I Went to a Liberal High School. So Why Didn't I Feel Comfortable Coming Out as Trans*?

Yesterday, I returned to my high school to give a talk about being a transgender and queer man. It's been nearly a decade since I graduated from there -- a place where I had, overall, a comfortable time expressing the parts of 'me' that I had already figured out, but where I hadn't yet come to a full understanding of my own gender and sexuality.

I faced an audience of 50 teens -- a handful, presumably, LGBTQ-identified, and the majority not. These were young adults who had been raised in an ultra-liberal environment; who grew up receiving the message that  "being different is okay!" at nearly every turn.

It was the same culture I was raised in. I'm grateful to it for allowing me to feel comfortable to come out as a "lesbian" at age 16. It was a feat, back then, to be so loud and proud, and know nobody would give me a hard time about it.


Yet, I've reflected often on why I wasn't able to come out as a transgender man back then. Identifying as a masculine lesbian woman was only a 'stopping point' on my way to figuring out that I was really a bisexual trans man, and definitely not something I regret. I learned a lot about 'owning' my identity by coming out the first time.

But had my world been different, I would have been able to 'see' myself as the man I was much sooner, and also felt able to express it aloud.

I didn't figure out I was trans until 17, close to the day I would graduate high school. I found a copy of Leslie Feinberg's Transgender Warriors tucked into the History section in my high school library (put there by my fantastic Gay/Straight Alliance advisor years earlier…almost as if it was waiting for me). The word "transgender," and the gender identities it described, resonated and clicked with me. 

I knew instantly I was transgender when I finally read that language. If only I'd encountered it years earlier, I've lamented since then.

Nowadays, I'm pretty sure I would have learned the word "transgender" much sooner, thanks to the Internet. Yet, I'm still not convinced, when I get really honest with myself, that I would have been able to come out as trans during my high school years -- even in the most liberal, affirming school environment I could imagine. Why?


I faced the audience of 50 students, knowing any one of them could be "me" going through the same emotions in a world that's seen a decade of slow-but-sure advancements in transgender rights and visibility. In our conversation, they reflected back to me what I suspected: they knew, on a basic level, that "being LGBT was okay," and would avowedly respect that difference in their classmates.

Yet, I knew that everyday, in small, invisible, unconscious ways, they were sending the message to their peers that being transgender wasn't okay. Wasn't real. Wasn't possible.

Those were the same messages I got, and I'm only able to recognize them after thinking back and consciously exerting -- because that's how ingrained our cultural instincts to deny the reality that a trans person might be present in the room are.

So, the group facilitator asked me how students could make the school environment more welcoming to transgender teens. I paused and I thought about it, and I could only conclude that it was the small things that counted most.


I asked the students to look at me. 

I knew most, if not all of them, would not be able to tell that I was a transgender man if they passed me on the sidewalk. I'd heard as much from a group of their peers when I'd visited the school last year to give a Trans 101. And I told them -- even though sometimes it's hard for me to talk aloud about once being perceived as "female" -- that when I was their age, they would have seen me as a masculine young woman. 

How would they have known one day I would turn out to be the man sitting in front of them? The answer: they couldn't. 

I saw understanding dawn on some of them: any one of the classmates around them could be a transgender person, and they wouldn't even know it.

 And they were well-trained enough to know that when a person who's different from you is present -- whether it's a difference in race, religion, class, ability, etc. -- you make space for them by thinking more carefully about how you act and what you say.

(And that this kind of 'tolerance' breeds true 'acceptance' when one reaches out to try to understand the difference and also find the commonalities. I wish it all happened in one fell swoop, but these things take time, and oftentimes one of the first steps is just watching what you say rather than reaching out).


What would it mean for them to enter each new space knowing that a trans person was (or could be) present?

It would be a start to something. Not the whole answer, but just a step.

Students would think a little harder about how their gendered language reinforced the idea that "X = woman" and "Y = man." Or how it reinforced the idea that anyone born "male" or born "female" would remain the same gender their entire life. Or even just make them pause before they made a joke where the punchline was 'That woman is a man!' or 'That man is a woman!' (So what if they are? Being trans isn't an insult!)

It would have been as simple as someone wondering aloud (respectfully) if some "girls" were possibly "boys," or vice versa. Or telling their buddy a "trans" joke wasn't cool.

If more students had been thinking this way back when I was in high school, who knows? Maybe I could have busted the internalized belief that "I can't possibly, really, truly be a man!" a little earlier, a little prouder, and a little louder.


Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

What Adults Can Learn from LGBT Youth

Recently, I attended a conference for the LGBT community. It was an enlightening experience and I encountered LGBT people of all ages and from all circumstances, including differences in race, home life, religious beliefs, and more.

I was most impressed, though, by the LGBT youth I met there. This is you

You are so strong and so bold to be living your life as authentically as possible. I suppressed my feelings about being a lesbian for many years and came out as an adult. You, however, have chosen to branch out, find yourselves and express your true self. It was simply inspiring to see such a strong group of young people.

I also met family members who fully supported their LGBT children of all ages in their life's journeys. I hope this is the case for you, too: that your loved ones treat you with respect and love you just as you are.


Let me share a few things I, a lesbian adult, learned from you, an LGBT teen, at my recent conference visit.

