Out in Public
For transgender youth, living an honest life is a story of survival. But local advocates are developing ways to keep them safe at school amidst bullies of all sizes.
By Casey Nilsson
Photographs by Jesse Burke
She shops at Forever 21 and knows how to run a game of pool. She binges on Netflix TV, but hits the books hard enough to have earned an early graduation. She has a gaggle of friends who are drawn to her quiet authority and unwavering sense of self.
She wasn’t always this way. Kaeleigh, an unequivocal teenage “she,” was born a boy.
“When I was five, for Halloween I wanted to be Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz. My parents allowed me to do that and get all dressed up,” Kaeleigh says. She touches a spot on her forehead shaded by dark chestnut bangs, then runs her fingers down the length of her hair. “But for the costume, they bought me a wig, and I didn’t want to wear it at all. I cried when they tried to put it on me. The wig indicated a certain level of fakeness, and I just wanted to be authentic.”
Kaeleigh is hesitant to share the male name given to her at birth; it reminds her of a troubled time in which she lived as a boy but felt like a girl. Instead, she wants to be called by her chosen name, the one that paved the way for her difficult but liberating transitional journey from male to female.
Kaeleigh’s mother, Lori, says that from the moment her second child, a daughter, was born, her first-born son identified with everything girl. “Every once in a while someone would say, ‘What a beautiful son and daughter you have,’ and Kaeleigh would just pop up in the conversation and say, ‘No, you have two girls.’ We would just laugh it off, then she would laugh it off.”
Lori decided to reach out to other mothers in San Francisco, where the family lived before moving to New England for work in 1999. “Their kids were just not exhibiting this kind of behavior,” Lori says. “They would say, ‘Well, my boy likes to get his nails painted.’ But this was so different.”
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Other stories in our September Schools issue: