What’s it like to be a transgender middle school kid?

Sometimes, the surprise M or F gender sorting moments can be scariest.

It happened in a Virginia middle school last month.

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During one of the Stafford County school’s active shooter drills – something we’ve now come to say as casually as “It was pizza day at school, mom!” – administrators freaked out because the question of M or F stumped them when it came to their 14-year-old transgender student.

Born an M, but living as an F, the teen was locked out and left alone in the hallway while everyone else huddled for safety in the M and F locker rooms because the adults didn’t know what to do.

This is today’s American madness, adults deciding that rather than have a transgender child hiding – not dressing or peeing – among biological females during a drill, it was better to just act out a human sacrifice and leave her to the imaginary massacre.


A standardized test. That’s what provided the scary sorting moment for Tyler.

Washington Post readers met Tyler when he turned 5 and had just announced to his Sunday school class that he was no longer Kathryn.

That was in 2012. Before Caitlyn Jenner, before Laverne Cox on the cover of Time, before transgender soldiers openly served in the Army, before Target carried transgender pride flags.

Before politicians decided to make bathrooms a political hot potato.

“Last year everyone said they were afraid their daughters would get raped by a transgender man in the bathroom, this year they proved that they wouldn’t believe them if they did,” said Jean, Tyler’s mom, paraphrasing a popular meme she wants to post on Facebook but won’t. That’s not like her.

Tyler’s family is pretty ordinary. Mom is a pragmatic Nebraska-born schoolteacher. Dad is a reserved immigrant, a devout Christian and a science teacher. They go to church, live in the suburbs, hold the neighborhood’s annual cookie decorating party. They are not alternative, hippy-dippy, experimental, artsy, political or activists.

They simply listened to a miserable child who ripped off her dresses and started declaring that she was a boy when she was 2. They studied the science of gender dysphoria and interviewed adult transgender people (yes, they all knew when they were little). They took their kid to doctors and psychiatrists and digested the sobering suicide and homicide rates in the transgender population.

The little 5-year-old’s behavior problems, surliness, school issues and learning issues all disappeared when they finally accepted one doctor’s simple prescription: “Let him live like a boy.”

Six years later, Tyler is still a boy.

Even though their friends and church and school all knew about Tyler’s transition, we agreed to protect the family’s privacy by using their middle names only.

We all worried that someday, Tyler might decide to become Kathryn again. Or that Tyler would go on to live as a man and prefer not to have a searchable record of his transition. Or that as a tween, he might not want anyone to know he’s transgender.

That exactly what’s happening now.

Tyler started middle school in Maryland this year. He enrolled as M. He has an implant in his arm that releases puberty blockers into his body, suppressing breast buds, hips and menstruation.

This step is totally reversible. All they have to do is remove the implant and his body will go into a late, female puberty. Now, he’s more or less unisex.

The more harrowing step would be the next one.When he is around 16, he could begin hormone therapy that would help his body begin growing male characteristics, making sex change surgery far easier. No need to talk about that now, though.

Practically no one at Tyler’s new school knows he is transgender. And that’s how he wants it.

He is so over being different. In the past few years, Tyler hasn’t wanted to talk about being transgender. He asked his mom to stop going to transgender support groups and conferences and tells his parents, every time they sit down for the yearly talk making sure he is comfortable living as Tyler: “I. Am. A. Boy. That’s it.”

When he comes over to play with my son, he joins the boy pack and doesn’t want me to ask: “How it’s going?”

For these annual updates, I make an appointment to talk on the phone about transgender issues, and he instead tells me about swim meets and how, besides math, orchestra is his favorite class because he just started playing the upright bass. And he wants to debate which kind of superhero is best.

“The ones who were born with superpowers are really, really cool. But so are the ones who made themselves super. They tried again and again and again. until they got it right.

“They prove that if you try hard enough, you can succeed,” he said.

He. Is. A. Boy.

He uses stalls in bathrooms and locker rooms, as any shy tween would. He goes to swim meets and sleepovers, and nobody knows.

But it was when they took a standardized test near the last days of elementary school that the sorting came up again.

“It was right there, at the top of his test, the gender marker,” his mom, Jean, said. “A big F.”

The teachers made kids sort themselves according to the Ms and the Fs for the test, and Tyler didn’t make a big deal about it. He just sat with the girls, pretending it was a mistake, and took the test.

But Jean was livid. They’d had the legal name changed when he was 7 so this shouldn’t be an issue.

She called the school and begged them to change the gender marker on all his records to M, so that middle school begins as a clean slate.

They waited and waited, prepped for another battle. When the middle school schedule arrived, there it was, right on top of the schedule, a big M.

The sorting wouldn’t happen to Tyler like it had to the student in Stafford County. That girl is publicly transgender, so the teachers’ cruel blunder didn’t out her. And parents supporting the girl packed the school board meeting this week insisting on change and the superintendent apologized and said the system would revisit their training.

It would’ve been devastating for Tyler, he told me.

“The thing is, we’re not really that different, we’re people too,” he said. “It’s not like we’re mutants. It’s not like we’re Martian man-hunters. But that would be cool.”

Yep, still a boy.

Twitter: @petulad


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