Second in a three-part series.
BOSTON — On the first day of school last year, 16-year-old Nate came out as transgender to teachers and students all at once, one class after the other. He says so far it was the most difficult day of his transition from living as a girl to living as a boy. Nate was a sophomore, beginning his second year as a theater major at Boston Arts Academy.
“I’m really, like, socially awkward,” Nate says in a matter-of-fact voice. “I was really reserved and insecure about who I was. Even though I go to the school I go to, I was really afraid there would be someone who, you know, wouldn’t be as accepting of me.
WBUR reporter Martha Bebinger explores challenges facing transgender teenagers through the story of Nate, a 16-year-old transgender male.
“I think I’ve heard every single horror story of trans kids in school and I’m just like, whoa,” he adds.
His theater teacher, Maura Tighe, remembers that first day of school, her finger sliding down the attendance sheet. “Natalie,” Tighe called out. Instead of “here” Tighe heard, “I’m Nate now.”
Tighe says she didn’t flinch. “I’m like OK, cool. You’re going have to remind me ‘cause I know you as Natalie.”
Nate still has to remind Tighe and other teachers who forget and say “Natalie” or “she.”
But as far as Tighe could tell, Nate’s announcement that first day back at school came and went without a stir.
“He just said it right there and no one in the class could have cared,” she says.
One reason for Nate’s easy transition may be that he’s a theater major at an arts high school.
In his theater class, Nate blends into a circle of kids whose faces reflect the mix of races in Boston. A young, broad African-American woman leads a warm-up chant that rocks the room. Arms and hips thrust or sway in rhythm.
After the warm-up, Nate pairs off with his good friend Carlos. But, Nate says, Carlos’ mother won’t let him go to Nate’s house ever since Nate came out as transgender.
Carlos and Nate rehearse a scene that is written for a man and woman. But with just a word of agreement, Carlos plays the woman and Nate the man.
Tighe, their teacher, says students gender swap all the time in class.
“They get to choose,” Tighe says. “They want to play a man, then how do we do that in our bodies? It’s good work for them.”
Tighe says Nate is lucky to be making the transition at this school.
“I did teach in a suburban, upper-middle class, predominantly Caucasian environment,” she says, “[where] I don’t know that that would have been the case. [It was] a bigger school where there’s more gender identification based on what you do and how you look. I don’t think that’s the case here.”
‘It All Seems To Come Back Down To Bathrooms’
“This is a school where we really encourage students to express and explore their identities,” Boston Arts Academy principal Anne Clark says. “And this comes along with it.”
Clark says she has not heard any complaints from students, but parents are a different story — particularly when it comes to bathrooms.
“Along with having one of the most diverse student bodies in the city of Boston, we have a very diverse family community. We have had some families ask questions about bathrooms,” Clark says, finishing her sentence with a laugh and shaking her head. “It all seems to come back down to bathrooms in the end.”
State guidelines released in March say schools must offer transgender students access to a safe, clean bathroom, either unisex or one that matches their chosen gender.
“Unfortunately, it’s sort of a zero sum game,” says Andrew Beckwith, vice president of the Massachusetts Family Institute. “If there’s a boy who is uncomfortable using the boys room because he believes himself to be a girl and he goes into the girls bathroom, well, there’s going to be anatomical girls in that bathroom who are uncomfortable with him being in there with them. At some point you have to take into consideration how we protect the privacy of all the students, not just a certain few.”
director of support services at Boston Arts Academy
Nate, as with many transgender students, says he rarely goes to the bathroom at school because he’s not comfortable in the boys room, and the unisex option — in this case, the nurse’s bathroom — is on a different floor than most of his classes. Clark says she hopes to add more unisex bathrooms soon, something she says all schools should consider.
Clark says she tries to assure parents that their children will have privacy and safety when going to the bathroom or changing for dance and theater classes.
“I think once everyone understands ‘our commitment to diversity with respect and community with social responsibility,’ ” she says, repeating the school’s motto, “I think [the bathroom issue] becomes OK.”
But Clark admits it can be tricky. She remembers phone calls and meetings with the parents of one student who asked to be addressed as a girl at the school, while at home the parents were firm: They were raising a son.
“Part of what I did,” Clark says, “was to try to eloquently talk about the student without using names or pronouns, as much as possible.” She says she was careful “not to correct the parent, of course, when the parent uses a different name and pronoun, [and] not to correct the student.”
Clark says her focus in the middle of such a difficult parent/child dispute is on “supporting the identity of a person who is in transition.”
