At a California middle school, M. is a popular 13-year-old boy. Only a few of his teachers know what he’s precariously hiding: he’s a girl.
STANDING IN A CIRCLE under the shade of a tall, skinny palm tree, five boys smile in unison as they recount a particularly absurd scene in the teenage comedy Don’t Be a Menace to South Central While Drinking Your Juice in the Hood. The boys—who’ve watched it countless times on video—agree that it’s a comedy classic, but they can’t seem to settle on its funniest scene. “Man, the whole movie is dope,” says the tallest of the five, who wears a heavy Starter jacket even though it’s seventy degrees outside.
It’s a bright, sunny California morning, and this middle school recess is humming along lazily. Packs of twelve-year-olds in dark pants and white-collared shirts (the school uniform) meander about, looking for something, anything, to do. Next to the palm tree, three haughty girls with pocket mirrors gossip as they reapply their makeup. A hundred yards away, groups of loud, cocky boys play basketball on outdoor courts. And surveying it all are smiling faculty members with walkie-talkies who easily negotiate this sea of mostly Hispanic students.
An openly gay male teacher leans against a table in the outdoor lunch area, the quietest spot in this expansive courtyard. When he isn’t teaching English or theater, he facilitates the school’s discreet weekly support group for gay, lesbian, and transgender students. Not far from him is one of the group’s regulars, a strikingly beautiful thirteen-year-old girl with piercing brown eyes and long black hair. This morning, as on most mornings, she’s being trailed by a group of fawning boys, who can’t seem to get enough of the bisexual eighth-grader in the tight white shirt, black pants, and rainbow-colored belt.
If she is the darling of the school’s boys, one of her male counterparts stands under the palm tree with his friends, who are still talking about movies. A well-liked and attractive thirteen-year-old, he has short-cropped black hair, brown eyes, and a clear, soft complexion. His backpack is tied loosely around his thin frame, and his stylish, oversize gray sweater falls nearly to his knees.
None of his friends know that he’s a member of the discreet school group for gay students. They have no reason to suspect it, either. He likes girls. He has a girlfriend (a high school girlfriend, no less), and there are countless other girls willing to date him should he ever want another.
So although his friends assume he is one of them, the support group members presume—though they don’t know for sure, because he doesn’t say much during meetings—that he’s probably secretly gay or bisexual, or maybe just confused. But they all have it wrong. He isn’t gay. He isn’t confused. Biologically, he isn’t even a boy.
FOR THE LAST four years, M., who was born a girl, has secretly lived as a boy. (As is his preference, I will refer to M. as a “he.”) Though most transgender teenagers are unwilling or unable to cross-live, M. finds himself in a nearly unheard-of position: with the support of his family and a few teachers at his middle school, he lives as a boy.
The seventh child in a close-knit family of seven girls and two boys, M. showed early signs of gender identity disorder (GID), the controversial American Psychiatric Association diagnosis for people who repeatedly show, or feel, a strong desire to be the opposite sex and are uncomfortable with their birth sex. By age five, M. refused to wear girls’ clothing. Though many children with GID don’t continue their cross-gender identification into their teens, M. only became more boy-identified with age.
“We always thought she would grow out of it,” M.’s twenty-year-old sister tells me, sitting upright on the couch in her sparsely furnished one-story home, where she lives with her husband and infant son near a busy freeway in a working-class Hispanic neighborhood. “We would try to get her to wear dresses, but she would cry and cry and cry.”
M. lounges deep into the couch across from his sister, his legs spread wide and his small head resting against the back of the couch. He’s wearing baggy black jeans and a hooded black sweatshirt, and he’s cradling a small pillow on his lap. In his left hand, he holds his pager.
Except for his exceeding civility (particularly toward adults), everything about M. screams thirteen-year-old boy: His clothes are too big. His voice is boyish and uninterested. He bosses his younger sisters around. He answers multipart questions with one-word answers. He spends hours each night on the phone with his girlfriend. And he has only one real hobby to speak of: watching action and comedy movies with his friends.
