With additional reporting by Sam Schnee
Most of us don’t like putting our phones in the caddy every time we walk into class. It’s definitely annoying, but for most it’s nothing more than a minor, quickly forgotten inconvenience. For some students, though, this experience can be the worst part of their day. When a birth name—one that has caused pain throughout their entire life—is displayed for all of their classmates to see, transgender students are forced to out themselves to their peers. This effectively labels them as transgender, and to many, nothing more.
“I don’t want to have to have an uncomfortable conversation with a counselor I don’t trust just to feel safe in class … With the new phone policy, a lot of teachers have the roll sheet hanging up and my legal name is on display for everyone to see,” Senior Jack Pearce said, a transgender student who has been progressively coming out since the 8th grade. “That’s obviously not fun.”
The unique obstacles that transgender students have to face at Tam, and in life, profoundly affect their high school experience. “I think that being trans has given me difficulties, in that I don’t only have to struggle with typical things about being a teen and the typical self-confidence insecurities,” Pearce said.
These insecurities add another layer of stress to a transgender teen’s life. One of the most prominent issues that comes with being transgender is gender dysphoria. While this does not affect every transgender person, it creates a unique struggle that cisgender people do not usually consider. “It’s caused by a disconnect with your brain and your body and it causes dysphoria, which is a type of distress,” Senior Connor Gibson said. “It makes your brain go ‘Hey, I’m not meant to have this body, I’m meant to have the body that matches what my brain is telling me.’” This can result in a feeling of extreme dismay about their body’s appearance, as it often doesn’t match up with who they feel they truly are.
This sense of dysphoria is prevalent in many transgender people’s lives and can often affect one’s mental health. “I have had depression as long as I can remember, and it has gotten extremely bad to the point where I was going outside of my room only two days a week,” Tam alum Dean Weiler said. “I learned to wear multiple layers of baggy clothing to hide my body. I dyed my hair and got piercings to change my physical appearance in any way. I remember thinking to myself that when I grow up, I am going to get every test done on me to find out what was wrong, because I just knew something was so wrong with me. To this day I am always making sure [that] my voice is deep enough and that I am not walking too feminine.”
Clothing choices are not an uncommon source of dysphoria for transgender people. “I have a million things I’d love to wear, but can’t because they fall on my body wrong and it just doesn’t look right,” Pearce said. Dysphoria presents itself in different ways, and for Pearce it can even cause such internal turmoil that he cannot interpret his own self image. “I’ll look in a mirror and sometimes literally have to take a minute before I realize I’m looking at myself, even though I logically do recognize myself,” Pearce said.
Gender dysphoria was classified as a mental disorder partly because of the mental trauma it can put transgender people through. “I’ve known maybe five or six legitimate trans people in my entire life and two of them are dead because they’ve killed themselves. That’s not a great percentage,” Gibson said.
According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, 41 percent of the transgender population in the United States attempt suicide at least once in their life. In San Francisco alone, 32 percent of transgender students under the age of 25 attempt suicide.
The isolation that can beset transgender students is severe. “One of the most potent feelings as a trans person, one of the most constant feelings, is being an outsider,” Gibson said. “That’s hard in such a big school, a public school, where everyone has their own little groups. I have a lot of trouble fitting into groups for that reason … I think it’s a hard topic for anyone to deal with.”
Weiler also struggled finding his place in high school due to his transition. “I didn’t fit in with girls because I wasn’t one, and I didn’t fit in with guys because they didn’t see me as one,” he said, “I jumped from friend group to friend group, but I rarely found anyone who didn’t see a difference between me and any other guy at school. The only time people ever started calling me a guy and using male pronouns was when my voice dropped and [I] had gotten surgery. No one took me seriously in the time when I needed the support the most.”
The feeling of being an outsider not only stems from anxieties within, but certain school environments can also create tense situations for transgender students. One concern for transgender students at school is the use of their birth name, appearing on documents such as school IDs, yearbooks, and roll call sheets.
“It’s another experience that most people won’t have to deal with, and thank God,” Gibson said. “The feeling of hearing a name that you have so many negative associations with … It’s like being punched in the chest. That really is what it feels like. I’ve had my birth name called on the roster back before it was changed and I straight on have a panic attack. That’s not something kids should have to go through everyday.”
As far as changing names in school, the administration expresses that, while it is difficult to change one’s name on all platforms in the schools’ database, it is easy to make a preferred name appear on most documents. “Our transcripts are legal documents,” counselor Alexandra Hunt said. “They have to reflect a person’s legal name. At the same time, how horrible is it if a student identifies as one way and because of legal reasons has to be called something else by their teacher, or outed to a certain extent?” She added that there is a way around this situation, though. “If a student [is] … identifying as a different gender, they can come in to their counselor, they can say ‘hey, here’s the deal, here’s the way I identify,’ and we will go ahead and change it in the system … It will show up on all attendance sheets, forms for subs, and Google classroom so they won’t have to deal with having to explain to complete strangers their choices in life or how they identify … None of it is anybody’s business and the school is respecting that.”
