The Trans Community Reflects on Identity, Sex and Gender
Published: October, 2013. Verde, Volume 15.1
About: I wrote this story — after sharing reporting tasks with a colleague — to show how a new California law, which allows students to use restrooms based on gender identity, positively impacts trans students, who face challenges as they work to realize their gender identity while attending school.
Awards: Scholastic National Gold Key Award (top 1% of 255,000 submissions); Critical Mention in Feature Writing, Columbia Gold Circle; First Place Feature Story, National Federation of Press Women Student Journalism Competition 2014; publication in Scholastic’s Best Teen Writing of 2014 anthology.
Editor’s Note: This story switches from using female pronouns to male pronouns for the main subject. The change is intentional.
Cameron was the girl with the unshaved legs and the close-cropped hair, the one who wore basketball shorts and played sports, who elicited the question: Is that a boy or a girl?
For much of her life, Cameron, now a Palo Alto High School student whose name has been changed for purposes of this story, struggled to answer this question, fending off unwelcome interrogation about her gender and her own feelings of ambivalence. At the heart of her conflict lay a division which arose between her body and her inner self. The majority of Cameron’s life has been one long passage, a search for acceptance, not only from others, but from herself.
She was adopted at two and brought to Palo Alto, never knowing her biological parents.
In her new home, she was raised by a loving family with two older brothers who gave her boyish hand-me-downs to wear, complementing the dark hair she kept trimmed short. Cameron liked the look, a remnant from her days in the orphanage. Besides, short hair was easier for her to manage.
“People knew me as a tomboy, and someone who just met me would usually call me a ‘he,’ but my friends would correct them,” Cameron says. “I would always sigh to myself because I wanted to be known as a ‘he.’ I had this voice in the back of my head whispering ‘he’ whenever someone would call me a ‘she.’”
Then came middle school, a turbulent period. It was in the forced intimacy of the girl’s locker room that her path came to a crossroads.
“It was like my whole life came down this decision, where I had to decide whether I wanted to change in the girl’s bathroom or not,” Cameron says. “Was I a boy or a girl? I wasn’t really sure, so I didn’t change [for P.E.].”
Cameron always felt like her body was a nuisance, an incessant reminder that despite all her attempts to alter her appearance, she was still a girl, at least physically; wearing boy’s clothes and binding her breasts could not change that. The very act of undressing in front of others would be exposing the feminine body which she sought desperately to ignore.
“It felt wrong,” Cameron says. “It was a new school and I didn’t want people to see me and ask questions. I didn’t want people to know [I was a girl].”
Cameron started with her sixth grade counselor, but was hesitant to reveal her confusions about her gender identity until a month of board games and small talk had passed. Finally, she confessed that she felt uncomfortable changing in the girl’s locker room. From then on, Cameron began meeting with an Adolescent Counseling Services counselor, who helped her deal with the complicated issues regarding her gender and to form a long-term plan of action. The meetings allowed Cameron to become aware of the underlying intuitions she had always felt about her gender and enabled her to ultimately embrace the masculine pronoun she always identified with: He.
He. His. Him. The words felt natural, authentic and genuine, at last providing the tangible sense of recognition that had evaded Cameron for years. Now, having fully accepted his male identity, he faced the arduous process of reshaping the way others perceived his gender in light of his sex being female.
“I was finding out who I was and people were finding out what my new identity was,” says Cameron, who says that many of his peers did not comprehend the seriousness of his desire to change his physical appearance to match his gender.
“People would say, ‘So you want to be a guy?’ And they just don’t get that I am. To me, it’s like a slap in the face,” Cameron says. “Sometimes I wish nobody knew. But people do know, so I just have to deal with it. I just wish people knew to call me a guy.”
His parents thought it was a phase, a product of teenage angst and confusion, an attempt at self-expression which would fade away, like acne or hormones or any other unsavory aspect of adolescence.
Soon, their denial gave way to a belief that they were at fault.
“My parents thought they messed up and caused me to be transgender,” Cameron says, referring to the short hair and boy’s clothing. “But I think I was this way from the start.”
Even though he has officially changed his gender, Cameron still feels in transition.
“It’s hard to accept the fact that I’m transgender,” Cameron says. “I feel I like shouldn’t have to say it. I’ll be thinking I’m a guy and then something will happen and I’ll remember that I’m transgender, it’s like a reality check.”
However, transgender students no longer have to worry about changing in the wrong locker room, due to Assembly Bill 1266, passed by California legislature on Aug. 12. The bill, designed to cut down on sex-segregation, states among other matters that transgender students may “use facilities consistent with his or her gender identity, irrespective of the gender listed on the pupil’s records.”
This means that Cameron, who identifies as male, can now legally change clothes in the boy’s locker room, use the boy’s bathroom, and play on the boy’s team in school sports. California is now the first state to provide transgender students legal rights to use sex-segregated facilities and participate in sex-segregated activities.
Furthermore, by acknowledging and supporting the basic rights of transgender students, AB 1266 ensures that schools will legitimize the premise presented by the trans community: that gender identity is more important than sex.
