Jamie Vallas is nearly 21 and finally feels as if she's who she was supposed to be all along. She was a kid who wore her sister's old ballet clothes, who would find wigs and put bath towels over her short hair, who never wanted Halloween to end. She remembers being 14, presenting then as a boy, and taking a selfie in her sister's bedroom.
"I have a big smile on my face as I'm holding up an iPad and I'm wearing my sister's bridal prom dress. And I just see how happy I look and it felt right," she said.
Although she'd had her name picked out since seventh grade, Jamie began to transition in high school. She remembered not being very patient at first with people who wouldn't accept her newfound identity.
"Ever since I transitioned I was very like, 'this is who I am, accept me or you are not in my life.' I was very forceful," she said. "My parents taught me about more patience."
And the Vallas' story is notable for the sheer amount of family support Jamie has received. "I was born into a very family-oriented environment, and family's there for each other," Jamie explained.
At first, like many parents, the Vallases weren't sure if this was what Jamie truly wanted. "We all thought it was more of a phase, because I tend to go through a lot of phases in my life," Jamie recalled. "And we weren't sure if this was the true decision I wanted to make, because it's life-changing, going through surgery."
"We didn't know where it was going. Then when Jamie decided, this is where the research had to come in," Renee Vallas, Jamie's mom, remembered.
It was easier for both parents to accept Jamie once they realized her identity had a biological basis, though Renee remembers how gradually her feelings evolved.
"It was very difficult on us as parents because I had to mourn Luke in order to accept Jamie," she said. "It's not easy. It takes time and then finally something hit me, and then I realized, this isn't my life. This is her life."
Dean Vallas, Jamie's father, had always felt protective of his child. Even now, he says, "my job with Jamie is to keep her safe." Seeing Jamie's feminine tendencies, his impulse was to put her in a smaller school to protect her from bullying. Years later, this presented a new challenge: she was the first trans student in her school's history. Both Jamie and her father recall her younger brother, Evan, getting in trouble for talking back to a homophobic teacher.
"He was getting made fun of on the side, I could tell," Jamie said about Evan. "I now see it. I didn't at the time, I was like, 'well, you should love me no matter what.' We were very standoffish with each other, we didn't say anything to each other for a long period of time."
But the siblings are close once again, and the rest of the family echoes Evan's support: Jamie's 90-year-old grandfather sometimes can't remember his son's name, but he always uses the right pronouns. Another interesting family connection is that Jamie is the niece of Paul Vallas, former CEO of Chicago Public Schools, former candidate for lieutenant governor of Illinois, and Dean's brother. Dean managed Paul's 2002 campaign for governor: Paul lost to Rod Blagojevich in the primary.
"I'm going to be like that offensive lineman, to make holes for the family," Dean said. "It's really difficult for someone to push back against me. So my family was quick to embrace because of that, because I manage things in the family."
An unlikely but incredibly important source of support was the Greek Orthodox church. When Dean called his local priest to ask for advice about his transitioning child, the priest asked, "Oh, you mean Jamie?" He had already seen the new name on Facebook. He then found a Greek Orthodox prayer written for "Modification of Gender" and sent it to the family. It draws parallels between Biblical figures who have changed their names and someone assuming a new identity. Dean credited this acceptance to his church's lack of papal control, letting individual priests and parishioners be more liberal and experimental.
Renee found Jamie a LGBTQ youth group in Naperville. "They were so warm and embracing, she couldn't wait to go every Tuesday," she said. "And they educated you."
"You saw what other people were going through," Jamie recalled. "You could relate to them. You could have conversations with them and they wouldn't look at you as like an oddity to the world."
Jamie's role models are trans model Carmen Carrera and her own sister, whose style, feminist values and work ethic impressed her.
"Carmen Carrera [is] this beautiful Colombian transgender model," Jamie explained. "She inspired me to want to work on my beauty, work on my appearance as a lady. That was my fantasy of a womana drop-dead beautiful woman. Nice figure, melodious voice. She blew me away. But my sister internally had that fire, like, I want to be known as a woman, I'm strong, I want to be taken seriously in this room and I want to be successful and do my own thing, and work hard."
Jamie, too, aspires to be a role model for others, and already has been among her parents' friends. "When my ultra-conservative, Fox teleprompter-reading neighbor is all in with Jamie, we celebrate it and why, because they get to know her. That's the key," Dean said.
"The ones that don't [embrace her], it's not part of our life," Renee added.
"I want to present myself as a loving role model," Jamie said. "When people see the word transgender, I don't want them to think about it's all about being a girl and her looks. I want it to be that when people look at transgender, they see how I am. I'm nice, I'm outgoing, I'm positive, I'm fun, I'm optimistic, I'm bright, I'm generous, kind, caring, loving and I treat other people the way they want to be treated. So you see that I'm just this person. ... I'm just like everybody else. It's not all about the looks and the body, it's what lies inside, too."
Whether it's the sheer amount of documents they needed to alter or preparation for her recently completed medical transition, her parents have understood that there's been more obstacles in Jamie's way than there might be for a cis girl her age.
"When your focus has been since you're self-aware is on trying to be a woman, how do you focus on the rest of your life?" Dean explained.
"I can see her growing into herself," Renee said. "It is a long process, it is a big step. It changes your life, and it changes your family's life. But for the better."
"It was very time-consuming. My entire life's focus was wanting the body that I've always wanted," Jamie explained. But she has some ideas about what her future might look like, "I like to connect with other people. It's a skill of mine. I like to communicate. I want to get out of the suburbs. I want to meet people older than me who have their life figured out, I want positive role models."
She still feels she will always be connected to her past. "I've always been this person, I've never really changed," she said. "I grow, I mature. My physique and looks changed, and yes, I changed my body that I came in, but my heart and my personality and who I was was always still there. I'm that boy who lived next door who came and swam in your swimming pool when I was younger. It's still me. I'm proud to own that I used to be Luke, and I still am Luke deep inside. And I'm happy."
Yet embracing her identity may be the key to her future success. "I was hesitant to go on this interview because I've always wanted to be a woman, and I've always wanted to live my life as a normal woman, and not just a public figure as the trans person," Jamie said. "But I've also wanted to help, and put myself out there and tell my story. I feel really blessed to be given this life. Yes, I'm transgender, but also the support I have is incredible. I've had everything I've wanted with myself and life. I've always had my family. I'm finally able to shine and be who I want to be."