How Jesse Sulli Turned His Experience as a "Teen Mom" Into an Awe-Inspiring Story For the Trans Community
When Jesse "Sulli" Sullivan, a 31-year-old trans man, is asked questions about how he came to be a parent to his now-12-year-old daughter, Arlo, the conversation usually goes something like this:
"So I'm understanding you're trans, right?"
"So you consider yourself a boy?"
"Technically, I'm nonbinary. But, yeah, I go by he/him."
"But you have a daughter. So you probably used a surrogate or adopted?"
"No, I got pregnant and gave birth to her."
"Oh, so you like boys?"
"No, I like women."
Jesse is hit with these rapid-fire questions constantly, both in person and on social media, where he has developed a large following on TikTok. "Sometimes I get dozens of those questions a day," he told POPSUGAR.
Instead of shutting down, Jesse has decided to step up and use the opportunity to educate people who may genuinely want to better understand his identity.
"Some people will always have their mindset and you can't change it, but I really believe the way you can change minds is by informing people," he said. "So I simply explain that I'm just like everyone else." And when they still don't understand how a closeted man who is attracted to women could possibly birth a baby, he breaks it down even more simply: "You know how in high school, how everyone tries to be straight? I just happened to get pregnant from it."
Jesse's candor is still new. He officially came out as trans just a few months before the coronavirus pandemic, and that timing created unexpected challenges in his journey to becoming his authentic self.
Initially, his chosen family — a strong queer community where he is based in Los Angeles — supported him unconditionally.
"I want to show that I'm a trans man who's given birth. I want to show my daughter. I want to show our whole story."
"But then all of a sudden the pandemic hit, and I was isolated from all those people and instead was quarantined with family, and family is a whole other story — I didn't get the same response when I came out to them," he said. "It was like, I came out as trans. They weren't very accepting, and then I was stuck with them. It was very intense for a while."
He also realized that he wasn't getting the small daily validations he would have gotten if he were out in the world. "Like having a stranger say 'sir,'" he said. "Those little triumphs you get as a trans person are huge, and they help move you along when you're having a hard time, and I just didn't have that."
That's when he turned to TikTok. Like many new users during that time, his videos were first devoted to memes and apple pie recipes. But then he felt compelled to do more. "It hit me one night, that I don't want to just show, like, 'Oh, look, this is being trans,'" he said. "I want to show that I'm a trans man who's given birth. I want to show my daughter. I want to show our whole story."
For Jesse, his "whole story" — like so many others in the queer community — began at an incredibly young age.
"My earliest memories are me feeling very jealous of my brothers," he said. "I have seven brothers and sisters and come from a very large, very religious conservative family. I would tell my parents stuff like, 'I feel like a boy,' and my mom would always say: 'You're a tomboy. It's OK. You'll grow out of that.' The reality is that I never did grow out of that. It was something that bothered me every single day. I was in the wrong body."
Throughout his early teens and in high school, he said he tried to conform to what was normal — "to have a boyfriend and do things that all my girl friends were doing." Then he got pregnant. "I specifically remember when I found out I was pregnant, which felt like this complete freak thing, and I was sitting in the bathroom looking at the test and thinking my life is about to change in the most drastic way."
"I was sitting in the bathroom looking at the test and thinking my life is about to change in the most drastic way."
He personally didn't consider abortion or putting his baby up for adoption. "It was something I felt inside, and I was like, 'I'm going to do this, and I want to raise the most amazing human.' It was this really strong intuition in me. I just knew that I was going to bring someone so amazing into the world, and I was going to raise it so differently than how I was raised and how I've seen so many people raised. That was that motivation to be like, 'You can do this.'"
Still, it was terrifying. He was a senior in high school, he graduated "with a big belly," and he was just 18 years old when he gave birth to a baby girl named Arlo. The stresses of being a teen parent alone are massive, but he was also dealing with confusion over his identity. It's important to note that he was not out in any capacity at this time. He wasn't aware that he was transgender, though he was experiencing dysphoria surrounding his assigned gender. Like many teenagers, he didn't yet know himself.
