‘Sarah’s story’ is a first person account of a 16 year old trans student who recently transitioned at school. It’s longer than my usual posts, but when you start reading, you’ll realise why.
Quite simply, all the players in this story are remarkable: Sarah herself, her family and close friends; the Principal of her school, the Head of Senior School, and the school Counsellor. They are thoughtful and kind, but bold and brave too, and they act with courage and compassion. They do the right thing and the consequences are huge. It’s not rocket science and other schools could do it too.
Sarah says there are a lot of negative stories out there about trans young people and that it’s really important to have some positive stories too. She would like this story to be read widely. So, allies, please read and share. Most of all, Sarah wants to be an advocate for other trans kids. I think she might just have nailed that.
This is one of those stories that refreshes your faith in humankind and reminds you that support for our community is sometimes found in the unlikeliest of places.
Happy IDAHOT Day!
Coming out as gay and coming out as trans are two very different things. It’s not just one little coming out; it’s this giant switch and some people choose to take it slowly, and some people do it in one big motion. I was scared of taking it too quickly and hurting people. It’s not just something that affects you; it affects family and relationships and everything changes.
Before I turned fourteen I had a lot of stuff going on that kept me from figuring things out. I definitely felt connected to the LGBTI community, but I couldn’t pin it on anything. The feelings were there, but not identifiable. A pivotal moment was when I was in Year 8 and my teacher put up a poster that said: ‘Some boys like boys. Some girls like girls. And some like both’. They were rolling out the safe schools posters and I didn’t know that at the time, but just to read that on the wall was really affirming.
Then in Year 9 a friend came out as trans. After they told me I did some research and I started looking at male to female and it was like ‘Whoa! Okay!’ I wasn’t upset, it was just like something had hit a nerve and I wasn’t quite sure what it was. I guess that was pretty helpful in figuring out a little bit more about myself and I started to open up to my friend and talk about some of the stuff I was feeling. It was scary, confronting.
In Year 9, I really started to struggle and it was getting more and more difficult to present as male. One day I was in class and I told the teacher I needed to step out and I went to our school Counsellor. I sat down and just went, ‘Blah…this is everything. This is what I feel’. I guess she was the first adult figure I told which was terrifying, but really freeing at the same time.
The Counsellor was pretty good, very good – a bit taken aback that this kid had just come into her office and blurted everything out – but after the initial shock she was really supportive. She pointed me to a lot of resources and booked more appointments. I got to talk to her about everything and I could bounce my thoughts off her and get feedback which was really helpful. It was incredible. It was a really amazing experience and I was so lucky to have that.
And then I guess I started to become more comfortable and started telling a few close friends. I just said, ‘This is something I’d like to do in the next year or so.’ A lot of them just were just ‘okay, whatever’ and a few had questions – medical questions – which I couldn’t answer and I’d say: ‘I don’t know,’ or ‘That’s a personal thing.’ I guess it was helpful for me to get those questions early on because I still get them today and now I’ve got a response. Back then, I would just choke and would have no idea what to say. I would be so awkward; I’d just leave the conversation.
One of the questions I get a lot from older straight cisgender people is: ‘So when are you going to fully transition?’ And I just say: ‘That’s not an appropriate question for a 16-year-old,’ and they shut up. I think it’s really good for them to know that you can’t just go and ask a 16 year old about what’s in their pants. It’s not appropriate, regardless of whether I’m trans or not, it’s just not appropriate. Now I’ve got a little more confidence and I know where I stand and what I can say. Having the support of friends, and people outside of school, like Minus18, has really helped build that confidence, and my sense of self is a lot better now.
As I started to find out more about what I was feeling, I became a little bit more Sarah, a little bit more myself, which is quite an incredible and affirming thing. I really enjoyed finding my feet. Now, I’m talking to you and there’s an energy in my head that wasn’t there a year ago. It’s pretty astounding to think that where I was then, and where I am now, are two totally different sides of the mountain. I guess time has helped a lot and all the support and understanding.
