Jamie Bennett, 21
“She just can’t wear those trousers, she really can’t. Girls have to wear navy blue. Only boys can wear black.”
As soon as the headteacher at my new school said these words to my mum when I was 13, my chest felt heavy, like someone had dropped a lead weight down my throat and it was now pushing itself through my ribs. Basically, my heart was breaking.
The black trousers were nothing special – just the standard ones my mum got me from the supermarket. It wasn’t the navy trousers that bothered me. What really hurt was hearing myself referred to as “she".
Just to be clear, I am a boy. Well, a 21-year-old man now and I’ve always known that I was a boy. But I was AFAB – “assigned female at birth” – and as a child, the outside world saw me as a girl, even though I tried to make myself look as ‘male’ as possible. For a long time, most people just couldn’t see me for who I really was – and it was a really lonely feeling.
I grew up in Whitefield, Greater Manchester, with my mum and stepdad. Back then, my parents tried to give me one of my sister’s old Barbie dolls but it held my interest for less than a day. I preferred to play football, or mess around on a guitar or with a drum kit. As I got older, I had really short hair, liked wearing boys’ clothes and always hung out with ‘the lads’ in my street.
I didn’t have one ‘coming out’ – I came out to my mum a decade before coming out to my friends and started transitioning. That first time, I didn’t quite know how to describe what I was feeling. I was seven years old when I first told my mum that I “felt different” and that I didn’t think I was supposed to be a girl. The words were a bit muddled but I just knew something felt off.
She told me it was just a phase, that I’d grow out of these feelings as I got older and that things would eventually make a bit more sense. To be honest, I can see where she was coming from. I was really young and this was the first time I’d ever said anything like this. Simply liking boys’ things wasn’t really what made me a boy, though.
A year later I brought it up with my mum again. I told her I still didn’t feel right and that I knew I was supposed to be a boy. Even though I was only eight, it was clear to her this time around that it wasn’t a phase: I was trans.
“OK then,” I remember her saying to me. “Let’s try and do something about it.”
She took me to the GP so we could talk through what we could do, and how it would all work. The doctor told us I wouldn’t be able to medically transition, with hormone treatments and possibly surgery, until I turned 18. So I had another decade to go.
My primary school was really understanding and the staff didn’t make me feel uncomfortable. But things were a bit different when I went to secondary school.
The row over the trousers happened just after I joined, so things got off to a bad start. It seemed like a huge fuss for them to make over something as trivial as what they thought boys and girls were supposed to wear. For me, my identity was being called into question and even denied.
I eventually gave in and wore the navy trousers but the message seemed loud and clear: coming out at this school would be much harder than I’d anticipated and I didn’t feel comfortable doing it. Still, I couldn’t pretend to be someone I wasn’t and that’s why, aged 14, I started chest binding.
This is where you use a binder – which is kind of like a super-tight sports bra – to flatten your chest and hide your breasts. There are proper, safe, purpose-made binders out there but at the time I had no idea they existed. I just knew that I’d gone through puberty and had grown these breasts which felt alien on my body, and I wanted to do anything I could to hide them. I got some non-sticky bandages from the pharmacy and wrapped them tightly around my chest, fixing them in place using the grips that come in the package.
The problem with this DIY version was that I did it so tightly and so often, that I hardly gave myself enough time to breathe. It’s had a lasting effect, too. I’m 21 now but my lower two ribs are still really sensitive – and if I’m not careful, I can pull the muscle in my chest really easily. My GP says this is because of how much - and how tightly - I was binding when I was younger. But how was I supposed to know? I didn’t have any older trans people in my life to tell me I was overdoing it.
I changed schools when I was about 15 but I still didn’t publicly come out. I continued in this dual existence, where my heart sank whenever someone called me “she” and my face lit up whenever someone assumed I was a boy. These weren’t calm years. I was full of frustration and sadness, like the real, male me was trapped inside an alien body, screaming at me to let him out.
Depression is rife among trans teens and adults, with a recent US study finding that young trans males – like myself – are significantly more likely to attempt suicide. Another study, this one based in the UK, found more than 34% of trans adults had attempted suicide at least once and almost 14% of trans adults had attempted suicide more than twice. And further research, in Australia, found 79% of the trans youths they spoke to had self-harmed and up to 48% had attempted suicide.
I was fortunate my mental health wasn’t as badly affected as others in a similar situation to mine. I didn’t self-harm or try to take my own life but my frustration came out through violent anger. I never attacked other people but I would be filled with this blind rage which made me feel like punching things and screaming at nothing – and no one in particular.
My mum bought me a small electric drum kit, which turned out to be one of the best presents I’ve ever received because I used it to channel my frustration into something creative, rhythmic and soothing. Drumming offered me a brief escape from everything.
There were a few times I considered coming out publicly but whenever I did, something happened that would me hold back again. For example, one time I finally confided in a teacher I trusted to see if the school could offer any support but they didn’t seem to understand. They invited a mentor to come and speak to me – but instead of getting that I was trans, they kept speaking to me as though I were gay, even though I repeatedly said I wasn’t. In the end, the mentor gave me a sticker which was supposed to make me feel empowered saying “SOME PEOPLE ARE GAY. GET OVER IT” – and sent me on my way.
It was as though everything I’d been saying, about how I felt about myself, my body and my gender, had gone completely over their heads and sadly it made me even more scared of coming out in that environment.
Eventually, when I was 17 and leaving school to join music college, I decided it was the right time to formally begin my transition. I spoke to my mum and GP and was referred to a clinic specialising in gender identity. I changed my name by deed poll to Jamie and started telling people who knew me that my pronouns had changed – so instead of she and her, I now asked people to use he and him. It was a huge step. I was officially, completely out.
I was surprised by how accepting and, well, just how amazing all my friends and family were. One of my friends, a girl who went to the same school and later the same music college as me, told me they’d all figured I was a trans male anyway. “It was pretty obvious you were male,” she said, to my absolute relief. “We were just waiting for you to officially tell us.”
But of course coming out like that wasn’t the end of the story. What followed was the process of legally changing my gender, which involved getting proof from my GP and doctors that I’d been living as male, applying for a new passport and changing the name and pronouns on all of my official accounts and documents. It was a huge bureaucratic stress but once it was done, I felt secure and at ease in a way I never had before.
Then there was the medical side. After I turned 18, I had chest surgery and last year, I had lower surgery to change my genitals, which was a much more intense procedure. I had to take about five months off work – I'm an electrical engineer, so it’s really physical.
I was really nervous before both operations and recovering from them hurt like hell, especially the lower surgery. But I still had a huge grin on my face afterwards because I knew it was worth it. And throughout the whole process, my colleagues and family have been nothing but understanding and supportive.
Today, for probably the first time in my life, I feel totally comfortable with who I am. I no longer have to put on a fake smile with people calling me she and I’ve been volunteering for the last few years with a charity which specialises in helping trans children and teens, mentoring kids in the same situation as I was. Finally, I can be totally, unapologetically myself - which is something everyone should be able to be.
As told to Ashitha Nagesh
For support on gender identity, click here.