"If you ask any trans person to think back to what the most difficult time of their life was, it is puberty," he said. "For me, all of a sudden I got a period. I was getting breasts. Because I was such a tomboy before that, I would walk around with my shirt off, and I would be hanging out in the dirt with my brothers. All of a sudden, I was forced to not be able to do those things anymore. The body that you were born in really starts to hit you, and it hits you hard, and so that was one of the hardest times of my life."
But it wasn't the hardest.
"Even harder than that was pregnancy," he said. "Because all of a sudden, here's this second phase. There's nothing more female than being pregnant, and you gain weight. My breasts were big. Everything about the process was just so hard for me. When people ask me, 'Oh, how was pregnancy for you?' I never really have a lot of good things to say, and it's not about bringing Arlo into this world. That part was awesome, but it was just how hard it was on me mentally and physically having my body be so female. I was dealing with gender dysphoria on top of preparing to be a teen mom and all the things that go along with that. Honestly, I couldn't wait for it to be over."
It wasn't until after he gave birth that he got the push to come out, at that time as gay. "When you are a transgender person, it can be confusing because you're attracted to what you're thinking is the same sex," he explained. He felt boyish, but he still identified as female. "I felt all those things but I hadn't come fully to terms with simply being born in the wrong body."
So, when Arlo was just a baby, he came out as gay. "She was really my motivation for that," he said. "I remember I was looking at her as a baby, and I was like, 'If I'm going to raise this child and I want her to grow up to be whoever she wants to be, I have to be that.'"
For a few years that followed, Jesse found life to be surprisingly "really easy." He was dressing masculine and finally felt more like himself.
"I was dealing with gender dysphoria on top of preparing to be a teen mom and all the things that go along with that. Honestly, I couldn't wait for it to be over."
"The first time I ever fully put on male clothes from head to toe was one of the best feelings I've ever had, and I was probably only 19," he recalled. "Those years of just presenting myself that way, I always tell people, held me over." He identified as nonbinary and stopped thinking about the negative reaction he had to his own voice and to his breasts. "That pushed it aside for a little while, and then it came back and came back so hard."
What followed was another difficult period that lasted up until just a few years ago. He began binding his chest and refused to listen to recordings of his own voice. "I feel like in my head I'm this very masculine person, and then when I speak, a little tiny female voice comes out, and it would cause a lot of distress in me."
Enough of those moments prompted him to take the next step. When he first made the private decision to transition, he started slowly. "I was microdosing my testosterone because I didn't want it to be harsh on my body, and so my changes were very subtle in the beginning. It wasn't until around four months in that I actually started a full dose, and I've only been on T for a year and a half-ish."
Surprisingly, he started feeling "completely comfortable in my own skin" in those early weeks. "As a trans person, you don't have to pass publicly, and you don't even have to look like the gender you identify as, but what feels really good are those little moments for yourself where you're making those changes in order to feel the way you really feel. The first time I started feeling my voice crack, it was the most exciting thing in the world. It felt like taking off this horribly uncomfortable, miserable costume and being able to breathe."
Coming Out to Arlo
When he first came to the realization that he was going to transition, it was another year before he told his daughter. "Anytime you're going to do anything really life-changing, you're concerned about how it's going to affect your child," he said. "That was what made me push it off. Then all of a sudden it hit me that this isn't something to protect my child from — this is something to expose my child to and to have her celebrate this. That was that push to go, 'OK, no, it's time to tell Arlo.'"
Of course, he had already come out to her once before, but this time felt like a much bigger deal: "Obviously with transitioning, you're changing your physical body, your appearance, your voice, your pronouns."
