Beyond July’s historic Vanity Fair cover spotlighting Olympic decathlete-turned-reality-television star Caitlyn Jenner, the past year has seen unprecedented representation for the transgender community. From actress Laverne Cox and her Orange Is the New Black co-star, gender-fluid model Ruby Rose, to Kristin Beck, a trans woman and former Navy Seal now running for Congress, to President Barack Obama condemning the persecution of transgender people in his State of the Union address – it’s been a banner year for trans visibility.
But for trans youth, a generation growing up in an era of unrivalled cultural recognition and political appeals, how does it all shake down? We wanted to hear firsthand from transgender teenagers from coast to coast about the issues they live with every day. Struggling with profound body image issues as they strategize their medical transitioning, battling bureaucracy to secure proper legal identification documents or fearing simply going to the washroom – it all makes teen angst look like child’s play.
All this on top of the most difficult challenge: gaining acceptance, understanding and support from family and friends.
While the teenagers faced unique troubles – from parental estrangement and bullying at school to homophobic employers – what all agreed on is this message to adults: If you think coming out as transgender in your teens is a passing “phase,” just look at the myriad hurdles, logistics, and conflicts involved and then consider whether anyone would change genders for a lark.
Most of all, trans youth entreated parents to support their children. Here are their stories.
From the age of 4, Ashmeade felt like he wasn’t born in the right body. The 18-year-old from Vancouver came out at 14 and has been transitioning with the support of family, including his father, a bodybuilder. Ashmeade is undergoing surgery and taking a gap year before university, where he plans to study tourism.
I had cars and blocks and Spiderman and was always firm on wanting to wear boys’ clothes. People always mistook me for a boy. On special occasions, I would have to wear dresses but, other than that, I’d throw a tantrum. It just didn’t feel right. In my head, it always made sense that I was a boy but I didn’t know about this correct term: transgender.
When my body started to change in Grade 6, it was more than I bargained for. It was hard because a lot of the other guys in my class were starting to hit puberty: They were all going in one direction and I was stuck. I realized some drastic changes had to start being made pretty soon. The first people I came out to were my closest friends, who I knew would understand. They kind of knew. Another big support for me was my high school guidance counsellor. She was one of those down-to-earth people who likes hugs.
The first person in my immediate family I told was my dad. We were in the car driving back from my guitar lesson. He said: “You seem pretty down lately. What’s going on?” I broke down and told him what was happening; that I didn’t want to go to school any more because I didn’t feel like I was like everybody else. He said: “If that’s how you feel and if that’s what you feel needs to be done to make you happy, okay.” Hearing that from him was really important. All that weight just coming off your chest – that’s really how it was. Nobody in my family had ever seen this happen to anybody else. Four years ago, this was something you’d see on a CNN special. My mother just wasn’t sure that this was something that I needed to do. Me being her first-born, she said: “I feel like I’m losing my daughter.” We both needed time to cope.
Today, I’m not comfortable with having lots of male friends because I feel I can’t connect on a lot of bases. Sometimes I’m like, “Dude, I have no idea what you’re talking about.” I find guys harder to talk to. I was raised as a girl and I had a younger sister and all my cousins were girls. That’s who I was comfortable talking to. Even though I’ve always felt so male, it’s such a different experience when people identify you that way right off the bat. I’m trying to adapt to male everything.
I’m still learning how to accept myself as a transgender person. Dysphoria can hit hard; it gets kind of ugly. It comes in waves and it changes. Before, I just wanted to conceal my chest. Now, with working out, I’ve gone to the beach and concerts and had my shirt off around other people. Now I’m getting more dysphoric about my bottom half.
As I get a little older, people ask: “What do you want to do with your life? Do you want to get married and have kids?” Will I ever have my own biological children? When I was 15, I was worried about how my voice sounds and wishing I had bigger arms. Now, it’s real-life things that are starting to get to me, things I know won’t be easy to change.
I’m not afraid to stand alone and I’ve had to, a lot of times. Being able to work through this has made me stronger.
Originally from Cape Breton, N.S., 19-year-old LeFort just completed her first year at the University of Moncton, where she is a music major. She came out at 16 and began presenting as female at 18.
