WASHINGTON — For one set of Maryland twins, the simple act of finding a bathroom when out shopping or running errands is fraught with challenges. Teenagers Julian and Darrow are transgender boys; they were born female, but never felt at home in their own bodies and now identify as male.
Asked what he does when he needs to use a public restroom, Julian laughs wryly and says, “I hold it until I get home.” Or he looks for a unisex bathroom. But every time he’s out in public, he has to make that calculation.
His anxiety is based in the controversy that’s raged across the country over the rights of transgender people, and incidents of violence directed against them. The dangers transgender people can face were spotlighted in 2011, when a transgender woman was attacked and beaten after using the ladies’ room at a McDonald’s in Maryland. An employee videotaped the beating and posted it online; the attack only ended when the woman suffered a seizure.
Maryland passed a sweeping anti-discrimination law in 2014 that protects transgender people’s right to use public facilities that correspond to their gender identity. Although the issue is far from settled elsewhere.
Julian and Darrow, 19, and their mom, Jessica, sat down for an interview with WTOP because Jessica wants other teenagers and families dealing with gender identity to know they’re not alone. They agreed to the interview on the condition that their real names would not be used. They also didn’t want to be photographed.
Jessica explains her wariness by saying safety is — and has been — a concern for the children she now calls her sons. That fear isn’t unfounded: The Centers for Disease Control reports that LBGT (lesbian, bisexual, gay and transgender) people suffer higher rates of bullying, harassment and violence than their peers. On the other hand, a study earlier this year by the University of Washington found that transgender children who have “socially transitioned” and have the support of their families have no higher rates of anxiety or depression than other kids.
The issue of transgender people’s access to public facilities became a hot-button political issue this year. The question of whether transgender boys — those who were born female but identify as male — can use the boys’ restroom reached the Supreme Court last week. By a 5-3 vote, the justices blocked a lower court’s ruling that would have required a Virginia school district to allow Gavin Grimm, a 17-year-old transgender boy to use the boys’ bathroom.
A bill mandating that people use the public bathroom that corresponds to the gender on their birth certificate was signed into law earlier this year in North Carolina. The U.S. Department of Justice is suing, claiming it amounts to “state-sponsored discrimination.” A similar bill that applied only to school bathrooms failed in Virginia. On the other hand, several cities, including D.C. and New York, have adopted bills requiring that all single-stall public bathrooms be unisex.
“While policies and legislation and laws are getting better in some places … I think as a society we need to continue having these conversation and educating people so that even once the laws are there, people are understanding and able to really support that safety,” says Timothy Elliott, coordinator of the youth mental health programs at the Whitman-Walker Health Clinic in D.C., who works with kids and teens struggling with gender identity issues.
Twins paid a price for not fitting in, mom says
The twins’ mother, Jessica, says they never liked stereotypically feminine toys or play. She says she learned pretty quickly to steer clear of certain toys for birthdays or Christmas: “Never Barbie dolls, never anything feminine. If there was anything like a tea set, it was ‘Forget this!’” Instead of staying inside and playing with dolls, Jessica was likely to find the twins outside climbing trees or catching snakes.
For book and movie choices, Disney princesses were dismissed: “Cinderella? Forget it, uh-uh, no way!” Jessica remembers. As they approached middle and high school, Jessica says, she tried to introduce them to make up, and got the side-eye from both Julian and Darrow. “They did not conform to the girly-girl clothes and didn’t wear makeup.”
They paid a price for not being able to fit in.
Both Julian, the older twin by a few minutes, and Darrow, the quieter of the two, don’t like to talk about the bullying they went through. Julian says there wasn’t a lot of overtly physical contact — “just pushing and shoving, and a lot of name calling — slurs.”
It wasn’t the boys who did the bullying; it was girls. “I’d be walking to the bus and they’d be behind me and you could hear them muttering things about what I was wearing, and saying all these slurs like ‘faggot’ and stuff.”
Julian says the boys would tease him, but not about his gender identity but his bookish, quiet manner. “It was just more like those stereotypical ‘jock’ comments to the nerds and stuff.”
Darrow had the opposite experience. He says before he came out as transgender, but was still very much dressing and appearing as a tomboy, girls pretty much left him alone, but boys would haze him about his sexuality, assuming he was a lesbian and suggesting in vulgar ways, they could “help change that.”
Jessica thinks individual teachers and administrators at the Montgomery County school the twins attended did what they could about the bullying. But “kids are very, very mean, and very sneaky,” Jessica says. “They were being sought out in the bathrooms to be bullied, and online, and anywhere that it could happen.”
‘Something’s not right; I feel like I don’t have the right body’
Julian says that as his body changed in early adolescence and he was still outwardly identified as a girl, people would compliment him on his “hourglass figure,” and it made him uncomfortable. He gives a small shudder when he talks about it.
The sensation of being assigned the wrong gender was powerful when, at age 14 or 15, he attended a cousin’s wedding. “And I was wearing a dress, and I was just …” he struggles to explain, “It felt like — I’m not supposed to be in a dress. It’s just not right.”
Elliott, the Whitman-Walker psychotherapist, says children as young as 7 or 8 may signal that something is going on with their gender identity: “They may say to their parent: ‘Something’s not right; I feel like I don’t have the right body.”
Elliott says that shouldn’t panic parents: It doesn’t mean gender assignment surgery has to follow then, or ever. But he says that allowing children the flexibility to explore how they feel about their gender identity is important to their health and development.
