When Gabe Paboga signed on for the fourth season of TLC's popular spinoff 90 Day Fiancé: The Other Way, the 33-year-old imagined he might have a few people sliding into his DMs.
He just didn't picture they'd largely be from middle-aged moms and dads.
"I thought that I was going to get more of a following from the LGBTQ+ community," Gabe, the franchise's first transgender cast member, revealed in an exclusive interview with E! News, "but I'm getting more of a following from, like, older people. And that surprised me. A lot of parents are reaching out to me more than anything."
Among his favorites, he shared, "A lot of mothers come to me and they say, 'My child is trans and, because of you, I'm not too afraid of the future that they have. Because you live a normal life.'"
Though, admittedly, he didn't envision that would include discussing his phalloplasty—a procedure in which surgeons harvest skin and tissue from the body to form a penis and urethra—at length in front of TLC's cameras.
"How I ended up on 90 Day is my sister actually pretended to be me," Gabe—who joined the cast alongside his Colombia-based girlfriend Isabel Posada—shared. "When they contacted me, I was like, 'You know what? Maybe I can do this, because I'm very open about everything, very open about my body parts and my penis. So, why not?'"
"And it's just been a whole lifetime of sharing my story and helping raise awareness of transgender people," explained the 22-year-old star of another TLC flagship, I Am Jazz. "I've definitely grown up in unique circumstances and it's been difficult at times. But to be able to know that you are making a difference in the lives of others makes it all worth it."
The constant reminders of that impact ("People come up to you and say, 'Wow, you changed my life,' or, 'You helped me understand my identity,'" Jazz told E!) help make the rest—the cruel insults, the infuriating misconceptions and the very real death threats—feel worth it.
As Jazz put it, "Hearing those messages, it just kind of validates all the work you do." In honor of International Transgender Day of Visibility March 31, the duo sat down with E! News to discuss their shared experience.
E!: What's the toughest part about putting your life out there for public consumption?
Jazz Jennings: We need so many voices to speak out for the trans community, for the LGBTQIA+ community that I do put pressure on myself, like, "The world needs me!" But there are so many other people too, who are sharing their stories and creating impact.
Gabe Paboga: Before, I was stealth. Nobody knew that I was trans. And now, everybody knows my business. Everybody knows about my junk. Everybody knows how it works. However, because I do have all my business out there, I feel a lot more confident. I don't hide my leg scars with my shorts anymore. I'm like, "Well, you see it on TV already. You see all of me." So I feel like I'm even more open.
E!: Gabe, in a recent episode, you were quite open about receiving gender confirming surgery. Did you have any hesitation about putting that out there?
GP: Yes, I thought people were just going to call me a freak. On my YouTube channel, I get a lot of people saying, "You have mental problems," "Nobody's gonna love you with all those scars," "You're a Frankenstein," "That's not a penis. It's just skin."
JJ: I've heard all of those same things, too.
GP: It's not from kids or teenagers. One hundred percent of the bullies online are adults, in my case. And that's a shame.
E!: What was the reaction to your surgery?
GP: My DMs are full of people: "I'm so glad that that you explained how surgery works." Everything about it has been positive so far. And even my mom goes to work and she says, "Everybody's having this conversation. They said, last week's episode was the best episode in the 90 Day franchise."
E!: Does it ever get easier to brush off the negative comments?
GP: I've been on YouTube for a pretty long time. The first couple years, it would get to me. But now I really don't have to write back because I know that my supporters, they'll get them. You don't mess with the fans.
JJ: I've always been very confident. And I've always had a thick skin. So when people are cruel or hateful, it doesn't really affect me. I wish them the best and say good luck on your journey and I hope that you're able to open up your heart. I don't need that validation from people who think they know me.
E!: With transgender rights increasingly under attack, do you feel extra pressure to speak out?
JJ: I do put that pressure on myself. But at the same time, I need to take a step back and realize I need to take care of me before trying to save the whole world. I do want to do the best I can with the platform that I have. But like I said, you have to focus on your well-being first.
E!: Particularly when you face death threats.
JJ: It's really scary. When you get death threats from people who know where you live and where you go to school, it's horrifying. I'm like, "Am I even allowed to go out anymore? What if I'm going to a club?"
E!: What were the specific misconceptions you wanted to clear up by going public with your stories?
JJ: People think being trans is a choice. It is not a choice. It's who we are. And we were born this way. It's very innate. People think one day you just wake up and you're like, "Okay, I'm gonna transition now." No, it's the process of discovering who you are throughout your entire life and really recognizing your identity.
GP: I 100 percent agree. Also, there's a lot of false information about bottom surgery, especially with the creation of a penis that, "Oh, it's not going to work. You can't orgasm. You can't do this." I'm like, "Yes, I can." Some people don't want to believe that you can have a normal sex life after surgery.
E!: There are also a lot of inaccuracies about what it means to transition. It's not an easy process.
GP: Nobody's going to choose to be trans. It's a hard life. I wouldn't choose to go through all this, have all these surgeries. I wouldn't choose this life. It's just who I am. And I'm just trying to make my body match how I feel.
E!: Having your whole life out there, does that make dating difficult?
GP: I'm going to tell you what I hear the most: People saying, "I love you and Isabel, you guys are the most normal couple on 90 Day." I'm like, "Look at that! A transgender relationship is the most normal." Somebody even called us boring. I'm like, "That's great. You're calling a trans guy in a relationship with a woman normal? I'll take it."
JJ: This past season, I went on a couple of dates after not dating for four years. It was good to put myself out there and meet people who are genuinely interested in me. I didn't make a true match connection, but I made a couple of friends.
GP: How was it being trans in high school? Because with me, I was already an adult.
JJ: I would say the main way it impacted me was in the dating world. A lot of guys fear that they'll be called gay for liking me. So I lacked a little experience. When it comes to dating, being trans is almost like a litmus test of someone's character. Because they are either going to deny you or they're going to accept you for who you are, including your trans identity.
GP: Yeah, I kind of do that too. Before everybody knew I was trans, I would bring up the topic and if they're like, "Ew, that's gross," I'm like, "Oh, all right."
JJ: Bye! But if they say, "No problem. I embrace and accept you for who you are," then you're like, "That's a good one." I haven't found my special someone yet. But no matter who they are, I know they're just going to love and appreciate me for the person I am on the inside. And that's what I want most.