Teenage and Transgendered
Jacoby James' palms were sweating. It was almost his turn. As a camera flash illuminated the curtains in front of him, he waited to have his senior picture taken at the Academy of Irving. The photographer's assistant beckoned. Wishing he weren't so nervous, James stepped forward.
The woman directed him to a clothes rack with two kinds of outfits made to slip over the head—for the girls, v-necked bodices modeled after dresses, and for the boys, half-shirts made to look like suits. James reached for one of the suit and tie sets.
"What's your name?" the woman asked.
He hesitated. "Missouri Flowers," he said, looking at the ground. He purposely left out Elizabeth, his middle name.
The woman stared at him for a moment, confused, then glanced down at her list.
"I'd like to wear the suit and tie," James told her.
"Um...I'm not sure we can do that," she finally said.
James steeled himself. He was no longer a frightened eighth-grader whose screaming classmates told teachers there was a boy in the girls' bathroom. As far as he was concerned, Elizabeth Flowers was gone. Gone with her longish brown hair and those blouses he'd always hated; gone with her quiet, almost painful inhibitions and the stomach-wrenching anxiety that came as people looked back and forth, confused, between the feminine name and more masculine features. His friends, family and teachers had been calling him Jay James for almost a year now—he had a straight girlfriend, for God's sake. There was no way in hell he would appear in his senior picture wearing that ridiculous, frilly piece of fabric.
"I'm either wearing the suit and tie or I'm not taking the picture," he told the baffled woman. "Can we go talk to the vice principal?"
In the end, he was able to wear what he wanted in the photo, a fitting way to wrap up high school, even though he had to receive his diploma under the name Missouri Elizabeth Flowers.
A little more than a year later, he is engaged to his high-school sweetheart. Her name is Amber Burden, and she's a straight 19-year-old from a lower-middle-class family of Southern Baptists. Even if you don't know James is still a biological female, at first glance the two seem an unlikely couple. Burden is tall, thin and angular, with fair skin, glasses and strawberry blond hair cropped to frame her face. Standing next to her and barely reaching her shoulder, James could be her younger brother. He stands just 5 feet tall, wears a baseball cap over his short brown hair and dresses in polo shirts and cargo shorts. His age is more evident when he speaks, his brown, wide-set eyes and easy banter showing a rare, hard-won confidence.
"Coming out at a young age makes it easier," he told me recently, puffing on a Marlboro at Zini's Pizzeria in Oak Lawn. "I've got my whole life to be comfortable with myself—I don't have as much damage from being uncomfortable in my body." Even so, he added, "It still brings the same amount of relief because, at any age, once you find yourself, you're like, 'Whew! That was tiring and hard.'"
For James, declaring himself a transgender male was an act of liberation. But it was also the start of a journey fraught with challenges and more than a little teenage drama.
In April, Los Angeles Times sportswriter Mike Penner announced in his column that he was changing his byline to Christine Daniels. The next month, Steve Stanton, a former longtime city manager in Largo, Florida, made headlines when he appeared on Capitol Hill as Susan Stanton to lobby for anti-discrimination laws. Stanton had recently lost his job after announcing his sex change.
As Newsweek highlighted in a May cover story called "Rethinking Gender," a growing number of people are admitting to their families and communities that they've never identified with their biological sex. And many of those choosing to change genders are doing so in the public eye.
The most recent media frenzy has focused on children who insist they were born in the wrong body—an 11-year-old who expressed his desire for a sex change on Oprah, a 6-year-old boy who explained to Barbara Walters his choice to live as a girl. Most of those featured have been males who want to be female. While male-to-female transsexuals have been coming out for decades, female-to-male transitions have been virtually unheard of until more recently. For years, experts say, many women hid their desire to be men by passing for tomboys or living as lesbians.
Feleshia Porter, a Dallas counselor who specializes in what the American Psychiatric Association calls gender identity disorder, says that in the past few years she's seen more female-to-male transitions and noticed more people coming out as teens or young adults. "There's more awareness and education. A lot of adults reflect back on how when they were young they just didn't have words for it," Porter says. "Now with the Internet it's easier to research and find people like you." Another reason more female-to-males are coming out is because of recent improvements in the surgical techniques used to turn women into men, which are far more complicated than the reverse, she adds.
