Being Transgender in an Independent High School

If you had met me in high school, you would have had to look through three-inch metal spikes, two layers of black leather, and six-inch steel toed boots to try to figure out what I was saying about my gender. This was very intentional. By adopting a counter-culture persona, I was assured that no one would think to ask, “Why don’t you dress like a girl?”  

I attended St. Mary’s Academy, an all-girls Catholic independent high school in Denver, Colorado. While I received a phenomenal academic education, I struggled daily to figure out who I was and what I needed from my family, friends, and teachers to help me.   

Growing Up

I identify as a transgender man. For me, this means that I was assigned a female sex at birth and grew up socialized as a female. However, I am a man, and live in society presenting in a masculine way (per the norms of the United States in 2016).
 
Like many transgender people, I did not fit my assigned gender stereotypes as a young person. Fortunately, my parents let me play with the toys I liked, choose the clothes that made me comfortable, and spend most of my time in the gender-neutral outdoors.
 
In addition, like most transgender people, I did not think much about my gender until I hit puberty. Then I fell apart. I suffered from an eating disorder so severe that it kept me in and out of the hospital for years. When asked what I was trying to control with my disordered eating behavior, I would usually say: “I don’t want to grow up. Being an adult seems like hell. Everything that is good happens in childhood, and I’m not interested in what comes next.” I had suicidal episodes.
 
In retrospect, I believe the majority of my distress was caused by gender dysphoria — the currently accepted diagnosis for someone whose gender identity does not match their sex assigned at birth, and who experiences this incongruence as profound psychological and physical distress. In the roiling black cloud of my eating disorder, my death metal music, my riveted black jacket, and my confusion, I entered one of the most competitive college preparatory high schools in the western United States.

Coping in High School

As I grappled with the issues of gender identity, individuation, and selfhood in high school, I felt incredibly vulnerable. But my school’s small population and academic focus prevented large-scale bullying or ostentatious demonstrations of disgust at my presence. (In contrast, I was viciously ridiculed every time I visited my friends who went to the enormous public schools.)
 
At St. Mary’s, I found a cohort of committed teachers and administrators who were comfortable with a student outside the norm. I was an early member of our school’s Gay Straight Alliance. The organization had broad support from school faculty and administrators and continued to grow during my service as the GSA’s co-president in my senior year and long after I graduated. At one point, St. Mary’s invited a panel from the local LGBTQ resource panel to a conference on diversity. This helped me find the resources I needed to understand my own identity.
 
During my first two and a half years of school, my confusion and distress manifested in a variety of self-destructive patterns and anxious outbursts. Through these challenges, St. Mary’s was committed to me as a student and as a person. Teachers and administrators helped me to see how to do better, to push through difficulty, and to choose healthy paths.
 
One case occurred at the end of my first year when I was on academic probation and had been disciplined repeatedly for truancy and disruptive behavior. The principal asked me to visit her office and told me very blankly that she thought I was smart, talented, and worthy, but that I must come to school, I must try, and I must behave in a manner conducive to others’ education.
 
While I continued to struggle emotionally for all of high school, I finished the remaining three years in good academic standing, took AP classes, and was admitted to excellent colleges. Our principal and the faculty were clear about the boundaries and believed in my ability to do well. This made all the difference to my education and future.  

Seeking Support

When I finally figured out that I was transgender, I was 17. I told many of my close friends, and most were accepting even if they didn’t fully understand. At school I had built relationships with several teachers, and felt social support from the members of the GSA. Regardless, at the time I was attending St. Mary’s, very little information was available about transgender people, our lives, or our needs. That often made it challenging for people to support me even if they desired to do so.
 
Although I received a great deal of medical and psychological care during high school, and clearly expressed that my bodily self-loathing was centered on my pubertal development, not a single medical or behavioral health professional had the education to ask how I felt about my gender. At school I felt that the people I told did not know how to support me and feared possible repercussions from a very conservative board of trustees who allocated the school’s funds.
 
I chose to tell three teachers. The first, who was also the faculty mentor for the GSA, told me flat out that he would not use the name I wished to be called or my pronouns. Another said I needed to be very quiet about this because the principal would not understand it. The third seemed sympathetic, but felt that she couldn’t do anything to help me.
 
That same year, I started living full time (meaning that I expressed my gender as masculine in all areas of my life and at all times) — not that you would know behind the dark eyeliner and fishnets.

Changing My Outlook

As I entered my senior year of high school, several things stood out:
  • I was living full time as a man, but I didn’t “pass.” (Pass means that society perceives you as your gender identity.)
  • No one at school used the name I wished to be called, or my pronouns. (Thankfully, most teachers just used students’ last names when calling on them.)
  • My family decided to ignore this particular issue entirely.
Despite these challenges, something clicked inside of me and, for the first time, I began to feel at ease in my mind and my body. It was a slow process. I still had an active eating disorder. I was in an abusive relationship that I would not extricate myself from for another three years. But I bound my already small chest every day, and wore less Goth and more masculine clothing.
 
I began speaking up in class, making new friends, and doing better in school than I ever had before. A few of us from the GSA helped to organize a multi-school Diversity Conference, where we spoke about transgender issues and provided lists of the limited resources we knew about. What I had learned from my time at St. Mary’s was how to value myself and advocate for myself as worthy. St. Mary’s educates and empowers its students to be intellectual leaders and independent thinkers, and I felt that I was both at the end of my senior year.

Helping Transgender Students in School

What could my school have done better to help me? More broadly, what can independent schools do to ensure that they validate and support the trans and gender non-conforming community? Here are three suggestions:
 
1. Educate your team. Unlike when I was in school 10 years ago, today many resources explain the basics of gender identity and provide guidance on how to work with gender diverse young people. In fact, many resources are written by trans students specifically for schools. (Below, I offer links to some that may be helpful for students, parents, teachers, and friends.)
 
2. Give students agency. Young people must be believed as they construct their identities, whether around gender, race, sexuality, religion, or politics. Young peoples’ identities may change day-to-day. If a student comes to you, as I did to both my teachers and my parents, and tells you something about their identity, listen to them and believe them. Ask questions to understand, and don’t be afraid to clarify what you don’t understand.
 
3. Make education about gender part of the everyday school experience. During Diversity Days, seminars, readings, and events, be sure to include discussions about gender and don’t single it out as exceptionally different from other aspects of human diversity.
I would advocate for a ground-level approach, which includes:
  • adding gender into the school curriculum;
  • developing a training or educational tool or course to educate staff, faculty, and administrators, even if you can’t mandate participation; and
  • making a choice to affirm students’ identities when they’re in your classroom.

Reflecting on My Formative Years

Looking back many years later, having reinvented myself in college and transitioned medically, I believe a few small changes would have made a big difference to me. I don’t regret going to St. Mary’s in the slightest. It was one of the most supportive environments I’ve ever encountered, and I was emotionally safe there in a way I never would have been in a big public school. I was extraordinarily well prepared for college and continue to draw on my high school education with a regularity that I think is unusual for most people. Yet I can’t help but wonder how it might have been then and how much further along I might be now if I was heard and supported about my gender identity during these formative years.
 

Resources

 
 

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