Phil: Hey, this is Phil AKA Corrine.
Alex: And I’m Alex Berg.
Both: And you’re listening to the I’m From Driftwood Podcast.
Alex: If you just can’t get enough of I’m From Driftwood, go check out its YouTube channel. The stories have tens of millions of views and over 100,000 subscribers, and a new story is uploaded every week. You can also browse every story it’s ever published since it launched in 2009. Speaking of stories, let’s get to today’s episode.
Phil: On today’s show, we hear two stories about trans youth. Our first story comes from Matthew.
Matthew: So when I was about 12, I think, I was still really confused. Well, going into seventh grade, when I turned 12, I had no clue who I was. I wanted to think that I did, but I really didn’t. I had come out as a lesbian earlier that year. I was in what people would call the rainbow phase where you’re kind of out and proud about everything and you don’t shut up about it. I ended up meeting one of my friends who actually introduced me to the world of gender identity. They’re pretty much like my brother now, but I essentially didn’t know that there’s anything other than male or female. I knew trans people existed, but I didn’t think that was something to be in my universe.
As time went on, I was like, okay, “I’m definitely not 100% girl. This just isn’t a thing.” Because I learned that besides male, female, trans male, trans female, there was a whole spectrum of other things and I was blown away. So I sort of swam around in the field of identities for a while. I was gender fluid for a while. I was X, Y, Z. I was a demigirl for a while, which is you feel like part of you is non-binary and part of you is female, and then I came out as non-binary, which I came out as to my mother. I think I knew deep down I was really a male. I was really a boy. I had said I was a boy in the mirror before. I’d said I was every identity in the book in the mirror before, because I wanted to figure out who I was and I figure saying things out loud is one of the best ways to become sure of that.
I would stand and look in the mirror and I would tell myself I am female. I am non-binary, I am a boy. I’d say all these different things, trying to see what stuck. I said I was a boy and that really just kind of … it stuck to the wall. So I knew that that was who I was, but I shoved it deep down in the biggest pits of denial I had within me, because I figured if I identified as non-binary or something like that, my parents wouldn’t be losing a daughter, but it was still just close enough for me to still feel comfortable in who I was. Fast forward a few months, identifying as non-binary for about half a year. In June of … about three years ago, I got a drum set for the first time.
My mom had either a friend or a relative, I don’t remember, who was giving away this electronic drum set they had never opened for $200, which is very cheap. So my mom was like, “I’m going to get you this thing,” and I just was kind of freaking out. It wasn’t a birthday thing. It wasn’t a Christmas thing. This was just because my mom wanted to feed the fire that I had for music. I came home to see this big black electronic drum set, because I don’t have a real drum set, all set up and I learned my first song in a day. The same person who introduced me to the world of gender identity introduced me into 21 Pilots, which the best band of all time. Anyone can fight me on that. They have this drummer, his name is Josh Dunn, and he had mental health experiences that were very similar to mine in regards to anxiety.
I saw this guy and I was like, I want to be that. Once I picked up the drums, it gave me this feeling like, “I am Josh Dunn,” and it just allowed me to keep pushing forward, and then that gradually inspired a love for music that expanded beyond the world of drums. Then as time went on, this is actually a week later, I was on learning my third song and I was playing the drums with my shirt off. I was just beating the crap out of this drum set, pouring out all my emotion. Because regardless of how I identified, dysphoria was always a part of my life that loomed over me. So as I was beating crap out of this drum set with my shirt off, my mother walked in. Granted, it was like 1:00 AM. I was supposed to be asleep, but I was playing the drums.
She was just like, “You’re going to wake up your little brother.” Then she kind of looked at me, not in a bad way, but she just looked at me sort of … not confused. She was sure of what was going on, but something had changed in the way she was looking at me. When she walked out of the room, I had already put away my drum stuff and I had crawled into bed. We talked over text for a little while and she told me that I was her son and I was really confused because I’m like, “No, I’m non-binary. What’s up with that?” And she was like, “No. This tells me that you are a boy. You’re my son.” I sort of still was saying, “Ha-ha, no, I’m non-binary,” because I didn’t want to have to face all that was going to come after.