“When I look at her now, I see a boy,” says M.’s twenty-three-year-old sister, who sits next to M.’s twenty-year-old sister on the couch. “I used to think she was just going to be a lesbian, but she doesn’t want to be a girl with another girl. She wants to be a boy with another girl. I know she is a girl, but I see a boy.”
“We used to ask her all the time: ‘How come you want to be a boy? You’re a girl,’” recalls the twenty-year-old sister. “People would stop my mother on the street and say, ‘Oh, your son is so beautiful.’ And she would correct them and say, ‘No, this is my daughter.’”
M.’s mother still can’t bring herself to refer to M. as “he.” “I accept my daughter because she is my daughter and I love her,” she says in Spanish, sitting next to her eldest daughters. A slender, delicate woman, she works as a housecleaner and speaks little English. “But I don’t understand it. Sometimes it makes me cry.”
Several family members broke down after seeing the film Boys Don’t Cry, which tells the true story of Brandon Teena, a female-to-male transgender twenty-one-year-old who was raped and murdered when her biological sex was discovered. “We all say, ‘Look, what happened in that movie can happen to you, too,’” the twenty-year-old sister says. “We always try to get her to tell the truth to people, because what would students at her school do if they found out she was lying to them?”
There is a long pause, during which M. glances down at his vibrating pager. M. is paged about every fifteen minutes, usually by his girlfriend, who tells him she loves him in pager code. I ask M. if many girls at school like him. “Girls flirt with me,” he says matter-of-factly, “but I tell them I have a girlfriend.”
M. hasn’t told her about his secret. All they’ve done is kissed. “When she wants to do more, I just say, ‘No, I’m not ready,’” M. says. “I want to touch her, but then she would want to touch me back. So we just kiss. I want to tell her the truth so bad, but every time I try, I can’t.”
Few transgender teenagers face M.’s unusual predicament. While he’s part of his school’s elite social group, most self-identified transgender teenagers can’t hide their biological gender and face daily harassment and ridicule at school. M. says he feels safe everywhere, but as his female body develops, he knows it will become increasingly difficult to keep his secret.
ON HIS FIRST day of fifth grade at a new school, M. stood sheepishly in the classroom doorway. His hair was cut short, and he wore baggy clothes. M. was then living as a girl, but to the teacher M. looked like any other boy. “Show the gentleman to his seat,” the teacher instructed another student.
The gentleman? Too embarrassed to correct him, M.—who at the time went by his birth name, which though primarily a girl’s name is occasionally a boy’s—shuffled to his seat and sat down. Minutes later, he grasped the significance of that moment. “That’s when I realized I could live as a boy, without anyone knowing,” he says. “People just assumed I was a boy.”
M. didn’t tell his family what happened at school, and that year he lived a double life: at home he was a girl, at school he was a boy. (Because of his gender-neutral first name, teachers and students didn’t suspect anything.) Although he can be painfully shy around new people, M. soon made friends with both boys and girls.
M. had to change schools again the next year for middle school, but he continued living as a boy and started dating girls, who were drawn to his good looks and sweet, calm demeanor. M. even took gym class with boys—the school didn’t require students to shower, and he never had to get fully naked in the locker room. The more M. lived as a boy, the less he worried about being discovered. “I would go weeks without thinking about it,” he says.
That changed last year, when a counselor at the school discovered his secret during a routine call to his mother. The counselor referred to M. as “your son,” but his mother—unaware that M. was passing as a boy—corrected the counselor. “She’s not my son,” his mother said. “She’s my daughter.” The counselor was shocked. “She’s your what?”
M. says the school told him that he would have to take gym class with the other girls the following year when he went into eighth grade. M. wasn’t about to go back to living as a girl, so in the fall he transferred to his current school. And finally aware that M. was passing as a boy, his mother insisted that M. tell the school’s administrators.
