Google “transgender teenager” and you’ll come up with dire statistics and horror stories of teens being harassed, homeless, even killed. Kids who are transgender, who live and identify as a different gender than their birth sex, can face extraordinary problems on top of ordinary teen drama.
So Isaac Gomez comes as a surprise. Gomez, a junior at High Tech High International who first came out as transgender in middle school, may be the most happy, well-adjusted teenager I’ve ever met.
School is a welcoming place where nobody blinks about him using the boys’ bathroom. His family is firmly behind him. And he is confident enough to stand up in front of hundreds of people and talk about being transgender, as he did earlier this month at a school board meeting to back new San Diego Unified rules against bullying. The policy bars harassment of students and school employees and pledges to create a training program for employees that includes sexual orientation, gender identity and how to intervene in bullying.
Gomez is the youngest of three children. His mother Monica Nuñez says it was no surprise when he came out, telling her he was transgender in middle school. Even as a 3-year-old, he didn’t want to wear dresses. He always played with boys and insisted on having his hair short.
Coming out was not so much about changing, Gomez said, as getting everyone else to recognize him as he had always been. He began to be called Isaac, “he” and “him.” After he came out, his family searched for a psychologist who was willing to diagnose him so young, allowing him to start taking hormones and undergo surgery.
I joined Gomez and his mother to talk about what his life has been like as a transgender teen, and how it could get better for other teens who haven’t been as lucky to escape the horror stories as he has been.
What was it like coming out in middle school?
It was great. My principal completely supported me. My friends just asked things like, “Why did you pick that name?”
So many transgender people come out much later in life than you did. How do you think coming out as young as you did made your experience different?
What I first think of is how I got my mastectomy when I just turned 14 years old. I think it was so great to get it at that age. I was just going to go into high school and I started completely new.
It’s not like I completely changed from being a girl to being a guy. I’ve always been a guy. And I’ve always been seen as a guy. People would mistake me. But eighth grade was such a good transition time. I was confident. I completely flourished. I became a new person.
Everyone is changing at that time. Do you think that made it easier?
Definitely. I’m transgender, but I’m so much more comfortable with my body than I think a lot of people are going through high school.
What are the biggest misconceptions you run into?
A couple weeks ago I hung out with my best friend since kindergarten and she said, “So the other day I watched a documentary about transgenders and I didn’t know that it was completely different from being gay.” (As the TransYouth Family Allies website explains: “Gender identity is who you are not who you like.”) Because we never really talked about it. I’ve always been like this. So she never asked me questions.
Do you ever wonder about what it would be like if you didn’t live in this time or in this place?
The one that I have thought about — what if I didn’t have the family that I have? I’d probably be out on the streets. There’s no way I’d be able to get my medications or a mastectomy — never. It’d be things that keep dragging me down and make me feel less comfortable with myself.
What could schools do to help students who are transgender?
Making the kids know that it’s a safe environment. An easy way to do that is stickers, the equality sticker or the triangle sticker. For a kid who is feeling a little insecure, they can just see that and know that there’s someone there that’s going to accept them.
In the longer term, training for teachers and students. The anti-bullying policy is going to support the teachers that are already fighting bullying. And for other teachers, it’s going to make sure they do that.
Did you ever experience any bullying yourself?
Once this kid was making fun of me — he didn’t even know I was transgender — but it was before my mastectomy and he was saying that I had man boobs. I guess he just thought I was chubby. My mom told me to tell the teacher. I didn’t want to.
So I warned the kid who did it, “If you don’t stop I’m going to tell the teacher.” But I think the real reason, my mom, behind my back …
Monica Nuñez: I went to the principal. I did it because I saw either he will get used to the bullying, and I didn’t want that, or he will get mad and fight or say something.
How do you think having all these experiences has shaped you as a person?
I don’t know how to explain it. But what me and my mom say is, I’m not Isaac the transgender guy, you know? I’m Isaac who happens to be Mexican who happens to be transgender who happens to be all these things. All of those things make up who I am.
A lot of times people ask us to talk about what it is to be a Latin LGBT. And me and my mom think, it’s the same thing. We don’t think of ourselves as LGBT activists. We’re human rights activists.
Talking to the school board about something so personal is not something a lot of teenagers would want to do. Is that confidence something you’ve always had?
That’s not something I’ve always had. It’s easier to have confidence when you have people supporting you, like my family.
Part of it is your perception of things. We never saw this as something that’s bad. We saw it as a blessing. Because it’s made us stronger and it’s made us change our perception, not just of people in the LGBT community, but accepting all people.
You mentioned earlier that you’ve been an activist. Tell me a little bit about your activism.
At first I didn’t want to get into it. I didn’t want anyone to know that I was transgender. I would just be kind of normal. But my mom was getting involved and she wouldn’t stop. I asked her not to. But she wouldn’t stop. And I understand that now.
Then I really thought that I could make a difference. Because I was thinking about all the stories that I hear from other people, all those horror stories. And I was like, why wasn’t it like that for me? Why was it so easy? That’s why I wanted to do my activism — to make it better for everyone else.
I started getting contacted a lot from PFLAG (Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) and going to panels. At San Diego State I went to a class, what was it, a sexuality class? That was the funnest thing I’ve done in activism. Just going and being in a room of twenty-something-year-olds. And they ask the funniest questions!
Monica Nuñez: And they asked if you are smarter now that you are a boy.
Yeah, it was ‘Do you feel you’re smarter now that you’re a boy?’
Wait, wait, was it a boy or a girl who asked this question?
Monica Nuñez: It was a boy. Of course. That was the dumbest question that you have received.
If there was one thing you could make sure that people knew about being transgender, what would it be?
That we’re not as dramatic as it sounds. That’s what I thought at first. That it was this big dramatic kind of drag-show-thing. And it’s just normal people that don’t belong in that body.