Toronto YouTuber shatters transgender misconceptions through candid videos
Published Friday, January 20, 2017 6:15PM EST Last Updated Friday, January 20, 2017 7:11PM EST
From inside a downtown Toronto condo, 21-year-old Stef Sanjati sets up a tripod, turns on a light fixture and stands in front of a camera with a smile.
Sanjati, a popular Canadian vlogger (video blogger), underwent facial feminization surgery in Boston, Mass. on Dec. 16 and has documented every bruise, bandage and scar on her YouTube channel.
Several procedures helped reshape Sanjati’s face to “reverse the effects of testosterone-based puberty,” she said.
“It’s not about looking pretty,” she told CTV News Toronto from her condo. “I think this is where some people are confused. It’s not cosmetic surgery. This is a treatment that has helped my mental health in ways I can’t explain.”
Today, the social media buff shares her experiences as a transgender woman to the world through her channel, advocating for other young people wrestling with their identity.
But it took her a long way to get here.
Since puberty, Sanjati struggled to come to terms with who she was and how she was feeling about her body.
“I know some people feel confused about puberty, but I was horrified,” she said. “All these body changes were happening and I was really confused so I just isolated myself.”
Despite a supportive family, Sanjati said her small hometown of Chatham, Ont. was less than understanding.
“I lived two blocks away from my high school but my parents drove me every day because they were afraid I was going to get hurt,” she said.
“There were situations… my mother’s car was vandalized and spray painted with a slur and the tires were slashed, all while on my property. I didn’t feel safe anywhere.”
Though she originally identified as a gay man, Sanjati said her move to Toronto acted as a catalyst to coming to terms with her true self.
While working as a makeup artist at a Shoppers Drug Mart beauty boutique, she met a transgender woman who, she says, was able to decode the confusion she felt about herself and her body.
“It was almost like they were a translator, like a key or a cipher,” she said. “Once I met them, I understood everything, my whole life made sense.”
Though she had long been vlogging on YouTube – beginning at 13 years old -- it was one particular video that catapulted her number of viewers into the millions.
The video, titled ‘My Face: Waardenburg Syndrome,’ is Sanjati’s explainer vlog about a genetic mutation she inherited. The condition commonly causes hearing issues and pigmentation, and has left Sanjati deaf in her left ear and greyed parts of her hair.
“For a long time, I couldn’t look in the mirror, and that wasn’t because of being trans it was because of my face and kids making fun of me,” she said.
The video, which now has over 6 million views, solidified her passion for vlogging and sharing her story.
Soon after, she took it on as a fulltime gig.
What started with makeup tutorials soon became a chronicling of her transition.
The videos are a raw, unfiltered and sometimes grisly look at the surgical procedures Sanjati underwent, which, she says, is exactly how she wanted it.
“I wanted to show the grossness. I wanted to be real,” she said. “If you get this surgery, you’re going to look like this and I don’t want people to be shocked by that. So I uploaded everything, every little bit. I wanted it to be very comprehensive.”
But, while sharing her story and her desire to continue her transition, Sanjati’s life took an unexpected turn.
In January of 2016, she reached out to her hundreds of thousands of followers on a GoFundMe page in hopes of funding even just a small portion of the costly facial feminization surgery in Boston.
In two days, Sanjati’s generous supporters donated nearly $10,000.
“I didn’t expect the response I got,” she said with a huge smile on her face. “Over 17,000 people donated (in the end) and raised over $32,000 to pay for what I couldn’t afford.”
“I’m just forever grateful. Those people have affected and changed my life forever and I will never forget that.”
With stalwart support from her parents, the family took a road trip to Boston for the surgery.
Sanjati is quick to acknowledge that having supportive parents sets her apart from many transgender youth who struggle with families who condemn or reject them. Without that, she said she’s not sure she could have come as far as she has.
Growing up the biological child in a home filled with foster children, Sanjati said her constant big-sister role helped shape the message behind her YouTube channel.
“I feel like I’ve become a maternal figure to some of these LGBTQ kids who have parents that maybe aren’t accepting or don’t understand,” she said.
“My goal is to create a comfortable space for them so that they feel understood and accepted.”
Despite her positive message, Sanjati still occasionally faces hateful comments on her videos and other social media pages.
“Basically that I’m really a man and that I’m disgusting and horrifically ugly because I’m behaving like a woman,” she said, summarizing a comment she’s hidden from a YouTube video.
“People look at this and attack me, maybe because I had stubble visible. It can be very overwhelming because everybody can be critical of everything you do.”
Sanjati said she sets aside time every day, in between planning and shooting her videos, to delete malicious comments from her pages.
“It’s not for my benefit. It’s for the benefit of others coming to view them,” she said.
“I want it to be a positive space when people come to view my videos. If a young trans person is experiencing trauma in their home or at school and they come to my videos, I don’t want them to experience it again because then it won’t be a place they’re going to want to visit. I want them to feel like they can come to me because I would have wanted that.”
Sanjati said she sees her platform as a chance to shatter misconceptions about transgender people and help others on their own personal journey.
“I’ve never been healthier or happier,” she said.
“I don’t feel like my transition is done yet but I definitely feel like I can exist in the moment now.”