Over a period of years, the twins went from being rough-and-tumble little girls to high schoolers who wore their hair short and dressed in boys’ clothes. But nagging questions about their gender identity, and where they fit in, persisted: Were they straight teenagers who simply favored an androgynous look? Were they gay? None of the obvious answers seemed to cover what they were experiencing.
“Julian figured it out first,” Jessica says. “He was 16 years old and he finally put the pieces together.”
That’s when, Julian explains, that after he’d long struggled with depression and isolation connected to his gender identity, he was surfing the internet and came across the word “transgender.” He did more research, and says now that the more he read, the more he recognized something in himself: “Oh my god; I think this is what I am!”
Jessica says Julian put his thoughts and feelings down in a letter that he gave to her. Despite his parents’ unwavering support all through childhood, he was nervous about telling his parents he believed he was transgender He’d heard and read stories of kids who came out as transgender and were kicked out of the house or disowned by their parents. “I didn’t expect anything good to happen out of it. I only expected rejection.” When his mother told him that she and his father would support him as he considered how to transition, he was overwhelmed. “It was just amazing,” he says of his parents’ acceptance.
Not long after, Darrow came to Jessica, gently broaching the subject. Jessica says the twins did not influence each other. At the time of their “coming out,” they were both in residential schools, being treated separately for depression connected to the conflict they felt about their respective identities.
Darrow says he dreams that he’s male: “In my dream, I’m a man and I’ll wake up and at first I’ll be disappointed.” But with the option to transition, he says, that could become reality.
All this change meant changing expectations for Jessica and her husband. “There’s a point where you have to let go of the prom dresses and the wedding gowns and all of that,” she says. But since coming out, she says, the boys have gone undergone an emotional transformation that’s worth it: “To see these depressed, fearful faces blossom into happiness overrules the rest.”
Jessica says the effort to conform to gender norms when they were younger cost the twins mightily: “They went through life thinking ‘Well, gee; I’m gay, or I’m a freak.’” So the discovery that the word “transgender” matched their experience allowed the whole family to deal with the issues the twins faced.
The two have begun moving through the transition process, and they’ve taken slightly different paths: Julian has chosen to start a course of testosterone injections, and his voice now hits a lower register.
Darrow hasn’t opted for that — yet, at least. Julian says transitioning isn’t a sudden event: “I’m still not at the point where I pass completely as a guy,” he says. And at any time he might drop the treatments, or continue and eventually opt for surgery.
Elliott, the psychotherapist with Whitman Walker, says that’s a common approach. While society tends to identify people as male or female, Elliott insists it’s more complicated than that, and that a period of exploration of gender identity is normal.
Elliott refers to “gender expansiveness” — when a person identifies as male or female but acts slightly outside the boundaries of stereotypically masculine or feminine behavior. The twins’ tendency to adopt more ‘boyish’ play, dress and expression is an example.
Then, Elliott says, there is gender identity — the sense that one’s perception may or may not line up with the body they have; that’s the issue for transgender people.
And here’s where it can get very complicated and downright confusing for many: Gender identity is not the same as sexual preference. Elliott says, “I think sometimes we do a disservice by clumping all those letters together in LGBT, because LGB — lesbian, gay and bisexual — are all sexual orientation; transgender is gender identity.”
Gender identity, Elliott says, refers to how a person feels inside — how they perceive themselves as either masculine or feminine. Sexual preference deals with attraction.
Julian agrees that navigating society’s gender norms isn’t easy, explaining that even something as simple as filling out a job application can prove tricky. The “male” or “female” boxes present a conflict, Julian says: “Sometimes I don’t even know what to put down, because biologically I am a female and that’s what sex is, but I identify as a male.”
Elliott says schools and workplaces are trying to catch up to the changes in society that allow for more flexibility in dealing with gender. But more needs to be done. “Conversations have to be had — just because it’s a change, and any change takes some intentional work.”
Bathroom politics and the future
So, back to the bathroom issue. Julian, who says he’s not sure he completely passes for male yet, says he worries about being challenged over his choice of restroom. “I try not to use public areas, because I’m very nervous of what will happen.” When shopping for clothes, for example, he’ll head for menswear, but won’t try anything on, he says. When he selects a piece of clothing, “I’ll just normally try to guess if it will fit me and go home.”
Julian and Darrow both look forward to a time when they find acceptance, both internally and externally. Darrow says he’d like to reach the point “where I can be content — where my body on the outside matches how I feel on the inside.”
Family and friends also have to adjust to the changes that a transgender person goes through. Jessica jokes that her mother, the boys’ grandmother, will slip from time to time, saying “she” instead of “he” and will promptly apologize. “But she tries,” Jessica smiles; “she really tries.”
Darrow says anyone who may be confused about a person’s identity can ask what pronoun the person uses. “Honestly, it’s not rude,” Darrow says; it’s an indication of someone trying to be respectful. “It makes a world of difference.”
Still, just as the twins are on guard about where they go and what they do in public spaces, they choose friends carefully. Darrow says he listens for what he calls “toxic attitudes” before getting close to someone.
Every time she reads or hears about an act of violence against a transgender person, Jessica says it worries her: “It’s scary, yeah; it’s really scary. But what are they going to do? Live in a bubble?”
That’s why she says she decided to talk to WTOP: “Just to get awareness out there; that’s what we would like to do. Perhaps our kids are meant to go on and help others.”
And for a parent, Jessica says, there’s really only one thing that matters.
“My husband and I just wanted our children to be happy and healthy and safe.” It may sound clichéd, but Jessica says the twins’ process of transitioning is a journey, “and we’re on the road with them all the way, my husband and I.”