December 11, 2012
Strengths & Silences: A transgender life in rural America
For an in-depth look at the experiences of LGBT youth in rural areas and small towns, check out Strengths & Silences.
Portland High School, Freshman
Act I, the mess called middle school. For sixth grade, I attended a school in a small town outside of Nashville, Tennessee. Portland has a population of fewer than 12,000 people and is not known for being easily accepting of difference. Considering I had no clue what “transgender” meant, I didn’t mind being called a female or using the girls’ bathroom, but for whatever reason I was still unhappy. My young mind didn’t understand. I felt hollow, as if something wasn’t complete.
Cue to the move to Springfield, Tennessee in late sixth grade. Being the new kid, nobody was all that eager to befriend me so I was left to my own devices. All I did that summer was read. New dog? Who cares, I had a new book. New kid down the street? Who cares, the protagonist of the novel I’m reading just learned about his unique abilities. However, constantly reading introduced me to various things, including transgender individuals and the issues they face. Upon first seeing the word, it didn’t strike me as particularly meaningful. That is, until I further researched the word and found it described me and my inner feelings. The ones I had tried to push down with increasingly feminine clothing and other frivolous things that I embraced, trying to prove my “rightness.”
That summer, I had a realization that would change my life. I was a boy.
I had finally discovered the source of my unhappiness. In trying to physically represent my inner feelings, I stocked up on clothing that would compress my chest, purchased masculine clothing, and cut my hair short. I somewhat came out to my mother but gave up reasoning with her after she voiced her opinion that she thought it was the work of the Devil. It hurt to know my mother didn’t accept me. We had once had a close relationship and to have that fall apart in a single night was horrifying.
As bad as bullying can be at all schools, it seems to be amplified in the South and magnified in rural communities. It seems that in small towns, anti-LGBT bias is just accepted as the norm.
Yet I couldn’t keep this to myself. It was something so vital to my being: how is one supposed to hide their true self? I was suppressing my own identity by not being myself. I didn’t know who else to turn to, so I confided in my science teacher and I am forever grateful that I did. Without realizing it at the time, I had confided in a devout Christian… surprisingly, she was entirely supportive of what she labeled my “transition.” The day I was pushed out of the female bathroom for having short hair, she told me she would arrange for more suitable bathroom arrangements and she did. When I was shoved into my locker and called a redneck fag, she held me as I cried and told me she would find who do it and ensured me that I was neither word they had called me. She taught me to be a caring human being. She taught me that I was a human being worth being cared for.
Toward the end of my seventh grade year I was given rather surprising news – my family was once again moving. Back to Portland. Back to all of my childhood memories and friends. It also meant leaving my beloved teacher, the one person I could confide in. While I didn’t protest the move – I felt it wise to not further pressure my mother – I was deeply saddened.
Back to Portland we went. It was time for me to enter the eighth grade, which had once seemed so mystical and awe-inspiring. From the beginning of the year to the end, I was tormented. People I had once called friends turned against me. They refused to associate themselves with the weird kid, the kid who liked to rough house with the boys, the one they couldn’t get their heads around. I was hurt. No teacher here offered support. I was either told to suck it up or alert the administration, who almost one-hundred percent of the time disregarded any bullying complaints. I trudged through the year, depression and thoughts of ending it swarming my mind. The only thing that kept me going was the hope that high school would somehow be better, that somehow I would finally feel comfortable. I knew my body still didn’t truly match my real gender, but at least I would have the comfort of being acknowledged as a male. This simple acknowledgment was something I desired greatly.
Act II, otherwise known as high school, began this fall. Amazingly, people began to take off the masks they had worn for the past three years in order to explore their own identities. For me, it was my chance to start off with a clean slate. New building, new teachers, new people… it was the perfect opportunity to enact what I dubbed the Personal Gender Reform. I introduced myself as male to my teachers and fellow students. Nobody ever really questioned it.
Fast-forward a couple of months to my birthday. October 22. I was finally fifteen years old, an eager teenager anticipating his learner’s permit and struggling to maintain a reasonable math grade. At Portland High School, we announce students’ birthdays on the day they occur. That day, our principal coughed and began with the usual ‘Happy birthday to…’ and then stated my name. As you can probably tell, it begins to go downhill from there. ‘If you see Morgan in the hallways today, make sure to wish her a happy birthday!’
Just my luck. I was apparently the only person with a birthday on October 22 in the entire school. The principal had also just, however unknowingly, ruined what standing I had as a male in the school. Teachers began to refer to me as a she, even the ones that had previously never had an issue calling me he. Students began to pester me with their questions:
“Are you a boy or a girl?”
“Why do you dress like that? You look ridiculous!”
Never did I alert my parents of the bullying. Why bother them when they would only be apathetic? The school has not really responded to this bullying. They barely understand what transgender means, let alone accept this as a part of my identity. The lack of awareness and resources about transgender issues makes this an even more difficult and lonely journey than for other students who are cisgender and identify as lesbian, gay, or bisexual.
As bad as bullying can be at all schools, it seems to be amplified in the South and magnified in rural communities. It seems that in small towns, anti-LGBT bias is just accepted as the norm. Although I had hoped to just slip into a new identity and that no one would ask questions, it still seems impossible for me to be openly transgender.
I am fearful of the responses I will get from the people in my school community. But countering that is the inner pain and turmoil I feel trying to hide my true self, and the isolation I feel in trying to keep these experiences to myself. I had been feeling good about high school being the start of something new, but a person can only take so much before they begin to unwind. Slowly, I was once again falling into the downward spiral of depression that had plagued me during my middle school years. What few friendships I had left began to disintegrate. My heart was no longer into the passions that before had kept me sane. Pride would not allow me to tell my friends of my feelings. Anxiety and worry would not let me voice my desire to be recognized as male. In all honesty, I let myself go.
However, not all hope was lost.
Earlier this year, I heard about this conference called the Student Action and Empowerment Forum (SAEF) being run by GLSEN Middle Tennessee. That weekend I met some truly amazing individuals and also heard about an opportunity to get involved as a student leader advocating for safe schools, the Jump-Start Team. I was intrigued. It was my chance to be part of something bigger. I applied and was accepted onto the team. GLSEN has had a huge impact on me. It has taught me so much and has shown me that kindness can be found all around us. They have accepted me into their family and made me feel as if I have a purpose. GLSEN has given me the materials and strength to work for change in my community. They inspire me to spread the message of unconditional love. Without GLSEN and our Jump-Start Team, I would still be the kid cowering in the corner, too afraid to show my true talents and to be my true self.
You might be expecting a happy ending. Truthfully, I’m still hoping for it too. I have faith that things will get better; but for now, even while they are difficult, I know that I finally have a group of people I can confide in. And a GLSEN family that includes other students with similar experiences, shared thoughts and feelings, and who work as one to create safer schools in Tennessee. I’m still opposed by my classmates. My teachers still misgender me. My parents still don’t entirely accept me. But I’m still trekking through life with the knowledge that there are people out there who support me and support GLSEN… and because hey, I’ve heard that life is pretty wonderful!
If you would like to see how you can create safe spaces for transgender and gender nonconforming students, please see our Model District Policy.