But apparently to her, the energy I was exuding was so purely male that she just kind of knew. So later that night during the conversation, maybe an hour in, I didn’t concede, but sort of accepted. I was like, “Yeah, mom, you’re right. That’s fair.” She kind of passed the torch of certainty onto me, being like, “Here, you can know who you are now.” Everything sort of took that small shift and was in place. It was the last piece that I needed to that specific puzzle of my life. I think I was so filled with emotions that I sort of numbed myself and then I sort of went to sleep and I woke up the next day and it was like the world had color. Everything was kind of more real and it was out there and I could sort of see things and I saw myself in the mirror as who I was and I started living my life instead of surviving it.
Immediately the next day I posted on my Snapchat, I was like, “Hey, so my mom figured some stuff out,” and yeah, then I’ve been out ever since then. I came out to my dad shortly after that, but I’ve been so lucky to have the life that I do. When I look in a mirror now, besides just wondering if my hair looks good, right now I just kind of see not who I am, but I see the potential of the person that I could become. That’s one of the biggest, most important things to me because I used to think … I used to not be able to picture myself waking up the next day, but now I can picture myself living through the years and getting a job and becoming a writer and playing music for a band and doing all of these great things, and it’s really just being able to see who you could be rather than who you are at the moment.
Phil: So in this story, I felt that I was being schooled by Matthew, because at the end of the story, he just says a couple quotes that I just kind of want to read and just sit with for a while because I think they were great. He says, “And then I sort of went to sleep and I woke up one day and it was like the world had color. Everything was kind of more real and it was out there and could start to see things, and I saw myself in the mirror as who I was and I just started living my life instead of surviving it.” That’s Matthew talking about what it feels like to own his identity, to own the identity that felt really authentic to him. I just thought it was so beautiful to hear him talk about owning that finally and what it felt like to actually be living and not just surviving, not just in this in-between place, but actually thriving as a boy.
Alex: I actually wrote down that same quote that says, “I started living my life and not just surviving it’s,” because I was also-
Phil: It’s so good.
Alex: That is such a … just a wise way of phrasing it. I feel like something so relatable to so many LGBTQ+ people is that honestly, for so much of your existence, you’re just trying to survive and get by. Then I completely understand that feeling of you finally get it. It’s like the pieces click, the switch flips and all of a sudden it just makes sense. So you really just get that from what he was saying about everything’s in color and being able to actually do more than just get by.
Phil: One part of the story where Matthew talks about going to the mirror and trying on these various identities, much being in a dressing room at a store and trying on a shirt, trying several shirts to see which one looks the best. I thought that was so brilliant for somebody so young, this idea of being like, “Okay, I am non-binary, I am demigirl, I am male.” It was amazing to see him doing that and then knowing that when the right identity, when he said the right identity, how it would feel and resonate, I totally actually related to that. Because I feel like when I came out initially and I came out as a lesbian, I remember saying that to myself and then being … it’s very interesting how much knowledge and understanding your body holds. Right?
So sometimes you will say something that you’re not really quite ready to admit to yourself and you’ll say something and you have this gut emotion, this feeling in your body that it just shakes you. I had that. Like, when I was first coming out as a lesbian, I remember saying it to myself and being like … I felt like this pang in my lower abdominal area where it was just like, “Oh no, this might be true.” It was kind of scary. So I understood. I thought it was so brilliant that he did this exercise of trying on these identities, and then the one that fit was the one that resonated and he could feel it in his body. And he knew, yes, this is true for me.
Alex: Yeah. Or it’s like you’re opening the door to something and once you know it’s opened a little bit, you’re like, “I can’t close this now.”
One of the takeaways that I had from his story, was I felt like one piece of why he was holding on to the gender he was assigned at birth or wanting to even identify as non-binary before identifying as male was it felt like he was almost worried about what it meant to let go of that because of his parents. It’s just so remarkable to me that kids are so perceptive that even at such a young age, even if you have accepting parents or you haven’t explicitly been told that you have to stay the way you are or something like that, but you know enough to know that you could be letting people down if the person they think they know you to be is somehow different than the person that you really are.
So I just thought that that was so perceptive and I feel like it just speaks volumes to the way that kids absorb so much information and so much in terms of social norms so much information, of just what they’re exposed to in terms of living in an anti LGBTQ society generally. So I was struck by that because it felt like Matthew was almost holding on to this old self for other people in some ways.
Phil: We’ve all been there. I definitely know when I was coming out, there were times where I was like, “Oh, Nope, let’s put that back in.” But my life was like, “No, you’re not putting anything back in.” This is really happening.”
Alex: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.