Although the school has the ability to use preferred names in school, due to these restrictions of legality, student birth names appear on certain documents regardless. “The school has a way to change it, but it’s varied based on counselor and it’s honestly an incredibly uncomfortable process for something so easy,” Pearce said.
Weiler had previously faced problems in trying to change his birth name to his preferred name on school documents. “Until I had my birth certificate legally changed and could prove it to them, the school refused to have the conversation,” he said.
Legally changing one’s name can be expensive, but Weiler was fortunate enough to have the financial and emotional support of his family. “Not only was I able to legally change my name, but also my gender marker,” Weiler said. “Not every state even allows a legal name change. A name and gender change is super important to many transgender people, it allows us to function in legal settings without having to out ourselves.”
Until Weiler was able to legally change his name and gender, he would often have to go out of his way before school even started just to try and make his in-school experience more typical. “In school I would email all my teachers at the beginning of the year to let them know that my name is Dean and that I am a transgender man and explain the situation to them. It was extremely nerve wracking and very tiring. I was forced to come out to my teachers every year, and a lot of the time they never looked at their emails, so in class when they were calling roll I had to correct them after they called out my birth name,” Weiler said.
While Weiler had many understanding and accomodationg teachers, substitutes were a completely different struggle. “I have had many bad experiences with substitutes who single me out and refused to comply with me. I would try to go up to them before class … to correct my name, though some wouldn’t even talk to me,” Weiler said.
Another issue for transgender students is how other people address them, whether this be by their name or just their pronouns. The changing of pronouns can lead to uncomfortable conversations for transgender students. “All it does is make me feel more called out because I know I’m the only one who actually needs [to explain pronouns],” said Gibson. “Just assume. I’d rather correct you than have to deal with you asking.”
Gibson’s perspective on how people see gender was also noticed by Weiler during his transition. “[When] I first came out my freshman year … people either wanted nothing to do with it because they didn’t understand, or people only really treated me as a girl.” Weiler said. “Now I’m much more masculine presenting and looking how people would normally see guys. Now they’re just treating me like a guy. People aren’t used to the in-between and they don’t know how to deal the shifts between people and genders.”
Transgender students expressed that people from the Tam community often have reactions towards transgender students that have affected their overall school experience, as well as their lives in general. “I’ve had friends who have made [being transgender] a big issue and have mentioned it a lot and I’ve dumped those friends,” Gibson said. “I’ve had friends who completely pretended I wasn’t [transgender] and were like ‘well what do you mean’ when I can’t go swimming with them, and I can’t go to the beach, and I can’t go in a hot tub when I’m at their house and they’re like ‘um you’re being difficult,’ like no. There are going to be things that trans people can’t do… Just be respectful. Ask and set boundaries. And don’t make it about you.”
Through all of the individual struggles, transgender students at Tam have found ways to overcome the problems that weigh them down. “I think it’s not a question of ‘how do I do it’ because you really don’t get a choice,” Pearce said. “You either figure it out and deal with it or you don’t. There isn’t a strategy, at least for me. It’s just got to be done.”
Overall, transgender students at Tam expressed that they do not want to be known for their gender, they just want to be known for who they are. “I often feel reduced to my identity and nothing else … people think of me as ‘that trans kid who…’ and not ‘that kid who …’,” Pearce said.
Other transgender students have expressed the same feeling. “I just wish [being trans] wasn’t the first thing everyone knows about me. I was apprehensive about doing this interview. I was originally going to be like no, fuck that, I’m [not] ‘Connor the trans kid.’ I don’t like that. I don’t want to be [that] … If I never heard the word trans again I would be happy. I really would. If it didn’t have to be a part of my daily life. I mean you have no idea how many times I hear that word in a day. I just wish it didn’t exist,” Gibson said.
In reality, most transgender students see their queerness as a small part of who they are. These students feel that their peers, and people in general, need to recognize transgender people as more than just their gender identity.
“I just wake up and I want to live my normal human life,” he said. “I try to make being trans as little a part of my life as possible. I don’t go to trans support groups. I don’t go to pride parades. I don’t go to GSA. I don’t talk about it unless it’s [with] people I know and trust… I try to make [being transgender] as unknown of a thing as possible,” Gibson said.
Transgender students at Tam will never share all of the same experiences as other high school students, but their reality does not change the fact that they are still teenagers discovering their place in society. Even so, their varied past will affect how they live in the present.
“What it feels like being a normal kid going to high school, I will never have that. I’ll never have a male childhood. It’s really fucking horrible to think about. Just all the stuff you miss out on,” Gibson said. “So if you have a trans friend, all trans people just want to forget they’re trans, really. And if you don’t, you don’t really know what trans is and you’re probably not. Don’t talk about it behind their back don’t make them the trans friend. Just treat them like you treat anyone else.”
“We all have names, we’re just average people,” said Pearce, “We aren’t better or worse than anyone … Being trans is a minor personality trait, and isn’t what makes up who we are.”