Transgender students struggle to find peace

Jessica Sommerville | Editor in Chief
Lauren Thomas | Staff Writer

In high school, the struggle to fit in has always been one of the biggest challenges students face. For most kids, identifying with a group can be very easy. Some are jocks, gamers, geeks or goths.

For the transgender teen, the typical rites of passage for a high school student can be a nightmare. Their search for acceptance is compounded by the internal struggle to become comfortable in their own skin. The transgender teen has to watch this struggle play out on television, political maneuvering and public debate.

While they are forced to deal with the desire to shed their skin and live a life they believe they were meant to live, they must also deal with a society which is apprehensive to accept them. They don’t want to be judged or ridiculed, they don’t want to be political advocates, they simply want others to accept them and just listen. This is the story of three courageous students at Mason High School who are on a journey to discover themselves as they shed one skin for another. They simply have one request. Just listen.

Listen to sophomore Alex Roberts’ story

Alexis Roberts was born in Mason, Ohio on June 5, 2001, but in October 2016, after a year of sitting among female singers in the women’s choir, his inner voice could no longer be silenced and Alexis gave way to Alex.

Finding his voice

He started by talking to his choir director, Jason McKee, who reached out to Alex’s counselor. They decided to tell the class of twenty-five girls that one of their own would now be referred to as a male, in the hopes that the girls would accept their classmate’s transition.

“Alex felt that of all the places in his schedule that he could come out and be accepted, it was in choir,” McKee said. “As a teacher, that was a really cool moment because I thought that’s the kind of classroom environment I’m trying to create.”
Alex “was a shaking mess” when he came out, but afterward, he was relieved to be himself. From a young age, Alex felt male. He even had a fake name that he went by at age six, and it felt good when strangers perceived him as a cisgender boy.

Though he was now a man in a women’s choir, his singing voice was still feminine, so he chose to remain in that choir instead of joining the men’s. McKee, however, ordered Alex a black button down and green bowtie for their seasonal concerts.

“Since I’m in a women’s choir, I had to wear a dress, and last year was a skirt which kinda sucked,” Alex said. “This year I just did the first concert in a dress, so we had time to organize another uniform. My teacher was really supportive, and he didn’t want me not to be in choir because of it. He said he would do what he could to keep me in choir and that he wanted me to be comfortable. He got me tuxedo pants and a dress shirt and a bow tie for the December concert. That felt really nice.”

The Journey to Self-Acceptance

While Alex likes his suit, he also takes additional steps to feel more at home in his body, including purchasing a chest binder which flattens breast tissue and creates a more masculine chest.

Alex said he may consider hormone therapy in the future but that he feels “starting with simple things that make you happy with yourself is first.”

Alex also found solidarity and comfort in the Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA), a group bridging the gap between the LGBT community and the rest of Mason High School. He said he feels at home amid the members’ shared experience and open minds. Embarking on the journey to understand who you are does not have to be lonely and should not be, Alex said.

“The most important thing is not to try to deal with it by yourself, because I tried to do that for a long time, and it makes it a lot harder to accept yourself,” Alex said. “I think if you talk to someone, they can help you understand what you’re going through. Of course, no one knows your situation better than you do, but other people, they get that. Try talking to someone that has been there. I did that; I talked to another Trans person and someone in the LGBT community. Even if you talk to someone that hasn’t been down that road, they can still help you figure things out. Just hang in there because it’s worth it.”

Above all, Alex said that a person’s value is not determined by sex or gender identity.

“Just because you’re different, that doesn’t make you less important than any other person,” Alex said. “You have a voice; you matter. You may not feel like it sometimes, but you’re just as important as any other cisgender person out there. Just because you’re trans doesn’t make you less valid of a person.”

Listen to sophomore Wrynn Bouchers story

Katie Boucher was born in Mason, OH on May 17, 2001, but in 2015, after 14 years of living as a girl, Katie became Wrynn.

Wrynn was subject to bullying from a young age, even when he still identified as Katie. After his father was murdered when Wrynn was eight years old, his peers taunted him for not having a dad, claiming it was an act of God and drawing pictures of his father in a casket.

“It destroyed me,” Wrynn said. “It shouldn’t have meant anything, but it did.”

When Katie became Wrynn, the bullying reached such devastating heights he became cold and distant, even bullying others in sixth grade, which he now said he hates about himself. He felt nothing would get better, not for years, and freshman year, he had finally had enough.

When we almost lost him

Wrynn boarded the school bus planning to kill himself that day at Mason High School. His decision is one transgender students make nationwide – the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and the Williams Institute said 41 percent of transgender individuals will try to kill themselves at some point in their lives as opposed to 4.6 percent of the general public.

“I felt like nothing could stop me,” Wrynn said. “Even knowing how terrible my mom would feel, it didn’t matter to me at that point. It was just complete selfishness of just wanting to not feel anything again.”