I also think the media has helped – in its own way – with Caitlyn Jenner and celebrities like her. Even though they are in no way role models, people can relate to them, so they go ‘Transgender’/ ‘Caitlyn Jenner’, and they sort of understand. They don’t really, but they make a connection and learn something about being respectful. So, people don’t use Caitlyn Jenner’s birth name so they give me the same respect and that’s quite helpful. I had one friend who described me coming out as “Caitlyn’ing” which I thought was quite funny, but it was also a bit of an eye opener; that’s how some of my friends have found a way to understand and I’m totally fine with that.
I think the most important thing I did was try new things and do stuff I wasn’t necessarily comfortable with, but I was willing to try and just pray I would be able to get out of those situations if I wasn’t comfortable. So it was a little risk taking, but it wasn’t going to harm me forever. I’m talking about, like, trying on a dress for the first time. Back then that was a massive risk – if someone had taken a photo, or said something – those rumours can tear you apart, but I went ‘stuff it’ and I just did it. It felt really amazing and that was cool. After that first experience, I found things to wear that made me feel more like Sarah and over time I started developing habits that made me feel even more like Sarah.
The first step I took with wanting to transition was to tell my dad. My dad is a contractor for a power company, but he only really does that once or twice a week now. He volunteers pretty much full time at Helping Hands Mission. I sent him a text message at like 3.00 am in the morning with this giant paragraph which went something like, ‘I’m not feeling right… I’m not your son anymore… I’m your daughter. Please don’t hate me…’ I’m trying to explain everything to him and the whole time I am writing, and especially when I hit ‘send’ I have this overwhelming fear. I thought, ‘Okay, that’s the last time I am going to speak to him. Great. Cool.’ It was so terrifying, but I’m glad I did it. I woke up to a message that said ‘We’ll talk tonight.’ He had already gone to work so I was left thinking of all the different ways this could go and that was terrifying.
He got home and he had nothing but love and acceptance for me, and even though he didn’t quite understand, he did his best as a parent to understand which is pretty incredible for someone who has had no interaction with this community. He didn’t really ask too many questions about where I wanted to go, but we talked about that later. He needed time to evaluate and go: ‘How is this going to work?’
I think the best thing about my dad is that he won’t have an opinion on anything until he understands it. I think what he did was go: ‘Okay, I’m just going to keep my mouth shut until I’ve worked this out’. He did a bit more research before he tried to offer support and I think that was incredible. I can’t remember word for word what he said after my coming out but it went something like this: ‘This is what’s not going to happen. I’m not going to hate you. I’m not going to exile you. I’m going to love you, provide a home for you and do all the things I’m doing now. Nothing is going to change on that front, but you’ve got to let me figure out the best way to support you and I don’t know what that is yet.’
I haven’t looked at it from that perspective until you just asked me, but I think that’s probably the best way to describe it. He’s tried his very best and I haven’t heard of any kids who have had that experience.
A few months after coming out to dad I had a bit of an episode getting ready for school. I didn’t want to wear the male uniform and I just got overwhelmed with how uncomfortable I felt. I held it together until we got to school in the car. I didn’t say anything, but I got out of the car and walked through school to my locker. I grabbed my books and walked straight out the front gate and went home. I rang dad and said ‘This is what I’m feeling. I’m going home. Today isn’t a day that I can do this.’ At first he thought I was just wagging, but ten minutes later he called back and was very understanding. He said: ‘It’s okay. Just take some time. It’s alright. Make sure you get a little work done, but just take a day.’
I think that approach was really helpful; to have that support and for him to understand that I needed a break, that I needed some time to evaluate. Afterwards dad contacted the Counsellor at school and they had a conversation about uniform. They agreed that I could wear the sports uniform which is gender neutral until we decided what was going to happen next.
Up until now I hadn’t really thought of transitioning at school. It was way too scary. There were so many people; it was terrifying. So I thought I would wear the sports uniform for sure, but I started to have conversations about the best way to approach transitioning and I decided I wanted to do it before my deb in September 2016, but it turns out it happened a bit sooner.
