The youth-written stories in Represent give inspiration and information to teens in foster care while offering staff insight into those teens’ struggles.

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Not a Girl at All
Teachers make me feel safe expressing my gender identity.

I am bisexual and transgender, and I have conservative, religious immigrant parents. At school, most of the teachers and students call me by my chosen name and pronouns, which are he/him. But everyone in my family and at my temple thinks I’m a straight girl and knows me by the name my parents gave me when I was born. It sounds like a stranger’s name in my mouth; it doesn’t belong to me.

I first realized that I am bi and trans in middle school. I had been aware for a long time that I liked both girls and boys, but since I had no name for what that was, I ignored those feelings.

This changed when I went on Tumblr and began to follow people who posted about the LGBTQ community. Then I discovered a YouTube channel by a transgender guy. (Trans people identify as a gender different than the sex they were designated at birth.) In his videos, he talked about gender dysphoria, which is a term for the distress a person can feel when their physical body doesn’t match the gender they identify with. When he described dysphoria, it resonated with me. That’s when I realized I wasn’t a girl at all.

Knowing I was part of the LGBTQ community made me feel happy and proud, like I belonged somewhere. But I knew my parents wouldn’t understand, so I had to keep it from them. My relationship with my parents was already distant; they weren’t big on showing emotions and I feared I would disappoint them if they found out.

When my mom and I went shopping, I made sure to walk past the men’s section. I yearned to dress more masculine. I felt my secret festering in my chest whenever I saw a gay couple walking down the street and when ads showed two women kissing.

Coming Out at School

In 7th grade, I mustered up the courage to tell my friends that I didn’t think I was straight, or a girl. To my surprise, neither mattered to them. Coming out to my friends was like telling them what I had for lunch that day. I could tell that they thought of me as the same person—just one with a new name and pronouns, who liked both boys and girls.

Some students gave me crap for being bi and trans because I looked so “girly” and seemed so “normal.” A boy in my class once snuck up behind me and snapped my bra strap. “Guys don’t wear bras,” he said. I knew people were watching to see my response. My jaw clenched and I closed my eyes. Intense rage and humiliation built up inside me. I went to the bathroom and tried not to cry, because in my mind that was a “girly” thing to do.

Most of the guys in my grade called me by my chosen name but used “she” pronouns—not accidentally, but on purpose. They didn’t seem to think of me as a guy. They said I was pretty and they had crushes on me, as if their desire dictated who I was.

Fortunately I had supportive friends and teachers. My guidance counselor didn’t tell my family I was trans. She encouraged me to join our school’s GSA (Gay-Straight Alliance). By talking to people in GSA, I learned that not every LGBTQ kid has a family that accepts them and goes to the Pride parade decked out in rainbows and glitter. It was a relief to know I wasn’t alone.

A Metaphorical Mask

I started asking teachers to call me by my chosen name and pronouns. When I was anxious about doing that, my friends would practically shove me up to the teacher’s desk so that I could stutter out the name I wanted to be called.

Though I was starting to express my true identity at school, I still felt a lot of self-hate. I knew my family viewed people like me as freaks of nature. When I told one of my teachers that, he said: “Are you going to live for them, or for yourself?”

I told him that I felt like I was committing a terrible act of betrayal against my parents just by being who I was. My teacher replied that I was walking around as if I had a mask on, which was making it impossible to see the good parts of the world. He said it wasn’t my fault that I felt this way, because someone had put this metaphorical mask on my face at a young age and Super Glued it there. He said I was no less than anyone else because of the people I loved or the gender I identified as. I had never heard that before. I didn’t believe him at the time, but I fell in love with his words and his promise that one day the mask would be lifted.

My Parents Find Out

One day in 8th grade, my dad shoved my bedroom door open and slammed it behind him. My room is tiny, so there was practically no space separating us. I felt like a wild animal trapped by a game hunter.

“Give me your phone,” he said. He sat on my bed, scrolling through my chats and browser history.