1.   It’s okay to believe in who you are.

You’ve inspired me to be me and believe in that. I am a strong individual who can be like you and love myself. 

2.     I don’t have to be closeted and alone.

I watched so many LGBT youth at the conference interacting and forming new friendships. Not that you were in cliques, but you were loving and accepting of each other. I saw you being “out,” coming together, and making connection so you don’t have to be alone on your journey.

3.     Strength comes from within -- and it's infectious.

So many of you exuded strength beyond anything I have possessed. You encouraged and showed others how to be strong and how to share that strength so others can feel and grow from it.

4.     I can live happily in the LGBT community no matter how old I am.

I was so impressed how comfortable you were in your own skin. I loved watching your happiness and how it spread. It showed me that in my journey as an adult, I can be happy just the way I am ,and that many of you already are living happily just as yourselves.

In the end, I found that you, as youth, are a driving force in forging the LGBT community's way forward. You are strong, new pioneers opening up the way for many others to express their sexualities and gender identities.

You are the new generation who will lead and create a brighter future for us all.


Photo courtesy of Kevin Dooley / Flickr.

*Tips for Trans Teens*: 3 Ways to Build Mental & Emotional Strength

My son was only 6-years-old when I heard the horrifying statistic: Transgender people are currently the population with the highest risk of suicide. I looked at James, my beautiful boy, and I was scared. As a mother, what could I do? What resources could I find to keep my boy safe from self-harm? 

There was no denying James was a boy in a "girl"’s body: he had been telling us since he was 2. It just took us a few more years for us to really believe it. Now he was 6, and nobody used the pronoun “she” anymore; strangers we met had no idea there was anything but a boy under those clothes. I wanted to do everything in my power to make James strong in his heart and happy with his boy self.

As the mother of a trans boy, I knew in my heart that I needed to do something to reduce the risk of self-harm before he hit puberty, when life is extra difficult both mentally and emotionally. I knew I would need to do much more than just the surface stuff, the haircuts and clothes.  Here's some helpful steps I figured out along the way:


1. Search for the right therapist

I figured if he started therapy young, it would help him be comfortable talking about personal issues.  Therapy could give him a vocabulary he might need to express or make a stand for himself. 

We were fortunate to find a transgender FTM therapist and author, Reid Vanderburgh.  We met with him a few times, and for long-term work he recommended we work with the therapists at the Sexual Minority Youth Resource Center (SMYRC). With SMYRC we could use our state health insurance and would have access to more resources. 

In James’s journey with mental healthcare, I always felt it was important he keep a positive attitude towards therapy. I allowed him to self-regulate: if he lost interest, we would stop for a while until he decided he should go back again.


2. Find other trans families for support

Another great thing Reid Vanderburgh did for us back then was to direct us to a small network of families who had transgender children around the same age. So the second thing we did was join a network of families with trans members.

The group was started by one mom who was, like me, concerned for the future mental strength of her 5-year-old FTM (female-to-male) trans child. This mother reached out to every resource and person she could find (including Reid Vanderburgh) and planted the seed. She planted this seed of an idea, put out her email as a contact, and families came from as far as 30 miles away to be a part of this group. 

For about six years, anywhere from four to eight families would join in BBQs and holiday parties hosted by one of the families or summer picnics at various parks.  The children all played together.  We all wanted them to know they were not alone in this world, to know that they were just as “normal” as anybody else.

The added bonus was that the gatherings also gave the parents a chance to compare notes on hormone therapies, doctors, legal documentation for name and gender changes, school documentation issues and more.


3. Look for a trans role models or mentors

The third thing I did was find James a mentor. One thing I couldn’t help thinking about was that when he hit puberty, his mom would be the last person he would want to talk to about personal or sexual issues.

A friend of mine had been a "big brother" with Big Brother, Big Sister and I kept thinking how cool it would be if my boy (who was 8 at the time), could have a transgender FTM big brother. I asked the SMYRC therapist if there was any way to reach out to the community and find a pool of possible FTM applicants. She was very supportive and even contacted Big Brother, Big Sister for us.

They assigned us a Big Brother, Big Sister worker who screened the applicants, ran background checks and did the match. They found the perfect match and for the past six years a strong bond has developed. My son's “Big Brother” has become a significant support person in his life.


Now James is a young teen. He is a solid and joyous individual who works hard in school, has lots of friends, a beautiful girlfriend, and participates in numerous physical and artistic activities.

But the teen years have not all been this wonderful; we had a bad scare last winter. Not long after his 14th birthday James got extremely depressed, became suicidal in his thoughts, and even made attempts to harm himself. What saved him and pulled him through to the other side was a combination of everything we could access.

We immediately got him back into therapy at SMYRC. James’s “Big” made a point to spend more time with him, and I found ways to keep him busy with classes and activities he enjoyed. I know now there is no sure way to completely eliminate the risk of self-harm, but we can soften the fall and create support systems that can help bring us back standing stronger and taller than ever.  

We can do this for ourselves and the ones we love; we just need to know that support is out there. If we look for it we will find it. The mom who started the Trans Family Network showed me that we all have the power to create the support and community we need if we just plant the seed.

Once we figure out what we need, we all have the power to get it, even if what we need is of our own creation. 


Photo courtesy of Flickr.