Zackery Torres Opens Up About 'Struggles' of Transitioning, 'Pressures' She Felt on 'Dance Moms'

“I came out for the third time — third time's a charm — with being transgender,” Zackery Torres tells PEOPLE

Zackery Torres is opening up about the highs and lows of her transition.

The Dance Moms alum — who now uses they/them and she/her pronouns — recently spoke with PEOPLE about her transitioning journey and candidly shared how her adolescent years starring on reality TV impacted her outlook on gender and sexuality.

"We're in a day and age where I personally feel safe enough and feel that I have a strong enough support system to be as transparent as possible through the trans experience," says Torres, 22, who made history on Abby's Ultimate Dance Competition as the show's first male-born contestant.

"It's not always easy and it's not always fun, but I want to show as much of it as possible just so that we can continue advancing towards a more open and fulfilling place for the LGBTQ+ community and especially transgender people looking to transition," she continues.

The recent University of Southern California graduate says she's on her way towards becoming her "full self" after having come out a few times throughout her life.

"I was able to come out for the first time as gay, that was when I was like, 15 and then I think I came out as non-binary when I was 19 or 20. I can't really remember," Torres shares. "And then I came out for the third time — third time's a charm — with being transgender, very recently."

In a TikTok video in May, days before the start of Pride Month, Torres excitedly shared, "I'm transitioning!" and explained to her followers, "That means I'm transgender if you didn't know."

Following her announcement last month, Torres says several of her former Dance Moms costars sent supportive messages.

Zackery Torres
Zackery Torres. Taylor Upsahl

But although the reality dance series was what propelled her and her castmates into stardom, Torres admits her time on the show — from ages 12 to 15 — came with a lot of pressure, causing her to "hit pause" when it came to her feelings about her gender and sexuality.

"In that environment, I didn't really feel like I was able to grow and so I felt like I just kind of hit pause and then when I decided to leave the show and go to high school, I realized, 'Okay, I have some growing to do,'" the An Evolving Conversation on Gender author tells PEOPLE.

Torres says there was fixation around dating rumors, since she was the only male-born contestant at the time. "I was like, 'I'm literally 12 and 13. I have no idea what I like or what I'm interested in and I haven't even gone through puberty,'" she recalls.

She also says she faced "pressures" when it came to gender norms and expectations.

"There are definitely those pressures because I think the biggest thing I felt was people expected me to contrast my female-born counterparts," Torres says. "As a male-born contestant I was always intended to be more masculine, stronger at whatever, better at these certain styles … all of these stereotypes that exist in the entertainment industry and dance as a whole."

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She continues, "It also didn't help that a lot of the choreographers I worked with there were also perpetuating that stereotype."

"Although I'm sure a lot of them have grown, at the time it was definitely very detrimental and a lot of pressure for me as a young person to feel, especially on national television," the dancer admits.

Zackery Torres
Zackery Torres. Taylor Upsahl

Since making the decision to undergo hormone therapy, the Continuum Community founder says she's faced a series of "struggles" — both physical and emotional.

"One of the biggest struggles that I have encountered is just the emotional toll and all of the different logistical steps and barriers that happen through a transition process," she says. "I think the biggest [obstacle] is like, the insurance thing, finding doctors in your network, going over all the pros and cons of hormone replacement therapy. Hearing your doctors tell you all the risks is scary, and going to all these appointments sometimes alone if your support system is doing their own thing. Those steps can get exhausting."

Torres has also hit a few medical roadblocks, which have slowed her transition.

"Sometimes throughout your transition you have to hit pause for certain, different medical reasons and I've had to encounter some of those pauses. That's something that, as a trans person, is not fun to go through," says Torres. "It's not fun to be told in a doctor's appointment that you have to stop advancing towards your full self."

She adds, "There's so many different things that come up when you're trying to transition and that has just been something that's really hard for a trans person who's ready to go."

Zackery Torres
Zackery Torres. Taylor Upsahl

But amid the barriers, Torres stresses how wonderful her support system has been.

"I think that's probably one of the best parts [of transitioning] is my circle has gotten a lot smaller, but it's also gotten so much stronger," she explains. "And I think that that's something that I will never take for granted because I couldn't most definitely not be going through this part of my life without the people that hold me up every day when I can't hold myself up."

Torres is also continuing to advocate for the transgender community through social media, where she announced her decision to transition.

With it being Pride month, Torres tells PEOPLE she wants "everyone out there to continue celebrating and continue embracing Pride, all year round."

"Although the month of June is extra special and extra fun and holds extra historical significance, that pride month should last 52 weeks of the year, 365 days a year, 24 hours a day. Pride month should be all year round. We should always be celebrating and uplifting on LGBTQ+ stories," Torres says. "We have a lot of work to do and that can't just be done in the month of June."

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