As transgender girls and boys come out at younger ages, they're beginning to date and engage in relationships that further challenge the defined gender roles that most of us have grown up with, casting sexual identity as a broad spectrum with varying shades of gray. Not surprisingly, this process tends to complicate adolescence and coming of age. And at the same time, while teens like James who were born girls and want to be boys are a minority within a minority, their experiences in many ways mirror those of anyone who has ever endured puberty.
On a fall day in 2001, James was still Liz, an eighth-grader at Bowie Middle School. She sat in math class, unable to focus on the problems on the board. She had to use the bathroom. She usually managed to avoid this by drinking only small amounts of water, but this time there was no helping it. She walked out of the classroom, down the hall and into the bathroom marked "girls." A half-dozen girls stood at the sink. "Hey, Elizabeth," one said. Liz returned the hello and tried to ignore the looks on the others' faces. She scurried into a stall, hoping they'd leave.
"Was that a girl or a boy?" she heard one girl ask.
"That's Elizabeth, she's cool," said the one Liz knew. This had little effect. The others ran out the door and began shrieking in the hallway: "There's a boy in the girls' bathroom! There's a boy in the girls' bathroom!"
Inside the stall, Liz berated herself for her mistake. It was lunch period for some students, a terrible time to go to the bathroom. You're an idiot. How could you have forgotten about the lunch crowd? It grew quieter. After another minute, Liz unhooked the latch and walked out of the stall to the sinks. When she stepped into the hallway, there were two female teachers waiting for her. Liz had seen them around the campus but had never met them—this was her first year at the school after moving from Richardson.
"What do you think you're doing in the girls' bathroom, young man?" one of the teachers asked. Liz's stomach flipped and her throat tightened. "I'm a girl," she said in a meek, quiet voice, doing her best to insist that what they saw—a boyish-looking kid in baggy clothes—was not what they thought.
"Are we going to have to go to the office and call your mom?" one of the teachers asked, not believing her.
"No, really. I'm a girl."
"What's your name?"
"Missouri Elizabeth Flowers."
The teacher paused. "Well, OK. Get back to class then."
Like most people who consider themselves transmen, Liz never really felt like a girl. She liked trucks and cars, Legos, Hot Wheels and GI Joe. Once, at a girls' slumber party with pink decorations and party favors, she escaped having her toenails painted by offering to paint everyone else's. Yet unlike your average tomboys, or lesbians who never considered themselves "fem," there were other things. Not only did Liz prefer to play tag with the boys, there was always an undefined yearning that she later identified as longing to be a boy. Or, rather, feeling that she already was one. Whenever she thought about growing up and having a family, for example, she imagined herself not as the mother, but as the father.
These peculiarities—and Liz's androgynous looks—didn't go unnoticed. In middle school, a girl named Princess began calling Liz "it." Other classmates said words she didn't know, like "hermaphrodite." When they called her a dyke, she understood, because her mother was gay. When teachers called her "he" in class, she corrected them. After all, Liz was supposed to be a girl—what other option was there? The day the teachers confronted her in the girls' bathroom, she told her mother, who said she wished the teachers had called her because they would have felt like fools. Liz also told her friend Charley Scarborough. "That's stupid," Charley told her. "You can't just assume things about people."
An expressive gay 19-year-old, Charley is skinny and fair, with longish light blond hair and an irreverent wit. Recalling the first time he met Liz/Jay, he manages to be as respectful as he was theatrical and profane.
"It was pretty painfully awkward," he says one night after a support group session at Youth First Texas, a nonprofit that provides counseling for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered youths. "We met in eighth grade in keyboarding class, and Jay and I were sitting next to each other, all awkward—you know, first day of school. I look over at him and I'm like, 'Oh my God—What the hell is that thing sitting next to me?' So I look at Jay and I'm like, all calm, collected, real friendly, 'What's your name?' And the fucker says...'Missouri!'"
