At 5:45 AM on September 8, 14-year-old Maya DeLong woke up for her first day of high school. She showered and got dressed. She put on a lavender Death Cab for Cutie T-shirt (a gift from her father the previous Friday), cut-off jean shorts, and baby blue socks. She went downstairs and ate Cheerios for breakfast. She sat with her mother Susan and father Bill in the kitchen of their two-story cape in Durham, Maine. The home is filled with salt-rubbed antique wooden furniture, all smooth edges and pocked grain. Stones and sea glass decorate the windowsills. A splintered oar hangs on the wall. A quintessential seacoast home.
After breakfast, Susan and Bill took Maya out to the front yard for a first-day-of-school photograph, a ritual performed every year since kindergarten. She propped her foot up on a rock and rested her left hand on her waistline. Susan hit the shutter. Click.
But this year's photograph was different from the ones before—the previous pictures had been of Ben. Back in June, on her last day of middle school, Maya came out publicly as transgender and on that morning in September, she was heading off to school, for the first time, as female.
On her way to work, Susan dropped Maya off at Waynflete in Portland, a private school different from the public middle school Maya had attended before her public transition. A precocious student, with interests in science and math, Maya was slated to bode well with the student body at Waynflete. The school has a positive reputation from trans students who went there previously, and it has become one of the most trans-friendly educational institutions in the state, a byproduct of Portland's progressive stance on LGBTQ people. (Earlier this year, Nicole Maines, a transgender Waynflete senior, won a Maine Women's Fund award for "marking a historic and landmark victory for transgender rights in the US." When Maines's former school required her to use a staff bathroom instead of the girls' restroom, she and her family filed a lawsuit against the school and transferred Maines to Waynflete, which welcomed her.)
As they drove, Maya put on her headphones and listened to her favorite bands. Twenty One Pilots. All Time Low. Fall Out Boy. Imagine Dragons. They calmed her nerves. As Susan pulled up to drop her off, Maya repeated to herself, in a low muffled voice, "I can do this. I can do this. I can do this."
Being a transgender teenager in America is not easy. According to the Youth Suicide Prevention Program, more than 50 percent of transgender teens have attempted suicide by their 20th birthday. The struggle of trying to understand their gender dysphoria, coupled with a too-frequent lack of familial support, has forced many transgender youth to leave their homes. Forty percent of homeless youth are transgender, with 90 percent leaving their homes due to familial disownment or rejection. Many parents do not have adequate education to understand their child's gender dysphoria, and many would rather the child suppress their feelings than come to terms with the situation.
Lack of acceptance in school is even more staggering, with 90 percent of transgender teens experiencing verbal transphobic harassment by peers in their educational institution and 76 percent experiencing sexual harassment. Due to lack of support, either financial or emotional, many trans youth also find themselves unable to medically transition until they are legally adults—and therefore little data exists to compare the total number of transgender teenagers with the number that undergo hormone therapy. Medical care for transgender minors is relatively new, and in only the past three years have more pediatric hospitals started providing endocrinology for transgender youth. In 2012, the World Professional Association for Transgender Health (WPATH) released a set of guidelines that recommends trans kids undergo hormone therapy as young as 14 so they can enter into the puberty of their chosen gender at the same time as their peers. For Maya and her parents, this was the plan.
I didn't know how to process it. I didn't know how to function.
Despite eventual support from her parents, however, Maya's road to coming out was not without its challenges. In 2013, when she was 12, Maya started trying out the idea that she identified as a female. She had the feeling that something wasn't quite right biologically, and after almost a year of online research, she decided to write her parents a letter. "I wanted to write my own letter, but I ended up copying and pasting some things from online," Maya said. "It was so off in grammar and tone that it came across as a joke." It didn't help that Maya put it under her father's pillow on March 31. He didn't find it until the next day: April Fool's. Susan and Bill laughed off Maya's letter as just a prank for the annual holiday. Maya hid her feelings after not being taken seriously. It would be over a year before she brought it up again.
Then, on a sunny spring day in May of 2014, Susan brought Maya to a routine doctor's appointment. Maya had planned to come out to Susan that day. She had been preparing for weeks. But what would she say? How would she frame it? How could she make her parents understand? As they pulled into the parking lot, Maya blurted it out. "Mom, I'm transgender." Maya turned away and slammed her face into the leather headrest of the front seat. She started to cry. "I didn't know how to process it. I didn't know how to function," Maya said.
Susan had suspected that Maya's first attempt to come out had had a sliver of truth in it. "Growing up, she wasn't super physical, didn't like to get unnecessarily wet," Susan said. "I didn't think she was gay or anything, just not overly masculine." Although Maya doesn't recall the conversation, when she was 10 she approached Susan and asked if a person could be born in the wrong body. Susan explained what transgender meant, but it wasn't as if a lightbulb went off in Maya's head. "A lot of trans kids would say, 'Oh, I always knew I was a girl.' I didn't really feel that," Maya said. "I felt pretty much OK until 2012. Then I was like, 'What's going on?!'" As a child, though, Maya liked to play pretend, especially house, and even fantasized about being a mermaid. "Maybe that was because I was trying to escape my male body," she said, "but I didn't know it at the time."
