Walking into the library, no one gave us a second look. Jas wore yoga pants, a weave and hot pink acrylic nails. Her car was stuffed to the brim with "Hello Kitty" products. Mascara and fake eyelashes circled her eyes. All this might seem unremarkable regarding most teenage girls, but Jas is not an ordinary girl.
Standing 6 feet tall and developing breasts at 18, Jas was born as Joe — a boy, but she considers herself female.
"Transsexual, in my definition, means that you've had an operation," she said, noting that sex is defined by anatomy, as opposed to gender, which transcends the physical body and ties to a person's broader sense of individual identity.
"I haven't had any surgeries at all; I've only done hormone replacement therapy, so I'm transgender."
Jas came to this conclusion during her freshman year of high school, after years of questioning her gender identity. In seventh grade, she thought she was gay. In eighth grade she thought bisexual. Watching a transgender video blog during her freshman year brought clarity.
"I talked to my counselor about it," Jas said. "I'm like, 'I've been watching a lot of these transgender vlogs, and they're really cool.' And she was like, 'Well, why do you think that?' And I was like, 'I don't know, they're really inspirational.'"
Jas then began to identify as transgender.
When she told her family, her mother was not surprised. In fact, her mother said she always knew her daughter, born her son, was different.
"I always suspected from the time she was very young; when she was 3 years old, she begged for a pink Barbie house," said Jas' mother in a recent interview. "She wanted to wear girl's clothes. She wanted to wear makeup. She told me she was a girl, and she wanted me to call her by a girl's name. I always wondered whether she was one of those people that was trapped in the wrong body."
One's true self
Living as a trans woman in Indiana is not easy, Jas said.
"When coming to the realization that I was trans — even though it's a beautiful thing and it's so great to be yourself — it was really hard," Jas said. "I didn't feel comfortable and I've never felt comfortable, but I never knew why. In the beginning, I felt everyone would judge me, even when my friends and family were completely there for me."
Her mother was the sole parent during Jas' adolescence. Her father was absent for most of her life. Jas' mother remarried and had a son when Jas was in grade school. Both her stepfather and brother are very accepting of her. Jas does not know if her biological father knows that she is transgender.
Eventually, she said she became more comfortable with her gender identity with the help of new clothes, the right weave, and a better understanding of how to be a woman. Last September, she started hormone replacement therapy, which is developing her breasts.
Though not without challenges, she said her journey has been easier than many other men and women in her situation. At LGBT youth group events, Jas has met transgender and transsexual people who have been disowned and bullied.
"This sounds really bad, but I often just forget about it a lot," she said. "I've never had my family judge me. I've never been put out on the street. I've never lost friends over it. And I know there are tons of trans people who have. So I kind of take [support] for granted a lot."
"She really doesn't understand prejudice," her mother said. "I think she can be naive because she's always had support."
Confident in her ability to protect herself, Jas laughed at the idea of someone trying to hurt her.
"I think if I was this little tiny thing, then maybe," she said. "Maybe someone might try to rape me. But I can take care of myself. I'm not afraid someone else is going to hurt me. If it's a gun, maybe I'll get shot, maybe I'll die. But I'll still be that bitch that'll be like, 'You ain't even holding the gun right.' Things don't scare me. I don't think of consequences, ever."
Hate crimes against people based on their sexual orientation are tracked by the FBI. Of the 12 instances of these type of crimes reported in Indiana in 2010, seven came from Indy. [See related story.]
At least one of Indy's attacks involved a transgender person. In December 2010, Adrian "Angel" Johnson was shot multiple times after an intruder kicked down her chain-locked door.
Hate crimes like Johnson's reminds Jas' mother what could happen to her daughter if she does not protect herself.
"There are people out there that are cruel and evil," she said. "This isn't something that anyone would want for themselves or their child. I worry if she's ever going to be happy. I worry about her finding a partner and finding love. It's incredibly hard, but that's what love is, allowing people to be what they are."