While Wrynn wanted to die, he did not want to traumatize his peers. He sat next to the window on the third floor and planned to jump, thinking maybe his peers would not see it, maybe his pain would end without inflicting pain on anyone else.

He also considered taking a belt and hanging himself in the hallway, but before Wrynn could see either plan all the way through, a close friend convinced him to talk to his counselor, though the prospect terrified him.

Following his suicidal thoughts, Wrynn spent two weeks at the Lindner Center of Hope learning coping techniques to move beyond his depression. He met other patients in the LGBT community, which he said helped more than anything. It was at the Lindner Center where the then-Katie created the name “Wrynn” and emerged with a name that finally sounded right.

Reconciling with religion

Even after his darkest period brightened, Wrynn still faced an internal struggle that pitted his religion, as a nondenominational Christian, and his identity, as a transgender boy, against one another.

“Church is where I feel at home,” Wrynn said. “Once I started feeling like ‘Oh, I like more than just one gender,’ then it just spiraled for me because I didn’t know what to believe anymore. I tried to change myself back to being a straight girl, but I can’t. That’s just not who I am.”

Though Wrynn said his church is neither openly for nor against the LGBT community, it did hold a service after the passage of gay marriage that focused on welcoming all members as God’s brothers and sisters. Some services, however, are still uncomfortable for Wrynn.

When a guest pastor held a service, he reminisced about when he ran track in high school and aspired to be Olympian Bruce Jenner. The pastor said Bruce was all he wanted to be when he grew up, and he continued to build to his punchline: “I always say use what God gave you.” For Wrynn, this was over the line, but laughter echoed around the church.

Wrynn, however, still feels his future lies in ministry, even though not all churches may accept him. He aspires to alter society’s perceptions of Christianity as conservative and exclusive.

“I always wanted to help people realize they’re loved no matter what,” Wrynn said. “This is a realization that I had before I really thought, ‘Oh, yeah I have a crush on a girl.’ I felt called to it.”

The gender spectrum

While church remains a safe space for Wrynn, he now finds that the same school hallways once filled with bullying and depression can also provide a reprieve. His teachers have been key to helping him feel safe, especially those who have the Comet Conversations icons on their doors. For Wrynn, even the smallest details, such as the language used in class, can make a difference.

“My biology teacher was talking about genetics, and he was saying biological male and biological female, not males and females,” Wrynn said. “I thanked him for it, and he said, ‘Oh yeah, it’s no problem. I always want to show that sex and gender are completely different,’ and it just made my day.”

Rather than identify gender solely by biology, Wrynn likened gender to colors, in which pink and blue are the two binaries, yellow is both, and white is neither. These colors mix to create a spectrum, where he said gender lies. Wrynn envisions a future in which this spectrum is more accepted – that one day he will be able to be himself without hate, without torment, and without question.

“It’s possible to get through it no matter what, even with dysphoria,” Wrynn said. “I’ve been bullied about it, but it doesn’t matter. It’s possible to get through it as long as you just stay strong and know that one day you will be able to change what you need to be them.”

Listen to junior Ben Waas story

Katie Waas was born in Los Angeles, CA on February 21, 2000, but in 2012, after 13 years as a male trapped in a female body, Katie became Ben.

“As you grow up, you become more aware of these gender roles,” Ben said. “‘Girls should like pink and dresses, and boys should like blue and trucks.’ As you grow up, that becomes more clear to you, and then you start to fit yourself into what you feel is more natural.”

Ben identified himself the way he always had – as a boy – yet his body did not age like a boy’s. The older he became, the more out of place he felt in his own skin.

Aging in the wrong body

“For me, that turning point was in middle school when I was going through female puberty,” Ben said. “I was uncomfortable with the changes that were happening to my body. The clothes became more feminine as puberty would progress, and I just became more and more uncomfortable. Because when I was a kid, I could just wear a t-shirt and shorts, and no one would care because I was a kid. But now, when you’re growing up into a woman, you have to wear woman clothes. And I (thought) ‘I don’t want to do that.’”

Though Ben tried to freeze himself in childhood, when he could wear what he wanted and no one would mind, his struggle with gender identity only increased as an eighth grade student. In gym class, he entered the girls’ locker room, which felt “wrong” and “taboo.” Similarly, the classroom became an increasingly difficult place for him to be a boy.

“Sometimes we would have gender-separated activities, like ‘All the boys go to this side of the room. All the girls go to this side of the room,’” Ben said. “I would sit in the middle of the room, or between the groups, because I didn’t know which group to go to. I knew I should be going to the girls’ group, but that’s just not right. I wanted to go to the boys’ group, but everyone would be like ‘No, go away’ and it was just so conflicting because I wanted to do what was best for me, but there were other people that wouldn’t let me do that.”

Coming out

A girl on the outside but a boy on the inside, Ben initially came out to his closest middle school friends, who called him “Ben” as a nickname and became the first individuals to accept him as someone other than Katie, his name from birth. He then talked to his history teacher Melinda Corradi, as well as some of his other teachers, who then told his parents. In 2012, Ben wrote the letter that would forever change his family and slipped it under his parents’ door. At the time, Ben’s parents did not know what transgender meant, but they read these words from their son.

“Every day, every morning, every night, every moment of my life, I feel like there’s some sort of cancer coursing through my veins,” Ben said. “I pray to the God I have many times before lost my faith in, that he will maybe cure me. This sickness is rooted in my body since day one, and like leukemia, it gets worse and its pace of worsening quickens. I could go on and on but what hurts me the most is the tumors on my chest this sickness grows. I try to push them back where they came from and I never remove my jacket all day just because of how much more flat it makes my chest look.”

The parent reaction

Ben said at first his parents did not know what to think or how to understand. His father asked him, “Why don’t you want to wear girls’ clothes? Why don’t you want to be a girl?” Ben said he replied, “How would you feel if you were wearing girls’ underwear?”

Ben remembers the conversation as one that broke the ice as well as encouraged his family’s understanding. His father, Steve Waas, also wrote his own letter in response to Ben’s, to welcome his new son.

“I need you to understand that your voice has been heard, and thanks to your courage; I know who you are,” Steve said. “I am so sorry you felt that we were not listening to you, but that was not the case. As your parents, your mother and I want to protect you from any harm, and I now realize by protecting you we were not allowing you to live. I was concerned I might be losing my daughter, but I now realize I never had a daughter to lose but I always had a son. This doesn’t change a thing, and we love you, Ben, for whom you are.”

Though Ben had already shared his true self with his closest friends, this reaction was different from any other time he has come out. His parents were the only ones to leap from merely accepting Ben to doing all they can to make Ben happy and safe, especially so he may overcome the high rate of suicide for transgender teens.

“Honestly the suicide statistic never leaves our mind,” Steve said. “Every time we call his name in his room and he doesn’t answer we hesitate to open his door for what we might find on the other side.”

Though it is easiest for Steve to protect Ben within their home, Steve finds comfort in knowing Mason guidance counselors and teachers are also a big part of his safety. Ben can reach out to these individuals at any time.

Ben’s generation also tends to be accepting of him as a transgender student, but to parents who question whether or not he is making a mistake in helping his son transition, Steve responds that all he knows is “my child is smiling again, laughing again.”

With this support, Ben began to test how far his parents would allow him to transition into a boy. He cut his hair short, he resumed wearing boy clothes, and he said his parents were by his side through it all.

“I didn’t have any problems with my family as much as I did with the society,” Ben said. “I asked my mom ‘Hey, let’s go buy some boy clothes,’ and we would go to the store and go into the boys’ aisle, and we wouldn’t know what to do next. We knew we wanted to go get those clothes, but there were other people there, and they’d be like ‘There’s not a boy here.’ I would also just feel really envious of the other boys who were there because they could go shopping and do whatever they wanted. They could wear the right clothes for them; they could do what was right for them, what made them happy, and I couldn’t.”

The steps of transition

For Ben, the hardest point of his transition was when he had short hair, he wore boy clothes, but people still viewed him as a girl. With the help of his parents, he reached out to the Transgender Health Care Clinic at Cincinnati Children’s.

For transgender adolescents, several medical treatments are available. If starting treatment before puberty, a transgender child can start puberty blockers, which inhibit the physical changes that correspond with their birth sex, then start hormone therapy. If starting treatment after puberty, like Ben, transgender teens may start hormone therapy, in which they receive either testosterone or estrogen, to induce their desired puberty.

Ben started testosterone at about 14 or 15, which helped him to feel more like himself. In addition to puberty blockers or hormone therapy, many transgender patients participate in counseling for additional emotional support. Steve and Heather Waas started their own parent support group at their home, but it grew so quickly that the group transferred to Children’s Hospital. Filled with transgender individuals ages five to 24, the group was approximately 60 members when the Waas family started with the program; two and a half years later, it is more than 700 members.

For Ben, he is just grateful to finally be at home in his own body.

“That phase, when you’re transitioning, when you haven’t taken the hormones yet and you’re waiting for the time that you can, it’s a very long stage,” Ben said. “I think it’s the longest stage there is because that’s when you’re lost. You’ve got the haircut, you’ve got the clothes, you’re trying your best, but you still sound like a boy or sound like a girl, and people still perceive you as that. Every day goes by, and it’s dragging on like it’s a year for each week. It’s really terrible, and I’m so grateful that I’ve finally moved on from that stage.”

See this story in print here. 

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