What it means to be transgender: a 12-year-old's journey

NEWS CENTER's Tory Ryden explores what it means to be transgender in Maine. In this three-part series, she looks at the personal journey of a 12 year-old from Maine, born a boy who came out to her entire school as girl. Find out how the community and school has reacted to her transition. 

'I am a girl'

BERWICK, Maine (NEWS CENTER) -- 

Penelope did not come into this world alone. She was born as a healthy boy along with her identical twin brother but just last year, at the age of 11, she came out to her peers and her entire school as a girl.

RELATED STORY: First transgender student, teacher at PEA shares his journey

Penelope looks like a typical pre-teen but when she speaks there is something earnest in her voice. To look at her, you would never know she was born a male and like most preteens she is worried about people judging her.

“I’m just a kid that really wants to live her life,” she says.

Penelope’s mom Barbara says as soon as Penelope could speak she began insisting she was a girl.  Barbara says as early as 2 years-old Penelope would put barrettes in her hair, drape dish towels over her head to imitate long hair and obsessed over her mother’s jewelry and clothes.

“She would wrap towels around her middle to make skirts,” says Barbara. 

For Barbara, who has an older child, this was new, uncharted territory. Barbara worried about her child and the teasing she expected would ensue if Penelope continued to insist upon being a girl. She struck a deal with her young son--, Penelope could be her ‘girl’ self at home but at school she would continue to be a boy.

RELATED STORY: Leading Maine transgender pediatrician sheds light on what it really means to be trans

It seemed like a good solution but then Barbara started to notice Penelope referring to herself as a she, in her self-portrait she drew herself as a girl. In her diary she wrote, “my biggest secret is that I truly am a girl inside.”

Penelope says she never felt comfortable in her dual role.

“I felt trapped. I felt like I was in a box and I could not get out.”

With her family's support, Penelope grew out her hair, got her ears pierced and started the slow process of transitioning her identity all the while she continued to attend school at one of Maine's oldest educational institutions with classmates who knew her as a boy.

It was at Berwick Academy that Penelope felt safe enough to announce to her entire school that she was no longer a boy. She did that by creating a video that was shown to the school last spring.

Penelope admits she was nervous.

“I was just hoping that everyone would accept me”.

Her mother recounts the anticipation and last-minute second thoughts she had. “I was a complete nervous wreck that day sitting in the back of class thinking ‘what if this goes badly?’,” Barbara remembers.

Both Barbara and Penelope say they were overwhelmed by the support and empathy from classmates and teachers. 

Dan Eberle teaches at Berwick Academy and runs the middle school alliance group, which is an after school gender and sexual diversity inclusion club.

Eberle says bullying is less predominant at schools that have alliances like this one. He says it also helps kids who are bullied because of gender or sexual differences because they know they have allies. Eberle says as Penelope’s journey unfolded, the alliance and staff wanted to make sure to use it as precedent for others down the road.

Head of School, Greg Schneider says Penelope is a bright light who has helped usher in 21st Century changes at the storied school.  Last May, changes were made to the school’s policies and guidelines regarding transgender and gender non-conforming students, dealing with privacy, safety, and training, to using names and pronouns of a student’s choice.

Schneider says the board started by thoroughly reviewing Maine state case law. The board ultimately concluded to move forward making the Academy friendlier to those dealing with gender identity issues. Single stall bathrooms were quickly renamed ‘all gender bathrooms’.

Berwick Academy staff say students feeling safe at school and comfortable using any of the facilities is important to the Academy and fosters a better learning environment. Teachers say kids at school resist using labels like gay, straight and trans. Instead saying things like ‘gender queer’. 

Back at the afterschool alliance program, Penelope and her middle school peers openly discuss what being ‘different’ and ‘other’ means.  A path Penelope’s mother is also taking.

“Who would choose to take this road?  It’s difficult.  No child, certainly no 4 year-old who identifies as the other gender than they were born.  It’s just who they are…it’s up to the rest of us to recognize and support,” says Barbara.

Penelope says she plans to take hormone blockers to thwart her male hormones from developing and she is considering taking female hormones. When she is 18, she will have to decide whether to have gender reassignment surgery but that feels like a long way off for now.

 

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