He and she. Her and his. They’re pronouns, but they’re more than that to sophomore Alex Long. To him and many transgenders, they’re a matter of basic respect.
Respect and recognition that they haven’t always gotten. TIME magazine reported that there is a stigma associated with transgenders. A survey done by the Public Religion Research Institute in 2011 said that about three in 10 Americans can’t define the term ‘transgender.’
According to Caroline Gibbs, founder of the Transgender Institute in Kansas City, Mo., the word ‘transgender’ is an umbrella term that covers different groups that do not conform to the traditional definition of their gender.
‘Transsexual’ refers to a more specialized group of people.
According to Gibbs, “[Being transsexual] means that they feel, usually from the time that they are very small, that they are living in the wrong body, that their body is different from what they feel they are inside in terms of gender.”
Gibbs says that the latest research has been done by University of Michigan professor Lynn Conway. Conway estimated that one in 2,500 people have undergone sex reassignment surgery (SRS) to become female, which is a lot more than was previously accepted. Conway calculated that statistic by dividing the number of male-to-female SRS surgeries, 32,000, by the number of U.S. males between the ages of 18-60.
Commonly cited statistics by the medical community are one in 30,000 for male-to-female transsexualism and one in 100,000 for female-to-male . Research done by the Williams Institute at UCLA estimated a figure of 700,000 transsexual people living in the U.S, although the study admits that it is challenging to measure the LGBT community.
While transsexualism hasn’t always been a common discussion, states, universities and school districts are beginning to talk about it. Questions were brought up that hadn’t been considered before, like which restroom transsexuals should use. UMKC has designated gender-neutral restrooms and housing as a response. California signed a law in 2013 that protects transsexual students from being unfairly segregated from the rest of their school.
Gibbs had a meeting with principal John McKinney at the beginning of the school year during which they found the same answer to that question. McKinney didn’t want to make the transgender student or any other student uncomfortable, so the compromise was that there would be a gender-neutral restroom in the nurse’s office for the transgender students’ use.
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Alex Long was born Alexandra Long in 1997. After spending much of his childhood struggling with his gender identity, he made the outward switch from female to male going into his freshman year. And the pronouns changed with it.
He was 3 years old when he knew. He wasn’t like other people around him. He remembers asking his mom about it. But all those thoughts got pushed aside.
“You’re three and that’s not the time when you’re supposed to be dealing with that,” Long said.
Gibbs is a verified gender counselor and she says that that’s actually the age when most transsexual individuals start to realize that they’re not like everyone else. She says it usually happens between three and five years old.
One concrete moment of realization came when Long was in elementary school.
Long was 11 or 12 years old, playing with a friend during after school care one day. His friend’s mom arrived to pick up her son, and as they walked away Long heard his friend ask his mom a question.
“Why does she dress like a boy?”
“She just feels like a boy trapped in the girl’s body.”
He remembers thinking it over and realizing that’s what it was. He was happy to discover that someone other than himself would see it before he even could.
That started a whole slew of realizations for Long, who prefers the term trangender. He realized how much he didn’t like having a girl’s name or the female pronouns. He realized the significance of how, while he played role-playing games like house with his younger sister and his neighbors, he was always the male figure and always went by Alex .
It’s hard for Long to describe what it was like to question his gender identity. The easiest thing to say is that it was challenging.
“Imagine waking up and you’re in a different body”, he said. “If you’re male, you’ve known yourself to be male, and now you’re in a female’s body. It’s like something’s been shifted, and it’s just always there. It’s like you’re constantly looking at it but you can’t tell what’s been moved.”
Gibbs says that transsexual individuals’ differences with other people around them are usually made obvious to them a total of three times. The first happens in early childhood, the second time often happens when they hit puberty.
“A lot of times kids will go through puberty and it scares them,” Gibbs said. “They will get their periods for example and they’ll be completely, completely appalled at the changes in their bodies.”
Long knew the truth about himself before he started going through puberty, so he did what he could to stop it. He controlled his diet, not eating for two or three days so that he wouldn’t grow or develop, which stunted his growth.
“I would just regulate [my diet] to the point where I wouldn’t take anything that would help me grow,” he said. “I’m glad I did what I did, but it was a really dangerous way to do it.”