On his first day, M., his mother, and the school dean walked to the classroom of the openly gay teacher who runs the support group. He was in the middle of a lecture about Kabuki theater when the dean knocked on the classroom door and took the teacher aside.
“You need to talk to this young... this young...” The nervous-looking dean leaned in and whispered in the teacher’s ear, “This is a girl, and this is her mother.”
And so began the highly unusual transgender experiment at this California middle school. As far as the teacher knew, the school hadn’t dealt with a transgender student before, let alone one who wanted to cross-live. The teacher consulted with the principal, a counselor, a nurse, and a representative from the school district.
“I needed to tell the nurse, because I wanted M. to be able to use the private bathroom in her office,” says the teacher, a powerful personality who is renowned at the school for getting what he wants. “People were smart enough to get out of my way and let me handle it. M. has the right to be safe in school, no matter what his gender identification.”
Most concerned with the prospect of M. in the locker room for gym class, the teacher approached the school’s dance instructor about instead enrolling M. in dance. The class doesn’t require students to wear tight outfits, and M. could change in the teachers’ private bathroom, which is near the dance rehearsal space. (Because the school is so big, no one seems to notice that M. doesn’t change with the rest of the class.)
“I briefly explained the situation and told the instructor that he needed to trust me and do me this favor,” the teacher says. “I don’t think he had ever met an openly gay person before me, so this was a lot for him to digest. Finally he said, ‘Okay, but if there is any problem with this, I’m coming to you.’”
The teacher then hand-selected M.’s other teachers, choosing those he thought would be sensitive to M.’s situation. He reminded them not to call M. by his given name, which legally has to be in the roll book, but to use the name that M. and the teacher had come up with. “Even though his given name can be a boy’s name, many people in the Latino community know it as a girl’s name,” the teacher says. “We didn’t want to take any chances.”
“When he told me about M., all I could do was picture Boys Don’t Cry,” says one of the teachers he approached. “Was this child going to be safe? I went home and had a long talk with myself. I wanted to make sure I didn’t do anything stupid to jeopardize this.”
Helping M. live as a boy may seem compassionate, but there are some—even some sympathetic to M.’s predicament—who think the school should be handling his situation differently. Ken Zucker, head of the Child and Adolescent Gender Identity Clinic in Toronto, says that M.’s well-meaning teachers are bordering on unethical conduct.
“They’re perpetuating a deception,” Zucker tells me after I explain M.’s situation to him. “What if M. starts dating a girl at school, and she finds out and is traumatized? The school is potentially liable, because they have actively perpetuated a deception. I would advocate that this youngster be encouraged to ‘come out’ as a transgender youth, so that everyone knows the score. But whatever decision is made, this kid needs to be evaluated by a local expert in gender identity—not by a well-meaning teacher.”
The teacher insists he’s only doing what’s necessary to keep M. safe, and other transgender youth experts say that having M. “come out” as transgender could be dangerous. “The consequences are too great,” says Gerald Mallon, an associate professor at the Hunter College School of Social Work and editor of the book Social Services with Transgendered Youth. “If M. gets found out at school, he will probably be beaten or raped.”
The teacher agrees: “In a more understanding and accepting world, my preference would be for this child to be able to be honest. But M. wishes to live as a boy, and it is my responsibility to protect him. According to the laws in this state, I am in compliance. If we didn’t take the basic steps, it would be impossible to protect his safety, short of hiring an armed guard to escort him from class to class.”
M. says he doesn’t worry about being discovered at school, where he walks around confidently with his friends. But he acknowledges that he’s less sure about next year, when he’ll attend one of two area high schools. “I don’t know if the teachers there would want to lie for me,” he says.
The teacher doesn’t know, either, but he’s already spoken with a counselor at one of the schools who runs a similar support group and plans to meet with someone at the other. “I have to find someone who will look after him,” the teacher tells me.
