What My 13-Year-Old Student Taught Me About Transphobia

I see him looking at my mustache. He is trying to be slick and pretend he is looking out the window, but I know he is eyeing my whiskers. He is 13 and I am 29 and we have almost identical facial hair.

So, this is awkward.  

Mostly because my job requires hour-long one-on-one conversation with 13-year-olds, all of whom wear awkward like a second skin, like a graphic T, like a whole can of Axe body spray.  But also because, of the 20 students I tutor weekly, he is the only one who has said (out loud) that he has an issue with my transition.  

The others were almost annoyingly supportive, saying ridiculous things for a pre-teen, like “You inspire me” and “This will take patience” and “There is a kid in my class transitioning. I’m happy for her and for you.”

Oh, OK, cool. Way to steal my thunder when I expected to field at least three to four challenging or problematic questions. You’re 13, you’re supposed to have an attitude and be some degree of ignorant. What a beautiful disappointment.  

Me and mustache boy are supposed to talk today because his mother informed me he feels very uncomfortable and uneasy about my transition. I sit next to him at the desk in his room, as we always do. His feet are giant, and I can only describe them as “bumbly.” They are pointing toward each other, which is undeniably cute and makes me want to pat his head and ruffle his hair, even though I am side-eyeing this whole situation.  

He has a slight lisp, big brown eyes, and only wears high-top Air Forces with sweatpants. One time he cried in front of me, and he laughs at most of my jokes.  

When I wrote an email to the parents of all my students coming out as trans and offering them advice on how to speak to their children about it, I promised to have these conversations if the students needed to. I made clear that I would have boundaries, but I would answer their questions with patience and openness.

It was not surprising that in this nouveau hippie hub in Brooklyn I was offered more congratulations than critique. It was genuine and inspiring support. But it does seem in some way a byproduct of being privileged and liberal ― they’re comfortable enough to be comfortable with it. It is easier to get a “Yeah, be you!” from people who have very little in this world that questions or endangers who they are.  

So I ask my student what he wants to talk about. He shrugs and looks at his bumblefeet.  

“I don’t have a problem with transgenders. I really don’t want to be offensive, but the hormones, the surgery, it all just seems really weird and unnatural. I don’t know, it just makes me feel uncomfortable and weird. I don’t know. I don’t want to offend you. But it just seems ... wrong.”

There is a tiny demon that lives in my stomach with hot little hands. He likes to treat my insides like dough ― kneading, flipping and smacking around in my pit. But I stay cool.  

I say, “Yeah, I guess this is something that is pretty hard for people who don’t actually experience it to understand all the way. But hey! The Big Bang seems much harder to understand and that’s what started it all.”

“But scientists can explain that,” he says without looking at me.  

“I mean, kind of. They can tell us how it all went down, which is amazing that they even know that. But why it happened or where all the teeny tiny stuff that banged into all the big stuff came from is still a bit mysterious, no?”

He swallows. “Yeah, but to me, that makes more sense than the transgender stuff.”

“I am honored that you think I am a greater mystery than the origin of the universe. But me being a boy isn’t that crazy, is it? Don’t you think it’s harder to understand why the word pneumonia starts with a p? That’s totally unnecessary. And doesn’t it seem unnatural to be a Belieber? Even more unnecessary.” My weak joke gets a weak smile.  

Turning his head slightly away from me, he says that because I was born a girl, it is “unnatural” to change my body using medicine and surgery.

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I pause.

Then I ask him if he thinks it is unnatural to get a prosthetic leg? Or a heart transplant? Or Lasik? No. No. No. I ask if he thinks it is unnatural to defy gravity and go to outer space? No. What about using Braille so blind people can read? No. What about going to the gym to lift metal plates and run on a stationary strip of rubber and eating strawberry-flavored powder to build muscles? No.  

He says he gets it, but.

“But this is different. Those other things are part of the plan. A man cutting off his thing is not part of the plan or he would have been born without a thing. Taking hormones ... it’s like changing your whole body.”

Le sigh.

I ask, “Can we agree that people using science, medicine and intelligence to improve our quality of life is a good thing? You know, to help people be healthy and live longer, and feel better?” He confirms with a silent nod.

“All right. We’re kind of on the same page.” I tell him I am hypothyroid, meaning my thyroid gland, for one reason or another, is slow and underactive. Every morning I take a pill to help my thyroid operate at “normal” levels, I explain. I ask if he would ever tell me “T, it just makes me really uncomfortable that you are using this medicine to change the thyroid you were born with. I just can’t understand that.”

He smiles with one corner of his mouth.

I ask him to imagine people marching in the streets with “God Hates Hypothyroid” signs. He grunts, but I think it was supposed to be a giggle.  

Being trans is not a sickness, I say. It is something funky and phenomenal that has happened to people throughout time, all over the world, in every kind of culture and environment, country and home. What’s different now, like with so much of our human condition, is that we have used these mysteriously powerful brains to create ways for people to do more than be just alive or just survive. People can be more whole.  

I ask him if he has a body. He says “duh” with his eyes. When I ask if he is just a body, he chews his lip while his brain chews the question. “I guess not.”  

“So, if we are bodies and some other thing, too, does it makes any sense that sometimes those pieces might get a little jumbled, or not fit together exactly the same way all the time, or turn into something new and different?”  

He shrugs.  

Part of me has left the room. I shouldn’t have to defend or legitimize why I am who I am, especially to a 13-year-old. I shouldn’t have to come up with clever analogies or scientific evidence just to get another person to give my entire being the stamp of approval.  

What if I walk away? What if I tell this 13-year-old that he is a white wealthy boy who could easily move through his whole life without having to feel uncomfortable, so I don’t give a damn if he thinks I am unnatural?

But the other part of me is still sitting in this folding chair in the room of a privileged boy who has more than brownstone walls between him and the rest of the world. We call it living in a bubble, but it’s not the best metaphor, really, because bubbles are easy to break. Privilege is more of a fortress, designed carefully and guarded heavily. So if I can infiltrate in any way, isn’t it my duty to do so?

What if I stay? What if I am planting a seed in his brain? And when he is a high-schooler or a lawyer or a father or a voter or just a man walking down the street, he is carrying this conversation with him. It might echo. And he will remember the sound of my voice, that he felt comfortable with me, that I looked him in the eye and made him laugh and was calm and confident. He might just remember me as a person sitting next to him, teaching him. And that’s really what I want ― to be a person, a teacher, a writer, a simple guy moving through this bonkers world

He has a stuffed animal on his bed still. But I see the way he walks, won’t hug his mother, looks away when speaking, stops himself if he is getting too excited.

I am not talking to a boy. This is a child being ripped out, beat down like clay made soft, then set to harden into the mold of a man. They got their hands on him. So, fine, I will at least get my paws in the mix and try to make a print too, while his cement is still drying.  

I guess I have been quiet too long because he looks up at me from his shoes and says. “I don’t have a problem with you. I just think it’s unnatural.”

I offer him a piece of gum.  

“Well, speaking of nature, have you read about the trans lion? There is this female lion who has a whole mane! I was so proud when I read about it that I sprouted an extra mustache hair.”