Nate is grateful and relieved to be at a school that has let him become who he thinks he really is.
“I have friends now in my theater class,” Nate says. “I feel like I’m way more outgoing and more comfortable, like, in my own skin.”
There are four transgender students at Boston Arts Academy this year. Three more students do not identify as either male or female, an identity sometimes called genderqueer. Charmain Jackman, the school’s director of support services, expects that number will continue to rise.
“Every year we’re seeing more and more kids,” Jackman says. “It’s more acceptable in society. I think there’s a character on ‘Glee.’ I mean, there are places where this is becoming part of our culture and that’s why kids are feeling it’s OK to do. And again, we’re very accepting, so kids come out, they transition and it’s no big deal.”
But that’s not true at all high schools in Massachusetts.
“At the end of my senior year, I tried coming out on Facebook and the backlash was insane,” says Logan Ferraro, a 22-year-old transgender male. Logan started making the transition from female to male in his last year at Wilmington High School.
“People made fun of me constantly, they threw bottles at me in gym class, they smashed in my car windows,” Ferraro says. Worried that he might be attacked on the way to his car, Ferraro would occasionally wait inside the school until everyone else had gone home.
Ferraro missed a lot of school and dropped from an honors student to one with Cs and Ds. Still, he graduated as Logan after legally changing his name.
New state rules say students can request to change their name and gender on school records at any time. Records the school can’t change, like a birth certificate, are to be kept in a confidential file. There is no set age at which students can make the change without a parent’s permission, but the state expects that 14, or by high school, will be the general practice.
Making A New Identity Permanent
Now Nate himself is ready for a full legal name change. It would be his first step toward making his new identity permanent. Nate’s parents are reluctant, but they agree to talk it over at a family dinner.
Nate’s stepfather, Wes, ladles pasta primavera onto everyone’s plate, takes a few bites and launches the conversation. “Well, I’ll ask a question: What do you want your name to be?”
“My full name?” Nate clarifies. Wes, sitting across the glistening dark-wood table, nods. “Nathan Antony.”
Jackie, Nate’s mother, looks at her child intently.
“You could really say, in your heart of hearts, ‘I want for the rest of my life to no longer be Natalie Catherine, but to be Nathan Antony’?” Jackie says, speaking slowly, deliberately.
Nate looks back at his mother, aiming to match her intensity. “Yes, I can,” he says. “I’m looking you dead in the eye.”
Nate tells his parents about the suspicious looks he gets when he hands a stranger his ID with a female name and picture. He describes the awkwardness of filling out forms, wondering whether it will be safer to list Natalie or Nate.
“It hurts a little, it’s a little trying on my self-esteem,” Nate says.
Jackie pushes back a couple of times. Is Nate really sure about changing his name? Then everyone at the table is quiet for a minute.
“All right,” she says. “You’re pretty convincing.”
Wes has one more question.
“Would you get ‘My name is Nate’ tattooed on your arm? ‘I’m Nate the Great,’ ” Wes smiles, remembering the name of a popular book kids read in the second or third grade.
Nate rolls his eyes.
The serious part of the conversation is over. But behind Wes’ question is one of the main worries for parents of transgender kids: Are these children making changes they’ll regret later?
‘You Just Love Your Kid’
Nate’s family is relieved they are dealing with these issues in Boston, a city Nate’s dad, Tom, says has become surprisingly tolerant.
“It’s funny to me that Nate has found all these places to go that are accepting,” Tom says. “I guess I still think of Boston the way it was when I was growing up, where it was all Irish and Italian and they beat up everyone who’s different.”
That’s not to say Tom and Jackie aren’t worried about Nate’s safety and about whether this story — that Nate feels is important to do — will make him a target.
Tom says he understands that transgender issues make many people uncomfortable.
“In a way, I’m kind of surprised at my flexibility,” Tom says with a shrug. “You just love your kid. It doesn’t really matter what they look like. Everyone wants their kid to be happy, successful. If that’s a boy, a girl, that doesn’t really matter.” Tom’s voice chokes on those last few words. They’re true, but living them out isn’t always easy.
And Nate’s parents struggle with the question, what will make Nate happy? He’s still anxious at school, mostly about academic issues, and he deals with all the usual turmoil that makes life difficult for most teenagers. Is supporting Nate’s transition from female to male the key to his long-term happiness or a complicated process he may regret? Those questions explode around medical changes Nate wants to begin.