Before 12 or 13, gender wasn’t really an issue. You didn’t care who you played with. I ended up hanging out more with girls. By 14, I wasn’t interested in sports or associating with any of the masculine things at all. Around 16, I started Googling and found transgenderism. It was a realization: This makes sense. I was looking for my proper seat and I eventually found it. I was looking to be comfortable.
I started out coming out to my friends, who were either very for it or had no idea what I was talking about. There was plenty of explaining. Some of my friends had this vision in their heads of who I was and then, suddenly, that picture changed. I told them: “I always was a girl, you just didn’t know it.” It’s sort of like Pluto never actually was a planet: we just had it wrong the whole time.
My father, who works in the military, was completely okay with it as soon as I said it. He’s very much, “I won’t claim to understand it, but I will support you.” My mother was accepting but also hesitant. It remained an elephant in the room for a while. I never told my siblings, a younger brother and an older sister, but they caught on after a while. Once you start seeing your brother in a dress, it’s like, “Something’s going on.” Now I present as female 50 per cent of the time. If I feel girly today, I’ll wear a dress. Another day, I’ll be lazy and wear jeans and a T-shirt. I don’t hate how I look.
If I present as male, I use the male washroom. If I present as female, I use the female washroom. I’ve gotten plenty of stares and dirty looks in the women’s washroom but I’ve learned how to deal with it. If you’re trans and scared, take a buddy and be sure they’ll stick up for you. It saddens me a little. More, it frustrates me. Trans youth, we just want to live our lives.
For my small community, the most important thing would be education: teaching trans kids and giving them the tools they need. I learned from the Internet, an invaluable resource for any trans kid in this age. Later, I found a support group where you can talk face to face as comrades, rather than having to explain everything beforehand. It’s important to find a community of people who support and accept you. Be safe in that group. Numbers help.
Tong, an 18-year-old living in Victoria, identifies as non-binary, which means neither male or female. Assigned male at birth, Tong has been transitioning hormonally since last year, presenting as female at school this past year. Tong is taking a gap year before attending Halifax’s King’s College to study aesthetics and contemporary studies.
There’s male, female and I don’t fit into either of those. What I feel right now is a-gender. There are so many things that a human is and can be. I define myself by my interests and by my personality. But I also find it terrifying because it confuses people a lot. Humans like to label things to find their community and we define social expectations and interactions by gender.
When I was growing up, all my best friends were girls. I put makeup on and played with Barbies. But I never treated these as feminine activities. I just thought I was playing with toys because I’m a kid (I also played with RC cars).
Around 16, when I hit male puberty, I thought: “No. This is the wrong one.” I wanted to go through that other one. At the start of Grade 12, I went to school presenting female. I was so nervous: It’s a private school with male and female uniforms. But people were coming up to me and hugging me saying, “You look great.” Even the ones you think are going to be awful, the really douchey jocks, they’ve been smiling at me and being really nice.
The first two months my mom was iffy, saying, “I don’t think I’ll ever accept this.” It was pretty much every parent’s concern around LGBTQ children: She thought it was just some random passing phase. She wondered if I could just not get on hormones. Or in her words, “stay a boy.” She went to a counsellor with me and re-evaluated some things. Now, she’s awesome.
Ultimately, parents should have a say in what their child does or doesn’t do, but only to a degree. Puberty blockers – provided that the child talks to a specialist – should be available. It can be really harmful for teens to have to wait for so long. It’s that sense of hopelessness that leads to suicide. For me, it was important to get on hormones because masculine characteristics are really strong and it’s hard to get rid of them or cover them up. I had to do counselling for six months and then the endocrinologist wait time was three months. I had to sit and stew and wait for the day.
One of my aunts thought I was doing this for attention. This isn’t something anyone does lightly. On trans forums online you can see how people deliberate coming out; how much it will mess with their life and how much everyone will hate them. Coming out is a huge decision to make.
After beginning hormone therapy (and hearing his choir voice drop to baritone from mezzo soprano), 18-year-old Tubman-Watkins feels more in his own skin. Today, the Vancouver teen has finished Grade 12 and hopes to go into social work.
