Nate's Transgender Story: Battling Perceptions And Pronouns

Nate, who was born Natalie, shares a laugh with his dad, Tom. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Nate, who was born Natalie, shares a laugh with his dad, Tom. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

First in a three-part series.

BOSTON — Nate leans in, his broad shoulders hunched, his brown bangs almost touching the sewing machine bulb.

“Yes,” says the 16-year-old, with an “s” that lingers. “OK, I’m gonna keep going, it’s not stuck.”

Nate’s fingers push the seam of a sky-blue fleece stocking cap past the pounding silver needle.

“I’m going to do the hood and worry about the cowl later,” he says without looking up.

The hood is part of a costume Nate plans to wear to the next meeting of his cosplay, or costume role-play, group. There are cosplay chapters all over the world. Nate’s is based on a Web comic called “Homestuck.” His transformation from Natalie to Nate began two years ago, when he put on a blue men’s suit and boots, and gelled his hair into thick loops.

“That’s where I started it,” he says. “And then it just kind of took off from there. It was just like, no, I’m a boy.”

As far back as he can remember, Nate, of Boston, was uncomfortable as a girl.

“I felt so wrong as a female, it was just so wrong, and there was so much I didn’t like about myself,” he says in a soft, steady voice.

Nate had never heard the word “transgender” before he got to high school. But once he did, and figured out what it meant, “I was just like, ‘Oh my God, that’s exactly how I’m feeling.’ When you’re trans you just know. It’s not something like…” Nate pauses. “I don’t want to be like this. Who would choose this?”

Nate Becoming Nate, And Heavy Conversations

Nate at his home in Boston. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Nate at his home in Boston. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Nate’s parents, who are divorced, and his stepfather are trying to understand and accept Nate’s decision, but they are worried and scared.

Nate’s future is hard to imagine, says Tom, Nate’s dad.

“This is a big challenge to a lot of people,” Tom says. “And that’s where it gets scary. When people don’t understand things, that’s when they get the most uncomfortable and we don’t know what they’re capable of. So I want to follow Nate around everywhere and just say, ‘Wait a minute, don’t even try that.’ But of course that’s not possible.”

Nate and his family agreed to do this story in the hopes that it will help people understand transgender issues, but they are also concerned that it will leave Nate exposed and vulnerable. WBUR has agreed not to publish the family’s last name.

“I was just like, ‘Oh my God, that’s exactly how I’m feeling.’ When you’re trans, you just know.”
– Nate, on figuring out what 'transgender' means

Last year, Nate cut his straight brown hair short, started wearing a thick elastic binder to compress his breasts, and gave away his “girl” clothes. Even as Natalie, he’d been wearing a lot of flannel shirts and jeans. Nate has not had surgery to flatten his chest, nor has he started hormones that would produce new facial and body hair, more muscle and a deeper voice.

He still loves the high notes his female vocal cords can hit, but when speaking, Nate very consciously drops his voice into its lowest range to try to sound male.

“My vocal tone, the way it’s deep right now, this isn’t natural,” he says. “My natural voice is — no, we don’t talk about that.”

Nate’s parents say they weren’t shocked when Natalie yelled, during an argument, “I’m a boy,” but they didn’t exactly see it coming either.

“I think she kind of dropped little hints,” says Jackie, Nate’s mom. “It’s amazing to me that I didn’t even realize that.”

Maybe Jackie didn’t realize what was happening in part because she and Tom tried not to raise stereotypical girls. Nate has a younger sister.

“I thought, if I have girls, dammit, they’re going to be coolest, toughest, no Barbies, none of that crap, you know?” Jackie says laughing.

And it’s not like Nate loved sports, Tom says, or other traditional boy things.

Natalie, who now goes as Nate, dancing in a backyard in Medford in 2007. (Courtesy of Nate's family)

Natalie, who now goes as Nate, dancing in a backyard in Medford in 2007. (Courtesy of Nate’s family)

“[He] actually loved to wear really like outrageously flashy feminine dresses,” Tom recalls. “Back when Nate was born, I wanted to dress her in gender-neutral clothes, so, man, what did I do to help influence this process?

“Would it have been different if we’d said, ‘You’re only going to wear pink like other little girls and you’re going to play with Barbies.’ I gotta think, was that the right thing? Maybe it was, maybe it made it more comfortable for Nate to become Nate, I don’t know,” Tom says, shrugging.

One of the most difficult issues for Tom is whether he should behave differently with Nate as his son.

“I’ll go to give him a big hug or something and he kind of shrinks back,” Tom says with a sigh. “And I’m like, oh, is that not something I’m supposed to do anymore because [that's] something I’d do to a girl and not a boy? I don’t call you sweetie anymore. I guess those things happen as your kids get older, but how differently would I have treated him if he was born a boy, physically?”

Nate’s parents have an endless stream of questions: Is Nate rejecting life as girl after being bullied by a clique in middle school? Is Nate really a tough lesbian, as he seemed to be at age 14? Or, Jackie asks, “Is this something — I feel terrible saying it — is it a phase? Are you going to change your mind in a few years?”

