Growing Up Trans At An Australian Private School Was A Slow-Burning Disaster

"I had to “man up”, to pretend to draw from a well of masculine strength that was really feminine all along. Like realising your internal organs have been twisted into a knot, that’s more painful than any single memory."

trans religious private school photo

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This month, the Morrison government’s proposed religious discrimination bill became a lightning rod — primarily for one clause, which would prevent religious schools from discriminating on the basis of their students’ sexuality, but not their gender identity.

Though the bill has now been delayed until at least after the next federal election, if not indefinitely, it is deeply concerning that transgender rights are up for debate at all. It’s dredged up old wounds for LGBTIQ adults and exacerbated current fears for students and parents who may be directly affected. Without legal protections, and without broad cultural education and awareness on trans issues, our most vulnerable young people face even more of an uphill battle just to live as themselves.

As a transgender woman who attended a private religious school in the mid-2000s, I’m all too practised at explaining the shame a conservative environment can instil — and the years of self-examination it can take to unravel. When my cisgender friends and former classmates ask what it was like, I’m honestly not sure that I know how I felt at the time. The more accurate place to start would be, how did it feel to be so deep in the closet that I didn’t even know there was a closet?

I write this anonymously because my proper coming-out deserves a happier occasion; but also because an experience like mine could happen to any student of any background — who might not even realise the impact it had on them until years later.

Of course, no single trans perspective is universal. I interpret myself through a historically transfeminine lens; I can’t speak to the distinct complexities of transmasculine, non-binary, or genderfluid life. But I hope that some may find solidarity, and recognition, in some of our specific parallels.

Deus Dat Incrementum

Assigned male at birth, I didn’t fit the more overt signs or behaviours that certain young trans children display. I had a more or less idyllic childhood attending a state school where we were treated like bright young citizens, full of potential.

From years seven to 12, I’d scored an academic scholarship at an all-boys’ private Christian school. You know the type — the kind that’s more elite than religious, but very much both; the kind that produces the politicians who vote on the bills that reinforce their alma maters’ values.

How did it feel to be so deep in the closet that I didn’t even know there was a closet?

Despite the school’s history and supposed prestige, it didn’t feel like a warm welcome. From years seven to nine — those key years for a teenager’s psychological development — I felt that we were condescended to by most of the faculty, treated like Matilda-like brats who could step out of line at any moment. It was an original-sin approach to education — we weren’t trusted to simply be ourselves.

The school’s philosophy revolved around itself at all times. The central tenets: academic achievement, sport, and copious extracurricular activities, were all directly informed by their church’s doctrine around masculinity. At our regular school assemblies, we sang hymns and listened to sermons, while our Christian education teachers reinforced that marriage was between a man and a woman, and a godly reward for a man’s piety in life. It was all designed to mould us into respectable young men who would go forth, become high achievers in society, and make the school proud.

On the other hand, private schools like Xavier College and St. Kevin’s have rightfully earned a reputation for larrikinism and locker-room misogyny. There was a certain something in the air at school — the smell of a brash bravado, the kind that’s learned and imitated by kids from largely upper-class backgrounds who’d rarely wanted for anything, rarely been told no. That may sound contrary to the faculty’s strictness, but it was at once encouraged, ignored, repressed, and simply the logical byproduct of their teaching philosophy. When we weren’t being good little boys, we were letting off steam.

We all took part in after-school and weekend sports. If you weren’t all that emotionally invested, it could be fun. But if you were — your extracurricular life slowly turned into a contest to outperform and out-macho the boys from competing schools. Footballers and rowers were looked upon like royalty on campus.

In the cadet corps, an extracurricular activity that was essentially state-sponsored army-propaganda cosplay, I watched as the older boys barked drill-sergeant orders at the younger initiates, yelling in the faces of any whose salutes or marching weren’t perfect. We all despised that part of the ritual… until we moved up a few years, and my classmates became the ones dishing out the verbal abuse.

Would it be fair to call all this toxic masculinity, coming from adolescents who didn’t always know better? I don’t know how deliberate it was. Not everyone perpetuated it, nor could you smell it every minute of every day. But it was only in its absence, after I graduated, that I realised the scent had been there all along — and that the smell of upper-class male entitlement wasn’t normal within society at large.

How much of gender is intrinsic, and how much is taught? For boys and men, masculinity should be inherently healthy — but it can be warped by social norms, ego, emotional immaturity. Nowhere is that more apparent than in the transfeminine experience. If even cisgender boys can struggle within the expectations of the gender binary, it is exponentially worse for us.

On the surface, my high school experience seemed like it was okay at the time. The truth is, my attendance was a slow-burning disaster in the making.