Still, he wasn't nervous. "I think she had seen it was probably getting there based on how I was already identifying in regards to my gender," he said. "It wasn't this huge leap. I'm already considering myself nonbinary and masculine-presenting, and so we were sitting in my room, and I just told her, 'I'm going to start hormones to push this even further and have my body and my voice match my gender identity.'"
Her reply was just as Jesse had hoped. "She was just like: 'OK, that's awesome. Can I still call you Mom?'" he said. "That moment was so beautiful to me because there wasn't any pushback or concern. She was just more worried about the logistics, and it shows how amazing children are because they see things so simply."
Since then, she has certainly had questions, and Jesse made sure she felt comfortable asking him anything.
"She can come to me with any question ever, and she has done that," he said. "She's asked, 'Oh, does it change this part of your body? How deep will your voice get?' Because of how I raised her, she's been so exposed to every type of person from every type of background that she already had a really good information store in her head of what being transgender is. But the difference is that this was her first-hand experience, so she actually got to watch it in front of her eyes, and she hasn't had any concerns. She would mess up my pronouns here and there in the beginning like anyone does, and I'm completely OK with that. I get that. But now she never messes up, and she will correct anyone who does mess up, and say, 'No, that's not his pronouns.' almost become my little cheerleader throughout this."
And as for that "Mom" label, Jesse is fine with it.
"I'm someone who for my entire adult life has been critical of the gender binary and gender roles, specifically in regard to parenting," he said. "The reason I'm OK with being called Mom is because I really believe that you can be a dad who's also a mom. That term is something that we should make more fluid. I also have to be understanding of the fact that for 12 years she called me one thing — and that she does have another dad so it would be like calling us both Dad, which would be a little confusing. So she does still call me Mom. We have tried to come up with some other names, but really in the meantime, until she's really comfortable with that, I'm honestly perfectly fine with being called Mom, because I know who I am on the inside."
Sharing His Journey With the World
When he was finally ready to share his full story — from his teen pregnancy to his transition to his life as a parent — on TikTok, he was racked with nerves. "It meant I had to show myself pregnant," he said. "I had to show myself when I was a female-presenting person." He worried it might be triggering for those with gender dysphoria, and he feared he'd be bullied or trolled or harshly judged for his choices. His faith in TikTok's supportive queer community helped convince him.
He posted a video slideshow of photos, set to "Home" by Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, in November 2020, timed with the presidential election. It reached 44 million views within days of its publication.
"I realized then how important it was to do this," he said. "There's trans kids out there that . . . we're literally losing them because they don't feel like they have a voice, and they don't feel like there's representation, and they don't see older trans people who have made it and are OK."
He also believes his story is one that anyone can connect with, LGBTQ+ or otherwise. "A queer gay person might identify with the closeted part, and then maybe a straight cis person identifies with, 'I also got pregnant in high school,' or getting pregnant young or just having been pregnant in general. I try to relate to anyone who might identify with any part of my story, because when it comes down to it, we all are really more similar than we think."
Now, he has 1.7 million followers and sees his purpose more clearly than ever.
"I try to relate to anyone who might identify with any part of my story, because when it comes down to it, we all are really more similar than we think."
"Social media really is what is running our world," he said. "That's why it's so powerful for trans voices to be open and transparent about their journeys and their lives." And not just for fellow queer people. "There are a lot of people in their community that have never met a queer person. I can help demystify this for those people who don't have access in their own worlds. And, for kids who feel like I did . . . almost all of my TikToks are very kid-friendly."
In fact, most of them include Arlo and show what their loving, healthy parent-child relationship looks like. In addition to throwback photos, he shares reenactments of real conversations he's had about being trans — such as a recent one on how he was told to "sleep on it" when he came out as trans — and advice to parents on how to raise empathetic children by exposing them to nontraditional families.
"I want kids to see, like, 'Oh, look, that's what he used to look like, but this is who he really is.' It gives a visual for them that they never had before. It's an honor to be able to do that and be that for them."