I never was comfortable with being a girl. I wore a dress once when I was 5 and I was screaming: “No! Take me out of this!” I cut my hair when I was 15. Before that, I wore it up and wore hats. My parents were very open and they didn’t push anything on me.
At 14, I found out that people transition. I got really into watching online videos and doing research. I was 16 when I started taking it as an idea for myself. I decided it would make my life more happy and probably fix a lot of the ways that I feel about myself. From a young age, I’d been feeling body dysphoria but I just hadn’t identified it that way.
I told my mom that I’m confused about my gender and that I might be trans. She said: “Let’s figure this out. You haven’t really been a girl.” She was really supportive. It’s been an adjustment for my dad: I’m an only child and, for him, I was his little girl. It’s still hard for him to wrap his head around the whole idea that I’m not going to be that person that he thought I was going to be. I do understand that.
Today, there’s so much support: We have education and so many people in the media who are trans or advocating for trans people. But all of a sudden, all the people who are transphobic, it’s making them more uncomfortable. They’re putting things forward such as the amendments to bill C-279 so people can’t use the proper bathrooms. My schools have been very good because I’ve been on their case about it – that there needs to be a gender-neutral bathroom and the option to use whatever bathroom you feel you need to use.
I don’t think people fully realize what a process being transgender is. Besides all the doctors and wait lists just for hormones, then you have to figure out funding or wait for surgery for years. Finding clothing that fits you properly and doesn’t make you look female, changing your name legally, those are huge processes too.
Today, it’s so much easier for me to look in the mirror. Before, I was nervous about social situations and the way people were perceiving me with my voice being very high and my body being a certain shape. Testosterone has helped with that. Being comfortable with yourself makes it so much easier to go out in the world and be comfortable with other people.
Growing up impoverished with a homeless mother, 18-year-old Cross struggles with the cost of transitioning – from surgery and laser hair removal to changing her legal identification cards. The Halifax teen hopes eventually to do social work, helping people who are battling addiction and mental health disorders.
In Grade 10 I started experimenting with makeup, but I still identified as male because I didn’t know anything else. I dropped out of school in Grade 11 because of bullying. It resulted in a lot of mental health issues. I didn’t know exactly what I was and it’s hard to ask for support when you don’t know what you need.
When I dropped out, I came out. For Grade 12, I moved to a different town and started school there. That didn’t go well either. I was at a very awkward phase of my transition: I had just started hormones and was very androgynous-looking. I was getting teased and also misgendered by students and teachers. I dropped out again and started working. I’m going to write my GED. It’s the best option.
I’m also on hold because I can’t legally change my name yet; you need to be 19 here in Nova Scotia. Under that age, you need parental consent but my father doesn’t live in the province and he wasn’t interested in hearing about it.
Technically, I never came out to my mother. I started wearing makeup and eventually she started buying me makeup as gifts. I changed my name on Facebook and she just started calling me Skye, too. It wasn’t until this year that we talked about it and now she refers to me as a girl. My mother has talked to other members of my family and tries to straighten them out. She has been very upfront and assertive. That’s what I wanted most: for my mom to be an advocate.
Trans teens need representation and role models. That’s what I wish I had. I went through my transition completely blind and it was extremely stressful. With hormones, it would have been great to have had someone to ask, “Hey, can you tell me what’s going to happen?” I was the only trans woman I knew and I didn’t have anyone to relate to. So, I started going to a community organization here called the Youth Project. I sit on the board and it’s provided me with so many opportunities. They flew me to Toronto to speak at the national Gay Straight Alliance for Safe Schools conference. I spoke at the Human Rights Commission and at schools across the province. It’s been the biggest thing in changing me as a person.
Today my confidence in my body is a lot higher. It’s definitely not perfect, but no one’s is.
Raised in a small Ontario town, Evans didn’t know transgender people existed. That changed when the youth activist moved to Ottawa, where she began transitioning and helped start up ETC. Youth, a non-profit organization that offers a safe place for LGBTQ teens to socialize, hosting a trans-inclusive choir and same-sex-friendly high-school dances. Evans is taking a gap year before university; she’s mulling social work or engineering.
