Growing up trans: WNC transgender teens speak
ASHEVILLE, N.C. -- Seventeen-year-old Rori Philbrick, 16-year-old Jackson Emick, and 17-year-old Eli Tyler are sharing their stories of being transgender teens in Western North Carolina.
"I didn't really come out until earlier this year," Rori said.
"I was about three or four when I started to feel I was different," Jackson said.
"Coming out was hard. And it's still hard," Tyler said.
All three were, they said, assigned female gender at birth. All three are now transgender boys.
The first time he cut his hair short, said Rori, he was in the eighth grade. "And some random kids said, 'Oh, you look like a boy.' I suddenly felt really happy."
Rori shared a photo of himself when he was 13 years old, and had long hair. It was from before he began his transition to becoming a transgender boy.
He said he felt confused, and never felt right in a female body. Even then, his choice was non-gender attire.
At age 17, Rori is certain of his decision, and is now advocating for trans teens.
Eli Tyler is a junior at East Henderson High school.
"It's very conservative," Eli said. "The atmosphere at school is not welcoming to me, and a lot of my friends could say the same." But Eli has persevered, transitioning to becoming a boy.
The teens credit Asheville LGBTQ group Youth Outright WNC, for friendship, support and a community.
"I'm happiest when I'm here, the most accepted," Rori said.
Sixteen-year-old Jackson has been a member of Youth Outright the longest, at four years.
During middle school at AC Reynolds, Jackson said he wasn't accepted. He said he felt he identified more with being a boy than a girl.
But at the time, Jackson's mother suggested he wait until he was older to transition to becoming a boy.
"I felt more connected to my father than my mother," Jackson said.
With his mom's support, Jack came out at school and to family this year.
"My experience is very rare, that my mother accepted me so quickly, in a matter of just a few months," Jackson said.
All three teens said they struggled through puberty, and all are considering taking testosterone.
"We are in search for a gender therapist right now," Jackson said. "Just to have a talk and see if this is the right path I want to take."
One resource is the the Western North Carolina Community Health Center in Asheville.
Nurse practitioner Megan Caine counsels teens, starting at age 16, about testosterone shots and gels.
"There are potential risks involved," Caine said. "And the things we talk about with them are fertility. So if someone starts using testosterone to masculinize, it's not clear what the long-term effects that has on fertility."
Caine also counsels on risks and benefits transitioning to a body transgender teens feel is more authentic to who they are are inside.
Youth Outright is where Rori, Eli and Jackson have found a second family. They support each other if they face rejection at school or at home.
"If they don't have support in those places, then having this can save a life," Laurie Pitts, a volunteer and one of the counselors involved in the group, said. "Having friends makes a huge difference."
Parents, the teens said, can be the toughest ones to tell. But Jackson had this advice for any parent with a teen struggling with gender identity.
"No matter how your teen identifies, it might not be a phase, and you should respect that," Jackson said. "They came to you and told you, and so you should trust them with the journey."