What do transgender people have in common with each other? Often, the answer is, not all that much.
On Thursday, two days before PrideFest weekend, “St. Louis on the Air” listeners heard from two local transgender men who have very different stories to tell. The term “transgender man” refers to someone who was labeled female at birth but identifies as male.
“ALIVE” magazine founder Kelly Hamilton and then-high-schooler William Copeland were each featured in the St. Louis Beacon’s “Beyond the Gender Box” series in February 2013.
At that time, Copeland was 17, just starting to think about college. The Ladue junior wondered whether the acceptance he’d known since elementary school would be there for him on campus — but he didn’t know which one yet.
It turned out to be Tulane University. This past May, Copeland finished his freshman year. Now 19, he explained how he started over in New Orleans, telling just a chosen few that he’s transgender.
“It was the first time I was able to just have a clean slate and be Will,” Copeland said.
Copeland’s story: ‘God made me wrong’
The handful of college friends Copeland shared his story with have all been supportive. That’s just one of the ways in which he feels lucky: “As lucky as someone can be who’s in this situation,” he said.
His good fortune began early, when he was born into an accepting family. At only two-and-a-half and growing up as a girl named Grace, he told his dad during a diaper change, “God made me wrong. I was supposed to be a boy.”
Copeland never wavered from his belief. “By the time I was 5 or 6, I looked like a boy. I had worn my parents down enough they let me cut my hair short and wear my brothers’ hand-me-downs,” he said.
Kids were confused, but ultimately accepting. By the time he entered middle school, his parents had talked with the administration about his using a separate changing area before and after gym class. When he was 13, the family made a big decision: to let him take hormone blockers to prevent female puberty.
“My entire childhood, that was my biggest fear. Being able to avoid that was huge to me,” Copeland said.
Taking medical steroids a year later helped him go through male puberty. In high school, he started testosterone.
“But I didn’t actually change my name, socially, until the very end of senior year,” Copeland said. “I, for whatever reason, thought I could just be sneaky about it and maybe people wouldn’t realize and think I was a guy named Grace or something — which definitely wasn’t the case.”
Copeland said it would have been valuable to know someone older who had transitioned. He would like to help younger people. Still, he doesn’t want to be open, at least on campus, about being transgender.
“So that’s something I struggle with,” Copeland said.
Hamilton’s journey: ‘I wouldn’t want it any other way’
The internet brought a wealth of information about being transgender into the Copeland home. But Hamilton's childhood took place before the World Wide Web was a click away.
“When I realized my story was a trans story, I knew that a lot of that was that I came up in what I call a ‘pre-Ellen-DeGeneres world,’ like there were no gay characters on television,” Hamilton, 37, said.
Growing up in Texas, Hamilton remembers trying on his brother’s underwear and telling his sister he wanted to be a boy. But he’d never heard the word “transgender” and thought he was just a tomboy. And later, a lesbian.
After many years as an LGBT activist, Hamilton came to understand he identified with the “T.” One of the tricky parts was that he was in a brand-new relationship, although the two had been friends for five or six years.
“Her response had been, ‘It doesn’t change anything for me.’ And I was like, ‘No, seriously, do you know what’s going to happen? I’m going to have a beard,’” he remembered.
Five years later, the two are still together. Hamilton kept his gender-neutral first name.
It’s a little more complicated for Hamilton’s family, all of whom live in Texas. They've been accepting but they're not in his daily life. Four or so years after his transition began, his mother is just beginning to use male pronouns.
“I lived as a female for 32 years. I’m her baby. That’s a big challenge for her,” Hamilton said.
Unlike Copeland, who wishes he’d lived life as a boy from day one, Hamilton doesn’t feel he was born in the wrong body.
“I just feel like this is part of my journey. I get to have lived both [as a man and a woman],” Hamilton said. “Looking back, I wouldn’t want it any other way, because I had an amazing first 30 years of my life.”
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