When I was 11 and cut my hair short for the first time, a male friend saw me and said, “You look like a boy.” It felt validating, especially coming from a boy.
A few nights later, I sat cross-legged on the bed in my dark room, illuminated by my laptop screen. A quick Google search provided the further validation I was seeking: “Why do I feel like a boy if I’m a girl?”
I’m transgender. That’s what the word glowing on my laptop told me.
Deep down, I’ve always felt this way, but slight unease escalated to full-fledged dread as I went through puberty and entered middle school. Up until then, I had built my entire personality on what was expected of the girl I wasn’t — dresses, makeup, and boys — when I had no idea who I was.
Identifying with the word “transgender” helped me recognize that conforming to what other people wanted and expected meant suppressing the real me. For the first time I asked myself, “What do I want?” and, after struggling with my sexuality and gender identities for as long as I could remember, they fell into place with ease. Wearing boys’ clothing and my new, short haircut felt as second nature as breathing. When I looked in the mirror, I saw myself for the first time as the person I’d always been inside.
Unfortunately, as I began researching what it means to be trans, I came across hateful and ugly messages online, which made me afraid that I would be bullied or harassed at school if people found out. I didn’t have support or guidance at home, either. My deeply conservative parents refused then, as now, to accept that I’m trans. As painful as their denial is, it doesn’t change who I am. It does mean that I have to make my own path.
I came out to my friends and asked them to call me a more masculine version of my deadname, thinking it would make the transition easier for them. But this new name didn’t feel right — it didn’t feel like me. And it didn’t make my transition easier for my friends. After my name change, my friend group rejected me outright, saying that in their eyes I’d “always be a girl.”
During this time I started working on a novel, and named the main character “Spencer.” At first, he was everything I thought I could never be: tall, strong, masculine, and confident. But I realized that even if I wasn’t the tallest or the most masculine guy in the world, I could still go by Spencer because it made me happy.
My new name helped me gather the courage to start socially presenting as a boy. While I didn’t say it aloud to anyone yet, I changed my name on Discord and my social media profiles, and started dressing for the joy of feeling like myself, rather than to meet the expectations of others.
Almost two years later, I arrived on my first day of high school. Coming from a small middle school where everyone knew me as someone I wasn’t, I was eager for this fresh start in a new school with about 4,000 students. I was ready to let people see me for the first time, but I was also terrified of what they would think or say.
Getting ready to leave my house, I spent nearly an hour fussing in the mirror, stressing the question, do I pass as a boy? Wearing my tightest sports bras underneath the most masculine clothing I owned, I started the 30-minute walk to school.
In my global history class with Mr. Monte, I sat in the back, as far away from the teacher as possible. What-ifs swarmed in my head. What if he doesn’t call me ‘he’? Or won’t call me Spencer? What if someone makes fun of me? What if I get bullied?
Mr. Monte took attendance, and I winced when he called out the name I was assigned at birth, but I couldn’t find the courage to tell him my real name just yet. It wasn’t until later in the class that I shakily raised my hand.
I was ready to let people see me for the first time, but I was also terrified of what they would think or say.
He walked over to me with a warm, reassuring smile. “Is it OK if I have a nickname?” I asked.
And he responded, “What’s your nickname?”
“Spencer,” I said, and it felt real. For the first time, I was Spencer. I’d said it out loud, and I knew, finally, it was me. Then he asked, “What are your pronouns?” and I relaxed a little.
“He and him.”
He nodded, wrote it down, and then said, “I understand.” I suddenly felt less alone — there was someone who knew and accepted me.
It was an act of kindness that changed the trajectory of my high school life. Had he not offered me his understanding and respect, I probably wouldn’t have had the courage to share my name with my other teachers, and I’d have been stuck living and presenting as someone I never was.
But not all of my teachers were as understanding as Mr. Monte. They’d call me Spencer, but still she — no matter how many times I told them my pronouns. That took a toll.
Worrying that I’d be misgendered by my teachers made it hard for me to want to raise my hand. The hardest part was not knowing whether they were even trying, whether they were making genuine mistakes or were deliberately dismissing me.
A 2014 study in the journal “Self and Identity” showed that participants expressed feelings of low self-esteem surrounding their appearance and identity when they were frequently misgendered. Similarly, being misgendered made it harder for me to look in the mirror and see Spencer, and to be sure of myself. I wondered, What’s the point of being out of the closet if most people don’t see me as him?
Because I’m a minor and my parents don’t support my transition, I haven’t received a gender dysphoria diagnosis, and I’ve been unable to start medically transitioning, or even use puberty blockers.
The school doesn’t have a clear policy for someone like me when it comes to bathrooms, locker rooms, sports teams, etc. I live in a gray area, among other trans people who aren’t able to transition yet. To put it bluntly, it sucks.
During one of my uglier experiences at school, a student in my gym class called me a homophobic slur. Another time, after sharing my pronouns, a sophomore boy snidely asked about my genitalia. Harassment like this has become a common part of my high school experience.
I don’t know how I would have dealt with these negative emotions and the bitterness they created in me without the support system that I started building at school.
I formed a group of friends who call me “he” without issue. We all got to know each other through Drama Club, which seemed to attract a lot of other LGBTQ students. When we’re together, I don’t have to hold my breath whenever they’re about to refer to me in the third person.
My Drama Club adviser and algebra teacher, Mr. Lasher, struggled with my pronouns sometimes, which stung and made me wonder if I was doing something wrong. Should I not talk because my voice is an octave higher than it should be? But I knew he didn’t mean it. What was most important to me was that he tried.
“I get it,” I told him one day, “It takes time. Even I misgender myself sometimes.”
“I know,” he said, “And I know it hurts you more, but it hurts me, too. To be messing up this much.” I almost cried as the father-like compassion of his words struck me. It was the first time since coming out that I felt something like parental support.
When I shared with him that, “everyone is still calling me she,” referring to my other teachers, Mr. Lasher reached out to my guidance counselor, and she sent a gentle email to all of my teachers reminding them that my pronouns are he, him, and his. From then on, he became the trusted adult in my life.
Eventually, I want to be a teacher, too, so that I can give other kids the support that Mr. Lasher and my counselor have given me.
Now, as a sophomore, I’ve learned to take a deep breath when I’m misgendered, to count to 10, and remind myself that I’m still Spencer. I’m proud of how far I’ve come.
My friends elected me president of the Drama Club, and I do my best to maintain it as a safe space for them, just as they made it a safe space for me where I can be myself. When I’m surrounded by their smiling faces and laughter, I know who I really am. I’m Spencer, defined by my personality and actions.
I used to be scared of being myself. I wouldn’t even use my chosen name for something silly like my Starbucks order. Back then, Spencer represented a version of me that I thought could only exist in fiction. Now, it’s a symbol for choosing myself in real life. Telling people my name reminds me that I’m writing my own story.
Spencer Katz is a sophomore at James Madison High School in Brooklyn. He began writing at a young age and aspires to be everyone’s worst nightmare: an English teacher. He hopes to inspire other queer youth to be their authentic selves and never shut up.
A version of this piece was originally published on Youth Communication.