Sitting next to his mom on the living room couch, Nate bristles.

“Not that many years ago,” Nate says, admonishing his mother, “people would come out as gay and they’d hear, ‘Oh, it’s just a phase.’ It’s exactly the same thing as that, so it’s just kind of, even if you don’t mean it to be offensive, it can really be a little bit rude to call it a phase.”

“Absolutely,” Jackie says, interrupting Nate and nodding vigorously. “I remember my mother asking the same question about a cousin 20 or 30 years ago, so when I hear those words coming out of my mouth about this I do feel a little bit like I’m just not catching up, I’m getting old. But you’ll probably be a parent one day and you’ll see, you can’t help saying… Is there something I’m missing here?”

These are heavy conversations, but the family can already look back on some changes and laugh.

“I noticed that my underwear drawer does not get raided any longer. Nate has his own underwear,” says Nate’s stepfather, Wes, who’s been listening quietly from across the room.

Nate screams with embarrassment and laughter.

“My jackets still disappear,” Wes adds.

“Cause you wear nice clothes,” Nate says in a voice that pleads for understanding.

Difficulties With Pronouns

Nate’s family is getting some help navigating all these changes. Nate sees a counselor at a center for gay and transgender teenagers through Fenway Health.

“But there’s not a whole lot out there,” Jackie says, to explain “what this is, you know, why, why all the numbers now, why, why?”

A 2011 report out of the Williams Institute at UCLA Law says three in every 1,000 people are transgender. That would translate to about 20,000 Massachusetts residents.

There’s no firm proof that transgenderism is a growing phenomenon in Massachusetts, but many parents, school administrators, counselors and employers will tell you it is.

At one of Nate’s cosplay meet-ups, about 100 people painted gray or blue, with colorful horns or wings, dance around a statue on Boston Common. When I say I’m writing a story about young people who are transgender, at least a dozen yell, “That’s me!”

“I’m transgender,” shouts one person who looks like a boy in a blue spandex costume. “So am I,” says a teenager who might be female. The person behind her yells, “We all end up here.”

But transgender is just one way these young adults are redefining what it means to be male or female. Rue Hartsell, a student at the Art Institute of Boston, identifies as genderqueer. Rue goes back and forth between male and female, depending on the day or the moment.

“A lot of my friends use ‘she,’ a lot of my friends use ‘he’ for me,” Hartsell says. “Honestly, I kind of like people not knowing. I like people not being able to tell. That actually feels a lot more comfortable to me.”

Nate is practically giddy with excitement in this crowd, where he doesn’t have to explain himself.

Nate and his friend Devon on Boston Common during a cosplay meetup. (Martha Bebinger/WBUR)

Nate and his friend Devon on Boston Common during a cosplay meetup. (Martha Bebinger/WBUR)

“I know almost half the people here really well. This is family,” he says with a wide smile.

At home, with his biological family, life is not so easy.

“It’s hard now because Nate always feels rejected,” Jackie says. “I mess up the pronouns and am not making the transition as quickly as he would like.”

Jackie says she’s trying, but remembering to say “Nate,” “he” or “my son” is difficult.

“I mean, you say Natalie 100 times a day for 16 years,” she says with a sigh. “You say, ‘Wake, up Natalie,’ you say, ‘Natalie, Natalie, Natalie, Natalie.’” The name rolls off Jackie’s tongue like a song. “Now I’m trying to go to Nate. But I get talking, the ‘he’s’ are just…” Jackie doesn’t finish the sentence. “I think it’s because I don’t see him as a boy, I just see Natalie, just Natalie, my kid, Natalie.”

Jackie and Tom both notice the spark in their child’s eye when people call Nate “he.”

“I try to do that and I know that half the time I totally blow it,” Tom says, hitting his hands on the arm of his chair. “And then I start thinking, ‘Oh, you know, there goes that moment I was trying to be supportive. I was trying to do the right things and I just blew it again.’”

‘Gender’s Weird’

One more element of Nate’s life as boy: He’s attracted to women and calls himself heterosexual. Nate has someone he calls his “partner,” a biological female who goes by the pronoun “they.”

If you’re confused at this point, maybe you’ll understand why Jackie asks Nate if he could describe, in advance, the friends he’s bringing home.

“Especially,” she says to Nate, “when you’ve got six or seven kids in the room and I’m not sure of any of their, their… Sometimes I just need some hints. Is that a boy or is that a girl?”

Jackie looks at Nate. “And I don’t think you even think that way.”

No, Nate says, “I don’t.” He looks down and whispers, “Gender’s weird.”

His parents look at him, stunned, and then explode.

“Did you hear that?” Jackie shouts. “She [Nate] just said gender’s weird. That’s the point, gender’s weird.”

But what does Nate mean by that?

Gender isn’t just male or female, he says. “Gender is so complicated. Once you actually get in depth with it, you’re like, whoa, there’s a lot of things that I had no idea existed. It’s kind of confusing — even for me sometimes.”