Charley throws in a dramatic pause. At this, Jay and Amber laugh.
Charley continues. "I look him dead in the eyes and I'm like, 'That is not gender-specific.' And Jay says, 'I'm a girl.' For some reason, that was a kick-starter for a great friendship."
When Charley met Jay, as Liz, she was incredibly shy. That began to change over the next couple of years. Well outside the realm of "popular" at the Academy of Irving, a non-traditional public high school that offers specialized career tracks, Charley, Liz, Amber and a few others formed a close group of friends. They were gay, straight and bisexual, fat and skinny, quiet and loud. Most of them attended SonRise Fellowship, a Baptist church in Irving, but began going less often when the youth pastor started referring to Sodom and Gomorrah and the horrors of homosexuality—particularly when Charley was there.
After Charley met Liz's mother, who had been divorced from Liz's father for almost a decade and came out when Liz was in the fourth grade, Charley asked his friend if she was a lesbian like her mother. "No, I don't think so," Liz told him.
"For a long time, we were like, 'Well, we don't know who Jay likes to bang—we'll just leave that alone,'" Charley says. Then, sophomore year, Liz started dating a girl. Everyone assumed Liz was a lesbian, and while she didn't claim to be gay, she didn't correct people, either.
The turning point came over winter break junior year. Liz and Charley were hanging out in Liz's backyard in Irving with a kid named Jure. Jure mentioned that he was transgendered, and Liz asked what that meant.
"Having been raised in the GLBT community, I never understood what the T stood for," Jay says. "You can always spot the gays and lesbians when you go down to Oak Lawn, but you can't really spot the transgenders. I hadn't really heard the word."
Liz listened, rapt, as this kid talked about why he chose to live as a boy. He could have been describing Liz herself—always a tomboy, never liked dresses, never felt like a little girl. As the boy spoke, Liz and Charley looked at each other.
"He said that and I thought, 'It's always been so awkward when people call me 'she,'" Jay says now. "I wouldn't mind people calling me 'he.'" Jure told Liz he planned to take hormones to acquire a deeper voice and facial hair. He talked about "top" and "bottom" surgery. "I was like, 'You can do that?'" Jay recalls. "Cool!"
For the past year, Jay James and Amber Burden have attended the support group at Youth First Texas together. The center, which operates with donations and money garnered from fund-raising events, offers counseling and after-school and summer activities. The nonprofit also gives recommendations for various services, including transgender therapy or physician contact information. Youth and mentors throughout the DFW area generally find the group through word of mouth or online. The mentors are screened through background checks and interviews and receive about 10 hours of training.
Several of the transgendered mentors didn't change sexes until later in life, in some cases interrupting established careers, marriages and families. On a Thursday evening in early August, three mentors and four teens gathered around a table in the organization's offices, which are housed in a brown strip mall off Maple Avenue. There was Renee, a 40-ish male-to-female engineer turned massage therapist; Diane, who began her sex change some 20 years ago at 19 and is married to a man; and Tori, a firearms expert at the Fort Worth Police Department who, last year, after decades of depression and feeling as if he were stuck in the wrong body, finally divorced his wife and began the transition from man to woman.
James began attending the group for support with his transition. But Burden has also found it helpful—the past year has posed challenges for her as well. On this particular Thursday, Burden had an announcement.
"So, I've been doing a lot of soul-searching lately," she said. "I've been researching androgyny. I'm trying to figure out who I am—sometimes I have my girly days, other days I have my full-on testosterone days."
James nodded. "I've seen it," he said.
Burden smiled. "I was brought up Southern Baptist, and I thought I couldn't be anything other than a nice, straight little girl. I'm learning that I'm anything but that...It's not that I feel like a transgender," Burden said. "I just feel like me." Never much of a girly girl or a tomboy, she's always loved cars—her favorite is a 1967 Shelby Mustang—but she also likes bikinis and boys.
A dark-haired teen, who is clearly a biological boy but introduced herself as a girl, nodded in understanding. "Sometimes I like to put on what I call my 'magic shirt'—it's tight with a built-in bra—and other times I like to put on baggy clothes and do pipe work," she said. "The difficulty is trying to know yourself when you're expected to be something so cut and dried."