I needed to tell my mum which was a bit scary, but dad did all of that and I didn’t really have much to do with it. Mum sort of went ‘Oh that’s okay. I will support you and that’s fine’. I guess our relationship is difficult. I know the support is there, but I’m not really willing to access it so that just sort of sits there. My brother is a really quiet kid and he doesn’t really say much, but I have had nothing but support from him. I take him to some Minus18 events if we need an extra hand, or he wants to have a dance and he thinks it’s awesome so that’s good. I knew he’d be supportive. He’s got friends who are trans and I think it’s not really very different to having someone in your own family.
Safe Schools came out to school and we had a meeting with the Counsellor, the Head of Senior School and Dad. We all crammed into this tiny little office and worked out a timeline. The start of Term 4 seemed good because that way I’d get a couple of months as an adjustment period and then I could go into 2016 as Sarah and know what I was doing. So that was terrifying and cool at the same time, but it didn’t really hit me until that night and I sat in my room and said ‘OK. October 5th’. That was scary and daunting, but good.
Safe Schools suggested we have a meeting with all my teachers before I transitioned, and Mr L. [the Principal] being Mr L. turned it into a lunch and something bigger and better. Everyone finished early on the last day of term except me and a friend who stayed back. I went into the bathrooms, got changed into the girls’ uniform that I’d borrowed and put my old uniform back over the top. We walked down to a classroom and I quickly took my old uniform off so everyone could see the girls’ uniform underneath.
All the teachers I’d had that term, and all the teachers I’d be having next term, were there and I gave them each a letter I’d written that explained how I wanted my transition to be and how they could support me in class. Then over lunch we started to talk and they all had interesting questions. A lot of them had picked up that I had always used a nickname – my first name was never really used. In my Year 7 class we had four kids with the same name and I got a nickname which just stuck, even to the point that teachers used it. My music teacher described me as being like Madonna – I don’t have a first name – which was pretty cool. It was interesting explaining to them that I was done with the nickname and just wanted to be ‘Sarah’ now. The older teachers struggled with pronouns, but most of them are pretty good and they correct themselves. And they all use ‘Sarah’ now which is really nice.
I think they all felt a bit of pride at being involved in the lunch – privileged I guess. That’s how one of them described it to me. My English teacher said: ‘I felt a little bit privileged to be sitting in that room and getting to talk about those things’. I think a lot of teachers welcomed what was happening, especially English and Lit, and music and drama. It’s like they think, ‘Oh wow! That’s cool and it’s happening in my workplace,’ and that’s a pretty incredible thing.
Over the holidays we did everything we needed to do to get ready for the next term. The ladies at the uniform shop booked a day when I could go in by myself. Mr L. arranged that for me. The school thought of absolutely everything (and I’m sorry for the sleepless nights I must have caused you, Mr L.) but some of the things they thought of blew my mind. Like to walk into the uniform shop and be given my student ID and be told my name had been changed on all my school records – that was incredible and not something I had expected at all. The support from school was fantastic and not at all what you would expect from a private religious school. They set an example and I think that’s so awesome.
So October 5th came around – my first day of school as Sarah – and we all met at my friend Em’s house. Em lives just across the road from the school, so we walked across the bridge and into the gates and I reckon Em’s still got claw marks in her hand from me holding it and gripping it so hard. I was so scared. I walked into the school and everyone gave me a look that wasn’t at all what I expected. It was quite warm and welcoming and I think that was really cool. And throughout the whole day I had people coming up to me and they were like ‘Well done. That’s pretty cool’. And every time I went into a new class for that day, the teacher would introduce me, which is something I had asked in my letter. After about two weeks, I was old news. No one cared anymore and it just went back to normal.
The kids in my year level were pretty cool. The Year 12s put up a bit of a fight and some shit things happened. My locker got tagged and there was some nasty stuff on Facebook. But no one ever said anything to my face which I think speaks volumes. And through all of that there were kids coming up to me and going ‘They’re just fuckwits’. The school was a bit limited in how they could respond, because these kids were in the middle of exams, but they did as much as they could and some of them were suspended.