WBUR reporter Martha Bebinger will moderate a live chat at noon on Friday, Jan. 24 to answer any questions you might have about transgender or genderqueer issues. Ask your questions in advance here.

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  • deniser

    Nate’s mom is awesome. I applaud her courage in telling this very personal story. Sending positive thoughts to the family!

  • Sharon

    Dearest Jackie Tom natilie and most of all Nate..Michael John and Sharon love u so much and think ur the bravest former neighbor in the world..our prayers ..thoughts and always reflecting on such wonderful chemistry a as neighbors..becoming dear friends…who could forget michaels first experience with “Petey”. Jackie..I’ve always admired u for ur kindness to ur family. Ur profession ..
    And of course ur love when Natalie was born. Although we haven’t spoken in. A while…reading “Nates transgender story” was fascinating. Hehe. I don’t do internet. Michael found u tom and natilie. We wish u much happiness and and support Nate. In all his hopes and d
    Just a footnote. Michael got married on sept
    21 2013. To christy gaudette. She’s a gorgeous Korean women. Plus. Michael turned 30 in. Dec. plz let’s try to contact each other!
    Luv!xo Sharon

  • Dino Traite

    So my mother posted this on Facebook and I think this is pretty much an accurate description of what we went through when I was in high school.

    I don’t think that more folks coming out as trans is a ‘growing phenomenon,’ rather I think it’s the fact that there is more exposure and more information that is easily accessible to folks. In addition I think it’s also a very different time from even just a decade ago.

    More and more people are comfortable coming out, and thanks to the health care community warming up to it, getting treatment is more easily accessible. Though it’s not the same everywhere. And I’m also very fortunate to live in Metro-Boston with a wide variety of trans-friendly health care, supportive parents and health insurance that covers my medical transition, including my top surgery.

    My parents raised me ‘female’, but I use that term loosely. Mom let me wear boy clothes and let me play with ‘boy’ toys (I think I mostly/solely played with LEGOs) since I could make that decision. Even though I think I still had to wear dresses on rare formal occasions until I was 8 or 9 or so. I hated it, and mom started slowly warming up to letting me wear more masculine formal attire. I remember that at one point I was allowed to wear a Jewish yamaka (generally reserved for males) to a wedding or bat-mitzvah or something.

    My parents let me change my name when I was 16, let me start testosterone when I was 17 at the start of my senior year in high school, and eventually warmed up to accepting and paying the out-of-pocket expenses for my top surgery this past June.

    I was fortunate to go to a high school that even though was uneducated on the topic, they were open to me (pretty much) forcing them to be accommodating. My efforts were effective enough that I remember a growing number of my peers were coming out by the end of my senior year. My peers were supportive, though there was some skepticism (which is understandable) until they witnessed my medical progression. At the start of my senior year, I was pre-T and didn’t ‘pass’ at all. By May and June, my voice was deeper than some of my fellow classmates and I easily passed to a few of the new faculty members that I worked with. I think a lot of my classmates are definitely stronger allies and more educated on it seeing me two years down the road.

    By the time I started school at Montserrat College of Art, I was passing completely as male so everybody knew me as Dino and using male pronouns was natural to them. I live in male housing and I’m openly out as trans here because I think that among other things like helping the school with accommodations, it’s a topic that I cover in my art a lot (even if subconsciously).

    I’m incredibly fortunate and privileged to live with all this accessible to me and having a welcome community. It’s hard for me to imagine what it’s like for folks that are less fortunate, and it bothers me. I try my best to help educate folks and I’ve always been open to answering (taboo) questions. I think people learn best through curiosity, and we gain allies and acceptance through education.

    I think that if Nate were to come across my commentary, I would love to share my experiences with him.

    • Dino Traite

      Martha, I’d love for my family and I to share our story with you from a few years down the road being in college.

  • Tryingbutconfused

    I have such a hard time wrapping my head around this issue. I totally understand that Nate feels that he is a boy, and that he is “uncomfortable as a girl” as you say in the article. I’m even fine with using whatever pronoun someone wants me to use about them. But, it made me uncomfortable to read that Nate is wearing an elastic binder to compress his breasts. That says to me that he is uncomfortable with his own body. Shouldn’t we be encouraging and helping people to accept themselves for who they are, and not helping them to reject parts of their own bodies?

    • Jason

      If a person identifies with a gender other than the one they were born with, they may also feel uncomfortable with particular body parts that our society generally proclaims as male or female. So if there is a person who has female breasts but identifies as a boy, they may feel more comfortable binding to hide this female signifier. Does that help you understand any better?

