Being a teenager is stressful and confusing, and so is being transgender. What do you do when you’re both? When I was in middle school, I had a frightening encounter with a mirror. In the months prior, I had developed a fascination with hair and had just learned how to French braid. Coming face-to-face with the reflection of a prepubescent child with long, plaited hair, I saw a girl. I was terrified, because I liked what I saw.
For so long, I was convinced that my being trans wasn’t valid. “Transgender and nonbinary individuals internalize the messaging they receive from their surroundings. If it is largely negative, transgender persons will believe who they are is negative,” said Grace O’Connor, a therapist at Gender Wellness of Los Angeles. While my parents supported my transition and my school presented itself as a safe space that fostered inclusivity, the lack of transgender education in my school, along with the wider political and social environment, pressured me to suppress my femininity in favor of a masculine appearance and demeanor.
Republicans across the country have increasingly pushed an anti-trans agenda under the guise of “protecting children.” Following the lead of Governor Ron DeSantis, over 20 states have introduced “Don’t Say Gay” bills, prohibiting classroom instruction, education, or discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity. In Florida, House Bill 1223 would ban teachers from using trans students’ preferred pronouns. “It shall be the policy of every public K-12 educational institution that is provided or authorized by the Constitution and laws of Florida that a person’s sex is an immutable biological trait.”
Access to hormone replacement therapy (HRT)—a treatment that raises the levels of female or male hormones in the body to “feminize” or “masculinize” one’s appearance—has become particularly maligned by the right, especially when it concerns trans youth. “A story that went viral among conservatives on Monday about a gender fluid teen in Missouri whose mother regrets giving them puberty blockers has unsurprisingly fallen apart,” wrote Laura Bassett in Jezebel, “after the teen herself, who uses she/they pronouns, came forward to say much of it is false.” The article, published by Bari Weiss’s new media company The Free Press, is just the latest example of misrepresentation of trans youth in the media. In February 2022, Texas Governor Greg Abbot released a directive calling HRT “child abuse.” At least 10 states have restricted gender-affirming care for minors. A bill in Alabama, passed in April 2022, would make this form of health care a felony, punishable by upwards of 10 years in prison or a $15,000 maximum fine for those who provide puberty blockers, hormones, or other medical treatment to people under 19. Thankfully, a lawsuit was filed last May, and a federal district court has since blocked the section that prohibits the use of HRT and puberty blockers.
Like many transfeminine people, I showed signs of gender dysphoria early on. I’d wear feminine clothing, choose women characters when playing games, and even told family and friends that I wanted to be a girl. According to a March poll from the The Washington Post and KFF, most transgender adults knew that their gender identity was different from the sex they were assigned at birth as children or teenagers. Despite the right-wing claim that children can’t possibly understand their own gender identities, almost 70 percent of respondents said this happened before they turned 18.
The idea of coming out was terrifying. I almost preferred spending eternity in hiding to avoid the judgment and the danger that comes with transgender womanhood. “They’ve been kicked out of their homes, denied health care and accosted in bathrooms,” says the Washington Post survey. “A quarter have been physically attacked, and about 1 in 5 have been fired or lost out on a promotion because of their gender identity. They are more than twice as likely as the population at large to have experienced serious mental health struggles such as depression.”
But after I looked in the mirror, I called my mother. Just a month before, I had told her—rather shamefully—that I was attracted to men. To her, this was not news, and her lack of reaction was comforting. I was hoping for a similarly reassuring response. During the pandemic, with my school adopting remote learning and nothing to distract me, I felt it was time to become my authentic self. I finally told my parents the truth. They found a doctor, and within a few months, I was on androgen blockers, beginning my medical transition at 14.
My social transition, however, began a year later. Despite receiving nothing but support from my family and my new school, the insecurity and denial that characterized my childhood still overwhelmed my thoughts. I resolved to let people call me as they saw me, for fear of burdening those around me. “Whatever works best for you,” was my automatic response. But as my medical transition progressed, my social transition completed itself naturally; once people began to see me as a girl, they began to use she/her pronouns, and I came to accept nothing else. Hormone replacement therapy single-handedly saved my social transition. “For transgender people, starting gender-affirming hormone treatment in adolescence is linked to better mental health than waiting until adulthood,” according to recent research led by the Stanford University School of Medicine.
Unconditional support of trans youth is needed more than ever. “Youth who want but do not have the opportunity for gender-affirming care often experience high levels of anxiety, depression, and suicide,” says Dr. Johanna Olson-Kennedy, a physician at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles. Hormone replacement therapy worked wonders to make me comfortable with who I am. But because of my childhood suppression of femininity, some dysphoria remains. While I do pass as cisgender and thus do not face the same scrutiny and persecution that some trans women face, the dissatisfaction I feel with my looks is seemingly never-ending. Of course, being a teenager has amplified these feelings. As a high school student, I find it difficult not to compare my appearance to that of my peers. I thought that the point of transness was to hide it, and deep down this thought remains.
Republican politicians are not protecting children by outlawing hormone replacement therapy and other forms of gender-affirming care—they are forcing a generation of trans people to stay in the closet. I still have more to overcome, but I’m proud to say that wearing french braids in my hair is no longer as terrifying as it was that day in the mirror.