Wondering what’s going on with the seemingly sudden surge of transgender teens? We asked them.
The last couple of years have been big for transgender visibility. In 2015, Bruce Jenner became Caitlin. In June, Jamie Shupe of Oregon became the first person in the U.S. to be legally declared “non-binary,” officially not a member of either sex. In October, 17-year-old James Charles, already Instagram and YouTube famous for his assertively creative makeup artistry, became CoverGirl’s first-ever male spokesmodel. (“Just a little DIY side note,” he says in a video as he draws constellations on a purple-sky background painted around his eyes, “If you have a pimple, turn it into a star. Oh my god! Wow! Problem solved.”)
A New York Times analysis reported that about 1.4 million American adults identify as transgender. That’s about 0.6 percent of the population, double the number, 0.3, compiled by the Williams Institute at University of California, Los Angeles in 2011.
As for transgender teens, there appears to be no official count—but here’s what I’ve seen in Reno lately. In May, the Washoe County School District became one of the first in the nation to allow students to use the restrooms that correspond with their chosen gender identities and to call students by their chosen names. Teens I know started changing the pronouns on their social media profiles from “he” or “she” to “they”—a choice that hasn’t yet caught on widely among non-teens, but has gained official approval by the American Dialect Society, which in 2015 deemed “they” acceptable as a gender-neutral, singular pronoun, and by the Washington Post, which adopted singular “they” in its style guide.
Also, among the families that stream through the veritable revolving door that is my kitchen, a teen has occasionally asked to be called by a new name that signifies a new gender identity. Parents have occasionally wondered out loud at my dinner table, “What’s happening here? Is this a phase? Just a trend?”
All of this has left me with two questions: Is this “new” gender fluidity among teens actually new? And what do trans teens themselves have to say?History repeats itself
Jeff Auer is the director of the Nevada LGBT Archives. He’s also a doctoral student in history at the University of Nevada, Reno and an adjunct faculty member at both Truckee Meadows Community College and UNR. I asked him whether any societies, past or present, had conceived of gender categories in ways other than the binary designations “male” and “female.”
“There’s a long history of it here in America,” he said. “There’s examples all over the world, thousands of years of indigenous cultures.”
Expressions of alternative gender identities throughout history have been met with various reactions from mainstream society.
Molly-houses, for example—secret societies of men in 18th-century England who would dress up as women and, in some cases, engage in mock birth rituals—did not go over so well.
“It turned into a scandal in British society,” Auer said. “Apparently they were quite common, which sort of horrified people.”
On the other hand, there have been examples of transgender identities being widely accepted, or even revered, in traditional Native American cultures, for example.
“They had a completely different idea of gender,” Auer said.
A blog post by LGBT scholar Will Roscoe, who lives in Seattle, explains the concept of Native American “two-spirits.” They were “male, female and sometimes intersexed individuals who combined activities of both men and women with traits unique to their status as two spirits. In most tribes, they were considered neither men nor women; they occupied a distinct, alternative gender status.”
The two-spirits concept “was found in almost every Native American tribe in the United States,” Auer said.
“I think you always should look to American popular culture for clues to what people are thinking is acceptable at the time,” he said. He traced a recent lineage of gender fluidity, as reflected in the glitter glam rock periods and bands such as the New York Dolls in the ’70s and Blur in the early ’90s.
Other prime examples include the 1975 musical The Rocky Horror Picture Show. “It inspired a huge culture that basically lasts to this day,” Auer said—and television shows such as Transparent, in which Jeffrey Tambor plays a father who comes out as transgender once his children are grown, and Orange is the New Black, where transgendered actor Laverne Cox plays a transgendered character.
“I think that emboldens youth who are immersed in the culture into accepting it and feeling comfortable enough to come out,” Auer said. “There’s a long history of this, especially in terms of adults. There’s more acceptance among younger teenage children today about gender.”Straight from the sources
I asked a few Reno teens who’ve re-thought their gender identities to share their own perspectives on how they define themselves—and what they’d like adults to know. All of their names have been changed.
I started off as “female to male,” then I didn’t want to put a label on it. I’m just male—period. Some people point out how low my voice is, the way I act more masculine.
Growing up, I had more guy friends than female fiends. I never played around with Barbies. I played more with Bionicles. I was into superheroes. I never wanted to dress like a girl. I wanted to wear stuff that was black. I never wanted my hair in pigtails or braids or anything. When I was 12, I never wanted to shave my legs.
When I was 14, I started realizing I’d rather be called handsome than beautiful. I started off as gender-fluid. Some days I’m more masculine—some days I’m more feminine.
Some people were more comfortable saying, “Hey Trinity” or “Hey Tyler.” “Tyler” just had a nice ring. I hated “Trinity.” It just wasn’t who I was.
I’d say the pronouns were extremely hard for people to catch onto. Acceptance from my family is extremely insane. My dad is like, “I’ll never call you Tyler.” He’s like, “You were born as our little girl.”
It was natural for me. It wasn’t hard to introduce myself as Tyler. When I made the change, I never slipped up calling myself Trinity. I feel like I’m just trapped in a body where I don’t want to be.
I found a teacher who was accepting. My counselor changed my name in the system. My guidance counselor is awesome about it. He’s so cool about it. Totally for it, doesn’t have any questions about it. He said he’d be sure to email all my teachers. My mom is very supportive too.
I run a group for LGBT teens that have problems with self-harming or mental illness and stuff. I’m an intern for a therapist. That’s what I want to do when I grow up.
