Coming out trans at school

Teenage school years can be a bumpy ride. Add the feeling of growing up in a body at odds with your own gender, a dose of structural transphobia and, of course, peer pressure, and you're in for quite a rollercoaster...

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Illustration by Linda Wölfel

Teenage school years can be a bumpy ride. Add the feeling of growing up in a body at odds with your own gender, a dose of structural transphobia and, of course, peer pressure, and you’re in for quite a rollercoaster…

Summer holidays are over. For most Berlin teenagers, a new school year doesn’t imply much change: same school, same friends, same routine. Not for Katie. For her, moving from 6th to 7th grade means a new life, a new school, and for the first time, being with kids who’ve never known her as a boy. Nobody will likely think twice about her gender: looking at the sweet-faced 12-year-old wearing a summery blue dress, with blonde ringlets down to her shoulders, you wouldn’t. And though she’s dropped pigtails in favour of a more cool-teen hairstyle, she still adores unicorns – “They’re protection animals” – and owns a pair of fluffy flamingo slippers.

Ever since she remembers, she’s liked all things girly: “When I was three years old I would already dress up in gowns and heels, and in my first year at school I wore a princess costume for Fasching. In fifth grade I started to regularly wear girls’ clothes to school.” Katie’s mum Laura remembers that nobody who knew her daughter was surprised when exactly one year ago she decided to change her name and live as a girl. “One of the afternoon club teachers who I’d always thought of as a conservative, stuck-up type, came up to me saying how happy she was for Katie!” Laura had met with the class-teacher and the headmaster during the summer break, and when school picked up again, Katie courageously stood up in front of her class: “I told them that my name is now Katie,” she says, stressing it was her decision to do it that way. “They were okay with it. For me, things finally felt right and it was a big relief.” She soon started receiving hormone treatment to delay the onset of puberty, which in a year or two will be artificially induced through regular injections of female hormones. At school, her reports were issued in two versions: one with the old name, one with the new.

“Berlin schools actually offer a lot of freedom when it comes to dealing with trans kids. There is, for example, no rule saying they cannot change a name on the register unless it’s been officially changed on the student’s ID,” says Jonas Hamm of QueerLeben, a senate-founded counselling and information centre for intersex and transgender people, affiliated to gay support association Schwulenberatung in Charlottenburg. “On the downside, there also isn’t any framework explicitly obliging schools to support and correctly address trans students.” There’s no blueprint for coming out at school, no set steps ensuring all will go smoothly.

An official name change in Germany requires two psychological assessments, taking up to two years, with average costs of €1500-1800. In countries such as Denmark, Norway, Ireland, Malta and Argentina, a simple official application is enough to change one’s first name and gender on all official documents. “That’s why we have to rely on schools to come up with individual progressive solutions.” QueerLeben is currently compiling a list of schools where trans kids have had positive experiences. When counselling students and families, Hamm’s best advice is to get the school on board to formulate a plan of who should know when and how they want to deal with the inevitable stares and whispering.

Katie’s old school had never been confronted with a trans student before. Laura says they tried their best to be supportive, but for Katie, it wasn’t problem free. “For sports, they asked the girls if I could get changed with them, and they said yes. But when I got into an argument with some of them about something completely unrelated, they decided they didn’t want me in their changing room anymore. It was really unfair!” The school provided Katie with a separate room. They also let her use the girls’ toilets despite the outrage of one girl’s father, who complained. But there was more, mostly from Katie’s peers. “Obviously the kids all knew her, at least by sight, from before, and there was a lot of staring,” Laura says. Katie recounts the incidents in a matter of fact way. “Sometimes they would call my new name and look away when I turned. And two boys from the year below started to bully and laugh at me and even follow me home. A boy from Willkommensklasse (asylum-seeker integration class) would come and hit me whenever he’d see I was alone. His teachers made him write 100 times ‘I must not hit Katie’, but it didn’t really help. I just had to make sure to always be with a friend.” In a whisper, she adds, “Sometimes I would cry.”