When Susan called Bill, who was at work, to share the news that Maya had officially come out as transgender, he was devastated and confused. He was worried not only about Maya's well-being, but also about his own. What would his conservative parents back home in Minnesota say? Bill served in the navy for over 20 years, and many of his friends are also ex-military. Would they be accepting? He was scared. "I can't do this," he told Susan, feeling helpless. He called his sister Margaret, whose son came out as gay ten years prior, looking for support.
We were so overwhelmed. But you adapt as a parent.
Margaret also understood Bill's biological connection to Maya's birth gender. "Bill felt that he was losing a bit of his son," she said. A parent's inherent lack of preparedness is commonplace when a child comes out as transgender. They don't know where to begin. But what is harder to cope with is the sense of mourning by the parent with the shared birth gender, not only for the identity that the child is leaving behind but also the loss of the parent's ability to live vicariously through it. "I do find that often dads have a harder time accepting [their son is transgender]," said Susan Maasch, founder of the Transgender Youth Equality Foundation (TYEF). "Many do [grieve], and we met many that do not. The ones that don't [grieve] feel that they recognized [their son] was a girl all along, born that way."
The child's birth gender can be an important facet in how a father views his child as an extension of himself. A father will invest a lot of his own ego into a son: The family name will be carried on, a bit of himself will live through his kin, his child will be able to depend on male privilege. And then the child, in the father's eyes, gives all of that up. If Ben disappeared, would the memories of him also disappear? Building the tree fort in their backyard, carving a handmade wooden sword together, the urge to understand his love for videogames and pop punk music, waiting for Ben to get his first girlfriend. Could Bill be an equally good parent to Maya as he was to Ben? Would she be proud of him? Would be he proud of himself? Despite Maya still being his blood, his love unconditional regardless of her gender, Bill felt, in a way, that he was still losing his son.
Susan struggled with the news, too. In the first few weeks, she cried numerous times. And, like Bill's, her parents were also conservative. She remembered comments her stepfather made about homosexuals in the past, and Maya had always been a bit of a black sheep among her cousins. There was a chance that although Maya was coming to terms with herself, she would be ostracized by her extended family as a result. Bill had mentioned to Susan that perhaps it was best to make Maya wait until she was 18 to start publicly identifying as female—that maybe it was the safest option for everyone. Susan didn't want to agree or disagree. She was very much in the dark about transgender youth and wanted to research before making any decisions. "We were in kind of a panic about what to do," Susan said. "We were so overwhelmed. But you adapt as a parent." Maya urged them to allow her to start transitioning immediately. They didn't have to tell the extended family right away, but male puberty had already begun to set in. Maya wanted to take a puberty blocker and start taking estrogen and hopefully pass as a girl before she started high school the following year. Susan and Bill decided to follow Maya's wishes and immediately started referring her by her new identity at home, while the rest of the world still knew her as Ben.
After Susan and Bill decided Maya's transition was something they wholeheartedly supported and wanted to dive into immediately, they sought information and support from the Transgender Youth Equality Foundation. Luckily, TYEF was located right in downtown Portland, just a few blocks from Bill's work. Susan Maasch founded TYEF in 2007 after her transgender son was discriminated against at his public school near Bangor, Maine. It's the only organization in the country that offers support groups, legal and medical council, and summer camps specifically for trans youth. In 2014, they served over 800 individuals from across the country. By August of this year, they had already surpassed that mark.
Susan, Bill, and Maya set up a meeting with Maasch to better understand their situation. "Maya is amazing," Maasch said. "Her parents were just passionate and caring and willing to jump right in, and they had us right here for support." Maasch recommended that Maya attend their next summer camp session, slated for August, so Maya could meet other kids who were also transitioning. "When she came back from camp, she was bounding across the kitchen," Susan said. "She's was more talkative after that. Her personality was amplified," Bill added. Being around other trans kids showed Maya that she wasn't alone and allowed her to learn how people went about their journeys. "I know who I want to be, and I'm just going to do it," Maya recalled thinking. "Now it's not who I want to be, but it's who I am."
We had worried about it for so long, and then it happened and it was a non-issue.
Maya had been seeing an endocrinologist since coming out to her parents, and in September she started taking the puberty blocker Supprelin, which regulates the release of testosterone and makes chemically transitioning into a female more fluid, especially if puberty is in the early stages, as was the case with Maya. Bill was still on his Veterans Assistance insurance plan from his time in the navy, which strictly prohibited transgender-related care for family members, including mental health counseling. In order to get the blocker, which is surgically implanted into the upper arm, covered, they couldn't mention that it was because Maya was transitioning; some children go on puberty blockers for central precocious puberty, which is a condition that causes children to start puberty as young as 8 or 9. But when Maya started on estrogen in December, the second step in medically changing a person's gender, the family had to pay for the medication out of pocket because Bill's insurance plan wouldn't cover it. Thankfully, it was inexpensive—only $10 for a 90-day supply—and at the beginning of this year, Bill landed a job with Homeland Security, which has more inclusive plans for transgender family members.