However, Dr. Natasha Burgert of Pediatric Associates says that studies have shown that poor nutrition in kids may cause puberty come at a faster rate. She attributes puberty to the work of hormones, not calories.
According to Gibbs, many of transsexual people will ‘go underground’ and repress their true selves, which means that they will repress the part of himself that is questioning. It can happen at any point in a person’s life and can last for decades. She says that it’s common for transsexual people to go into military service to avoid facing the truth about themselves. Her oldest patient is 73 and has spent the entirety of her life underground.
“A lot of people will just bury it out of fear — fear of bullying, fear of not fitting in, fear of being alienated,” Gibbs said.
When Long started going to Indian Hills Middle School, he changed his appearance completely—but it wasn’t towards the male side. Instead of appearing as the tomboy he always had been, he began dressing very girly and being as feminine as he could going into seventh grade.
“I think I was starting to realize how different I was and I didn’t want to be different because it makes it so much harder for you,” he said. “It brings up all these problems and you have to deal with so much.”
He describes it as forcing himself into a mask— a mask of what he thought society wanted him to be.
Gibbs says that being transsexual is like living in two different people. There’s the authentic side that is who the person truly feels like they are on the inside. And then there’s the shadow self. It’s the shadow, biological self that is shown to the world while the authentic self has to stay hidden until it decides to come out.
“[Middle school] was just very isolating. I didn’t really go out much,” Long said. “I didn’t try to be seen; I just wanted to be unknown so I didn’t have to deal with people mistaking my identity.”
While he was trying his best to act the feminine part, he still wore his hair short. Long remembers getting called ‘he’ every once in awhile and being angry. Not at that person’s misuse of the pronoun, but at himself. He was dressing as girly as he could make himself, but still looked like a boy and that wasn’t supposed to be happening.
“Or at least that wasn’t what I thought was supposed to be happening because you don’t hear about any trans kids in school,” he said. “I didn’t know what I should’ve been doing, so I just kept myself just closed within myself. It got very lonely and depressing.”
The third point at which transsexual individuals’ differences are obvious to them is when they’re about to ‘spread their wings.’ This is usually when they go away to college or move out of their parents’ house.
That third point happened for Long when he started high school. Entering into his freshman year at East, he dropped the mask he had worn for so long and went by ‘Alex’ for the first time. He had heard that East offered a very accepting community. Because of that and the fact that there were so many new people around him, he felt like he could start over. His family accepted the switch.
Though, according to Long, East has a reputation for being a LGBT-friendly school, Long still encountered bullying from his peers. There were people that used his new gender identity against him, specifically by abusing pronouns that he didn’t want. Pointed remarks, stressing the word ‘her’ when they spoke. Exaggerating their words to affect him.
“You shouldn’t expect somebody to have a problem with calling you by [a certain] pronoun,” he said. “And when people use that against you, it’s just hurtful.”
According to Gibbs, it’s common for transsexual teenagers to encounter bullying and abuse when they go to middle school or high school. She says it can be scary because they’re afraid of being hurt or rejected by their society.
In November, Gibbs plans to work with the Shawnee MIssion school board to pass new bullying policies that would further protect transsexual individuals.
“It’s deadening to their spirit, as you can imagine any kind of bullying is, and then transgender on top of it [makes it worse],” she said.
Gibbs says that there’s a long way to go before transgender people are going to be accepted even as much as gay, lesbian or bisexual individuals. Society is more accepting of them now than before, but she still refers to them as the ‘final frontier of social justice.’
Long, who prefers the term transgender, is open about being transgender and will answer truthfully if he’s asked, but he doesn’t feel the need to include it in everyday conversation.
“I don’t [go out and say] ‘I am transgender’.I just don’t,” he said. “If someone wants to know, they can ask me.”
Long’s freshman year was rough in terms of bullying. He would hear those snide comments at least once a day, from the same people. But he says it’s not nearly as bad this year. He even still looks back on that time with happiness.
He remembers the first day of freshman year. He remembers walking into school and being very happy. Happy because he started dressing how he wanted, acting how he wanted, and finally showing his authentic self. It was natural. To change those pronouns, it made him feel at peace with who he was.
“You shouldn’t be happy on the first day of school, because it’s supposed to be awful,” Long said. “But I was very happy because it was a new place and I could be who I wanted to be. I didn’t have to hide anymore.”