M. PULLS AT his apartment’s courtyard gate and is surprised to find it locked. “They never lock this,” he says, tugging at it a second time. “Hey, kid!” he shouts toward a boy dribbling a basketball inside the courtyard. “Open the door!” The boy—who looks younger but is bigger than M.—bows his head slightly, apparently hurt to have been labeled a kid by another kid. He eventually dribbles the ball over to the gate and opens it, for which M. mumbles a quick “Thanks.”
M. lives in this subsidized housing community, in a small, two-bedroom apartment he shares with his mother, stepfather, and two younger sisters. (M.’s father is a mechanic who lives nearby and is a regular and supportive presence in his son’s life.) M.’s family has moved several times in the last few years, so his neighbors know him only as a boy. “There are always kids everywhere around here,” M. says near the steps to his apartment, stopping to avoid a speeding shopping cart with a crazed boy at the controls.
The door to M.’s apartment is open. His mother is in the kitchen, and his six-year-old sister is running around the carpeted living room in overalls. M.’s ten-year-old sister—with whom he shares a small room with a bunk bed, television, and no posters on the walls—is at a friend’s house. “Normally she’s cool,” M. says of his sister and bunkmate, “but when she gets mad at me, she calls me names, like ‘lesbian’ or ‘boy-girl.’ I tell my mom, and my mom gets mad at her.”
M. plops himself down on the living room couch and takes off his black hooded sweatshirt, under which he wears three layers of shirts. His small breasts, which began developing last year, are barely noticeable. “I don’t want anyone to see them,” he says. “When they first started growing last year, I just hoped that they wouldn’t grow that big.” In addition to wearing layers, M. often stands with his shoulders slightly hunched, making it nearly impossible to see his chest from a profile position.
As M.’s mother brings him a glass of juice, I ask him if he’s thought about someday taking hormones and having gender reassignment surgery, which for female-to-male transgenders can include breast reduction, the construction of male genitalia, and the ablation of the uterus and the ovaries. “If I could do surgery right now, I would,” M. says without hesitation. “But I don’t think they can do it at this age.”
“Why would you want to take away what God gave you?” his mother says in Spanish, her voice soft and loving. “Why would you want to do that?”
It’s clear that this is the first time the subject of surgery has come up, and M. doesn’t have an answer prepared. There is a long pause, during which M.—who often pauses before answering a complicated question, visibly collecting his thoughts—takes a sip of juice, leans forward, and scratches the side of his head. “I want to live as a boy,” he says finally. “I want to do it because I want to be a guy.”
I ask M. if he wants a penis as an adult, and he nods his head. I ask his mother if she would be supportive of that. “They can attach a penis?” she says in Spanish, unbelieving. She looks at M. “I don’t know. Why would you want to do that?”
To M., the answer is obvious: he is a boy, and he wants a boy’s body. In that pursuit, hormonal therapy could drastically change his physical development, stopping menstruation and bringing about the onset of male puberty. (M. started getting his period two years ago.) But according to the Harry Benjamin International Gender Dysphoria Association’s Standards of Care, the widely recognized blueprint for management of gender-identity disorders, hormonal treatment shouldn’t begin before age sixteen. In the United States, transgender teenagers under eighteen need parental consent and psychological and physical evaluations before receiving hormones from a doctor.
“Hormones before puberty would be very hard to defend,” says Kenneth Demsky, a psychologist and gender specialist in Boston, when I tell him about M. “When working with someone who is young, you want to delay irreversible physical intervention as long as clinically appropriate.” But it’s a dilemma, Demsky says, because “the earlier people get hormones, the better the effects.”
One of the best arguments for delaying hormone treatment is that gender identity, like sexual preference, can be changing and fluid, particularly during childhood and adolescence. Does M., at age thirteen, truly know what he will want in five or ten years?