I walked out and waited on the living room couch, my palms sweaty and my heart pounding. I felt a sick feeling rising in my throat.

image by YC-Art Dept

Finally he called me back to my room and forced my mom to stop cooking and sit with us. He sat me on his lap—“just like when you were a little girl,” he said—and smoothed my hair out of my eyes. Tears rolled down my face. I could see that he knew.

“She’s talking to people online,” he said to my mom. “She’s watching all these gay things and now she thinks she’s one of them.”

“I’m not gay, dad, I’m bisexual, and it means I like girls and boys,” I pleaded, staining my father’s polo shirt with my tears. Maybe because I wasn’t “fully” gay, he wouldn’t think it was that bad. Maybe he could accept that I wasn’t going to change.

“What do you know? Have you even kissed anyone? You go to temple every week, and you were practicing sin all along,” my mother interjected.

“She thinks she’s a boy, too,” my dad went on, his eyes wild and cruel. “Would you like me to show you how to tie a tie? Do you want me to call you my ‘son’?”

My mom batted at my dad’s arm, telling him to stop. I thought she would defend me, but she just said, “Stop mocking her. Her mind is damaged.”

Then my dad’s eyes softened and he said I could repent for my sins. I’m ashamed to say that all I did was cry and nod my assent. Yes, I would go to temple more frequently. I would wear dresses and be the girl I never was.

For months afterwards, my parents watched me closely to make sure I acted “like a girl.” I actually enjoyed expressing my more feminine side, but no matter how much lipstick I put on, I didn’t feel like a woman. I felt pain every time I saw my long, flowing hair in the mirror. I begged to cut it. My mom thought short hair was “only for boys,” but that’s exactly what I wanted to be.

Living a Double Life

To stop my family from finding out that I was still using a different name and pronouns at school, I worked hard to maintain my image as a straight girl at home. I asked my mom to teach me how to cook so that I could make food for my future husband. I went to services on Sundays and tried different eye makeup looks. Slowly they started to believe I was turning into the perfect young woman.

My 16th birthday came along, and all my internalized pain came exploding out of me like a piñata. I got my makeup done, bought a tiara and put on a fluffy pink dress. I batted my lashes and collected my birthday money, but on the inside, I wanted to scream. I couldn’t ignore the sick feeling in my stomach whenever someone called me pretty.

Last year, I started seeing a therapist after a school counselor called my mom to recommend it. My mom drives me to therapy every Sunday because she sees that I’m stressed, but she doesn’t understand why I prefer talking to “outside people” rather than my own mother.

The fact that my therapist is bound to confidentiality makes it easier for me to open up to him. Even though he isn’t trans, he has helped me acknowledge that trying to ignore and repress my gender dysphoria only makes things worse.

Finding Ways to Cope

I still experience a lot of pain due to my situation. I’m still frustrated that I can’t express myself the way I want while I’m living at home. It feels so unfair. But what has changed is my ability to deal with this frustration using the coping strategies I learned in therapy.

Now when I am overwhelmed by negativity, I recognize what I’m feeling and accept those emotions rather than judging myself. I distract myself by watching a movie or writing a poem instead of lying in bed and obsessing about how terrible my life is. I used to think that I could never be happy until my parents accepted me, but now I find happiness at school and with my friends. I used to cut myself when I was upset, but now I am able to work through my problems without hurting myself.

I often fall back into negative patterns of thinking, but it doesn’t mean that I’ll be stuck like this forever. Healing is a process, and I look forward to moving on in my life. That doesn’t mean that I have to forgive or betray my family, it just means that I have to take care of myself.

I still don’t know exactly how I identify on the spectrum of gender and sexual orientation, or if I’m going to keep up contact with my family after I graduate and leave their house.

But as my therapist says, I don’t need to have all of the answers right away. All I know is that I refuse to let whether or not my family accepts me determine my happiness. I’ve learned that my self-worth should not be entirely based on what other people think of me.

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