      • Tryingbutconfused

        Well, I understand that someone might feel/think that they should be a gender other than the one they were born with (or “assigned at birth”). The part I don’t understand is where we encourage that person to go with those feelings and thoughts, and to hide or actually change parts of their body. I know this is going to be an unpopular thing to say, but I would think that we would want to help that person to accept themselves, and their body, for who they are. Like, if a person has breasts, but identifies with being a boy, and looks down at their breasts and feels like it feels wrong for them to have breasts, then I would think we would explain “You were born in a body with breasts and that is part of who you are.” Instead of encouraging them to hide them.
        I don’t mean to be fixating on breasts here. I guess what I’m saying is that when your *thinking* is different from your *actual*, for example, I was born with a penis but I really feel like I shouldn’t have one, then I would think that it would make sense to help the person change their thinking instead of to hide or change their body. And just to be clear, when I say “change their thinking” I don’t mean to force them to conform to society’s standards for the gender they were born with. I mean to help them accept themselves for who they are.

        • MarekT

          Don’t you think that this would be the accepted best practice if it had any chance of working? (Hint: ‘accept your body the way it is’ works as well for trans people as ‘ex-gay therapy’ does for gay men and lesbians).

          • Tryingbutconfused

            I don’t actually know. I’ve never read or heard anything about whether this works or not. Do you have any research or studies that you can share? I’m not saying that we should tell people “You must accept that you are a man.” I’m saying that when your thoughts are in conflict with your body, why is the accepted solution to change your body?
            This is going to be another unpopular thing to say, but what if I were a brown person who really felt that I should have been born white? I look at my skin and it just feels wrong to me. So, I take steps to lighten my skin color, and to hide the fact that I was born with brown skin. And I want other people to refer to me as white. I don’t think this would be accepted. I think that people would advise me to accept my skin color for what it is.
            I really am trying to understand. It’s just, as I said, I have a hard time wrapping my head around this topic.

          • MarekT

            The short answer to “why do we change bodies instead of minds?” is that mind-changing has been tried in multiple ways and, as I said, works as well as ‘ex-gay therapy’.

            If you’re asking questions at this level, I would strongly suggest going out and doing some background reading to get yourself up to speed before tackling any studies.

          • Tryingbutconfused

            I would love to do some more background reading. I’ve read a lot on this topic, but I feel like everything I have read simply states it as a fact that gender is different from sex. And that’s the part that I have trouble with. I haven’t found anything that helps me to understand this basic thing. I feel a step behind when I read most articles about transgender issues. Do you have any suggestions of resources that could help me understand?

          • MarekT

            That depends of what part of ‘sex and gender are two distinct things’ is giving you trouble- can you expand on that?

            (Also, I should say now that I might not be a great person to ask about that- I see “sex is between your legs and gender’s between your ears” as a massive oversimplification that does more harm than good, so my 101-level stuff is closer to other people’s 301. There’s a forum called asktransgender on Reddit that might be a good place to ask as well/instead.)

          • Tryingbutconfused

            First, I want to thank you for engaging with me in such a thoughtful way. I’ve been afraid to ask these questions because I don’t want to offend anyone or be told that I’m an ignorant jerk!
            I had always assumed that sex and gender are two terms for the same thing. A man is a man and has a penis. A woman is a woman and has a vagina and breasts. The fact that “society” has assumptions about how men and women should dress, look, behave, play, earn a living, etc., is a different thing, imho. If a woman wants to wear clothes that society thinks are man-clothes, and if she wants to talk and act the way society thinks a man should, I’m fine with that (by which I mean, I don’t have a problem understanding that). But when she wants to bind/hide her breasts because they feel wrong to her, and/or because she doesn’t want other people to know that she has them, this is where I start to get lost. First, these are your breasts and they are part of your body. There is nothing wrong with them. Second, wanting to hide them so that other people don’t know that you have them, so that you can “pass” as what society thinks a man should look like … well that seems way too dependent on what *other* people think in order to validate your own identity.
            I definitely understand that sex and “society’s definitions of gender roles and norms” are two different things.
            And when I talk about “changing your mind” I don’t mean it in the same way as ex-gay therapy, at least I don’t *think* I do. I mean that someone who has breasts but feels like a man should be encouraged to accept that breasts are a part of who they are, and they shouldn’t have to hide or change that.

          • MarekT

            You’re right that people shouldn’t have to look like cis men and cis women in order to be respected, but turning that into “trans people should be encouraged to accept their bodies” isn’t a helpful stance to take.

            So far, the research suggests that it’s a neurological intersex condition, with the brain wired to expect features that the body doesn’t have/not wired to expect the features it does have. Imagine hitting puberty and getting the opposite of what you expected. If you’re a girl, you’d wind up tall and bulky, with a deep voice and an Adam’s apple and huge external genitals that looked like a penis. If you’re a guy, you’d get the petite, pear-shaped figure, visible breasts and smooth, mostly hairless skin. Your voice would never drop below soprano and your genitals would stay so small that you’d regularly hear other men ask how to find them. And in both cases, other people see you as perfectly normal and attractive, but as someone of the wrong sex entirely. They can’t understand what’s so hard about just pretending to be that sex if everyone already thinks that’s who you are.

