LGBT, Transgender — May 9, 2016 at 7:52 am

Hunter’s story: Flourishing in an affirming environment


This transgender teen knows he has the kind of support every trans person should have.

This is part of a story series about the lives of transgender people. Read the introduction here.

At age 17, Hunter Keith has more confidence and poise than some people twice his age. Maybe that’s because he already knows who he is, and he has the full support of his family, friends and school to express it.

Keith is transgender, something he’s known most of his life — even before he had the words to describe it.

When he was six years old, he told his mother, Roz, “I am a boy.” She asked if he felt like a boy or wanted to be a boy. His response: “I don’t feel like a boy. I am a boy.”

Keith says the word “transgender” didn’t enter his vocabulary until a few years later, and he didn’t say anything more about it until then. But he’d always been a tomboy and never liked wearing girly clothes. Conflicts would arise when he went shopping for clothes with his mom, who didn’t understand why they always wound up in the boys’ department. Then he started texting her photos of boys with short haircuts, and she began to realize there was something going on.

This was right before Keith made the decision to come out as transgender in eighth grade. He did a lot of research first, in part because he was trying to figure himself out, he says.

“It was more self-exploration,” Keith explains. “I wanted to know what my options were — and I wanted to show my mom I wasn’t the only one. I wanted her to see there were other people going through it, people who had success. I wanted her to see it wasn’t just a phase.”

Hunter emphasizes that he never once thought his inner conflict with the female gender he was assigned at birth was “just a phase.”

I always knew something was up. I just didn’t have the vocabulary to say ‘I’m transgender.’ I didn’t have the knowledge that people could actually say, ‘I’m a boy’ if they weren’t born with male parts.

Once I found other people who felt the same way I did, then it made sense. But I never thought of it as a phase because I’ve always known who I was.

Keith has always been “more masculine,” as he describes it, so he says his friends weren’t surprised when he came out to them as transgender. He came out to a few close friends before telling anyone else — even his family.

“I told those friends first because I just wanted to talk about it,” Keith says. “It was more of a ‘Let me run this by you. Maybe you can help me figure it out.’ I was almost 100 percent sure they’d be okay with it, and every single one of my friends was completely supportive. They’re still my best friends.”

After that, Keith told his mom, who didn’t initially understand what it meant.

“I was ready to go,” says Keith, who was eager to start testosterone hormone replacement therapy, which also meant seeing a therapist. “I’d known for seven years. My mom knew for seven minutes at that point.”

His mother quickly learned what it means to be transgender. She has been fully supportive, as has Keith’s father and the rest of his family. In fact, his mother established Stand with Trans, a non-profit organization dedicated to providing “the tools needed by transgender youth so they will be empowered, supported and validated as they transition to their authentic life.”

Keith recognizes how fortunate he is to have that kind of support, and he advocates alongside his mom.

“Everyone in my life has accepted that I know who I am,” he says. “I’m aware how much privilege I have in the trans community — that I can live my life accepted, without any sort of backlash or discrimination at this point.”

It’s not just Keith’s family and friends that have been accepting. Everyone at his school — Frankel Jewish Academy in West Bloomfield, Mich., where he’s a junior — knows he’s transgender. He’s never faced discrimination there, something not every transgender student in Michigan can say.

“I use a unisex bathroom at school because that’s the most comfortable for me, and it’s a lot nicer and lot less stinky,” Keith says. “But I have gone in the guys’ bathroom at school and no one has said anything. If I decided I wanted to use the guys’ bathroom, that’d be fine with everyone.”

Keith has a similar advantage with locker room access, because his school is based at the Jewish Community Center, which has family locker rooms he can use that include a private shower. But again, it’s his choice — a choice not every student gets to make. It will become even more difficult for students if proposed legislation is passed in Michigan requiring transgender students to use the bathroom that matches the gender they’re assigned at birth.

It’s an issue Keith is well aware of. He says that if he was forced to use the girls’ restroom at school, he’d be angry. “I’d probably just hold it all day,” he says.

Access is also something he thinks about when he has to use a public bathroom outside of school.

Even though I pass as male, it’s still anxiety-provoking going into any bathroom. I can’t go into the women’s bathroom because I’ll be kicked out. But since I know that I wasn’t born male, going into the guys’ bathroom still causes me anxiety outside of school. What if I don’t pass? What if they say they don’t want me there?

I’m always going to feel this way, because I know I didn’t start out like every other guy. I’ll always have my past. I can’t just forget all that I’ve gone through to be who I am.

To work through issues like these, Keith continues seeing a therapist, who happens to be a transgender man, something Keith finds especially helpful. He’s also preparing for “top surgery” to create a masculine chest. Until now, he’s had to bind his breasts to flatten them. The binding has to be tight and it’s painful because it pulls the rib cage together, he says.

“I’m super-excited to take my shirt off in public and go swimming without outing myself,” Keith explains. “Even with a swim top on people can still see the outlines of my binder. And I’m just looking forward to not having to deal with binding.”

Although Keith is already accepted as male pretty much everywhere he goes, surgery will bring him that much closer to being “just one of the guys.”

He doesn’t mind being known as “the trans kid,” but his journey has given him a unique perspective on the importance of recognizing every person as an individual. His viewpoint has also been shaped by his lifelong involvement with the special-needs community, starting with his cousin, who has Down syndrome. Every week, Keith volunteers at Friendship Circle of Michigan, a non-profit organization that provides support and inclusive programs for people with special needs.

Being there is the best part of my week. Friendship Circle gives kids a chance to just be a regular kid for an hour out of the week. Being around them has helped me see everyone as an individual and not classify anyone.

I think being transgender has helped me develop an understanding that every single person is an individual, too. Just because we have this common aspect and this common struggle doesn’t mean we’re the same person or see our struggle the same way.

Like most 17-year-olds, Keith hasn’t decided what career path he might pursue, but he’s pretty sure it will involve working with special-needs kids.

“Maybe I’ll help kids with autism do something people say they’re not able to do,” Keith says. “I’m a big believer in proving those people wrong. I taught my cousin how to shoot a basket and she can shoot three-pointers better than me now.”

And Keith plans to continue being an advocate for the transgender community, especially because he recognizes how lucky he is to have the kind of support his family and friends provide.

“I don’t think I’d be where I am without the people in my life. I know how much hate is out there and how many trans people struggle every day,” he says. “As much as I’d like to be just a regular guy, I love the difference I’m making even more. My goal is to use my privilege to give people the same opportunities that I have.”

Read all the stories in this series HERE.

[Photos courtesy of Hunter Keith.]