As the estrogen started to take effect, Maya saw physical changes in her body. Breasts slowly start forming, more fat clung to her hips, and her jaw tapered. And although these changes went largely unnoticed by classmates in the early part of 2015, Maya wasn't completely removed from bullying that is all too common in schools. "I got called gay a lot," she said. After being accepted to Waynflete at the beginning of the year, she opted out of standardized testing in the spring. During the test periods, she went to the library. She sat down and crossed her legs. Another classmate, a boy who had been critical of her in the past, shouted at her, "You are crossing your legs. Are you gay? Only girls do that!" The following day, when they crossed paths again: "Are you wearing girls' socks? Are you gay? You're a cross-dresser!" Although his jabs hurt Maya, she shrugged them off. She had bigger plans in the works, like coming out publically to her friends and family on her last day of middle school—the last day of her old life.
The main hurdle of the public announcement was Bill and Susan's parents. Bill and Susan had decided, in early June, to write letters to each member of their family. They wanted to be honest and forthcoming, but distant enough to let the family take in the news as they needed. Susan put her stepfather's letter in the mail on a Monday. He still lived in Maine, so the letter should've arrived the following day. With no word by Thursday, Susan became nervous. "We were on pins and needles," she said. That day, she asked her nephew to go over and check on the letter's status. Her stepfather said that he needed more time to process it. Later that night, though, he sent an e-mail to Susan. He wrote that it explains a lot and was nonetheless supportive of Maya's decision. He even encouraged her to get out there, be social, and stand proud of who she is.
Bill enlisted the help of his sister Margaret, who went through a similar situation when her son came out as gay. She hand-delivered Bill's letter to their parents, who are in their 80s. "It's not something that you just slide under the door," she said. Margaret sat there as they read the letter. "Well, it's not like we have never been surprised before," their mother said, referring to Margaret's son. After that, their father sent Bill a text message. "Wow. Breathe very easy," it read. Despite the brevity, Bill was relieved. All seemed to be right in the family's reaction to the news.
But when Susan and Bill put up a Facebook status about Maya's decision on June 19, her last day of middle school, Bill had to cut ties with a few friends—some of whom he'd known for years through the military—after receiving negative messages about Maya. "It got my blood absolutely boiling," Bill said. "But I am the father to my child. She comes first." Despite some falling out on Bill's side, the family was largely happy with the outcome. "We had worried about it for so long, and then it happened and it was a non-issue," Susan said. "Life has gone on as normal."
I know who I want to be, and I'm just going to do it.
Since coming out publicly, Maya's personal has gone largely unchanged. She still opts for skinny jeans and T-shirts over blouses and skirts. And she doesn't wear makeup. "I swear by Converse," Maya said. "Not every cisgender woman has a fully woman aesthetic, so why do trans girls have to?" Despite her choice of dress, over the summer, many people in public—the concierge of a hotel, the cashier at a Dunkin Donuts, patrons at a mall in Boston—referred to her with female pronouns. "She got that from her essence, not from her of dress," Susan said.
With the public announcement over and Maya's confidence boosted for passing as female, the family could get back to preparing her for high school. They had already told the school that Ben, the name written on her acceptance letter, was now Maya. Waynflete didn't bat an eye. "It's about treating every student the same," said Cathie Connors, the dean of students at Waynflete. "The community here is up-to-date and understanding and has come a long way even since four or five years ago." All bathrooms at Waynflete are gender-neutral, and the school was accommodating regarding other preferences Maya might have regarding her tenure. They even have a LGBT club on campus that Maya immediately joined. She felt that maybe, just maybe, this would be the place where she felt she could truly be herself.
The first thing Maya said when Susan picked her up from school was that many kids were "friend material." Emma, a blonde girl with black skinny jeans and an Imagine Dragons bracelet, had complimented Maya's shirt at orientation two weeks prior, and they linked up on the first day to hang out during their advisory period, which is like homeroom. Although Emma hasn't asked Maya if she is trans, a boy had brought it up to Maya at an outing for incoming students the previous week. Maya confirmed to him that, yes, she was trans. The boy didn't seem phased, and even apologized if his asking was rude. "I'm just going to be myself," Maya said. "If someone asks me if I am trans, I am going to tell them. I don't have anything to hide."
After advanced algebra, English, and history, the rest of the afternoon went smoothly. Maya encountered more kids who were friend material, and she spent her free period doing history homework. Susan works down the street from Waynflete, convenient for picking her up, but Bill was working from home that day and waited in earnest for his daughter to get home. He wanted to make sure she felt accepted, that she felt safe. Above his makeshift office in the basement, on the main floor, a photograph of Maya as seven-year-old Ben sits on the dresser in the living room. With close-cropped hair hidden underneath a grey beanie, she flashes a toothless smile for the camera. Maya said she doesn't mind old pictures up around the house, that she isn't ashamed of who she was once. "I'm still me," Maya said. "I'm just a girl this time around."