Phil: Up next, we hear from Marcella, the mother of a trans child who was pleasantly surprised by a group of first graders.
Marcella: I grew up in Green Bay, Wisconsin and went to high school there. I have a distinct memory in high school of being in the hallway near my locker. Someone walked by and said, “Hey, you’re a lesbian,” and it was with this very angry tone. I was confused and I didn’t really know what that all meant actually, and then they said, “Oh, you use a double header,” which I did not know what that was at the time. Then I got even more confused and they’re like, “You don’t even know what you are, but that’s what you are. You’re a lesbian.” It was a very scary moment for me because I knew that it wasn’t going to be easy if that’s what I was. But I knew at that time I was different.
Fast forward 25 years and I’m happily married to my wife and live in Seattle, Washington. We have two beautiful children and life is going quite well. One day my youngest son says to me … I had bought outfits for them, dress-up clothes because there’s going to be an event, piano recital, and I’m showing him the outfits and he says, “You never listen to me.” It startled me because that wasn’t typically how he had spoken to me. So I sat down at the kitchen table and said, “Honey, I’m listening. What am I not hearing?” And he said, “I want to wear a dress.” So I said, “Okay, dress up, dress up clothes. Totally fine. We’re open in our house. Let’s go.” So we went to Target and I just was trying to be very open and say, “You can go anywhere. You can do anything, anywhere for your shopping,” and he went directly over to the girl’s clothes, picked out an extremely frilly girly dress, cardigan, tights, shoes, and hair bow to match.
We were in the dressing room and I just remember being there thinking, “Okay don’t mess this up. Be calm, be neutral. Don’t say too many feminine words or whatever. So just whatever. Just try to be calm.” He turned around and his head was down and was waiting for my reaction and so I said, “You look nice,” because it wasn’t be beautiful or feminine or anything. Then I’ll never forget. He just turned around and held out the dress, looked in the mirror and the head was held high and spun around back at me and said, “I feel like me,” and I just remember getting chills everywhere, and I text my wife and said, “This is really happening.”
Time went on, decided several weeks to she/her pronouns, changed her name. So one Friday I was walking the school bus. So in Seattle we walk the kids to school, and so walking school bus is just a group of kids that all are from one neighborhood and that’s how they get to school, and so a parent is in charge of a particular day to kind of drive the bus. Friday’s my day to drive the bus and Rosemary wasn’t in school yet. She was still in preschool, but she helps me drive the bus on Fridays. So she was in transition during this time and there was one child on the bus that was having a particularly hard time with her transition. He was a first grader and he would come over and her hair was growing longer and he would grab fists of her hair and say, “Where’s your boy hair?” Or one day she was wearing a skirt and lift up her skirt, “Where’s your boy parts?”
I would just try to redirect him and so she was always holding my hand on the walking school bus, staying really close because I think she was a little afraid. I was just walking the kids through that some people might have a little difference of opinions about it, but then this particular day I must have been in a raw place or something, but we were walking and this child came running up and I was holding her hand and I could see him coming. He came running up and said, “You’re a transgender. I know what you are. You’re a transgender.” And just like that, I was back in high school, standing at my locker and I froze. I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t know what to do.
We weren’t using that term in our house. This was just gender exploration. You could be whatever you wanted to be. Rosemary looked up at me with her little five year old eyes and said, “What’s a transgender?” She knew that by the tone that it wasn’t a good thing, at least to this child, and he had picked on her enough to know that. So he just kept repeating it and repeating it and I started to cry and I didn’t know what to do. My older son came over and said … he saw this going on, he knew this child was picking on his sister and said, “Well, in our house, we believe that you can be born a boy and be a girl and you can love anyone you want to love, and we will love you no matter what in our house.”
The same child kept repeating, “But it’s a transgender, it’s a transgender,” and the other kids were like, “So what? Who cares?” I was like, “Wow, this is incredible. I can’t believe this is happening.” So I was just like, “Pull yourself together. Okay, everyone. Keep walking the school bus. We got to cross the street.” I just kept crying and walking and thinking, “This is incredible. These kids are incredible and we’ve evolved and it’s okay. We’re going to be okay.” She never asked again what transgender was. Atticus, our older son, knows what the term means, and we just said, “You can be whatever you want to be, and if you want to be a boy tomorrow, you can do that. Doesn’t matter.”