“Most likely, yes,” says Zucker from the Child and Adolescent Gender Identity Clinic in Toronto. “The chance that M. could change his mind at this point is close to zero. If he has been so consistently boy-identified from an early age and is reasonably psychologically stable, he seems like a possible candidate for puberty-blocking medication. But to find that out, he needs to be evaluated by an expert. And he needs to be seeing a therapist who can help him in talking about all this, planning ahead, and in learning how to negotiate disclosure to his romantic partners.”
M. has never seen a therapist (he has never asked to see one, although he says he would like to), and it is very unlikely his family could afford regular visits to a gender identity specialist. Still, Zucker says it’s only through therapy that M. and his family can better understand how and why M. chose to cross-live and how he should best navigate the next four years of high school.
“I would be interested in understanding more about how he came to this very early and conscious choice,” Zucker says. “Did he ever think about the possibility of being a lesbian, and was that abhorrent to him? And was that abhorrent to his family? Do they see him as more normal living as a boy and liking girls, as opposed to being a girl and liking other girls?”
When I pose the questions to M., he’s initially confused. He eventually says that he never felt like a lesbian because he always felt like a boy. But he suspects that his family prefers him as a boy rather than as a lesbian. “I don’t know for sure, but they might think it was nasty if I was a girl into other girls,” he tells me.
• • •
M. and I look to our left, where a male voice comes from a passing car. We’re walking down a busy boulevard toward M.’s apartment, and the loud taunt—which was more mocking than threatening and probably aimed at the young man behind us—lingers in the muggy air.
M. seems unfazed (he doesn’t consider himself gay, after all) and continues talking about his girlfriend, who’s just paged him for the fifth time in thirty minutes. When I ask him if there’s any chance she might know his secret, M. recounts a recent phone call between them that did manage to faze him.
“Out of the blue, my girlfriend said, ‘What would you do if I was a guy?’” M. says. “I didn’t know what to say. I just said, ‘I don’t know.’ Then a minute later I asked her, ‘What would you do if I was a girl?’ She said, ‘I would be mad at you, but I would still love you.’ Sometimes I think she might know about me, because why would she have asked me that? Does she know I’m a girl?”
That’s just one of the many questions M. is pondering today. He says his mind is a muddled sea of thoughts—about his girlfriend, high school, and his developing female body. I ask him what he would do if his friends discovered his secret this year or in high school. Would he transfer? “No, I don’t think I would,” he says. “I would just deal with it.”
Though M. seems aware, on some level, that his life would change drastically if people discovered his secret, he plays down the consequences. Does he worry about being beaten up? “No, not really,” he says. Would people make fun of him? “Maybe, yeah,” he says. Does he think his friends would understand? “I don’t know,” he says. “I would try to explain to them that I feel like a guy and that I always have.”
Finally, as we approach his apartment complex, I ask him if he’s happy. He takes a few steps and tightens his face in thought. He scratches his head. He starts to open his mouth and then closes it, mulling over the question for some ten seconds. Just when I suspect he’s given up on answering it, he speaks.
“Yeah, I’m happy, but I always think, Why did God make me like this?” he says, staring off into the distance. “Why couldn’t he have just made me one way, either a guy or girl? Because I don’t feel like a girl at all, but I have a girl’s body. I don’t understand why God would do that.”
© 2010 Benoit Denizet-Lewis
Dispatches From the Far Reaches of Modern Life
Dispatches From the Far Reaches of Modern Life
Denizet-Lewis made news with his New York Times Magazine cover story "Double Lives on the Down Low," included here, which ignited a firestorm by revealing a subculture of African-American men who have sex with other men but who don’t consider themselves gay. In American Voyeur, he also takes us inside a summer camp for pro-life teenagers, a New Hampshire town where two young brothers committed suicide, a social group for lipstick lesbians, a middle school where a girl secretly lives as a boy, a college where fraternity boys face the daunting prospect of sobriety, a state where legally married young gay men are turning out to be more like their parents than anyone might have suspected, a high school where dating has been replaced by "hooking up," and other intersections of youth culture and sexuality. Peer behind the curtain of modern American life with this remarkable collection.