            First of all, let’s look at the social factors. It’s pretty uncommon to find societies where it’s easy to function as a visibly gender-variant person- everything is set up to function by a strict binary and trying to step outside that is made as difficult as possible by everyone from bureaucrats to people on the street. If people want a society where it’s easier for people to be who they are without medical intervention, they need to address the gatekeepers: the doctors and legislators who determine what medical treatment we need in order to fit their categories. Address prejudice and stigma and ignorance, not people who are doing their best to get by in a system that’s stacked against them.

            And even in a perfect world where men with breasts were completely ordinary, I would still have had chest reconstruction. As a guy who had tits, they weren’t part of my body at all. It was like looking in the world’s most horrifying funhouse mirror, then looking down to see that that was actually what my body looked like. No amount of acceptance from other people cures that sort of body horror.

  • Elizabeth

    I understand that talking about Nate’s parents’ difficulty with pronouns and using the correct name is part of the story, but it is generally rude to ask or mention a transgender person’s original name. In this context, captioning the photo with “Nate, who was born Natalie” seems particularly jarring.

    • J__o__h__n

      It is the subject of the series so the captioning is relevant.

  • Michael

    Great story, Martha! It is so interesting to learn about Nate and his family’s journey. And I just want to reiterate that the fears of Nate’s parents are real, even here in MA. Even though transgender students like Nate are protected from discrimination in school, they are not protected in public places like shopping malls, grocery stores, and public transportation. We need to fix this so students like Nate and all
    transgender people are protected everywhere. There is a bill at the Statehouse that seeks to do just that or check this link for more information: http://www.masstpc.org/take-action/current-legislation/2013-public-accommodations-bill/

    Here’s a link to the current House Bill: https://malegislature.gov/Bills/188/House/H1589

  • Holly Baldwin

    Martha, thanks so much for this series–it’s great to see thoughtful coverage about young trans* people and their families. The media often encourages an unnecessary focus on genitals and hormones that are a private part of a much broader transition for people. Although you had a little bit of that in your story, you did a great job of focusing on the broader identity and social context of Nate’s life, and the challenges his family faces around his transition. I encourage you, as you work on the rest of the series, to move conversations about surgery and hormones away from profiles of individuals, and over to general discussion topics, such as your FAQ. Thanks for bringing some compassionate coverage to this important topic.

  • Erin Fuller

    It is hard not to cause a person pain for those who have a hard time with terminology I can help (Transgender pre sex change surgery or no surgery) (Transsexual post sex change surgery) both require initial visits to a psychotherapists or psychologist to receive the diagnosis of (GID Gender Identity Dysphoria) or (Gender Identity Disorder) as it was once known. after the diagnosis of GID the individual must live in the gender role they identify as. One must do this for between 2 maybe 3 years in that assigned gender identity (real life test) After this the can then take (hormone replacement therapy) then after that for a period of 2 maybe 3 years after living in the assigned gender and after HRT they are given a letter for corrective surgery and are allowed to have sex change surgery. The modern terminology is (gender affirmation surgery) but most transsexuals still call the operation (sex change)

    • Kyle Whitney

      This is actually out dated, you don’t need a note for hormones (at least not in a WPATH facility)

  • Lilee

    I think the mother is great in the video above. Our culture is so hopelessly politically correct now that we can’t even question whether this desire to be a boy is legitimate. She describes her child as being a rebel and in rock bands and thought she’d just be a woman who knew how to live life to the fullest. Now she wants to be a boy, is a cutter and is flunking school. (Why was this critical information not in the story?) So, is it wrong for the mother to want to hesitate giving her 16-year-old hormones that will forever alter her at this critical stage of her body’s natural development? To question if there may be an underlying mental health issue here? If this daughter who cuts herself insisted on drinking at this age which might alter her for a night and an unpleasant morning after, we’d say she was too young for that decision and a mother who supported it terrible. Yet we pressure these parents by making them feel like they are some kind of antiquated bigots if they don’t allow their daughter to make this permanent change now.
    All these parents want is for their child to be happy. But our so-called open minded society makes them feel that even questioning this life-altering change means there is something wrong with them as parents.
    When I was young my girlfriends were all ice hockey playing tough girls–this was back in the day when we were constantly degraded for playing– and at 16, I bet a huge chunk of them wished they were boys. Being a boy was undeniably way more fun than being a girl. We saw that our fathers were way freer than our mothers to live and enjoy life. Who in there right mind, especially then, would want to be girl?
    Time passed and a lot of us married and had kids but still didn’t quite conform to that dutiful women’s role so powerfully put on females. They bucked at a system every day that probably would be easier to buck as men but I don’t think a one of them would give up being mothers or give up being women for that ease. Plenty were lesbians too but as they aged and became more comfortable within their skin, I think few wished they’d become an actual man.
    A lot of what sucks about being female is cultural and I don’t think you can tell if the desire to be a boy is a powerful need to be free of that culture or a biological need. I would submit that there is no way you can tell that at all at age 16.
    I also think this world could use a lot more women who buck the system. But that rebel spirit does come young, very young. You know you just don’t fit in that tiny box called female role. Going from a girl to a woman is a lot of work, especially a non-conformig woman. At age 16 I can see that being translated into just wanting to be a boy. But it is possible that that same girl could grow up to be one powerful female helping to change our still narrow view on gender roles and literally grow in to her body, embracing it rather than rejecting it?
    I really feel for these parents. I think they are getting pressured into conforming to the politically correct point of view on this which may actually be contrary to their daughter’s ultimate best long-term interests.

