From Girl to Boy
Two and a half years ago, Tye's therapist delivered a shocking explanation for the confusion that had plagued the family for years. Tye, said the therapist, was transgendered: a boy trapped in a girl's body. "It was like a punch in the stomach," says Rory, 51, devastated. "You don't want to hear it, but it sounds real." Yet there was one person in the room who wasn't surprised. "I was never a girl," says Tye.
Tye quickly made the diagnosis as permanent as she could. She announced that she wanted her sex designation changed at school and that, among her peers, she wanted to be treated like a boy. So two years ago, in front of the student body at Cedarbrook Middle School in Wyncote, Penn., and with a box of tissues in reach, Tye nervously announced, "I'm still Tye; I'm just in a different spot now. I'm a guy." The school district reclassified him as male, excused him from gym class and allowed him to use the nurse's restroom. Tye was officially a he.
At the moment, Tye has no plans for so-called sex reassignment surgery—"I already feel like a man, so therefore I am a man," he says—but that option is popular among transgenders. While nobody can say with certainty how large that population is, experts agree that gender issues are surfacing today at remarkably young ages. There is a 5-year-old boy in Florida now attending school as a girl, and a 9-year-old girl in Colorado living life as a boy. "Children feel it at a very early age," says Caitlin Ryan, head of the Family Acceptance Project in San Francisco. "It's much more obvious in boys—the boy who wants to take his Barbie dolls to a birthday party." Ryan says the Internet and the gay rights movement have emboldened more to make the transition, but transgendered teens, especially boys, face a hard road. "We can tolerate tomboy behavior in girls, but the opposite in boys gets labeled a sissy," Ryan says.
Sitting with a group of friends at a local ice-cream shop, Tye, with his baggy shorts and baseball cap, looks like a regular teenage boy. By many measures, he is typical. He's had a few awkward romances with girls since coming out, he blogs, he loves rap music and basketball and has black-and-white magazine photos of Angelina Jolie decorating his bedroom wall. ("She's my love," he says.) But even as a small child, Tye—whom Matt, a family doctor, and Rory, a therapist, adopted as an infant—was different from his sister Shane, 15. He was paranoid and uncomfortable in large crowds and had an explosive temper. "We went from four tantrums a day as a preschooler to throwing and breaking things," Rory says. Tye started therapy when he was 8, and his parents enrolled him in an expensive all-girls school, hoping it would provide him with a variety of female role models.
Tye was happy there, but in third grade, after the family moved him and his sister to a public school, things went downhill. The kids there called him a 'he-she' and ugly, and Shane had to intervene so Tye could use the girls' bathroom. "Shane came along and said, 'No, she really is my sister. She really is a girl,'" recalls Matt. Boys threatened Tye on the school bus in sixth grade. "They thought Tye was a sissy boy. Then they found out she was a girl and said, 'Oh, we don't hit girls.'" The constant teasing made Tye more withdrawn. He was diagnosed with a learning disability, obsessive-compulsive disorder and bipolar disorder. His emotional outbursts worsened too—to the point where his parents considered sending him to an academic boot camp.
Then, at 13, Tye began menstruating. For a few months, he grew out his hair, wore girl's clothes and even had a long-distance boyfriend. But on a visit, the boy wanted to make out. "I was like, Ugh!" Tye says. "I backed out and said, 'I can't do this.' In my mind I knew it wasn't right." For months afterward, Tye retreated into his room, where, in an online chat room, he pretended to be a man. "It was scary," Matt says. "Out of that, [his] therapist said, 'Your child is transgendered.'"
He and Rory were stunned and upset when Tye asked to switch genders. But after learning more about gender identity, they supported him, and soon after, Rory took Tye to a transgender conference in Philadelphia. The gathering seemed to confuse Tye further. "I realized that people were living and doing this and maybe I could be like them," he says. But in the next breath, he adds, "I didn't want to associate with those people." Ever since he re-declared his gender, however, everyone who knows him agrees: His emotional problems have diminished, and his learning disability is less severe. Schoolmates reacted to his announcement with support and general indifference. Some called him a hero, "but it just sort of died away after the first week," he says.
Still, his life appears to be full of confusion—something his therapist says is typical for the age. Tye fantasizes about having male friends but doesn't like guys and would rather go shopping with his girl friends. Most shocking, Tye says he "hates" his father, partially because Matt has a male body, but also because Matt, in his son's eyes, isn't manly. "He takes bike rides and works in the garden," Tye says. "We should go have a beer and check out the chicks." The words obviously sting his dad. "Tye has this stereotype," Matt begins before the words trail away. Tye's therapist Carol Cobb-Nettleton, who diagnosed his condition, says his continued dislike of men might indicate that he's not really transgendered after all. A diagnosis at Tye's age can change, she says. "Much of junior high is about trying on roles," she says. In fact, she adds, young transgenders sometimes "are really gay, but they are fearful about it." Ultimately, it is Tye himself who will be responsible for resolving the question of his sexuality. "I've learned to separate myself from the outcome," says Rory. "I've learned it is not my job to make Tye have a happy life. He is who he is."
In the meantime, Tye insists that he's committed to his new life. Although he sees no need for genital surgery, he is considering hormone therapy when he turns 18. His parents reluctantly agreed to let him get a mastectomy next year but hope he will change his mind. "I go to bed every night and pray, 'Just let him be gay,'" says Rory. "I know he is seeing the world through immature eyes." She rationalizes that the surgery is little different than fixing a child's protruding ears—and it can be reversed with breast implants. Matt worries about the balancing act between supporting Tye and exerting some parental control. "I don't want to buy into a mistake," he says. Waiting a year is key, says Cobb-Nettleton. "We'll see how Tye's doing a year from now," she says. "If, a month before it's scheduled, he chooses to do it later, that's fine."
For now, Tye wears two T-shirts and a sports bra even in sweltering weather to flatten his breasts and is self-conscious about what he calls his "womanly legs." He expects, in time, to be fully integrated into the male world. "I want to get married to a woman and have guy friends and after work go out for a beer," he says. "I'm working toward that. I'm not there yet."