We did write a letter to the parents on the walking school bus explaining that something had happened on the school bus and that we’re not using that term and that what we’re using is gender exploration, and isn’t it a great world that you can be whatever you want to be. That was received really well. So that was kind of how we handled it. Before the walking school bus incident or story, I really kind of felt like we were a family with two moms and that’s just who we were. We were walking the world with just being that. But now I really feel like we’re a queer proud family and that’s okay and we really need to own that and go out into the world and help people understand that we’re different and back in high school, I was different and felt shamed by that, and now I’m starting to really own my differences and own my children’s differences and not only accept it, but be proud of that.
Phil: What she walks away with from the story is that as a parent who is in a same sex relationship, her kids have two moms and they have a child that is transitioned, she realizes that it’s very important for her and her family to be visible, to be out and visible so that people can see that a queer family, no matter what the configuration is, it’s very normal. They’re still a family and there are other families that need to see that out in the world.
Alex: Yeah. I thought that Marcella and her family, they’re so affirming of their daughter and she also talks about how, when they were at Target and her daughter expressed wanting to try on a dress and how she’s just really, I think, as a parent, such a paradigm of how to be accepting, but then also you hear about how this child taunting her daughter is just brutal for her and so triggering for her and bringing her back to those moments when she herself was bullied. The other thing that just made me think about is kids don’t learn to bully other kids like that. They don’t learn specific terms, they don’t learn that stuff is bad at such a young age, unless they’re hearing it from adults. So the whole time I was just thinking … and I know Marcella said that she wrote a letter to this kid’s family, but I was like, “This kid probably maybe doesn’t realize the implication of actually what they’re doing. They know that they’re trying to be mean and awful,” and it was just really sad.
Kids don’t learn those words unless they’re hearing it from the adults in their lives. So I just feel like it’s so important to just keep that in mind. The other big takeaway that Marcella had too was that all of this is about learning to embrace your differences and not feeling shame for them. I thought that she made it so clear when she was saying that when she was back in high school and she was bullied for being a lesbian, that at that point being called out for being different made her feel shame, and now when people express that she’s different or her family’s different, that’s something that she can embrace. I just think that that’s such a good lesson to learn. As an LGBTQ person, I frankly really like that I’m different from other people. I don’t want to be the same as other people and I think that that’s part of learning to embrace the difference.
Phil: It’s interesting that you can see that she is sort of re-traumatized by watching this situation unfold, and it just really speaks to how, if you experience bullying or something like that at a young age, that how much of an impact it can have in your life. Right? So this is years later, you see that she’s gotten re-traumatized by watching the situation happen. Then you have these kids who literally have to step in and kind of diffuse the situation because she is in the trauma of the moment and it’s too hard to get out of that. She’s the adult in the situation, yet she was definitely reliving something that had happened to her when she was in high school.
Alex: As much as kids learn how to bully from adults, they also learn how to be upstanders, which we saw with all of these kids who are like, “I don’t see a big deal about that. Leave her alone.” So props to these kids.
In this national moment when transgender children have been inserted in the culture war by people who are acting in bad faith and being bigots, I feel like these stories also go to show these kids know who they are. These kids absolutely have a strong sense of who they are and the people who are the ones who are having the problems are the adults and the people who can’t accept them for who they are.
Phil: Totally true. So well said. I’m glad that we’re in a place right now where people allowing kids to figure out or tell them who they are. Right? Because we come from a time when there wasn’t a whole lot of that. They’re like, “They’re too young. How would they know?” They know. They know exactly who they are and we should listen to them and let them tell us. If it changes, if it shifts, if it morphs, then you have to go with that. We got to go with what they’re telling us.
Phil: The I’m From Driftwood podcast is hosted by Phil AKA Corrine …
Alex: And Alex Berg, and is produced by Anddy Egan-Thorpe. It’s recorded as a program of I’m From Driftwood, the LGBTQAI+ story archive.
Phil: It’s mission is to send a lifesaving message to queer and trans people everywhere. You are not alone.
Alex: I’m From Driftwood’s founder and executive director is Nathan Manske. It’s program director is Damien Mittlefehldt.
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Alex: The stories you heard today are available in their entirety, plus thousands more, at imfromdriftwood.org.
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Phil: This program is supported in part by public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs.
Alex: In partnership with the City Council.
Phil: Additional funding is provided by the Humanities New York SHARP Grant, with support from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Federal American Rescue Plan Act.
Alex: Thanks for listening, y’all.