    • MarekT

      It’s painfully obvious that you don’t know enough about the subject to have an informed opinion. Dysphoria has nothing to do with social roles, and what you’re suggesting is like treating a broken leg with leeches and aspirin.

      • Lilee

        Nobody knows about the subject. That’s the problem. Everyone acts as if the solution is a sex change, when it may not be. Dysphoria, by definition, is a dissatisfaction with life. The solution may not be going from a girl to a boy. To use your analogy, your solution to the broken leg is to cut it off.

        • MarekT

          Way to misinterpret my analogy. I’m advocating fixing the leg- you’re pushing for the person to accept that it’s broken and keep walking on it. Why is it you people always jump straight to “cutting (it) off”?

          Look, there’s decades’ worth of medical literature on transsexuality. You might not know anything about the condition, but that’s because you haven’t bothered to find out, not because there’s nothing to know. Gender roles don’t cause us to transition, and to suggest otherwise is just a way to display your ignorance.

          • Lilee

            Well, the analogy isn’t off at all considering that you would literally have to remove bodily parts to go from a girl to a boy. Look, is it even possible that people who are only 16 and are going through this kind of emotional upheaval don’t require a sex change in order to get through it and be happy? Or is it a slam dunk for you? Yup. You’re in the wrong body. Here 16 year old. Here’s your hormones. See you on the other side of the operating room. It reminds me a bit of when hysterectomy was THE solution to midlife in the 1970′s. It was decided we had previously antiquated views on the change of life and wrenching out a woman’s innards was the solution. Now we don’t see it that way. For this teenager, is this a real solution for this individual or a solution based on timing and a current trend? That is an important question for the parents. My point is the vitriol out there for those who may even SUSPECT that a permanent sex change may not be the solution can very well contribute to a bad choice.

          • MarekT

            Yes, I support the right of trans minors (or ‘people who are only 16 and are going through this kind of emotional upheaval’, as you put it) to access transition care (‘a sex change’, in your outdated terms). I’ve talked to the specialists and I’ve done my research- the books, the studies, the papers, the case studies going back to the 1930′s. Every treatment besides transition is a miserable failure. Pretending otherwise and asserting that being trans is a ‘fad’ instead of a stigmatized medical condition that’s slowly gaining acceptance… that’s ignorance at best.

          • Lilee

            Who is being stigmatized? If you look at our exchange here, you’ve attacked me repeatedly on a personal level. You call my terms outdated, ignorant, haven’t bothered–really a bit aggressive an attack. Not terrible for the internet but typical of the vitriol that those of us who don’t conform to the thinking trend of the day get used to. Your POV though, in our culture is coddled and maybe my unwillingness to do that has upset you.
            I would say this: The parents are in a no-win situation here. If they don’t allow her to do the procedures necessary their child will hate them. And any misery in her life will be blamed on them. But if she has the sex change (Which if a “dated” term is far clearer and descriptive and far more grammatically clean than the trendy jargon term,”transition.”) it doesn’t mean their child will be a happy person.
            I do believe it is human nature for us to justify our choices. So the sex change, from the parents perspective, may be a safer decision. But the underlying issues which the child has will still be unresolved, whether as a boy or a girl.

          • MarekT

            You aren’t being ‘stigmatized’ because I’m pointing out the fact that you don’t involve a lot of actual information in your comments. I was assuming that you didn’t have the knowledge to talk about the subject instead of being deliberately ignorant, but since you seem too invested in your theory to look at any contradictory evidence, it seems I was wrong. Have a nice day.

          • dust truck

            I have noticed nothing but vitriol and antagonism towards the cisgendered from the transgender community since this topic started becoming trendy a few years ago. It’s amazing that a group that wants so desperately to be accepted is simultaneously acting with such hostility towards good faith efforts to understand what is a new concept for most cisgendered people.

            Your diatribe certainly isn’t helping.

          • MarekT

            You’re certainly entitled to an opinion. If you were in the position that trans people find themselves in, you might understand why we get tired of people resurrecting ignorance-based hypotheses about us. Lilee’s argument was old ten years ago, but cis people keep bringing it to the table without thinking that perhaps it’s already been addressed and debunked hundreds of times. If people don’t take the time to do some background research before they engage on a complicated topic, they should expect to be told that they don’t know enough to participate in the conversation, especially when their uninformed views are so damaging. If anything I’ve said here looks like diatribe to you, I’m sorry you feel offended by it.

            EDIT: Interesting, too, that you apparently feel that trans people have no reason to be angry at cis people. Have you ever thought that maybe you only hear the angry ones because you don’t pay any attention when we’re polite/quiet?