What It Feels Like for a Girl

In my ideal universe, one’s gender identity and physical expression would be a choice. You’d get to pick which puberty you went through or change your mind later on, as easily as you’d select a video game character.

In reality, puberty can be disorienting for anyone — even well-informed cis teenagers in supportive environments. For trans people, puberty can be outright traumatic, compounded by the fact that we often lack the vocabulary to identify what’s really happening to us.

As a child, I remember occasionally being enthralled by fantastical, feminine-coded characters: Sailor Moon, Cardcaptor Sakura, the pink and yellow Power Rangers, and funnily enough, women’s ’80s workout videos. That might not have meant anything by itself, but envy of others’ gender expression can be an early indicator that someone might be transgender.

…my attendance was a slow-burning disaster in the making.

As a teenager, the demands of private school took over not just my adolescent life, but my entire purview. I existed in an environment with no relatable female role models, except the odd teacher with progressive leanings — and zero female peers.

The school’s idea of gender equality was holding annual “Harmony Day” activities with our sister school where we sat in circles, held hands, and talked about the differences between men’s and women’s experiences. It was laughably staged bullshit, and we all knew it. They wanted us to pretend that men were from Mars, and women were from Venus; that we had to hold our school’s hand to cross the vast bridge between us — as if we didn’t already have siblings, as if we couldn’t be trusted to just talk like normal teenagers.

Outside the school walls, the mid-2000s were an especially misogynistic time within Western popular youth culture. The Madonna/whore complex still reigned: celebrities and performers like Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, Janet Jackson, and Lindsay Lohan were treated like walking punchlines, while Pink didn’t want to be like those “stupid girls”. However one expressed their femininity, the world would portray them as one-dimensional.

Representation for young queer people was practically zilch, and “gay” was still a playground insult. Transgender representation in the mainstream was literally not a concept, with one exception: the 2004 dating reality show There’s Something About Miriam. The show took Miriam Rivera, a charismatic Mexican trans woman, showed that she could be desirable to her straight male suitors, and then — once she “revealed” her identity to them — invited the world to ridicule all involved. Of course, it was a huge fucking hit for Channel 10 in Australia.

It was a time when hormone replacement therapy was not common knowledge, nor any of the myriad gradual adjustments that make up a person’s transition process. Instead, we conceptualised it as a “sex change” — as if you walked into surgery and came out with every secondary sex characteristic altered at once. Many still assume that this is the case.

Miriam Rivera was an inadvertent pioneer.

In retrospect, Miriam Rivera was an inadvertent pioneer. She used fame not as a source for validation, but as a tool, the same way we all do in the social media era. More importantly, she was a trans woman who held her head up high, who maintained her dignity despite the barbs and objectification that society threw her way. As I listened to the recent Harsh Reality podcast, which recounted Rivera’s life and influence, I was shocked to realise how much this teenager in a boy costume now related to that real woman behind the lens.

Back then, the internet was my one escape. Through music, video games, film — anything that was emotionally heightened enough to reflect or distract from my inner turmoil — I obsessed over a set of interests outside the mainstream. That sense of curiosity has stayed with me. But it was also a coping mechanism, a substitute for a real, whole inner emotional life.

I have crystal-clear memories of the rest of my teens, but the ones revolving around femininity are murky. My gender dysphoria has always been more mental and social than physical, which has made it less intense, yet harder to identify. I didn’t hate my body, but I didn’t feel in tune with it either – which I thought was a normal teenage experience. I knew that I was exclusively attracted to women, but in a way that I later realised mirrored queer, not straight desire.

I did not know that internally, I desired femininity within myself — and that this was specifically linked to testosterone, the wrong hormone for me, that was shaping my mind and body. When you’re a fish that’s never left water, you don’t know anything else.

Will Boys Be Boys?

I just knew that I could not recognise myself in their schoolboy, larrikin, conservative, Christian version of masculinity. School kept us so busy, little drones moving from class to church to oval to homework, that we had no time for introspection. Day-to-day, it could literally demand more time than a 9-to-5 job, and even more so for the boarders on campus. In my six years there, mental health was not once brought up. You swam, or you sunk.

Nevertheless, by year 12, we’d gained far more agency and respect at school. I got along with most of my cohort, and personally, I was never in the firing line of bullies or overt malevolence. I spent much of my time hiding out in the music program — which had traditionalist leanings but was also well-funded and incredibly generous to its students.

The confluence of wealth, entitlement, conservatism and male bravado adds up to an unhealthy level of privilege. Such an environment can breed “successful” young men, sure. Many of them were perfectly affable people. Some of those went on to study science and medicine. Others would grow up to be the politicans of the world — cocky, entitled pricks in suits.

