What it’s like to come out twice – once as a lesbian and once as transgender.

Chris Rhodes and his identical twin, Courtney, are used to sharing everything. They’re identical twins, both 28-years old from Austin, Texas and they both came out as lesbian in early adulthood.

“I came out first, and she was pretty resistant, mostly due to being in the closet herself and the conservative suburban community we grew up in,” says Chris to Very Good Light

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Coming out as lesbian for Chris helped Courtney come to terms with her own sexuality. “Chris and I have always agreed upon everything,” says Courtney. “We have the same likes and interests, so when Chris started dating girls in high school, I should’ve taken the hint. Honestly, it was nice to have the solidarity of having someone go through the same experience who wholly understood me along for that journey.”

As identical twins, Chris and Courtney shared the same experiences, even down to their sexuality. When Chris started to question his gender identity a couple years after his initial coming out, it was the first time in his life that he felt something that his twin didn’t. For the first time, he was on his own. 

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Happy birthday to us! 🎉 You’re my favorite human @court_rhodes — there’s no one on earth I’d rather share a birthday with or a face with. Thank you for always defending me and being the tough badass to my sensitive sad boy, the butch to my femme (lol). You inspire me daily with how talented you are (I know I annoyingly ask you to show me how to do plenty of design things on the regular), you’re way more disciplined than I’d ever be even if I hate it at times, I’ve loved watching you come into your own, your acceptance and support of me has given me the courage I’ve needed in my hardest times, you tolerate none of the bullshit I don’t know to ignore, your wheezy laugh (inherited from @kellanrhodes) is one of my favorite sounds ever, I can’t get enough of playing sports with you, running a business is something I wouldn’t want to do with anyone else, and I just love you okay? Don’t make it weird. Also can we get matching outfits like the ones on the left again? Okay thanks.

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“When I came out the second time as trans, it was definitely a little more nerve-wracking because we had lots of queer friends but there weren’t any trans people in our immediate friend group, or even represented in media,” says Chris. “I felt very alone in my experience at the time.”

Courtney and Chris got used to sharing the same identity: the twin identity. Experts say this shared identity results in an inexplicable connection that can have both positive and negative effects on twins. 

“Twins have to grow up sharing everything: time, love and attention,” says Dr. Joan A. Friedman, a prominent twin expert and psychologist. “Everyone is searching for meaning and a sense of identity in adolescence. If you haven’t had parents that helped you separate and develop individually, it’s hard to feel confident in yourself as a single.” 

This could explain why Chris didn’t start questioning his gender identity until he was 19. After all, as a twin, it’s more difficult to separate yourself and discover your individuality. Most LGBTQIA+ people can relate to this internal struggle of coming to terms with who you are. For twins, it’s a unique experience as both are unprepared to face a truth that might make them feel different when they’re so used to being the same. 

“After the initial shock wore off for Courtney – mostly she spent time beating herself up over the idea that I could be trans and she had never ‘realized’ it – she was wholly supportive, as were all my friends, because according to them it seemed like a weight was lifted off my shoulders,” says Chris. 

Identical twins have a unique bond that’s unlike the traditional sibling bond. They are genetically identical, meaning they come from one fertilized egg that splits in the womb. They share the same fingerprint and the same genetic profile, so how is it that Chris is trans and Courtney is not? 

The answer lies in an emerging field of science known as epigenetics, which explores how genes are expressed. If genes are musical instruments, epigenetics are the musicians that allow those instruments to make their beautiful music. Environment and lifestyle influence gene expression, which explains why identical twins, like Chris and Courtney, can be identical in so many ways, like sexuality, and differ in others, like gender identity. 

“I still very much view us as identical—we are genetically so—and we are still the same people at our cores who have shared a very similar life for the last 28 years,” says Chris. “I actually think my transition has brought us closer together because I am a lot more me since transitioning.”

Research has shown that in addition to being identical genetically, identical twins are also likely to share the same sexual orientation. 

Studies have shown that if one twin is gay, there’s a 30 to 60 percent chance that the other twin will also be gay. These studies support the theory that genetics plays some role in sexual orientation, but not entirely, otherwise identical twins would have a 100 percent chance of sharing the same sexual orientation. Epigenetics explores the environmental and lifestyle factors that can attribute to this variance. 

For Courtney, it was easy to follow in Chris’ footsteps and come out as lesbian. His transition was a tougher pill to swallow. 

