“Everyone deserves to feel like they can be the star of their own show.”
Ayla Harvie is taking a break from a busy afternoon at the Toronto Starbucks store where she’s currently a barista to talk about visibility. Today it’s her show, and there’s no doubt who the star is.
Asked what visibility means to her, the answer is instant and profoundly simple: “The power of visibility is everything.”
Ayla is an artist, a YouTuber, a Starbucks partner and a trans woman who’s experienced that power first-hand — as well as the damage that can be done if you feel invisible.
“When you’re not represented, you really question what place the world and society make for you to be that star of your show. So you treat yourself differently. Honestly, I treated myself horribly growing up… By no means can we ever go back to that.”
Despite the pain of her words, Ayla shares with the clarity and enthusiasm of a passionate creator. Her studies at art school exposed her to new disciplines and inspiring queer voices. These days she explores her transition through vivid watercolours.
“As artists, we’re natural philosophers.”
But growing up in environments that didn’t always understand LGBTQ perspectives, positive representation was hard to find. If there was a blank spot when it came to what Ayla could do, what she couldn’t do was made crystal clear:
“As a kid, they tell you that you can be anything you want to be. And what I wanted to be was a mom. And they were like no, that’s the one job you can’t be because you’re a boy. Are you kidding me? Are you actually telling me I can be an astronaut, but I can’t be a mom!?”
In 2009, she found her representation.
“The very first trans woman that I identified with and was like ‘I can do this. This is a possibility.’ was Laura Jane Grace from Against Me! I was a bit of a punk and a rebel when I was younger, so I listened to them growing up. To watch Laura transform and transition was like ‘Oh my God. This is amazing.’”
Iconoclast, artist, and uncompromising voice: Laura was the perfect inspiration. While Ayla’s journey may not have started at that moment, it was a new beginning.
“The statistics show that trans women particularly have a 10-year period between realizing that they’re trans and actually coming out and letting others know. And I definitely fit that statistic…. It was 10 years of mental and self-work to really break it down.”
Along the way, other moments of visibility began to chip away at the barriers keeping her from her truth. Sometimes it was the support of friends. Sometimes it was as simple as learning new language.
“I’m blessed with good friends who really have done so much to grow and learn with me…. [One] introduced me to the word ‘trans.’ That’s where I was like woah, this is actually a thing. Maybe this is just greatly misunderstood.”
By 2016, Ayla decided that she could no longer keep herself hidden. An insensitive comment from her father sparked in her the need to speak up and come out to him as a woman.
“I said Dad: I’m trans. And he took five minutes to pull himself together. He came back and said ‘I’m really sorry. I’m going to be a better father for you. I love you and we’re going to make this work.’ Two weeks later he got me a full new wardrobe.”
At the same time, more and more voices like hers were being shared online.
“Another thing that really got me interested in transitioning was seeing YouTubers like Gigi Gorgeous. And Maya Henry and Steph Senjati…. So I ended up doing YouTube as well. It’s been such a beautiful and cathartic thing to help me unpack some of those things just a little further. Because still today there’s certain levels of internalized transphobia, so I’m still having to break some of that down and grow. But to be able to do that in front of people and create those kinds of conversations is absolutely incredible.”
While she found a home in the digital world, real world barriers remained. Ayla quickly discovered just how difficult the job hunt can be when you’re visible.
“No place would take me. Some places would straight up say ‘Do you think that we could have someone like you represent our company?”
So in 2017, she connected with Youth Employment Services, an Ontario not-for-profit who let her know about a Starbucks hiring fair in Toronto where she was able to interview with a store manager on the spot.
“Sure enough they were like ‘We love you. When are you available?’ And I was like, ‘Tomorrow.’”
She’d found her team. And soon after she started, Ayla was asked to contribute her perspectives to a townhall in which trans inclusion was on the agenda.
“Just that, my being consulted about ‘Does this represent you accurately?’ is huge. That is mind-blowing. I’ll stand behind this company because this company will stand behind me.”
For Ayla, this was visibility in action. She only had one addition:
“So many people say ‘I’m still in the closet. But I’m trying out this new name.’ So they go to Starbucks. Because they know it’s going to be written on the cup, that they’re going to be called by their name. It’s so validating. When you don’t know if your parents are going to use your name and pronoun, when you don’t know if your friends are going to use your name and pronoun, to come to a store that’s going to validate that for you — it’s huge.”
Before returning to her shift, Ayla takes a moment to share the story of her own name.
“I decided to just lay down and meditate, sounding out the feeling and expression of my soul. 'Ay' and 'la' kept coming up. I brought them together and kept saying it. It just felt right. I looked online and saw it had to roots. In Hebrew it meant Oak tree. Often tied to wisdom, strength and masculine energy. In Turkish it means, 'aura of the moon'. Beautiful, light in the dark and symbol of femininity. The blend was exactly what I needed for my name…so I kept it.”
Visibility can be more than simply seeing. It can be sharing, using one moment to create another. And another, and another, rippling out to touch — and transform — lives. March 31st is the International Transgender Day of Visibility. Be an ally, be an advocate, and be visible. Learn more at TDOV.org.
As for Ayla’s show? It’s just getting started. Follow it on her YouTube channel, Ayla Mode.