Growing up, I’d been taught that everyone fell into one of two categories and that it was predetermined. It never occurred to me that I might be a girl. But I went and did traditionally female activities, like ballet, gymnastics and figure skating. I had long hair throughout most of my childhood. I didn’t really click until I moved to a more urban area. I was already out as gay and, as I became more involved in the queer community, I learned that there was a trans community. That’s when I fully realized who I was.
I decided to prepare everything in advance: I chose a name and when I was going to come out. Within one week, I told everyone and at the end of that week I posted it on Facebook: “Here’s who I am. You’re going to have to live with that.” I was on hormones within two weeks of coming out publicly. Reaction was overwhelmingly positive. I could be who I truly am without feeling like I was hiding something.
One of the things that adults don’t seem to get is that identities are fluid. A person may come out as a trans woman one year and five years later come out as non-binary. Identities might change and they might not. Another big myth about trans people is that all trans paths look the same. Not everyone’s path is going to start with hormones and end with surgery. Some people might take hormones for a long period of time and decide that’s as far as they want to transition. Some people want to go further and some want to take a step back. My personal path? I haven’t decided where I want to stop yet.
I have encountered my fair share of hostility. I’m a non-confrontational person; so, if there are people who refuse to accept me for who I am or who want to fight me about it, I simply don’t interact with them. My advice to adults is listen to the people who are living that experience: They will know best what they are going through and what can help.
Youth who have supportive families are much better off than youth that don’t. At Easter, I opened my apartment up to anyone who for any reason couldn’t go home. It’s called the “chosen family” – you spend holidays with the people you want to spend them with. I made almond butter stir fry with cauliflower, mixed vegetables and tofu – not a traditional Easter dinner at all. I only had two people over, but it’s still two people. For every holiday that is supposed to be family-oriented – Christmas, Easter, Thanksgiving – I’ll always try to make myself available to people who don’t have anywhere else to go. It’s usually sort of sombre because everyone has a lot of feelings regarding families.
Message to parents: support your child. They’re still your child. There is so much damage being done to what would be families, and are not.
These interviews have been condensed and edited for clarity.
The sobering reality of trans youth statistics
Homelessness, unemployment, discrimination, depression and suicide: the statistics for trans youth are sobering.
A 2009 survey about transphobia in Canadian high schools found that 87 per cent of transgender students felt unsafe in change rooms, washrooms and hallways. Two in five reported being physically harassed and nine out of 10 said they’d been verbally harassed for expressing their gender. Half said that school staff never intervened when bigoted comments were made; nearly half had skipped school because they felt unsafe, compared to less than a tenth of non-LGBTQ pupils.
While 71 per cent of trans people have at least some college or university education, about half make $15,000 a year or less, according to Trans PULSE, a community-based project that tracks discrimination against trans Canadians. It has been estimated that approximately 25 to 40 per cent of homeless youth are LGBTQ, although experts feel that number may be higher as many trans individuals feel safer on the streets than in shelters, where they may face transphobic violence.
Research has shown that trans youth without familial support are at much greater risk of depression and suicide. A 2012 study found that 70 per cent of trans youth with unsupportive parents had contemplated suicide in the year prior; 57 per cent of transgender teenagers with unsupportive parents had attempted suicide, compared with 4 per cent of young people with supportive parents. The rate of depression was 75 per cent for trans teens whose parents invalidated them. That figure dropped to 23 per cent for children with understanding parents. Fifty-five per cent of trans youth with unsupportive parents faced housing issues; that number was zero among teens whose parents were sympathetic.
A recent University of Western Ontario study of 380 transgender people in Ontario age 16 and up found a link between suicide risk and several factors: lack of parental support, transphobia and a dearth of access to medical transition. Researchers found that 35 per cent of trans Ontarians seriously considered suicide in the past year and 11 per cent attempted it. The suicide risks dropped when transgender people had social supports and felt protected from harassment and assault. They also benefited from having official documents (driver’s licence, health card or passport) that matched the gender they identified with.
Follow Zosia Bielski on Twitter: