gabe and kaiden
Transgendered teen couple work together to make a difference for others
Adolescence is defined as the period following the onset of puberty during which a young person develops from a child into an adult. This passage of development is often clouded with moments of heightened self-consciousness, emotional turmoil and anxiously wondering what the future holds. Usually adolescents can weave their way through the stream of typical doubts and uncertainties with support from parents, teachers or counselors; however for trans youth, the murky waters of adolescence are not so typical.
The coming out process, at any stage of life, is uniquely personal, but compounded with the hypersensitivity of youth, it can be extremely stressful. Simple daily routines such as taking a washroom break at school can cause anxiety when a youth is placed in a position of having to choose which door to use: female or male.
While teachers and parents can typically relate to, and identify with, the ordinary challenges of adolescence, they are often at a loss when it comes to offering support for trans youth.
And it isn’t that they don’t want to help trans youth, believes Gabe Bryne, it’s that many parents and schools simply do not know how to offer support in an effective way.
Bryne, and his boyfriend, Kaiden Penney, have been presenting at conferences for about two years, discussing ways teachers can be supportive for their trans students. There is a real need for presentations of this sort, says Bryne, adding their seminars — mostly focused on trans experiences — have been well received by the audience, usually a mix of educators, as well as parents of queer and trans teens.
People, says Bryne, are often surprised by what Bryne and Penney identify as the biggest issues faced by trans teens in high school, typically situations people wouldn’t necessarily give a second thought to because they take them for granted. Simple tasks like using the bathrooms.
Penney feels it is important to share his personal experience with such a basic human need.
“For us, being trans-guys, (using bathrooms) is a little bit easier. For a lot of trans-women it’s a lot harder to pass. And passing isn’t something we want to say is a super goal or the most important thing, but it’s necessary to ensure safety in public,” he explains.
In high school, Penney felt conflicted about which bathroom to use; everyone accepted he was male so he couldn’t use the girl’s bathroom, yet he wasn’t comfortable going into the men’s bathroom.
“I was too scared to go in the bathrooms, and there wasn’t one I could use comfortably so I didn’t go to the bathroom at school for two years. Which was fine, until I realized if I drank, then I couldn’t pay attention in class because I had to use the bathroom so badly. So I stopped drinking. But then I realized if I ate any food I would get thirsty and want a drink. So basically I didn’t eat or drink at school for two years.”
Penney says he suffered headaches during this time, and his ability to focus on class was nearly impossible. He even remembers a time where he was late for the bus and had to skip school to use a restaurant’s gender-neutral restroom.
“I was skipping school to go use the bathroom when I was suppose to be in school to learn,” he says. “That was obviously a really escalated situation where having an all gender bathroom...would have been super handy.”
Another stressful situation youths usually have to deal with while in school is the use of proper pronouns and being called the correct name. In most cases it’s a matter of approaching a teacher and asking them to respect your gender, in spite of what sex an attendance sheet may attribute to you, but there’s not always the opportunity to do so.
“One day (you come to class) and there’s a supply teacher in the room. They don’t know about you and the name on your attendance still says your birth name (so) they call your birth name out to the whole class,” says Penney.
Bryne says that some school administrations will change attendance lists to preferred names for students if requested, but he was unable to do so at his school.
“And because I didn’t feel I had the administration's support, I didn’t have the confidence to approach my teachers or my classmates about it. It’s so incredibly important when I do presentations for service providers because a lot of people don’t know what to do…I truly don’t believe that there was any malicious intent behind (the guidance counselor’s) actions when she refused me; she just didn’t know what to do and ended up causing me a whole bunch of mental distress for the next two years.”
The couple points out that there are usually support groups within the school or community that teens can access themselves to help during their coming out process, but not a lot is available for others wishing to support the teens; which is the very reason they began sharing their experiences at conferences. Along with giving personal glimpses into what the life of a trans teen can be like, the couple also suggest ways to show support.
“There are a few general ideas. I think the absolute epitome of importance is to specifically listen to that person. Every trans person is different... it’s super important to listen to what they need, whether it’s just verbally or let them know that they are in a space where they can express their needs because I think a lot of the time it is really hard to feel like your needs are valid...I think a pretty common feeling for trans people is that because trans people aren’t necessarily super connected to the rest of the community, a lot of times, especially when they first come out, they might feel that the requests that they are asking of people are really inconvenient and they are asking too much. I know that I certainly felt like that. For a long time I was way too scared to correct people...it’s just super, super important to listen to what they have to say. If you don’t know something about how to address them, how to handle situations, people that they might not be out to, things like, just ask them because that kind of stuff varies so much from trans person to trans person,” says Byrne.
They feel that each seminar is important, and have both felt that they have directly impacted the life of someone.
“The first presentation I did, I was 16 (and) absolutely terrified,” says Penney. “I had some teachers coming up afterwards and they were telling me how they had gotten chills and how they were going to go back to their high schools and try and figure out ways to make their schools and classrooms more supportive for trans teens... so I went home from that conference like ‘oh my god, yes, I might have actually made a difference in another trans person’s life. That would be incredible.”
“The one moment that stands out to me is,” shares Byrne, “is the last conference that we did in June in St. Catharines.”
A mother of a young trans son approached the couple and wanted to talk about mental health issues that they faced in high school.
“We talked about how we’re doing a little bit better, and we’re succeeding in school, all that good stuff. And she was just talking to us about how she is just so worried about her son and she wasn’t sure what kind of future he was going to have and how great it was to see us and just hoping that her son can pull through. It was great (for her) to kind of see trans people living their lives and she started crying and we started crying and we were hugging her. I think about that a lot.”
“She was so scared for her child,” Penney adds. “ I feel like when I look back on my transition, it was hard, but I had so much support from my family... I feel like I want to give back as much as I possibly can, and in any way that I can, because I got so lucky and I had so much support. I want other people to have that.”
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