The best thing about transitioning at school was that nothing changed. How I was treated by teachers didn’t change and I didn’t want it to change. I think a lot of teachers had a bit more respect in a way. I don’t mean that I got any special privileges, but a lot of teachers would say things like, ‘That’s really cool’ or ‘I think it’s incredibly brave what you’re doing. Well done’. I think that’s probably the best thing they did for me; they didn’t change how they treated me. They just changed my name, my gender on the school records, and let me pick and choose how I wanted this to work. I think there are so many things they have done right and I can’t really name anything they have done wrong. It’s just been really positive and heart-warming I guess. It’s a tough thing to do, but I think they’ve done it really well.
School is a lot better now and mark‑wise it’s improved; everything is better compared to last year. I’m thinking a lot more about school work instead of all the other shit that I had going on in my head. There are some days where I can’t wait to go home and that’s just because I don’t feel 100% comfortable. I think probably the biggest issue I have at school would be using the bathrooms. I just use the disabled bathroom because it’s less of a hassle and I hate having to feel like I need to justify that I’m using the correct bathroom all the time. I still feel uncomfortable and you don’t want people to see you going in there because they’re like ‘You’re not a girl’. That’s probably the biggest fear. I guess every time I need to pee at school I feel a bit shit and I want to go home. It’s not particular to my school – wherever I am I need to manage that and I hope it will get easier over time. But a year ago I was willing myself out of bed in the morning and now, I get up at quarter to six and I’m ready to go!
Everyone says that I’m happier now and some have said that I’m a lot more cocky, which I can neither confirm nor deny. I think people have noticed an improvement and I’ve noticed it in myself as well. Getting school work done, and managing all the extra things I’m doing, is a lot easier when I understand more about me. Being able to function as a human being is a lot easier when you know who you are. And having an idea of where I want to go, and the journey I have come on, is pretty helpful.
For example, last year’s formal was very different to this year’s. Last year, I borrowed a dress from a friend’s mum and we all got ready at a friend’s place. This year I got to the venue at 9.00 am and didn’t leave until about half past twelve that night and it was incredible. I was stage managing for most of the day and I was working on the comms team. I had a lot more involvement, a lot more say, and a bit more creative control around how everything looked so that was pretty awesome.
I think being involved in Minus18 has helped me get a better picture of myself, especially my future. I’d love to finish school and start doing part time stage stuff, hopefully through school. In the future I see myself doing a bit of that, but a lot more for Minus. I’d really love to step into more of a creative role and also have more responsibility for comms and managing social media, something I’m really passionate about. And also part time Uni as well. I’m in year 11 now and I want to do stage design and lighting, maybe at RMIT. I would love to do film, but you need a 92 Atar which I’m not going to get. I’m also starting to enjoy a lot more website based stuff and the nerdier side of things.
My message for someone reading this is: keep going, keep moving forward. Finding role models and people you can look up to is really helpful. I won’t name them, but everyone has someone they idolise. Having someone helped me to become Sarah. I’d come home from school and just feel like shit because I was presenting as masculine and it just wasn’t right, and my friends would do everything to support me, but it still wasn’t enough. I still felt like I was never going to be where I wanted to be. And then I’d see something come up on Facebook about this person and how amazing they were and all the advocacy they were doing. That’s what I want to be. That’s something I aspire to. I think that kept me going through all the tough times.
I want to see schools and education departments realising that this isn’t a phase; this isn’t something that just happens and then disappears. This is something that’s always going to be there. And now that more and more kids are feeling safe to express themselves and transition socially, they need support. And there needs to be networks that deal with bullying and gender affirmation and all those things that help kids feel better at school.
I think what would make the world better for me would be more education. Trans rights aren’t up for debate and I think that’s a really important message I want the government to hear. I want them to realise that taking away things like the Safe Schools program – that doesn’t affect kids like me who have already transitioned – but it does affect younger kids. How can you expect kids to learn and grow and feel safe if they can’t be themselves? That’s probably my biggest pet peeve.
A lot has happened over these last 12 months. I’ve transitioned in school and publicly and I’m starting to do a lot more advocacy and more volunteer work to try and better the lives of kids like me. I think that’s really helped; that and talking to other people, and knowing that I’m not alone, that there are so many other kids – and adults – like me. I’m incredibly lucky to have transitioned at my age and I’m very grateful for the support I’ve had.
Sarah with some help from Jac Tomlins
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