From a teacher’s perspective, dealing with bullying is nothing extraordinary, but trans kids remain something most teachers have no experience with, even in liberal Berlin. In 2009, the local government – led by gay mayor Klaus Wowereit – passed an ‘action plan against homo- and transphobia’, under which every Berlin school is required to have a teacher trained to act as a (voluntary) contact for sexual and gender diversity. Ideally, they undergo eight hours training to heighten their awareness of diversity and discrimination and give them tools to educate others. According to QueerFormat, an education initiative commissioned to provide the training, 90 percent of schools now have such a contact person. But Katie’s school didn’t.

English teacher Shannon’s Gymnasium has an LGBTI contact person who runs a weekly afternoon club. Yet it still fell short of providing solutions when the reality of a trans girl hit her class. “I had this boy who was presenting very macho-like, the last person I’d have guessed might come out as trans. Well, after the holidays that same student was back in a wig, fake lashes and nail polish. If I hadn’t run into a colleague just before class, who knew about the situation, I would have thought this was a boy taking the piss.” She says it would have been helpful to be informed ahead of time, and has since done her own research. “Some kids sometimes overplay their assigned gender before transitioning,” she says about her former pupil, who has now fully transitioned into her female identity. At that school the topic only hits the teachers’ meeting agenda once a student struggles academically due to bullying or other related distress.

Hamm has counselled around 250 trans people over the last year, and says one key issue they’re still struggling with is officialdom’s perception of transgenderism as pathological. “Of course, it often comes with psychological issues, especially given outside stressors, but being trans isn’t a medical condition.” What’s tricky is, pathologisation has guaranteed public health care covers trans people’s hormone treatment and gender reassignment surgery. “It is all a matter of wording. The stress and suffering that often comes with it should definitely be enough to justify it’s taken over by health insurance,” stresses Hamm. Sitting in his peaceful consultation room, surrounded by plants, framed images of the sea and a box of tissues, he’s optimistic. “Nowadays kids can come out, receive earlier hormone treatments… This means we’re seeing a new generation of trans people who won’t be traumatised by having to grow up in the wrong gender.” Hamm also thinks many won’t even feel the need to have genital surgery. “Early hormonal treatment means you’ll grow a beard, or female breasts, and that might be enough to make you comfortable according to your new gender identity.” But what happens when the clothes come off? “As a trans person you’ll always have to explain yourself when getting into an intimate relationship, surgery or not,” he says, adding that in places like Berlin many people are more aware and open to such realities.

Katie’s very first brush with romance came a few months ago, when she met a boy at holiday camp. They started seeing each other, going to the cinema – “I would pretend I forgot my student ID” – and cuddling. He wasn’t aware of her trans background and she found herself in a pickle: when to tell him and how? Was there such a thing as the right moment? Laura remembers endless conversations she had with Katie, and those they had with her counsellor at QueerLeben. She also remembers feeling quite uncomfortable meeting the boy’s mother. Was she supposed to warn her? The decision was taken for them by a mutual acquaintance who spilled the beans to the boy’s mum. “He blocked me on WhatsApp and I didn’t see him anymore.” Only weeks later did he come with an off er to “stay friends”. “That really hurt me,” she admits.

Katie’s lucky to have a mum she can share with, and there are their monthly family meetings at QueerLeben – their counsellor is herself a transwoman. The kids have also built their own safe space, a WhatsApp group. Trans*Power currently counts 19 members, aged 12-19, openly discussing anything from hormone treatment to summer holidays. “When I was new, I asked about the bruise I had from the hormone blocker injection which I now get every three months. It hurt so much and I was worried, but the group reassured me this was normal,” Katie says. “Whenever someone new turns up at the QueerLeben meeting, we immediately get their phone number and add them to the chat. My phone never stops buzzing now!”

At her new school, Katie will once again be the first trans kid they’ve ever encountered. But Laura’s confident. “They registered her under her new name and we already have the student ID that says ‘Katie’. For toilets and changing rooms they said she can decide how she wants to do things.”The school also has a unisex toilet and an extra changing room available. A few weeks away from her first school day, Katie hadn’t quite yet wrapped her head around her new options: What will people think if she decides to only use the unisex toilet? How to explain if she uses the separate changing room? She’s resolved to wait and see what her new classmates are like, and what will feel right in the moment. A mum-and-daughter shopping trip will complete her new Levis t-shirt, Adidas shoes and dark-red Kånken backpack street-cool look. Now officially a girl, Katie doesn’t want to stand out from the crowd.

*names changed