"I am Leo"

Leo Lipson, 16, shares what it’s like to grow up transgender—and how you can be an ally to trans people like him. 

Annie Tritt

How do you know what gender you are? You just have a sense, right? Chances are, people probably identify you as a girl or a boy, and you think of yourself the same way: Your mind and body feel connected. 

Well, in my case, things weren’t always like that. When I was born, I was designated female (the same as my twin sister). But for a long time I knew I wasn’t a girl . . . and yet, I didn’t immediately know I was a boy, either. 

Something's Up

When I was little, my parents used to make me and my sister put on dresses when we’d go to special events. My sister seemed fine with it, but I always wondered why I didn’t have the option to wear anything else. (When I got old enough to pick out my own clothes, I’d choose hoodies, sweatpants, or something black—things that didn’t scream girls’ department.) I also had long hair until I decided to have it cut off one day in sixth grade. It seemed like something I had to do to feel more like myself. I didn’t know how to describe my feelings, so I didn’t talk about them. Instead, I just thought of myself as weird.

Puberty hit in sixth grade, and that’s when I really started questioning my gender. I found a way to describe the strangeness I’d been feeling thanks to Instagram. Someone I followed called themselves a term I’d never heard before: non-binary. I went to Wikipedia and it said, “Non-binary is a spectrum of gender identities that are not exclusively masculine or exclusively feminine.” I was like, “Oh, interesting.”

Making Changes

I started to identify as non-binary. (At that time, I was still learning about what being transgender meant, and becoming male felt like a step I was not completely ready for yet). I didn’t think anyone I knew in my life outside the internet would understand what was going on in my head—all the thoughts and questions about who I really was (I didn’t even talk to my sister about it), which is why I confided in my online friends first. A lot of them were also questioning their identities and welcomed me with open arms. Their support gave me the courage to tell more people. 

In the spring of sixth grade, I came out as non-binary to my mom. I told her in the most honest form I knew how: through text. I said, “Can you refer to me with they/them pronouns from now on?” She agreed, then told my sister and my father. My sister adjusted immediately; my parents made an effort but would slip up from time to time. I knew they were trying, but every time I got misgendered it felt like my identity was being challenged. 

Over the next few months, I became more familiar with what it is like to live as a non-binary person. I went to sleepaway camp and was placed in the girls’ bunk where there was a junior counselor who was also non-binary. Seeing them living openly was really validating. I thought, “Here’s another person like me—this is a real thing.” 

When it was time to head back to school for seventh grade, I emailed my teachers to let them know about my pronouns. I’d assumed everyone at school would be understanding, but a lot of teachers and kids didn’t get it. Every time someone referred to me as “she” or “her,” it felt like being stabbed. I’d think, “I’m never going to be perceived as how I am.” When I asked my teachers for help, they told me I needed to teach my classmates about gender. I thought, “Aren’t you supposed to be the teacher?” I guess they saw gender as my thing, something they couldn’t explain. So one day I got up in front of my class and tried to describe the gender spectrum. I was not happy about it, but I thought it was the only way to get people to stop misgendering me. I didn’t have many friends in my grade, so not a lot of people listened, and some kids laughed. It was mortifying. 

I spent a lot of time at school trying not to be called out for being different. During gym, the teacher would split us up between boys and girls. I chose to sit out or wander the halls. Life at school was lonely, so I looked forward to spending my afternoons doing things I loved: drawing, band practice, chatting online. Journaling—with words and illustrations—really helped me process everything I was feeling. Even if something not-so-great happened, I recorded it so one day I could look back and see how much had changed. 

A Comic By Leo: Drawing and journaling help Leo process his feelings.

Deeper Understanding

As seventh grade—and puberty—went on, I hated my body so much I avoided mirrors. Meanwhile, when I would see a guy’s flat chest or hear his deep voice, I’d get jealous and want it for myself. Things like that helped me realize I wasn’t non-binary, I was transgender. I was a boy. Figuring that out made me feel like I knew who I was—or who I was going to be. 

The Road to Me

My transition was gradual. First I changed my pronouns on Instagram to he/they, then I changed my name. I felt like I had to change my name in order for people to start taking me seriously as a trans boy. I chose a name I liked and started saying, “I’m going by Leo now.” It took a while for people to catch on, but when they did, it felt amazing.

To help me pass as male and make me more comfortable in my body, I started to wear a chest binder, a tight undergarment that flattened my breasts. You’re not supposed to wear it all day, because it constricts your breathing. I asked my parents if I could start taking the male hormone testosterone, also known as T, to make me look more masculine, but they said no. For one thing, they were worried about health risks, like high blood pressure and diabetes, associated with taking it. They also wanted to make sure I wasn’t having a moment—they had to know that I envisioned my future as male. I was crushed. As a compromise, they let me take hormone blockers, which I got from an endocrinologist, a doctor specializing in hormones. The blockers stopped my period and further female development. 

New Reality

I was perceived as a boy for the first time that summer (I was even in a boys’ bunk at camp). My friends were supportive, but explaining myself to other people was exhausting. When they asked questions like, “What were you born as?” or “What gender are you really?” or “What’s your real name?”, it felt like I was under a microscope. Even if most people meant well, it was as if they were doubting me or trying to debate me. I wish they’d just said “Cool” and left it at that. 

When I started eighth grade, I asked everyone to refer to me only with male pronouns. (If a substitute teacher took attendance and used my deadname—the one I had before—I wouldn’t answer.) Some kids gave me a hard time, and when I used the boys’ bathroom, I’d get a lot of looks. One time, a kid who had called me a transphobic slur came into the bathroom while I was there. I was so scared that I hid in a stall until he left. 

I stayed home from school a lot because I wasn’t comfortable with anything about myself. It was the worst I ever felt, but thankfully, there was a bright spot. After a year on hormone blockers, my parents finally said I could start testosterone. It’s highly recommended by doctors that you see a therapist before starting T, but I was already seeing one. I’d had trouble conveying my feelings, but a therapist’s job is not to judge you, and that helped me open up.

“I used to spend energy worrying how I was being perceived. Now I can relax a bit.”

–Leo Lipson, 16

The testosterone made me feel much better about myself. My face shape changed completely, from soft and rounded to more square, and hair started to grow everywhere. My little mustache was my pride and joy. My voice dropped, and because I was beginning to like how it was sounding, I started talking more at school, which helped me make more friends and do better in my classes. 

Feeling Right

For ninth grade, I chose a high school with all new kids. My name was changed in the district’s system, so everyone knew me as a boy from the start. 

Today, I’m in 11th grade, and I have so much more confidence—I’ve even been taking selfies! I used to spend energy worrying about how I was being perceived, but now I can relax a bit. Things at school and in my personal life are great, but it’s difficult to be a trans person. With our rights being rolled back, protections being removed, and hate-crime rates going up, it can be scary. On the way home from school one day, a man stopped me and asked, “Are you a boy or a girl?” I had no idea how to respond. I was so scared he might have a rude or violent reaction that I crossed the street. When I’m in a public bathroom, if somebody looks at me in a way that says “You don’t belong here,” I try to get in and out as fast as I can. I always try to remind myself that the world is changing and things will get better one day. 

The trans experience varies for every person. I have a supportive family and the privilege of being open about who I am. It helps that I am white and pass as male. So many trans people can’t live as themselves because it’s not safe. What we can all do is stand up for people and be kind. Because let’s be honest, we’re all just trying to figure ourselves out.

Additional vocabulary words:

gender identity 

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