This transgender teen is thriving in a nurturing school environment.
This is part of a story series about the lives of transgender people. Read the introduction here.
When he was in 10th grade, Reid Ellefson-Frank realized he could no longer stay at the public school he attended.
He had come out as transgender to his parents at the end of freshman year, and they were completely accepting and supportive. But even though he hadn’t come out publicly yet, everyone in his small Michigan town knew he was different. And Ellefson-Frank struggled as a result.
I was completely closeted because I was afraid to be isolated and maybe face physical violence. People would challenge me a lot or just ignore me. I’d walk down the hall and hear them saying bad things behind my back that would get back to me. I was amazed at how many opportunities closed to me. By mid-year, I knew I couldn’t go back the next year.
Ellefson-Frank knew from the time he was four years old that he identified as male, and not as the female gender he was assigned at birth. He didn’t have the words for it until he reached puberty, and he struggled for a while to express his authentic self.
At the beginning of freshman year, Ellefson-Frank says he overcompensated — wearing a lot of skirts and curling his long hair. But when he could no longer deny who he really was, he cut his hair short and began wearing more masculine clothes.
“People thought I was a lesbian,” he says. “People were behaving very strangely to me and there was lots of whispering. I wasn’t a butch lesbian, like they thought. I was the exact opposite of what they thought I was.”
Ellefson-Frank did his best to be part of the school community, forming and leading the school’s Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) and participating in school theatre productions, onstage and off. But despite doing good work on lights and sound for school productions, Ellefson-Frank says he was “cold-shouldered out” and another student technician was placed at the helm instead. One friend he had the courage to come out to never spoke to him again. It didn’t take long for Ellefson-Frank’s parents to realize that he needed a more supportive, nurturing school environment.
Using the school restroom was a small, but notable, part of the discomfort Ellefson-Frank felt in a school that wasn’t affirming of LGBTQ students. His story demonstrates the danger of legislation like the bathroom bill (SB 993) introduced by Michigan Senator Tom Casperson, which forces transgender students to out themselves — like it or not — and use the restroom that matches the gender they were assigned at birth, even if it conflicts with the gender they identify with and present to the world.
I didn’t pass well at the beginning of my transition, so it was keep your head down and get out of there as fast as you can. But I wasn’t really out [as transgender] yet, so it wasn’t that much of an issue. If I had been out and was being denied, that would have been worse for me. For other trans people, it’s really a problem.
Restroom use aside, there were many other sources of anxiety for Ellefson-Frank in public school, where he didn’t have the kind of support he had at home.
There was the constant sense of fear — whatever I was doing, whoever I was with or wherever I was — I was afraid someone might say something and I’d have to defend myself. There’s a fear that comes from no one knowing who you are. By having such a big secret, you’re one of the most vulnerable kids in school. So it’s hard to concentrate on formulas or remember what those people did back in 1792 when the most important thing in life is being afraid.
To place Ellefson-Frank in a better learning environment, his parents enrolled him in Bard College at Simon’s Rock in Massachusetts. This boarding school is for 11th and 12th grade students who are academically ready to begin their college studies early and are seeking a unique learning experience. For Ellefson-Frank, the open and accepting environment has made all the difference.
“I’m taking college courses and getting college credit,” he says. “The school is super LGBTQ-friendly. Most of the campus bathrooms are neutral. And those with binary labels, no one will challenge you for going in whatever door you want.”
Ellefson-Frank, who is now 17 years old, has made many more friends than he had at his old school, and everyone has known him as Reid from day one. Being out and open about who he is has transformed his academic experience and his outlook.
I’m a much less anxious person than I was before. There’s something disturbing about sitting in a room with 25 other people and none of them know who I am. That’s what every class was like for me before. That was awful.
Now I’m at a school where I’m out and it’s no big deal. I had a moment of realization during my first semester here when I woke up and actually wanted to go to class! Before, I used to have to drag myself out of bed and force myself to go to school because it’s the law. Now I want to be here.
Recognizing that he has access to opportunities many other transgender teens don’t, Ellefson-Frank testified before the Michigan State Board of Education about the importance of creating safe environments for LGBTQ students.
“I think my generation will be the one to make things change — I firmly believe that,” he says. “I think we’ll see drastic improvements. No more bathroom bills. Trans women of color will stop getting murdered. That’s the dream.”
Ellefson-Frank encourages everyone who feels safe speaking out to do so. “The most important thing any trans person can do for their community is lend their support,” he says. “If you’re not in a safe space, there’s no shame in staying silent because that’s still a reality. But if we want to make things change, we have to be the ones to change it. Everyone can do something.”
Read all the stories in this series HERE.
[Photo courtesy of Reid Ellefson-Frank.]