EDITOR’S NOTE: This article was originally published by Youth Communication and is reposted here with permission. YC is a nonprofit publisher of teen-written stories and curriculum to help educators strengthen the social and emotional skills of youth.
After I cut my hair short for the first time, a friend at school saw me. “You look like a boy,” he said. It felt validating—especially coming from a boy—and it started to click that maybe I wasn’t the girl I thought I was.
A few nights later, I sat cross-legged on the bed in my dark room, illuminated by the screen of my laptop. A quick Google search had provided the further validation I was seeking: “Why do I feel like a boy if I’m a girl?”
I’m “transgender.” That’s the word my laptop told me.
The definition—a person whose gender identity does not correspond with the sex assigned to them at birth—described why I felt so out-of-place in my own body. I had always felt this way, but the slight feeling of unease escalated to full-fledged dread as I went through puberty and entered middle school. I was a 12-year old who had built my entire personality on what was expected of girls—dresses, makeup, and boys—when I had no idea who I was.
Identifying with the word “transgender” helped me recognize that conforming to what other people expected meant suppressing the real me. I asked myself, “What do I want?” for the first time. After struggling with my sexuality and gender identities for as long as I could remember, they finally fell into place with ease. Wearing masculine clothing and having my new, short haircut felt as natural as breathing. When I looked in the mirror, I saw myself as the person I’d always been inside.
Unfortunately, as I began researching what it meant to be trans, I came across hateful and ugly messages online. I was afraid that I would be bullied or harassed at school. I didn’t have support or guidance at home, either, as my deeply conservative parents refuse to accept that I’m trans. But as painful as their denial is, it doesn’t change who I am.
It does mean, though, that I have to make my own path. I came out to my friends, and asked them to call me a more masculine version of my deadname, thinking it would make the transition easier for them. But this new name didn’t feel right—it didn’t feel like me. On top of that, it didn’t make my transition easier for my friends. After my name change, they rejected me outright, saying that in their eyes I’d “always be a girl.”
During this time I started working on a novel, and named the main character “Spencer.” At first, he was everything I thought I could never be: tall, strong, masculine, and confident. I realized that nothing was stopping me from being like him—even if I wasn’t the tallest or the most masculine guy in the world. I could still go by Spencer, because it made me happy.
My new name helped me gather the courage to start socially presenting as a boy. While I didn’t say it aloud to anyone yet, I changed my name on my social media profiles, and started dressing for the joy of feeling like myself, rather than to meet the expectations of others.
Almost two years later, I arrived at my first day of high school. Coming from a small middle school where everyone knew me as someone I wasn’t, I was eager for this fresh start in a new school with about 4,000 students. I was ready to let people see me for the first time, but I was also terrified of what they would think or say. Getting ready to leave my house, I spent nearly an hour fussing in the mirror, stressing over the question, “Do I pass as a boy?” and wearing my tightest sports bras underneath the most masculine clothing I owned.
I started the 30-minute walk to school. I’d done everything I could to feel like Spencer and to cue people to read me as him. The only thing left to do was hope that I’d be accepted.
As I took my first steps into the building, the question continued to echo in my head. Then I got lost, missed my first class, and broke down crying in the stairwell: the authentic first-day-of-high-school experience. My next class was Global History. I sat in the back, as far away from the teacher as possible. What-ifs swarmed in my head. “What if he doesn’t call me ‘he’? Or won’t call me Spencer? What if someone makes fun of me? What if I get bullied?”
The teacher took attendance, and I winced when he called out the name I was assigned at birth, but I couldn’t find the courage to tell him my real name just yet. It wasn’t until later in the class that I shakily raised my hand and he walked over to me with a warm, reassuring smile. “Is it OK if I have a nickname?” I asked. And he responded, “What’s your nickname?”
“Spencer,” I said, and it felt real. For the first time, I was Spencer. I’d said it out loud, and I knew, finally, it was me. I was transgender and in high school. I couldn’t hide anymore. Then he asked, “What are your pronouns?” and I relaxed a little. “He and him.” He nodded, wrote it down, and then said, “I understand.” I suddenly felt less alone—there was someone who knew and accepted me.
It was an act of kindness that changed the trajectory of my high school life. Had he not offered me this moment of respect, I probably wouldn’t have had the courage to share my name with my other teachers, and I’d have been stuck living and presenting as someone I never was.
Not all of them were as understanding. No matter how many times I told some of my teachers my pronouns, it felt to me like they just wouldn’t listen. They’d call me Spencer, but still use she/her. My pronouns are an extension of my name—the happy and confident version of me—so when teachers didn’t use them it created a conflict in my identity where I didn’t feel entirely “out” and seen.
According to a 2021 article, “Misgendering: What it is and why it matters,” published in Harvard Health Publishing, “When people are misgendered, they feel invalidated and unseen. When this happens daily, it becomes a burden that can negatively impact their mental health and their ability to function in the world.” Being repeatedly misgendered made it harder for me to look in the mirror and see Spencer. “What’s the point of being out of the closet if most people don’t see me as him?”
The hardest part was not knowing whether they were even trying, whether the teachers were making genuine mistakes or were deliberately dismissing me. I knew being a trans student in one of the biggest public high schools in New York City wouldn’t be easy. But I hadn’t realized how much other people could impact my sense of self, thrusting me back to feeling like a stranger in my body.
I’m short, my hips are wide, my voice can be soft and feminine, and, well, you can imagine what else. But because I’m a minor and don’t have my parents’ support, I’m unable to be diagnosed with gender dysphoria, which also means that I haven’t been able to start medically transitioning, or even use puberty blockers. The school doesn’t have a clear policy for someone like me when it comes to bathrooms, locker rooms, or sports teams. I live in a gray area, among other trans people who aren’t able to transition yet. To put it bluntly—it sucks.
Harassment has become a common part of my high school experience. A student in my gym class called me a homophobic slur. Another time, after sharing my pronouns, a sophomore boy snidely asked about my genitalia. Every morning, I wake up in a body that feels foreign to me. Being misgendered and harassed is a constant reminder.
I don’t know how I would have dealt with these negative emotions and the bitterness they created in me without the support system that I started building at school. I formed a group of friends who call me Spencer without issue. We all got to know each other through Drama Club, which seemed to attract a lot of other LGBTQ students. My Drama Club adviser and algebra teacher occasionally struggled with my pronouns, but I knew he didn’t mean it. What was most important to me was that he tried.
“I get it,” I told him one day, “It takes time. Even I misgender myself sometimes.”
“I know,” he said, “And I know it hurts you more, but it hurts me too. To be messing up this much.” I almost cried as the compassion of his words struck me. It was the first time since coming out that I felt something like parental support. When I told him that my other teachers still misgendered me, he reached out to my guidance counselor, and she sent a gentle e-mail reminding them that my pronouns are he, him, and his. If my guidance counselor’s actions were a school-wide policy, it would benefit all trans students. Eventually, I want to be a teacher, so that I can push for these kinds of changes and give trans kids the support they need.
Spencer originally represented a version of me that I thought could only exist in fiction. Telling people my name reminds me that I’m writing my own story. After everything I’ve been through, I’m still me, and I’m going to be myself, no matter what. I used to be scared of being myself, but now—no matter who it is—I always introduce myself as Spencer. My name is something I’m no longer willing to sacrifice for the expectations of others.