Agents of Change
Transgender Canadians Are Coming Out At Younger Ages, Raising A Host Of New And Sensitive Issues
As a child, Adrian Daniels wore hockey jerseys. He dreamed of marrying figure-skating champion Katarina Witt. And each night before he went to bed, he prayed that he would wake up the next morning with something he had always wanted: a penis.
"I always knew I was a man," says the Toronto native, now a frank 20-year-old with a neatly trimmed beard, pierced eyebrow and confident swagger.
Adrian's transition from female to male included an official name change at the age of 16, male hormones at 18, and breast-removal surgery a year later.
With each step, he bumped into people who argued that his feelings were temporary, banished him from the boys' washroom, or made him pay for being different with taunts and fists. "They thought I was a freak," he says.
Transgender Canadians are coming out at younger ages than ever before. Support groups for transgender teens report growing memberships, and are sprouting up beyond the major cities in areas such as Kitchener, Ont., and the Niagara region. One by one, school boards are amending their human rights policies to include gender identity.
Suddenly, parents, teachers and health professionals are having to address a host of new and sensitive issues, such as whether gender-neutral washrooms belong in schools and what is the right age to provide funding for a teen's breast-removal surgery.
"It's a massive shift," says Bev Lepischak, who runs a transgender youth program in Toronto and has watched transgender teens emerge for the past two decades. "They're coming out much younger."
Neveah Staver, 17, spent her early teens in a farming community in Southern Ontario. Friends and family knew her as a boy, but behind a locked bedroom door she would wear dresses and make-up, and chat through a webcam. "It was my only time to really be me," she says.
At age 15, Ms. Staver fled small-town bullies and a tumultuous relationship with her mother. At Triangle Program in Toronto, the only high school in Canada geared specifically to teens who are gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender, she found the courage to live openly as a woman.
Last year, Triangle staff were caught off guard when the number of transgender students exploded. The school almost doubled in size from 18 to 30 students - and the transgender population grew to 10 students from only one or two in previous years.
In recent years, the success of the gay-rights movement has helped to pave the way for transgender rights, some say. For teenagers, the increasing presence of transsexual role models in the mainstream media has helped make it easier to come out at a younger age.
"You have a generation of youth who are watching movies like Transamerica," says Kyle Scanlon, a female-to-male transsexual who helped pioneer support programs for the trans community in Toronto. "They're seeing examples of themselves that are positive examples for a change."
Statisticians don't know exactly how many Canadians identify themselves as transgender, an umbrella term that refers to people whose gender identity or outward appearance doesn't fit traditional male or female norms. Discrimination means that Canada's transgender population has remained largely invisible - often closeted even at home.
Charlene, a Toronto mother of a transgender teen, says that she felt lost when her 15-year-old son came out as a girl . "It's uncharted territory," says Charlene, who did not want her last name published.
Three years ago, Charlene formed Transceptance, a support group for parents with transgender children. The first meeting included her, another mom, and Tim Hortons cookies. The group has since grown to about 10 parents. New arrivals all share the same relief when they realize they're not alone, Charlene says.
For the doctors who treat transgender youth, the younger patients present a new set of challenges. The best-known guide for professionals, Harry Benjamin's Standards of Care for Gender Identity Disorders, recommends that trans patients don't start hormones before the age of 18. "I think we are challenged, definitely, when someone's under the age of 18," says Jamie Read, who has worked with about two dozen transgender patients at the Sherbourne Health Clinic in Toronto.
The long-term side effects of living on hormones are not known, Dr. Read says. Other doctors may hesitate because they have no previous experience dealing with gender dysphasia, he says. Some worry about liability in the event a youth changes his or her mind.
Ms. Staver began taking hormones at age 16, but she says that was after being referred to five different doctors.
Mr. Daniels started hormone treatment at 18, and recently underwent several painful operations, partly paid for by his fiancée's grandmother.
Both say their physical transformations, while difficult, brought them relief and happiness. Ms. Staver says buying her first pair of knee-high black boots was sheer joy. "I ran to the cash," she says. "It made me feel really powerful. Like I'm living the life that I want to."
Some institutions are starting to respond to teens such as Ms. Staver. In 2003, the Alberta Teachers Association changed its policies to prevent discrimination against students on the basis of gender identity. Others, including the Canadian Teachers Federation, have followed.
Several universities, including the University of Winnipeg, are looking at setting up gender-neutral washrooms on campus.
But transgender youth still face bullying and violence, many say.
In Toronto, Triangle was forced to expand its curriculum this year, director Jeffrey White says. Gay and lesbian students usually leave after one or two years, but transgender students still don't feel safe transferring back into mainstream schools, he says.
Earlier this year, Ms. Staver spent an afternoon at a high school in downtown Toronto, where she had hoped to transfer to benefit from a wider range of courses.
"I was so scared," she says. "I felt like everyone knew. I had guys hitting on me. I don't want to feel that."
She now plans to stay at Triangle until graduation.
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