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On Being a Trans Female Teenager in Hopkinton

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It has been observed that no one chooses a more difficult life than they have to. This message really hit home in my recent interaction with Haitian refugees, many of whom undertook incredibly perilous journeys to move themselves and their families to the United States in search of a better life.

Though she did not cross an ocean, the journey Saffron has taken is not much different. Born a biological male to a middle-class family from the suburbs, she now identifies as a transgender female, a choice she made at age 13.

Saffron is neither attention-seeking nor flamboyant. Like many of us, she lives quietly and keeps to herself, alternating between her home in Upton and job in Hopkinton.

But between those places she endures what most of us do not. The long, uncomfortable stares. Drivers that shout “faggot” out of their window as they pass by. People who are blunt and cruel.

Saffron is only seventeen, so this is just the beginning of her story. But in this brief time, she has overcome more challenges than many of us will in our entire life.

Early Years

“John” (not her real name) was born in 2005, the second youngest of 11 children, who today span in age from 15 to 40. She was the quiet kid, the self-described “odd one out”. At seven years old she was diagnosed as mildly autistic, a condition her nephew also has. “I wasn’t great with social stuff,” she said. “Someone would make a subtle joke, and everyone would laugh, and I would pretend to get it, even though I had no idea what was going on.” But her autism did have advantages: As a kindergartner, John was a capable reader, so much so that her teacher told her parents that she wasn’t allowed to read out loud in class because it was disruptive to the learning of other students.

Friendships were difficult to maintain. She’d often have just one friend, but as time passed, they’d grow apart, and she would be alone for long periods. Then she’d find another, and the cycle would repeat. In the interim she occupied her time by trying to learn to play instruments, riding her mountain bike on the trails near her home, and writing poetry. “I spent more time by myself than your average kid,” she said.

Not fitting in, and with the teasing and bullying that accompanies not being a “typical” learner becoming a distraction, John’s parents transferred her to a therapeutic middle school that they felt would be better equipped to handle her unique learning style. Seventh grade marked a turning point. John met a boy in class and developed feelings, accompanied by a flood of conflicting emotions. “I was scared to accept that I might be the different one,” she said. “I was raised like almost every other boy, as a straight male. What I think most cisgender people don’t realize is that they’re told who they are at birth based on a visual observation of their external genitalia, and that for some people, they get it wrong.”

Indeed, there is ample scientific evidence to suggest that gender identity is not solely a choice or an environmental factor, and that several biological factors play a role in determining a person’s gender. In 2020, the Endocrine Society published a position paper that stated:

The medical consensus in the late 20th century was that transgender and gender incongruent individuals suffered a mental health disorder termed “gender identity disorder.” Gender identity was considered malleable and subject to external influences. Today, however, this attitude is no longer considered valid. Considerable scientific evidence has emerged demonstrating a durable biological element underlying gender identity. Individuals may make choices due to other factors in their lives, but there do not seem to be external forces that genuinely cause individuals to change gender identity.

Both biological and environmental factors (nature versus nurture) are thought to play a role in influencing gender. Biological factors that influence gender identity include pre- and post-natal hormone levels, and while genetic makeup plays a role, it does not absolutely determine it.

Estimating the global number of transgender people is challenging due to various factors, including differing definitions, varying levels of societal acceptance, and the private nature of gender identity. Moreover, not all countries collect or publish data on transgender populations, and in some places there may be significant underreporting due to stigma or legal issues. However, in 2016, the Williams Institute at UCLA estimated that approximately 1.4 million U.S. adults identified as transgender, which is roughly equivalent to the entire population of the state of Hawaii.

The Consequences of Coming Out

In eighth grade, John met another boy and had what she describes as a “secret” relationship. “When I was with him, I finally felt like myself,” she said. “You know how when someone who doesn’t see well puts on glasses for the first time? The world came into focus for me.” At this point, John thought of herself as a gay male, and over time she grew more comfortable with the idea. She wasn’t “out”, but she wouldn’t try to hide it if asked either.

But coming out as transgender is a very different thing. “Being gay is pretty easy to hide if you want to,” she said. “But you can’t hide being trans without sacrificing who you are and being your authentic self. Gender and sexuality are not the same thing. Gender is much more important. It is the core of who you are as a person and how the world sees you.”

Looking around her classroom and her small town, John could see there weren’t many kids like her. It was online that she met other young people who struggled with the same feelings. Almost overnight she found “her people”, kids that understood her and who were willing to help her reconcile with the complexities of feeling like a square peg in a round hole. On one particularly difficult day, in eighth grade, John texted a friend she’d met online and told her she was feeling down. “I didn’t even have the vocabulary to describe it yet, but I just didn’t feel right. I didn’t feel like ‘me’,” John said. And in talking with her friend, John realized that this is how she’d felt for a long time. That she didn’t feel right in her body and that she didn’t feel right around people. That it wasn’t normal to cringe hearing the sound of her own name.

