helped one Syracuse University student search for an identity.  

“I wasn’t acting like myself before I did theater,” said Lavi Payne-Grauch, a transgender student at SU. “Theater helped me figure out who I actually am instead of putting on these masks and costumes that I wasn’t.”

Lavi, an 18-year-old illustration freshman, grew up as Zoey Payne-Grauch in Nederland, Colo. Although he identifies as male, he didn’t change his name to Lavi or switch from using female to male pronouns until he entered SU in August.

Wearing bowties, beanies and blazers, Lavi now focuses on a style that fits his personality, not his gender identity.

“That’s why I’m kind of doing the gender transition, why I’m wearing what I want and why I’m doing what I want to do,” Lavi said. “I like being myself.”

But, he admits theater provided relief.

Playing someone else’s character allowed him to step out of his own body, one that physically didn’t match his self.

Currently as a graduate student at Syracuse University’s Newhouse School, I am producing a series on Syracuse women in poverty using print, video and photo packages. I contextualize the contributing factors to the poverty through narratives, and every woman who shares her story shows me the value of reporting on issues with real perspective. I previously reported for The Spokane Inlander and Washington State Magazine on narrative style stories from trips to Guatemala and Cuba. Reporting abroad and with different cultures has taught me how to overcome language and cultural barriers to tell the people’s stories.   Previously as editor in chief and web/social manager of The Daily Evergreen, I developed time management skills supervising a 50+ staff to edit, design and research ideas for the publication. My staff and I also improved the quality of the newspaper, which won the 2014 SPJ Region 10 Best Daily Paper.   When I graduate with my master’s degree in magazine, newspaper and online journalism from Newhouse in June 2015, I will enter the career I’ve worked to succeed in since I started my education. Journalists have the privilege of telling the stories of those who cannot tell their own, a truth I learned while reporting abroad and while teaching multimedia storytelling to undergraduate students at Newhouse.

Lavi Payne-Grauch often studies in the fall leaves on SU's campus. (Photo: Christine Rushton)

Figuring out gender identity challenges Lavi emotionally and leads to bouts of depression. He said he does have support from his parents, girlfriend and a few grandparents.

“A week in (to school) and I told them, ‘Hey, I’m kinda sorta transgender’,” Lavi said. “They said the same thing when I came out to them as lesbian: ‘Don’t worry about what we think, you just go be happy’.”

Lavi reached out to the LGBT Resource Center on campus and to other freshmen he has met. The group support helps strengthen his decision while living far from home.

Tya Smith, an English and textual studies freshman, met Lavi when the two started school. She didn't think about gender when he introduced himself; his quirky sense of humor takes over the moment he starts talking.

Struggling with her own family relationships, Smith relies on Lavi's experienced support.

"Sometimes he'll text, 'Yo bro, let's go build a fort'," she said. "He's serious when you need him to be, but he is a great friend to have to make you feel comfortable."

From building forts to starting a lunch crew, Lavi now shares his own personality with ease.

Rebecca Markowitz, a film freshman, talks with Lavi about everything from board games to goldfish. She said their friendship is the most natural she has ever had.

When people they meet refer to Lavi as a woman, Markowitz said she gets irritated. Lavi doesn't worry about the mistake, though.

"I don't think (transgender people) are different than anybody else," Markowitz said. "They were given the wrong body biologically."

Lavi still worries about telling conservative family members about his decision, but he won’t again wear the mask of another personality. He said true friends and family should accept who someone is no matter what.

“It’s great if you want to make yourself happy, but if it’s impeding someone else from being happy then it’s negating,” he said, shrugging. “You’re not happy, they’re not happy, no one is happy.”

Someday he may consider a legal name change and testosterone therapy for physical masculinity, but Lavi knows his identity. For him, that’s what matters.

“This is my new name, this is my gender,” he said. “It’s not a big deal.”

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