There are plenty of smart, happy 10-year-olds in St. Louis. But there’s only one Mazy Gilleylen.
Mazy loves typical kid stuff, like singing, drawing and taking care of her pets. But she was living with a secret, and that meant life wasn't always this good. Telling the truth — with her family’s support — made things better, and made her a film star.
Mazy's secret? “I’m a transgender girl.”
When dress-up is real life
In their Overland home, Mazy and her mother Amber Gilleylen sat down and snuggled on a comfy brown couch, the computer turned on and ready for the day’s home-schooling routine. They began with a lesson on 3-D shapes.
Mazy nailed the first answer — prism.
But, Amber Gilleylen said, figuring out the shape of Mazy’s life has been harder than any math problem. It was a puzzle that started when Mazy was about 4.
“I would see her doing little things like tightening her shirt around her waist and calling it a dress and saying 'Mommy I’m wearing a dress just like you,' or wearing my high heels around the house,” Gilleylen said.
Lots of kids dabble in dress-up, even boys, which is how Mazy appeared at birth and was being raised. But for Mazy, it was real.
“I always had to say, ‘I’m a girl I’m a girl, I’m a girl' — like a thousand times,” she said.
Mazy felt she couldn’t tell anyone at school about her dozens of dolls, including a rotating cast of Barbies, with their assorted clothes, cars and a multi-story house. She didn’t dare mention her female superhero costumes.
Once a happy kid, Mazy started coming home in tears every day. She began expressing suicidal thoughts, saying things like, "I want to die and go to heaven where I can be a real girl."
Those statements, Mazy's general depression and her insistence about being a girl led Gilleylen on a research mission. She went online, talked to experts and kept hearing the word “transgender.” Then she learned that 50 percent of transgender youth attempt suicide by age 20.
“I decided right then and there, as long as I’m taking a breath, my child will not live like that,” Gilleylen said. She embraced Mazy's new name and identity, and began using female pronouns. It wasn't as easy for Mazy's father.
“There was one tough period where divorce was mentioned,” Amber Gilleylen said.
Mazy’s dad, and eventually most other family members, came around. Mazy’s cheerful personality began to return. Still, kids at school teased and bullied her, so her parents moved her to a new school where no one but the teachers knew her history. But that was also stressful.
“I tried to keep it a secret so nobody could see or figure out,” Mazy said.
She began to withdraw again, and her grades fell. That’s when her mom began teaching her at home, a place where Mazy feels protected.
“It is a safe place,” she said. “There’s no bullying, and I can be focused on learning.”
No more secrets
Now Mazy’s comfortable telling her secret to the whole world. She and her mom are featured in a short film that’s part of this week’s QFest of LGBT films at the Hi-Pointe Theatre. Amber Gilleylen is determined to tell their story in every way possible.
“We are going to try our best to help other families and let them know, ‘You’re not alone,’” she said.
But even with her life an open book, Mazy’s still affected by a childhood that’s swung from being taunted for who she is to hiding who she is. Just last week, she had a dream about being naked at school.
“I opened the door and people laughed at me [and said] ‘she’s really a boy, she has boy parts,’ and then I had to walk all the way home, naked,” Mazy said.
Amber is concerned that humiliation — and worse — may await her daughter as she gets older.
It's not an unfounded fear, said St. Louis therapist Lee Borrine, who has counseled transgender clients for 25 years. He referred to an often-quoted 2011 study called “Injustice at Every Turn" that found the transgender population is at higher risk of poverty, homelessness and violence.
The prospects for Mazy as she becomes a transgender woman of color, are even more startling.
“Not only is she female and biracial but transgender and there’s way higher incidences of violence, physical harassment and abuse,” Borrine said.
Supportive families like Mazy's give transgender individuals the best chance at a successful life, Borrine said. But that means more than just calling a child by a new name.
Support means the whole family has to transition, Amber Gilleylen said. And it can be hard to let go of things like a child's birth name.
"When we first transitioned, I struggled. I sort of mourned the loss of my child,” she said. “Now, the name she has fits perfectly. She’s my little Mazy star.”
Watch the short film by Yuting Jiang on Mazy's life.
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