“We [transgender people] are not trying to be the opposite gender,” Cameron says. “We really are like that. “People don’t get that I’m not trying to be a guy. I am a guy. That’s what confuses them.”
Along with the bill, there have been other current events suggesting an increasingly positive reception towards transgender students, most notably the attention surrounding Cassidy Lynn Campbell, a male-to-female senior who was crowned homecoming queen of Marina High School, in Huntington Beach, on September 20th.
The passing of AB 1266 may signify how far society has come in accepting the LGBTQ community, yet there was a time when there was much less liberality regarding these issues.
Flashback to the 1980s
Jed Bell, a Palo Alto High School graduate of 1987 and Female to Male transgender, recalls that, in his four years of high school as a girl, there were no openly lesbian or gay students.
“I had two gay male friends and they discussed it with no one,” Bell says. “There was no telling how people would react.”
Bell didn’t know he was trans at the time, just that he varied in his sexual orientation.
“All I knew was that when I fell in love, it was with girls,” Bell says.
However Bell, who was, in his own words, “a very butch” lesbian before he transitioned, considered himself to be innately male, even from a young age.
“I thought people were stupid because they were seeing me wrong and describing me wrong,” Bell says. “They didn’t understand the way I wanted to be thought of.”
Like Cameron, he dealt with frequent interrogation about his gender from his peers.
“From my first day in school, kids were asking me, ‘Are you a boy or a girl?’ and it never stopped,” Bell says. “There were some times where I was really depressed.”
Yet due to society’s lack of LGBTQ awareness, Bell had no way of knowing what he was going through and so, for him, taking any sort of action was nearly impossible at the time.
“Back then, transgender, going female to male, was simply not on anyone’s radar,” Bell says. “It was not understood as thing that existed. It wasn’t until the 90s that somebody could realistically transition.”
It was not until 1993 when Bell read “Stone Butch Blues” by Leslie Feinberg, a book portraying the struggles of a young lesbian, that he became aware of another person with whom he could identify. Several of Bell’s lesbian friends recommended the book to him, telling him the book reminded them of him, almost as if they were reading his diary.
In the midst of perusing through “Stone Butch Blues,” Bell underwent a moment of profound clarity.
“When I saw the word transgender, I put the book down and felt a chill run down my spine because I realized that’s what I am,” Bell says. “The whole time I was reading the book I knew it was an experience that was changing my life. It was like this nebulous, cloudy, all-consuming weight had been lifted from my shoulders. I didn’t know there was a word, or should be a word, for what I felt like. And I thought to myself, ‘Now I know. This is a thing that has a name and this is what I am.’”
Jace Jamason, a Paly 2013 graduate and Female to Male transgender, starting thinking about his gender identity during Living Skills in 10th grade.
“It’s funny because everyone thinks of living skills as a joke class,” Jamason says. “I had Ms. [Letitia] Burton and there was this final project we did which caused me to think about it [my own gender identity]. Through online research for the project, I was introduced to the idea of being transgender.”
“I was nurtured to be female, and as a result I am very effeminate, yet I’ve always identified as male,” Jamason says. “But I was never the monster-truck, macho kind of guy.”
When Jamason came out to his parents, he noted mixed feelings in their reactions.
“While they were generally supportive, they wanted me to be sure and to explore the thought,” Jamason says. “My mom wants to be supportive, but she still doesn’t understand the difference between my gender and my sex.”
Burton, Jamason’s Living Skills teacher at Paly, notes the way different individuals perceive their social identity.
The difference between sex and gender is essential to understanding the perspective of trans individuals: Whereas sex reflects itself through the body, gender lies beneath the surface.
“There’s your social identity, which is how the world see’s you, and it looks at issues of race, economic status, sexual orientation, whether you’re a man or a woman, your gender identity, religion- these are all social identity pieces.” Burton says. “Seeing how one relates to another, you look at which one you feel most connected to. Some people don’t feel connected to their social identity at all, and other people feel like their social identity is a big part of their personal identity.”
Jamason stresses the contrast between his internal and external selves.
“I’ve always been very separated from my body and withdrawn to my mind, it’s like they’re two different entities but very much a part of who I am,” he says.
Jamason spoke at length with former Principal Phil Winston about how the school would deal with his gender, and as a result of the direct communication between Jamason and the administration, his gender never proved to be much of an issue.
“I had to use staff bathrooms though,” Jamason says. “I would’ve liked to have been able to use the boy’s bathroom, but I didn’t feel that comfortable with myself yet.”
Still, in other aspects of his life, Jamason’s transition was not so uncomplicated.
“I identify as a gay male, but I’ve had experiences with both boys and girls,” Jamason says. “I’ve had hook-ups, and one of them I wanted to turn into a relationship but the other person didn’t want to; they needed to grow into themselves more before they were ready.”
On the other hand, Rae Marcum, who attended Palo Alto High School from 2009 to 2011 (through 10th grade), began transitioning from female to male during 11th grade, while in the middle of a relationship.
“My girlfriend doesn’t care. She loves me for who I am as person, not for my gender,” says Marcum, who has been dating for over a year and a half.