How much of that larrikinism was authentic, and how much of it was imitated? For every boy who never questioned their upbringing, there was another who had to unlearn it – or shied away from it the whole time.

I knew dozens of sensitive, artsy kids who came from well-off backgrounds, but who knew they wouldn’t grow up to reap the supposed benefits of a $10,000-a-year-plus education. The old-boy privileges that followed graduation – internships, opportunities, nepotism – were for everyone else. They graduated and never looked back.

They understood their own nature better than I did. By the end of year 12, I thought my high school experience was unusual, but mostly good. I thought I was happy to have graduated. It turns out I was happy I’d endured.

At our 10-year reunion, everyone brought their shiniest suits. I put on my game face, thinking I could present as some kind of masculine success story. Many of the high-achiever types reminisced about the good old days; the best times of their lives, when they felt like part of a community with a purpose, free from the rat-race of adulthood, wives, kids of their own.

Instead, I had a blast reconnecting with the now-out queer boys, who’d all attended our school formal with girls – and now admitted to knowing that they were gay all along. We laughed and commiserated about how inconceivable it would’ve been to be out at school, and how much more open our culture had become. I felt a kinship, but I wasn’t quite one of them.

The Mirror’s Truth

I spent my twenties moving in the opposite direction, immersed in the arts. I was engaged in feminist, queer, and even trans issues — but I never knew how exactly I fit into those communities and discourses.

As life under COVID grew more isolating, as birthdays came and went, I started to realise that something was wrong — and it wasn’t my circumstances. I was used to solitude, but all of this made me feel like a shell of a human.

Without the social contexts that reinforce how others see us, and with nothing but time, I isolated those feelings to their source. Unconsciously, I didn’t feel like a man. Subconsciously, I shied away from many traditionally masculine-coded behaviours, while looking up to countless women as role models — trans and cis. Consciously, I needed to prove it to myself — to make all of those strands connect.

And once I did, when I truly looked in the mirror and the scales fell from my eyes, I was left only with myself. Not how I thought I saw myself, nor what the world had told me I was since birth — a vaguely straight cis man with a lot of inexplicable feelings… but a queer, sapphic transgender woman. I realigned my gender identity and my sexuality overnight — and my broader life story began to fall into place.

The path forward would be difficult, but it was clear — and the same thing had happened to countless questioning trans folks during COVID. But as I started to question the specifics of my past, combing my memories for signs that I’d ignored or suppressed — it was as if the ground fell out from under me.

When I think about my high school days, there were moments of happiness. There were moments that were bad, in obvious ways. But what I carry with me, that people who’ve never been closeted will never know, is an entire set of memories that I thought were normal at the time — that have forever been called into question.

How many genuine moments did I ever have at school? What was I really feeling, deep down, at the time?

How many genuine moments did I ever have at school? What was I really feeling, deep down, at the time? We all write our own versions of our life stories, but was I ever the protagonist of my adolescence? Who even was I?

In order to endure high school, I had to mask an innate femininity that I was never given room to explore. I had to “man up”, to pretend to draw from a well of masculine strength that was really feminine all along. Like realising your internal organs have been twisted into a knot, that’s more painful than any single memory.

I’ll never have every answer I seek; I can’t turn back time, or wish that I was born a cis girl. All I can do is have compassion for my younger self and her survival instincts, suffocating in a fog she didn’t even know was there.

All of the above is a testament to how difficult it can be for a trans person to come out to themselves. You have to use the knowledge and environment available to you now, to unlearn all of society’s messaging around gender norms since you were born.

No One Is an Island

I’m hopeful that the religious discrimination bill will be too controversial to be brought up again in Parliament. But with or without legal protections, I have little faith that private, religious, and single-sex schools — institutions that are so inherently conservative — will ever truly be able to cater to the needs of trans kids.

I do think, though, that if I’d been taught with a truly open mind when I was perceived to be a boy, my path would have been easier.

No part of my life has been untouched. But it has gotten better. In the present, I feel a lightness that I hadn’t remembered since I was twelve years old. Living as a trans woman, even one who’s not fully out, is infinitely more intuitive than presenting as male ever was.

If gender dysphoria was my burden, transitioning is liberation. For me, being transgender isn’t some restrictive label; it’s a lens through which I view myself and the world. I have an incredibly unique set of life experiences, and I consider that a blessing. It makes me who I am.

Kristen S. Hé is an artist and award-winning journalist. She tweets at @kristenisshe.

This piece was originally published anonymously in February 2022.