“Chris’s transition and gender identity strayed away from something I thought I had understood for the first time in our lives, so I had a hard time wrapping my mind around it,” says Courtney. “How could Chris feel something that I didn’t feel? That was the hardest part in accepting his transition, along with feeling like I had failed him in not knowing he was trans or had been questioning his gender. But once I got over that, I became his biggest supporter.”

Coming out has brought Chris and Courtney even closer together than they were before. They’re both extremely active in the LGBTQIA+ community in Austin, and even have their own clothing brand that supports LGBTQIA+ causes called FLAVNT streetwear. As the country rallies around our LGBTQ+ brothers and sisters this month to celebrate Pride this month, Chris and Courtney will be celebrating together, of course. They share the same DNA, the same birthday, and now, the same Pride. 

“We’ve never not spent a Pride together,” says Courtney. “This year, we will probably just hang out at our house with some of our close friends with some drinks, glitter and music and try and create our own mini Pride celebration.”

Photos by Chris Rhodes and Carli Davidson. Artwork by Alicia O’Brien.

This artist is bringing visibility to the queer hapa experience

Growing up biracial is confusing enough, but when you add being queer to the mix, things get rather interesting.

At least, that’s the experience Will Varner, an artist from New York City paints through his artwork. The former Buzzfeed art director has cultivated a following through his unique purview which includes visual essays, cartoons, and commentary about living life as a queer hapa man. His essays range from his humorous “My Gay Firsts” series, about navigating through gay life, to “Half Fab,” where he delves into real-life circumstances of being biracial.

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“My Gay Firsts” is visually compelling, but what makes it so powerful is how true-to-life his experiences are. One recounts how he felt when he saw his sister’s boyfriend doing a handstand on their front lawn. Another, about his first sexual experience. Then, there are essays of him finding rejection from his mother for being gay, or finding acceptance in a gay sports league.

“Half Fab” is just as vulnerable but goes through the many moments of his life when he’s forced to confront his identity, almost on a daily basis. Some explain how he’s not enough – too Asian for Americans, and too American for Asians – while others confront objectification and fetishization.

“Wow, I never thought I’d be with an Asian! You’re my first!” one cartoon goes, with a man stroking Will’s hairy chest. “So do you have an Asian dick or a normal dick?” says another.

“My race has been and still is something I’m cognizant with,” he tells Very Good Light. “I’ve always had to navigate to try to fit in somewhere.” 

Will Varner

An army brat and the product of strict, mormon parents (his father is white and mother is Native Hawaiian and Japanese), he found himself moving to a new city in what seemed like every other year. To his Asian friends in Hawaii and Los Angeles, he wanted nothing but to conform. He’d even stretch his nostrils, he recalls, to have more of an Asian nose. When they’d moved to Kentucky, Louisiana or Arkansas, it was the opposite: all he wanted was to conform.

“We were always very aware of what we were and what we weren’t,” he says about him and his siblings. “There were different phases when I very much wished I was very white or wished I was Hawaiian. I thought I was so weird and gross and was insecure.”

But it wasn’t until he’d accepted and embraced his queer identity when things started to gel. When he was 23, he took each of his immediate family members aside and came out to them. And then it was from posts of him on social media attending PRIDE and being with his boyfriend that inadvertently gave his sexuality away. When his first boyfriend got an internship in New York City, he followed him there. Though they’d broken up 8 months later, he decided he wasn’t going back home to where his parents were, which was now Utah.

In New York was when he interned for the artist, Josh Cochran, and got into the School of Visual Arts. In art school was when he solidified his aesthetic. “I’m very influenced by my background, including Polynesian art and surf culture,” he tells us. “And my experiences in California, Hawaii and being a kid in the 80’s who was really in anime and manga. That was especially important to me growing up as I was sometimes the only Asian among whites geeking out over it.”

After his artwork became more visible is when Buzzfeed came calling. There, he’d amplify his voice, create a following, while sharing his live experiences with millions of readers. After four years at Buzzfeed, he was laid off and decided to pursue giving back. Today, Will’s teaching at SVA while continuing to create art – and inspire. “Kids now are having a different experience and have access to communities we couldn’t find before,” he says. “Understand that your identity is beautiful and wonderful especially if you don’t see it. The world needs you more than ever.”

Check out more of Will’s art here: willvarnerart.com