This is precisely the problem facing transgendered people every day: How do you live your life and find happiness when the neatly drawn boxes into which most of humanity fits don't apply to you?
"They're going to map male or female onto you because they just want to see you that way," said Renee, who wore gold hoop earrings and pink toenail polish and had her long brown hair held back with a black headband. Unlike Diane, who keeps her male birth name secret, even from her husband, Renee uses hers—Scott—as her middle name. "To honor my male past," she explained.
Several people emphasized the difference between sexual identity—e.g. straight, gay, transgender—and sexual orientation, which refers to attraction.
One teenage biological female whose femininity was evident in her facial features and short pink hair just returned to using male pronouns and his chosen male name. For a couple of months, he had gone back to using the name Sarah and pretended to be a lesbian so the girl he was dating wouldn't judge him. But he felt like a fraud. "Even my dad knew I was bullshitting everyone," he said.
As the session came to a close, Tori, the firearms expert with long, blond hair, turned to Burden. Her voice wavered slightly, still struggling to hew to its newly high pitch. "If you're androgynous, that's fine," she told the teen. She mentioned the years she spent pretending to be happy as a man, trying to please her wife, working construction. "I was suicidal," she said. "My main message to you is to be true to yourself."
Six months after Liz's conversation with her friend Jure, she cut her hair short, got rid of all of her feminine clothes and requested people call her Jay James, not Liz Flowers. Jay's mother, who also bears the family name Missouri and goes by Missy, wasn't surprised. "I knew she was different," Missy says. "I knew she wasn't straight—I thought maybe she was gay." Yet she was concerned her daughter's desire to change sexes may have been a phase. "As a mom I wanted to make sure there weren't emotional issues, mental issues," she says. "I told her, 'We can go to all the best therapists in the world—I'll be there every step of the way.'" Eventually, she became convinced that it was not a phase, but a natural expression of who her child was. "Having come out of the closet myself, it's enabled me to be more understanding," she says. "It's a lot of letting go—you kind of have to let the reins go and let him follow his own heart. He's got a long way to go, but I'm proud of him."
Missy decided she would support Liz, though she made it clear she wouldn't pay for the hormones and surgery, which can cost upward of $100,000. Aside from being costly, the operations aren't done in many places. Porter, the counselor, says she knows of only a few surgeons in the world who specialize in doing female-to-male "bottom" surgeries, or phalloplasties. None live in the area.
Jay and his mother met with the vice principal before the beginning of his senior year, and the administrators said Jay's choice to live as a boy was fine, as long as he didn't use the boys' restroom. District policy forbade it. So, aside from continued avoidance of the bathroom, the transition from Liz to Jay was fairly smooth.
On Valentine's Day 2006, three months before graduation, Amber Burden realized that she liked Jay James. She had a boyfriend at the time, but things weren't going well. Like many of her friends who had gone through what she calls the "bi-curious" stage, she'd briefly dated a girl sophomore year, but for the most part considered herself straight. She'd been "boy crazy" since elementary school, and perhaps because as a child she suffered sexual abuse at the hands of a baby sitter, she was often attracted to rough and controlling boys. This current one didn't get her anything for Valentine's Day. James did. He'd heard she didn't get a gift, and the day after the holiday he presented her with a chocolate rose. They began to flirt, and Burden broke up with her boyfriend.
For almost a year now, Burden had regarded James as a boy. At first, when she heard her friend Liz was "transgender," the only images she could conjure were of drag queens and transvestites. But after she learned more and got used to using male pronouns, it all made sense. "None of the girly stuff ever fit with her," she says. "It was how she looked, how she talked, how she breathed. I mean, it all screamed Y chromosome."