Marcum knew he was attracted to girls while still in middle school, but it took him several years before he discerned that he was transgender.
“I finally started to understand what was going on and I learned there were other options than from what you’re assigned at birth,” says Marcum, currently a freshman at Humboldt University.
Many gender-nonconforming youth, also known as “queer and questioning,” struggle to find a safe environment where they can try out new identities and explore their feelings.
One such setting can be found through a local organization, Project Outlet, on West El Camino Real at View Street in Mountain View. Outlet seeks to empower LGBTQ youth and, according to its website, “build safe and accepting communities through support, education and advocacy.”
For Marcum, and other gender-questioning youth in Palo Alto, Outlet served as an inroad to the LGBTQ community. Marcum began trying out male pronouns during Outlet sessions.
“Outlet was a place where I could ask questions and be myself,” Marcum says. “If I felt different each week it would be fine, I wouldn’t feel like I was being judged by others.”
Anthony Ross, 41, has worked at Outlet since 1997 and acts as a facilitator for Outlet’s weekly youth meetings. Ross stresses the importance of allowing kids to discover for themselves what gender they identify with and not pressuring them to conform with certain standards.
“If you just open the space for them and make it safe for them they will just kind of explore,” Ross says. “They’ll let us know what feels best for them and that can change as they grow… they feel more comfortable this way or that way.” Most children begin to differentiate between male and female around the ages of three and four, Ross says. Around this time, young children begin to express their nonconformity and variance in gender identity.
“Sometimes a male-bodied child will say ‘When do I get my vagina’ or ‘When do I get to wear dresses?’ A female-bodied child will start to say ‘When do I grow my penis?’ They’ll actually ask their parent’s these questions,” Ross says. “It’s because they’re starting to realize that while they may feel one way, their bodies are different. It’s an internal thing, what feels best for them, which they may need help trying to figure out.”
Ross says that in many primary education settings any attempt at merging gender boundaries, such as a boy who wants to wear a dress, can be met by parents and teachers with resistance or at the very least concern. However, Ross believes the key to dealing with nonconforming children is to give them room to develop their own unique identity.
Jamason suggests a similar approach to dealing with gender ambiguity.
“As humans we naturally like to put things in boxes, but people can be anywhere on the sexuality spectrum, either very gay or very lesbian or anywhere in between and likewise, people shouldn’t be gender-labeled,” Jamason says.
Zander Davis, a history and sociology teacher at Palo Alto High School, echoes Jamason’s statement.
“You look at school, look at what you get at home, what comes up in the media,” Davis says. “There’s an understanding of society based on the perception of what it means to be a man and what is means to be a woman. I think a key part of diversity that we’re missing is mutual understanding and open conversation among people of all different classes and different types.”
Davis believes that prejudices develop when people create generalities based on limited experiences to compensate for their lack of understanding regarding a specific group, such as the transgender community. The danger of labels, Davis says, is that it causes unfair assumptions to be made.
“When we live among them [people different than us], and have our kids play together and go to school together and have conversations together, we learn about them and then those prejudices fall apart and those labels fall apart,” Davis says. “When we don’t have diversity and we don’t interact then that’s when labels acquire a lot of power.”
Ross says that it can be difficult for young children or teenagers in the middle of the gender spectrum to identify with a specific group. To fill this vacuum, a new word, genderqueer, has emerged as an umbrella term to include gender variant individuals in the LGBTQ community, without forcing them to choose a specific label.
“It [Genderqueer is] a newer generation word for gender non-conforming or androgynous,” Ross says. It’s for people who are more in that middle spectrum of gender and not really pushing to those extremes of male or female. It’s a term that a lot of youth use because it works for them more than transgender.”
To help educate schools and make the learning environment a safer and more accepting place, Outlet offers free staff workshops.
Bill Overton, principal of Ohlone Elementary school, takes advantage of Outlet’s support, having used the organization for staff clinics twice in the past four years.
“We need to be on top of anything our students are experiencing,” Overton says. “We know that kids at this age are starting to identify with gender, some kids question their identity early and so we want to be able to help as much as possible.”
Overton says that Ohlone implemented the workshops through their own initiative and adds that he often taps Outlet for advice whenever gender-related situations arise in school.
However, Marcum, an Ohlone graduate, says that despite AB 1266 there is still room for improvement in schools to create a safer environment
“Teachers should not separate students in any class by gender,” Marcum says. “It happens a lot in P.E., but also in lots of other classes, where they’ll say things like, ‘Line up boy-girl, boy-girl’ or ‘Boys on this side of the room, girls on that side.’ It’s very uncomfortable for someone who is transgender but not out.”
However, regardless of their surrounding environment, Marcum emphasizes the need for youth (or adults) questioning their gender to stay in touch with their emotions and not inhibit themselves due to perceived societal constraints.
“Let yourself question, let yourself feel whatever you’re feeling, don’t box yourself in,” Marcum says. “Find resources and people to talk to and have conversations with them.You are the most important person, you are around yourself everyday, and so if you’re not happy with yourself, you’re not going to be happy with anything.”