Teens in Transition: Navigating Life in the Wrong Body

The experiences of gender-nonconforming students at Whitman shed light on the process of discovery, acceptance and coming out.

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This story is syndicated from The Black and White, the newspaper of Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda, MD. The original version of the story ran here.

Some names have been changed to protect students’ privacy.

A young high school boy, working towards college and spending time with his family, looks sorrowfully in the mirror — the face staring back is not his own. Each time he looks at or thinks about his body, he wants to crawl out of his skin. Every moment he spends with his family and friends feels fake as if he is a walking, talking lie. Everyone sees him as a girl instead of the boy he is inside.

These internal turmoils are just snapshots of the extreme discomfort gender-nonconforming people experience as they navigate life.

According to UCLA researchers, over 300,000 American minors currently identify as transgender. Reuters found that as many as a sixth seek care and are diagnosed with “gender dysphoria” — distress related to an incongruence between primary or secondary sex characteristics and experienced gender. Increases in diagnosis and prevalence have garnered a rise in backlash against transgender people, especially trans children. However, when reporting on these issues, the media often discusses transitioning through the lens of parents’ experiences, excluding the trans children in question.

The experiences of gender-nonconforming students at Whitman shed light on the process of discovery, acceptance and coming out, as well as the struggles accompanying this transition.

Many trans people’s path to self-discovery begins with experiencing gender dysphoria during their youth that, left untreated, can become a significant detriment to their health. Clinical studies often show that gender dysphoria leads to suicidal ideation and self-harm tendencies, particularly in young people. This association results from the consistent misperceptions of identity by others. People who receive gender-affirming treatment earlier in life tend to experience less suicidal ideation than those receiving it later.

Despite the scientific basis, these findings sparked skepticism. Following a sharp rise of children coming out as gender nonconforming during the COVID-19 pandemic and the increase in technology use during online learning, some have attributed feelings of gender dysphoria to social media indoctrination and a rise in screen time. Some parents believe that their children’s peers and the internet influenced them to become transgender. For many, however, the opposite is true: social media introduces them to language that encapsulates their struggles and allows them to connect with others in similar situations.

For Whitman junior Max, his family beliefs influenced his transition. Growing up, he felt constrained by the gender stereotypes forced on him — girls could only play with other girls and do girly things. He asked his older sister if it was normal to feel like a boy living as a girl, to which she assured him most girls felt that way at some point, he said. Max never questioned her answer; he didn’t know that someone could be gender nonconforming until later when content on social media revealed to him there was a word to describe his internal turmoil: transgender.

“You get all of your ground beliefs and everything when you’re young,” Max said. “I think that social media is acting as an outlet for people to finally discover or even explore who they are.”

Beyond the internet, schools provide a similar space for children to learn information their community and family might not have introduced. For this reason, some parents have attacked public school curricula for “indoctrinating” their children into certain viewpoints through curricula, specifically around gender identity. However, in MCPS, the Employee Code of Conduct requires educators to present political opinions in a “balanced and fair” manner, providing students opportunities to explore all sides of a topic and encouraging them to “examine, analyze, evaluate and synthesize” the information before drawing their conclusions. This framework allows for a neutral, unbiased platform for students to form opinions and safely express their identities, which is especially important for those who might not have that opportunity elsewhere.

Sophomore Harry, who started his transition in 2021, is grateful that he lives in an accepting community that allows him to live authentically. When he moved to Maryland from D.C., Harry saw more transgender and queer people than he ever had before, despite being close to his old home, he said. In school, safe places and acceptance from others were important in his journey. MCPS provides staff with guidance for supporting gender-nonconforming students various ways and doesn’t require teachers to inform parents of a student’s gender expression. If Harry feared being outed at school, life would have been much harder, he said.

“Legislation that makes schools — if a kid is questioning their gender or wants to use a different name — alert parents is really toxic and harmful,” Harry said. “As sad as it is, there [are] some parents who would rather kill their children than have them be trans, and outing a kid can put their safety in serious danger.”

Disapproving parents may even force their children out of their homes. The Trevor Project, an organization aiming to raise awareness for LGBTQ+ mental health issues, found that around 28% of LGBTQ+ youth experienced housing insecurity or homelessness, half of whom reported their parents kicked them out or abandoned them. The possibility of homelessness underscores and justifies the fear of being honest to family.

“My parents come from a very naturally conservative household. They’re not necessarily homophobic or anything, but they just don’t want me to be like that,” Max said. “It’s so hard when you’re trying to hide it with your parents.”

Many communities have started pushing for legislation that safeguards transgender youth’s rights to acceptance and life-saving treatments, but local and national legislators are continuing to restrict access to trans medical care across the country.

In 2023, lawmakers nationwide introduced over 550 bills surrounding transgender people, many of which focused on transgender youth. Amidst fear that physicians force treatment onto the youth, these laws often aim to limit or outright eliminate youth access to gender-affirming treatment.

However, the process of receiving gender-affirming treatment as a minor isn’t as simple as proponents of these laws make it out to be. Generally, to begin receiving gender-affirming care, the transgender child and their family visit a healthcare provider to establish the specifics of their situation. The child will then start therapy or counseling to determine the severity of their dysphoria, and depending on the findings, the provider may recommend additional assessments. Gender-affirming treatment is typically only provided after the child and their family have received counseling and fully understand their options.

“You have to do a certain amount of therapy before you’re allowed to get hormones,” Harry said. “You need to have a consultation with doctors where they basically spend an hour telling you about all of the negative things that could happen.”

Some children may choose not to transition for a variety of reasons, ranging from societal pressures and lack of acceptance to personal choice. For junior Chase, who identifies as gender-fluid, the support from their family and friends has been paramount in their decision to socially transition. Support includes simply respecting pronouns or helping someone present how they want to, Chase said. Even if someone doesn’t medically transition or is too young to receive medical assistance, social support can still positively impact their mental health.

“I can’t even imagine having to live where everyone is just completely disregarding your identity,” Chase said. “Not just disregarding it, but actively telling you that you’re delusional.”

Despite continued testimonies demonstrating otherwise, many still believe that being transgender is an impulsive, inevitably regretted choice. However, studies across Europe, the U.S. and Canada reveal that only approximately 1% of those who received surgery regretted their decision. Among these people, half reported this regret was temporary. The notion that anyone would choose to be harassed and dehumanized is simply unfounded.

“You’re not choosing to be trans,” Max said. “It sucks. It’s awful. It’s not a choice. You can choose to transition, but not to be trans.”

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