When James handed her the chocolate rose and began holding her hand in the library, where their group of friends hung out before and after school, Burden blushed and felt a rush of adrenaline. One night, they went to see The Legend of Zorro at the dollar movies. As they sat in the car afterward, James asked if she liked the movie. She said she didn't remember any of it. They sat, silent, for a few minutes. "I want to kiss you really bad," James finally said. "Go for it," she said. That kiss was the beginning of a relationship that was known to his parents but hidden from hers. She didn't expect her father, a truck driver, or her mother, a religious woman who worked for an insurance company, to approve. She was most concerned about her mother's reaction.
The couple spent some time at Burden's family's apartment but more at James' house. "After a while, my dad said, 'What are you doing over there that you can't do over here?'" Burden recalls. "He thought we were doing drugs. Sometimes we'd get brave, and Jay would spend the night, and we'd be making out at 2 a.m., praying no one would wake up." Burden wasn't a virgin, and she'd only kissed the one girl she'd dated two years before. When it came to sex with James, she didn't know what to expect. "It was new and different, but it wasn't really weird because no matter how you do it, it's still about the person you love," she said. "It's not all about genitalia for me."
When the two began dating, Charley Scarborough tried to be supportive, but he wasn't sure what might happen. His biggest concern was her parents' reaction. "I was like, 'Oh, they're gonna hate this,'" he says. "And they did."
On a hot day in September 2006, James and Burden decided to tell her father. The three of them were sitting outside the apartment complex in lawn chairs. "I don't know how to tell you this, Dad," Burden began slowly, her words trailing off.
"Why don't you use English?" replied her father in his direct, no-bullshit way.
"Jay and I are dating," she said after a pause, her stomach lurching as if she'd tumbled over the edge of a cliff.
"Oh, I knew that," he said, to their surprise.
"Just out of curiosity, how long do you think we've been going out?" said James.
"About six or seven months," her father said.
Burden was dumbfounded. He knew? How? Why didn't he say anything? "Does Mom know?" she said.
"No. And you're going to be the one to tell her," her father said.
Burden told her mother about the relationship later that afternoon. Just as she expected, her mother was shocked. "How long has this been going on?" she asked, her eyes welling up.
"She's never allowed in this house again!" her mother shouted, referring to James. Then she walked into the house and slammed the door.
Burden's parents knew Scarborough was gay, and they knew Liz had been Jay for at least a year. It never seemed like the end of the world. But when it came to their daughter, it was different. Her father didn't like it, but he figured she was 18 and could do what she wanted, even if he didn't understand it. To her mother, though, it was as if her oldest daughter were lost. She would rather Amber have been pregnant, Burden says, than dating a girl who wished she were a boy. Burden's mother blamed Scarborough and James, "that damn group of friends."
For the next couple of months, Burden and her mother barely spoke. Burden was working for a temp agency, and she and James took classes at North Lake College. James wanted to be a forensic psychologist or special education teacher. Burden dreamed of being a singer. One day, standing in the religion section at Half Price Books, they decided to get married. Burden was considering moving out of her family's three-bedroom apartment, and she would spend hours adding up bills, per-hour pay and monthly budgets. One night in November, she did it. She called James and another friend to pick her up, then dialed her father, who was driving his truck through the Southwest.
"I'm just calling to tell you I'm leaving," she told him.
"Have you told your mother?" he said.
"No, but I'll tell her tonight."
"I wish I were there so I could be there for your mom."
Burden was hurt. What about being there for her, his daughter? "If I don't do it now, I'll never do it," she told him.
"Well," her father said, "If you really feel like you have to do this, TYA [tear your ass]...I guess all I can say is I love you."
Burden hung up and walked into the living room. Her mother was sitting on the couch with Burden's 7-year-old sister, Ali. The game show Gay, Straight or Taken? was on the TV.
Burden announced to her mother that she was moving in with Nick, one of her and James' friends.
"Do you have the money to do this?" her mother asked, her face expressionless. Burden told her she'd worked it out.
"Fine," her mother said. "But you're going to tell your sister." Her mother got up and went into her bedroom.
Burden sat Ali down in her lap. "You know how I'm getting to be a really big girl?" she said. Her sister rolled her eyes and said, "Yes."
"Well, I'm going to go try to be a big girl on my own," she told her. "I'm going to move in with Nick."
