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.