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.

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Megan Feldman
Contact: Megan Feldman

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