A restless night of sleep passed, and the next day John told her classroom teacher that she was non-binary and that she no longer wanted to be known by her birth name. While John’s teacher was accepting of her decision, school administration told her she’d need to tell her parents before they could call her by her chosen name. Standing in the principal’s office, with a trembling hand, John was forced to telephone her mother. Among other things, she told her mother that she now wanted to be known as “Saffron” and that she wanted to dress differently.

On this point, she reflects that the school offered her little choice, and for many trans people who have lived secretly, this can have devastating consequences. According to the National Institute for Health, suicide rate and suicidal tendencies among transgender persons are considerably high compared to general population.

The suicide attempt rate among transgender persons ranges from 32% to 50% across the countries. Gender-based victimization, discrimination, bullying, violence, being rejected by the family, friends, and community; harassment by intimate partner, family members, police and public; discrimination and ill treatment at health-care system are the major risk factors that influence the suicidal behavior among transgender persons.

This was a difficult telephone call on both ends, and it began a period of several years of friction between Saffron and her parents. Saffron says her parents suffered from “cisgender grief”. Studies have found that parents of transgender youth often experience feelings of sadness, loss, and grief when their child first comes out. While she recognizes that some parents grapple with this, “I’m still the same person. I didn’t die,” said Saffron, bluntly.

And though their relationship has improved, her parents still call her by her birth name and do not use the correct pronouns when referring to her. “I’ve gotten to a point of just…they’re still my parents, and they’re still putting in a lot of effort to be good parents,” she said.

Saffron continued in school for a few more years but ultimately dropped out her junior year. Being in a therapeutic school that emphasized tolerance made the social environment manageable, but the challenges of learning from home because of the COVID-19 pandemic were difficult to overcome. “I could not learn in an online setting,” she pointedly states. Her parents were against her decision, warning that if she dropped out, she would ruin her adult life. “I may not have an adult life if I keep doing this,” she told them.

Since leaving school she has worked a string of customer service jobs, saving her money and keeping her expenses to a minimum. She commutes to work on a bicycle.

It is unfortunate that the more Saffron is herself, the greater the indignity she will suffer from strangers. The more feminine she dresses, the more dirty looks she receives. “These people don’t know a thing about me, but they see me walking down the street, and they’ll yell a slur out their window.” But Saffron is not confrontational by nature. “I just pretend I don’t hear it,” she said. “But I shouldn’t have to worry about an old lady staring me down just for wearing clothes. They’re just clothes!”

Saffron is quick to qualify this anecdote by saying that her experience in Hopkinton has been “mostly positive”, with many people not even noticing and acting perfectly friendly. She does, however, find it uncomfortable when the occasional customer at Starbucks (where she currently works), perplexed by her name tag, will lean over the counter and ask “are you gay?”.

Looking Ahead

Like all young people, Saffron has hopes and dreams for her life. She plans to obtain a GED, and would like to work with youth who are struggling with their adolescence. “I want to make the difference in someone’s life that not enough people made in mine,” she said. She wants to be married someday, but halts at the thought of children. “Having kids is way more responsibility than I want to think about right now,” she said with a smile.

Critically, Saffron wants to be able to pass as a cisgender woman. For a biological woman to pass as a man is less complex than going the other way, Saffron says. Laser hair removal and feminizing hormone therapies are expensive treatments and difficult on the body, but she is committed to seeing the transformation through.

She has been in a relationship for eight months with Katty, who identifies as genderqueer. They met at school and attended Junior Prom together. Katty lives in another town, so they don’t see each other as often as they’d like, but FaceTime keeps them close. Like Saffron, Katty’s path has not been easy, but having supportive parents helps.

When asked to relay one thing she’s learned in her short life, Saffron replied with the common figure of speech “Don’t judge a book by its cover.”

“You may think you know everything there is to know about it, but there’s always more to the story.”

Peter Thomas is the Editor-in-Chief at HopNews.

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9 COMMENTS

  1. This is such an important, humanizing, piece. Thank you, Peter.

    Saffron, thank you for sharing your story with our community. In being vulnerable and brave, there will be kids who read this and develop hope. There will be adults who read this and gain some much needed insight, education and, hopefully, empathy. There will also be haters but I hope you never allow them to dim your light again. Keep going.

  2. I recognized Saffron right away from her job at Starbucks. What a sweet and kind person she is. I always find myself having a quick and pleasant conversation with her. All the best to you !!

  3. Peter, thank you. I am so touched by Saffron’s courage and all the heartfelt sharing she did with you. I learned so much and I will share this article with others, too. It’s an important piece and it’s exquisitely written.

  4. What a beautifully written article and an immense gift from both the writer and Saffron.
    Thank you so very much for sharing your journey, Saffron. It is already helping others better understand, and have compassion and understanding about the struggles of trans people.

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