Reflections on what’s changed about coming out as a trans young person
At the moment, there seems to be a lot of news coverage regarding rising numbers of trans young people seeking help, with a particular focus on young trans men. Often this coverage seems to suggest there’s something alarming about this rise, and that perhaps teenagers are just “confused” or too young to know what they need.
As a trans man who knew I was trans at the age of 14, in 1999, but who didn’t come out until I was 18, I thought I’d share a few reflections on what I think has changed over the last 20 years. In 1999, there was no Facebook. No YouTube. We had five channels on our television. There was no catch-up or on demand – if you didn’t record something on the VCR, you never saw it again. If I wanted to use the internet, I had to get the wire for the dial up modem from my parents’ bedroom and trail it across the landing to our shared family computer. Or I could use the internet in the school library, where the librarians could see. There was also something called ‘Section 28’ in force in schools at the time, which meant teachers weren’t supposed to say anything that might be seen as encouraging LGBT identities. I hadn’t read any books with trans characters in, and there were no Pride events or LGBT youth groups anywhere near me.
This meant that by the age of 17, the sum total of resources available to me in understanding how I was feeling about my gender were:
- Re-runs of the Jerry Springer Show on daytime TV
- Half a paragraph in a medical text book talking about being trans as a “sexual disorder”
- The film Boys Don’t Cry (18-rated, but I got hold of a copy at 17). It’s a powerful film, but it’s not at all a happy depiction of life as a trans person
- Playground gossip
- A late night Channel 4 documentary that I didn’t dare record. (It’s called Make Me a Man – Lincoln staff and students can log in to Box of Broadcasts via the library to see the first episode)
And that was it. Everything I knew about being a trans man. Out of all of those, ‘Make Me a Man’ was the only one that suggested trans people could have happy lives, with partners and jobs and families. Everything else suggested that coming out as trans would lead to isolation, pathologisation, mockery and possibly even violent assault. Is it really any wonder that I – and most other trans people I know my age – didn’t come out as a teenager?
Today, it’s much easier to access information about trans people – and unlike the old late night documentaries, it is often information made by and for trans people, whether that’s films like Jason Barker’s ‘Deal with the Universe’ (screened here last year) and Freddy McConnell’s ‘Seahorse’, or smaller blogs, YouTube videos, podcasts and online communities. Beyond the media, Petra de Sutter is Belgium’s Deputy Prime Minister; Rachel Levine is Joe Biden’s Assistant Secretary for Health. I believe – and I certainly hope – that what’s happening now is that young trans people are realising much sooner than I did that being trans is entirely compatible with having a career, making friends and falling in love.
At 14, I knew I was trans. More than twenty years on, I’m still trans. Waiting till I was 18 to be able to access information, support and healthcare didn’t make me any more sure, but it did make me unhappy and isolated and ashamed. It saddens and it worries me that we’re now seeing a lot of discussion and concern that doesn’t seem to involve talking to trans people about our lives, what’s changed in recent history, and what we need going forward.