One's own worst enemy
"I was a wild child," Jas said, speaking of her earlier years in high school, "and I still am. I would skip school, not show up, get in trouble a lot with teachers. I had a lot of issues."
Issues such as drinking, smoking and fighting — Jas has had the police called on her because of violence.
"I've gotten into fistfights before," she said. "I have the worst temper in the world. When someone acts like an asshole to me, I have to act like a bigger asshole back. I love confrontation."
She knew she had to stop her behavior to improve her grades, but felt overwhelmed and depressed. Over time Jas felt her life improve.
"It was really hard because I really didn't understand the whole thing," she said. "I was so confused and not comfortable with myself.
"I take it one day at a time, every day. Eventually I realized smoking and drinking all my problems away wasn't helping me whatsoever because I would go out and get hammered on a Tuesday night and be way too hungover to go to school."
In response to a question about self-destructive behavior, Jas replied, "I know that it is. I do go see a counselor, and I do go to classes, but it's hard because I see myself as I love to fight."
Engaging in fights with disapproving people did not hurt her the most, though.
"I was the one who was worst to myself," Jas said, "rather than friends, family or strangers."[See related story of a psychotherapist's view of transgender youth support issues.]
Surprisingly, Jas encountered few problems when she went to her high school in Fishers. She said people more often showed interest in her transformation, asking how she has breasts or why she wears female clothing.
Only one issue presented a particular challenge.
"Fishers has specifically told me I am not able to use the women's restroom," she said.
Jas said her teacher discussed it with the school's administration, and they told her she could not use the women's facility because it is considered to be a form of sexual harassment. But if she were to use the men's bathroom, it would be provocation.
A Fishers High School administrator who asked not to be named denied knowing a transgender person attended the school, but said given the unique situation, "It's all about community norms, what would shock the conscience. For our school, a mini skirt up above the thigh is going to be more shocking to us than other communities around the country. So if [Jas] walks into the girls' bathroom, it is going to shock the community. I think it would cause some concern for a lot of females in that bathroom."
Unisex and one-seat restrooms are becoming more popular in public places and colleges to accommodate people in the trans community. A smartphone app, TranSquat, lists gender-neutral bathrooms for users looking to avoid the issue.
Fishers High School has a strong committee on bullying and holds several anti-bully campaigns each year to educate people against discrimination.
"We're always trying to teach that tolerance and respect of others, no matter what religious background, whatever you look like, whatever your personal sexuality or gender choice," said the school administrator. "We're always trying to teach acceptance."
Acceptance is easier said than printed, I came to find out, when I pitched the idea of profiling Jas in a campus publication. Immediately, the newsroom was abuzz with arguments. How would we go about this? What would the administrators do? How would our audience react?
"While I think that the story could have been well-written and an interesting piece to write, it would also end up having consequences," said Jordyn Didier, editor-in-chief of Fishers High School's newsmagazine N the Red Tiger Topics.
Didier became editor-in-chief after two years as a staffer. The decision on whether to write about Jas was a difficult one, she said. While some staff members deeply opposed it and others thought the story had great potential, Didier said she had to pull the story.
"We have to consider who is going to see the paper and what could come out of it," Didier said. "While the student may have been fine with being interviewed and having their story told, bullying became an issue for us. We are students in high school and the simple fact is that some people are immature or don't believe that being a transgender is OK. We didn't want to be the reason that bullying started or got worse in anyway."
Didier added, "I also considered what parents' views could be. There are many parents who would call into the school to address how they don't think that it would be an appropriate story to be in the school paper. These complications would have been a large risk if we pushed forward with the story and it's a big part of why I decided not to put it into the story."
If the risky nature of the story had not been present, Didier said, she would have pursued it. But she does not regret her decision, maintaining that the consequences are still there.
Jas attended public high school for only part of the day; the balance she spent at J. Everett Light Career Center. Though she wanted to drop out of school, she was compelled, for financial reasons, to continue attending because Fishers High School paid her tuition at the career center. Jas eventually dropped out of high school three days before the end of the school year. She is enrolled at cosmetology school and has received a GED.
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