I play basketball, baseball and stuff. But not volleyball. Running around in spandex and booty shorts, that’s not my thing.
People will question me and be like, “What are you doing in the girls’ locker room?” I’ve had a gym teacher tell me it’s a disgrace for me to be in the girls’ locker room. Even though I identify as a male, I still have female parts, so I have to use the girls’ locker room. I’ll get weird looks going into the women’s restroom.
I think that people don’t have a lot of respect for [pronouns]. I’ll meet new people, and before we get the chance to introduce our names, my friend will introduce me as “she” on accident. Other people are like, “I don’t care if you identify as a male. You’re a she.” The way I see it is like, if I want to be called this, if I work so hard, it took me a long time to come out, and it’s who I am. I think the only people who understand are people who’ve come out or are trans themselves. We didn’t ask to get the body that we have. If I had a choice I’d be in a male body right now, but unfortunately that’s not the way it works.
Emotional stability with this stuff is crazy. I’ve had a lot of times where I’m like, “I might as well just go back to ’Trinity’ and be unhappy with myself.”
[People] need to understand that we feel this way because we are this way. Even if it is “just a phase,” that’s who we are at that moment in time.
I would describe my gender as “gender fluid.” Sometimes I’m more masculine and sometimes I’m more feminine. It depends on the day. Today I felt more masculine, so I presented myself in a more manly way. Sometimes I want to look up and do my makeup—and I don’t really like makeup some days.
On days when I’m more masculine, I hang out with smokers. When I’m more feminine I’m more up in everybody’s business. I connect with girls better than guys. Even on my more masculine days, I hang out with mostly girls.
It took me a long time of bouncing back and forth. I thought I wanted to be female. I presented myself more female for a while. [Then] I was like, “I just want to follow whatever feels right that day.”
I’m lucky to have a big family. Every Thursday night we have a big family dinner. There’s 42 of us. My family’s very supportive of everything. Having that many people support me, that’s awesome. I go to a school that’s very supporting. I don’t really have very many toxic experiences.
I’m a YouTuber, and I blog about my life, so I constantly have a camera and am filming whatever I’m doing, whatever’s going on. I have 70 subscribers. On Instagram, I have 3,500 followers. I talk about video games. Video games are my life. I play the game and talk about whatever’s going on in my life, just whatever. Sometimes I yell at the game.
The pronouns were a big issue for me. I thought I had to be called “male” or “female.” Now I don’t care if you call me “miss,” “mister.” Sometimes if I’m walking down the road I get “mister.” Sometimes I get “miss.” I just love that anybody’s trying to talk to me and communicate with me.
I think that [the teen years are] a time of experiment. It’s a time when people figure out what their path in life is. People need to understand that not everyone else is going down the same road they are. … The teenage years are just a time to experiment and figure out who you are as a person, who you want to be in your adult life.
In my case, I haven’t had a lot of external disturbance—I have had a lot of internal conflict. That has caused depression and anxiety, and I’m always afraid I might be letting somebody down. I feel like that happens to everybody to some extent, but I think that gender has made it even more so.
I guess, the easy way to say [how I identify] is “more masculine than I actually am.” I identify as male.
The way I dress points that out, my hair and the way I want to look every day. It’s also the way I talk and present myself. I’m just trying to get the idea across to people that I am what I am, like it or not.
It was when one of my exes that, like, I guess, introduced me to [the idea of becoming male]. Truthfully, deep down, when I look at it, throughout my life, I’ve been more guy-ish, but I tried to make it up with dresses, and I tried so hard, then when an ex of mine showed me who this group was, I was like, “It’s OK.” I was 12 when that happened. Now I’m 15.
The easy part is the people who accept you more. [One hard part is that] a lot of people say, “That’ll change when you get older.” That’s for older me to decide.
There is one more good thing—the real use of the inner you. It just feels great. It feels amazing.
More of the difficulty is the people who love you, parents and everything. It’s hard for them to understand because they don’t go through it. At first they don’t believe you because they haven’t gone through it. It’s really challenging, going through the steps of acceptance throughout everything. Transitioning is just going to be really hard with families.
A lot of my peers at my school accept this. A lot of them do. But some of them—it’s a really new concept, and it’s hard to tell them, “I want to identify as this and this.”
Substitutes are the worst. Usually they just go by the attendance sheet that they’re given. It’s like, the people who don’t know your birth name, and you don’t want them to know, and it’s—I’m just like, “Yo, OK, that’s cool. You can’t really deal with it.” At the same time it’s a really stressing thing to have happen, what’s cool about it is having friends in your class that really stick up for you.
I know a lot of people have been very stickler about [pronouns], and like, “This is not OK if you don’t address me as this or this.” But truthfully, for me, people call me what I want. Sometimes they mess up and use the wrong pronouns, and it’s fine. I say, just give people time.
Creativity identifies me most. I am a really creative person. It just comes to me easily, and I’m not a very—I’m not the best person in school. I’m too outside, out of the box. I do art. I don’t know if you know what this [social media platform] is, but it’s called a Tumblr—I post art on there. Art is a passion of mine, and I plan to do it in the future.
I know this is very narcissistic, but I’m a very intelligent person, also a very open-minded person. I talk about anything, politics or gender or sexuality or art. Art is very big on my part.
[It’s important for people] not to be scared, not to be scared of change. This is how our world is now. I want them to understand that some people inside don’t feel like themselves, and it’s important for people to be who they are. This is a free country. How people are making it right now, it’s not. It’s OK to be scared, but not to be too scared to not accept it at all. [Some people] feel like it’s OK to be mean to people.