          • dust truck

            Sorry, never noticed your response 8 months ago, but I never said that you have “no reason” be angry. I just said the hostility is not helping. Yes, you can be loud, yes, you can point out injustices, but you gotta be patient at all times or else you’ll just alienate those who might become your allies.

            In the 8 months since I first wrote this, I’ve become very supportive of Transgendered issues as I’ve become more aware of it and I will often *politely* correct others when they say something out of ignorance. More often than not people say that they didn’t know and apologize. Isn’t that amazing? Education and good-will go surprisingly well together?

            Of course, I live in Massachusetts where most people here are more open-minded than in other, more conservative parts of the world.

  • Ben Hennessy

    It’s an adjective. Saying someone’s a transgender just doesn’t sound right, does it? Either they’re a transman or a transwoman, but not a transgender.

  • Marie Caradonna

    http://www.WAGLY.org is the website of the West Suburban Alliance of GLBTQ Youth. When you check us out, you will find that, in addition to weekly meetings of GLBTQ youth and allies, we offer twice-a-month meetings for trans* and gender-noncomforming youth. We are a social group; youth join us to have fun in an environment where they do not have to explain themselves. A very important benefit: the group is facilitated by trans*adults; youth have role models, and their parents get to see that trans* youth can grow up to be just fine.

  • Cameron Partridge

    Thanks very much for this article. I’m amazed at how news coverage of trans youth has been increasing so much lately. Particularly in light of the excellent Guidelines that DESE put out here in MA last January, and the legislation that went into effect in CA earlier this month, informative, compassionately written stories like this one are so important. I know I’m seeing and/or hearing about more young adults coming out as trans in college as well. As a college chaplain– and as a transman myself– I consider it crucial to create safe, supportive, empowering spaces for folks to be and become who they are– whoever that might be.

    Rev. Cameron Partridge, Episcopal Chaplain at Boston University

  • ErikSlajus

    Is there like a rule for journalism saying that when we talk about the LGBT community when can only talk about and cover white people in the LGBT community?

  • Barbara L. August

    Many thanks for the spot on journalism and for all the participants….It is an incredible coincidence that I am the parent of an adult who identified as Nathaniel (Nate}for 26 years and is now named Natalie. Pronoun usage conversations have had the very same tenor!!! It is truly about LOVE and learning always. Many thanks for this true story. It will assist many individuals and families …

  • gardenia

    If a person is born a female and believes she should/wants to be male, what about the external, sexual characteristics? Can she grow a penis? What happens on a date? Can there be any petting? Somebody, please elucidate.

    • Sarah

      A person is born as they are. So in this scenario, a person is born and is identified as female, but actually identifies as male. He can change nothing about his body, or lots of things. There are options to surgically construct a penis, if a person desires this. What happens on a date, of course, depends entirely on the individuals on the date!

  • Mark Mettler

    Great article that highlights many of the challenges family’s face – but by far the most important thing for families is to support their transgender children. If it’s any help at all to those parents who struggle to provide this support, I share my experiences with my genderqueer child here:
    http://loveandadvocacy.wordpress.com/

  • Sarah

    I am confused here by the grammatical misuse of the word transgender. It is an adjective — why is it being used as a noun?

    Examples:

    -Nate and his family agreed to do this story in the hopes that it will help people understand transgender, but they are also concerned that it will leave Nate exposed and vulnerable.

    -There’s no firm proof that transgender is a growing phenomenon in Massachusetts, but many parents, school administrators, counselors and employers will tell you it is.

    When I replace “transgender” with “blond” or “pretty,” it sounds equally wrong. I believe that the correct grammatical usage would be to say “transgender issues” or “transgender identification.”

    Anyone else get bugged by this?

    • Martha Bebinger

      Hi Sarah – great point. The noun is transgenderism, but transgender is used frequently to describe a social or cultural movement. I use transgender here in that sense.

      • Sarah

        Martha,

        I’m a long time ally of the trans community, and I have never, ever heard transgender used as a noun in the way you describe. The only noun usage I’ve heard is the derogatory usage of a person being described as “a transgender.” The OED does say that the secondary usage of the word could mean “transgenderism,” but the example it uses is from 1987.

        I’m open to being persuaded otherwise, but as of now, I believe that your usage is incorrect. I know it’s just grammar, but how we talk about things is important.

        Sarah

        • Martha Bebinger

          Sarah and G12 – my use is based on reading, reporting and conferences I attended to prepare for this series. But of course grammar is important, and I don’t want to interfere with your reading of the story, so we have made the suggested changes. Thanks.

          • Sarah

            Wow, thanks Martha! I think it reads much more clearly now. Appreciate the change! It’s interesting that we have such different experiences of the use of the word — perhaps the academic usage that you hear and the common usage that I hear differ.

            Some queer studies major would have a nice thesis topic here!

          • Alex Kapitan

            I appreciate this compassionate thread about the most appropriate use of the word “transgender” in a grammatical way, and I also appreciate that you were willing to make those edits, Martha. I’m an editor, an educator, and a trainer in gender diversity issues and I’m also transgender myself.