Her sister's blue eyes grew worried, scared. She wrapped her thin arms around Burden's neck and started to cry. Burden rocked her, told her it would be OK. Their mother came in to take Ali to bed. She practically had to pull the girl away from her older sister.
Crying, Burden began throwing her things in garbage bags. Clothes, books, crayon drawings from her sister, University of Texas football flags, a ticket stub from a Ludakris concert. As she collected her bags and hauled them out into the living room, her mother stood there, watching. James and Nick called to say they were waiting outside. Burden's mother hugged her daughter and told her she loved her.
One evening in late August, James called me. He told me he and Burden had broken up, and that she had checked herself into Green Oaks, a mental health facility in North Dallas. What happened? I asked. The last time I talked to them they were talking about in vitro fertilization.
"I needed my space," he said. He paused. "She was having suicidal thoughts."
The breakup happened first. James, like most 19-year-olds, wants to "grow and develop" as an individual and had been doubting he could do that while in a relationship. Meanwhile, Burden had already had a complicated summer. She hardly talks to her mother, hates her cashier job and wants to go back to school after having dropped out. Not to mention the whole androgynous thing, which she refers to as "finding myself and figuring out who I am." When James broke up with her, even though he said it might not be permanent, she became depressed and began having visions of suicide. "I could think of six ways to do it just walking to work," she told me. "I thought, 'This is bad, I need to do something.'"
She spent two days sitting in group therapy sessions and talking to counselors and other patients at Green Oaks. Asked what it was like, she said, "Well, it's a nuthouse. I was with all the crazies." Most helpful was having time away from everyone she knows to think about what she wants to accomplish in life (college, travel, kids). Since she checked herself in, she could check herself out once the staff determined she wasn't planning to harm herself. She left the facility armed with antidepressants and once-a-week appointments with a counselor. That night, she and James talked for hours.
They were back together when I saw them a few days later at Youth First. They're trying to figure out how to take more time apart, grow as individuals and still be a couple. James periodically worries about the surgery, which looms far in the future, given the high cost—What if he never has the money to do it? Burden wouldn't mind having what she calls "real sex" again, but she says what she has always said: "Don't worry—I fell in love with you, not your body." In fact, she sometimes forgets he's not yet physically a man until he asks for a sanitary pad or some Aleve.
On a recent night, Scarborough, Burden and James sat with friends outside at Zini's. Scarborough told of what he learned watching James' metamorphosis from awkward, androgynous girl to confident almost-boy. "I really am proud of Jay because he found himself," he said. "And it's awesome, because I'm not even sure I've found myself—whenever someone doesn't really fit in their own skin, they either shrink back and don't express themselves, or they go my route, they're just like BAM! in your face. I'm still on that journey myself—sometimes I ask Jay for advice about that shit...He's impacted me a lot more than I let on. I came to this revelation when this whole transition thing was starting—that no one really knows who you are on the inside but you."
The conversation turned to James and Burden's relationship and how they want to have children some day. "I've met people at group who've come out, and they have kids who are 20 or 30 years old, so their kids are like, 'You've been my mom for 30 years, and now you're my dad?'" James said. "I have the advantage of being able to meet someone like Amber who already knew about me. I don't have to start a relationship and get sexual and then have to say, 'By the way, I'm lacking in certain departments.'"
"Like in Boys Don't Cry," said Scarborough.
"Right," James said. "We talk about having a family—we can sit down and say, 'When we have kids, how are we going to handle this?'"
Burden knows her parents likely won't be happy about such plans, but she's hoping they'll come around. She pointed to Scarborough. "He helped me to realize that, you know, your parents might hate it, but you gotta do what you need to do," she said.
Scarborough nodded and took another drag on his cigarette. "If it turns out that in the long run, this isn't it, then shit, rock it while you can. And if it turns out that this is gonna be the rest of your life, then go after it—you can't let anybody else tell you what to pursue in your own life," he said. "Even if it's a bad idea, no matter what you do, never regret it. Because, at one point, that's what you wanted." He paused. "I read that somewhere on MySpace."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Observer's biggest stories.