            I just want to offer this additional perspective on why “transgender” is not an appropriate noun: One of the most difficult things for us as a community is fighting the mainstream culture’s desire to view us two-dimensionally and clinically. Using transgender as a noun, whether you are calling me “a transgender” or whether you are referring to “transgender” as a subject area or “transgenderism” as a thing, means defining me and my community by our gendered difference first and our humanity second. It’s not dissimilar to saying “schizophrenics” instead of people with schizophrenia. It’s not dissimilar to using “homosexuality” as a clinical term rather than discussing gay people or people who experience same-sex attraction.

            Is “transgenderism” grammatically correct? Yes. But is it the language that best respects my humanity? No. Even better would be “…that the number of transgender people is growing” or “…that the number of young people claiming a transgender identity is growing.” I’m not saying you’re wrong, Martha, but I thought you would appreciate and respect the importance and power of following the language used by the trans* community itself.

          • Rudy Breteler

            I’ve been reading a lot about the “people-first” language movement lately. I might propose that “the trans* community” is possibly not as unanimous on this issue as you suggest. Many people certainly prefer people-first language. Others feel that people-first language seeks to diminish something that they in no way feel ashamed of; something that constitutes a large portion of their identity, and that is properly placed first in a word order. I in no way seek to belittle your views. Language is, first and foremost, a matter for each individual’s preference.

          • Alex Kapitan

            Thanks, Rudy. I couldn’t agree more that language must be respected as a matter of individual preference. I’d like to offer you the concept of “person-centered” language, which honors the end result that is sought: centering the person instead of one characteristic of that person. It’s not about literally putting the word “person” first, although that sometimes works as shorthand; rather, it’s about putting the person first – centering their personhood.

            So, to be clear, I was not advocating in any way that the trans* community unanimously agrees on putting the word “person” first – in fact, I used the term “transgender people” in one of my suggested phrases. What I do maintain is that the trans* community is very clear on the power of language to either affirm our humanity or to reduce us in a clinical manner down to a single aspect of who we are. I for one hope that allies will choose language that is as empowering as possible.

          • J__o__h__n

            I hate adding “people” to everything. It sounds terrible. Language should be concise.

          • Ratna

            Martha, thank you for being so responsive. It is important to us all.

      • G12

        I agree with Sarah on this one. Martha, can you point us towards other instances of this usage? A quick Google search reveals that “transgender” is used almost exclusively as an adjective.

      • Erin Fuller

        all the terminology is confusing even to me but the acceptable form is transsexual for post and transgender for pre operation transgender for those who may not fully transition transsexual for those that do wow I think I got it right damn I am a part of the trans community and its tough for me but that’s the general idea!

        • Sarah

          Interesting. I’ve never heard that pre/post distinction. My gut is that using the term “transexual” is less and less common — I think in an effort to take the focus off of transition/surgery/genitalia.

    • Ratna

      I had the same observation. Another one is the referring to the California Bill as the “Bathroom Bill”. That is offensive to many in and outside this community.

      • Sarah

        Totally agree. I heard that in the audio intro, but didn’t see it anywhere written. Definitely not in line with the GLAAD media guidelines.

        • Ratna

          It is a basic human right. Calling it that reduces it to what you think is between a person’s legs instead of thinking of that individual as a person.

  • David Seaman

    I applaud everyone involved; Nate’s parents are being a little hard on themselves and would ask them to consider that they’ve done their best, they have always done so and clearly are supportive or Nate would not share in this with them. (Everyone is right: pronouns are complicated). At no time should a father ask himself if it is appropriate to hug his child. That was simply a moment through which to work. Your desire to wrap your arms around your child is as strong as a child’s need to be held. Nate’s reaction was likely also blurred by the confussion of our culture’s pressures and is always worth talking about.

  • Raquel Masterson

    It’s great to see positive role models coming out in the mainstream media. For too long, transgender people were relegated to the shadows, and rarely made themselves visible for fear of discrimination, bias or attack. Thank goodness things are changing, and people are figuring out that trans people are their neighbors, friends, co-workers and family members.

  • Deborah Hirsch Peeples

    Greater Boston PFLAG offers parents of trans* kids support at multiple times and locations. Connecting with a supportive community of parents who have been through a similar experience can make a huge difference to families. https://www.gbpflag.org

  • Bella

    What a great article and so interesting to see the struggle from both sides. I hope that Nate’s parents are getting counseling, too, since it seems they are having adjustment problems moreso than Nate, while clearly trying to do their best.

  • http://www.wbur.org/ Nate Goldman

    Hi everyone — just a reminder to foliow our community rules when commenting on the site. Thanks!

    http://www.wbur.org/community/rules

  • Martha Bebinger

    If you have questions about transgender, take a look at our FAQ/Resources page: http://commonhealth.wbur.org/2014/01/transgender-questions-resources

    If you don’t find what you’re looking for there, let us know!