When he walked across the stage to receive his high school diploma, Benjamin Juan was overcome with a sense of accomplishment and validation.
He had entered Arlington Heights High School as a sophomore named Tia Juan, but he was introduced as Tia Benjamin Juan at the June 5 graduation ceremony.
“It helps you feel real,” Benjamin said. “It helps you feel like there are people who will be accepting and there are people who will try to understand ... it was like opening a book to a new page and being reborn.
“I entered Arlington Heights as Tia and I left as Benjamin.”
Benjamin is 18, a teen in gender transition at a time when the Fort Worth school district is front and center in the debate about transgender rights. As Benjamin was finishing up his senior year, Fort Worth Superintendent Kent Scribner issued a long list of guidelines that establish protection for transgender students that included a section that assures all students access to a bathroom where they “must feel comfortable and safe.”
The guidelines have been praised by Fort Worth's LGBT community and others as an affirmation of transgender rights and a smart handbook on how to work with students, but some elected officials and pro-family groups say the rules can be exploited by male predators who will find reason to enter the girls bathroom.
As the debate over transgender students emerged nationally — President Barack Obama issued a directive on transgender rights not long after Fort Worth’s actions — the school district hosted community forums aimed at collecting input that may be used to clarify language in the guidelines.
A day after he graduated, Benjamin attended a forum at Arlington Heights and explained because he is undergoing a gender transition he chose not to use the bathroom in school, which brought him great discomfort. He politely thanked the district for guidelines that may help other trans youth not experience the same pain.
For Benjamin, bathroom politics are personal.
“Bathrooms are so uncomfortable. I can’t go into the guys bathroom — I will get beat up. If I go into the girls bathroom, not only is it uncomfortable for me, but it is uncomfortable for everybody else,” Benjamin said. “I have been told by people because I look like a boy and I talk like a boy and I dress like a boy, to get out of the girls bathroom.”
‘Story is all too common’
As a high school student Benjamin felt the sting of taunts like “fag” and the pain of being bullied.
He doesn’t blame Arlington Heights; it would have been the same at any high school.
“High school was something else. ... It was always kind of difficult cause there are a lot of people who aren’t very nice — and that’s for every person in high school,” Benjamin said. “As a trans student or a student who doesn’t conform to the normal, it can be even worse for them. There can be more bullying. There can be more mean things that are said.”
Benjamin said he had a routine for avoiding confrontation at Arlington Heights.
He did not drink water during the day and typically waited until school was out to go to a single-use bathroom at a nearby store.
“That way, I don’t have to deal with all that upset. It is very stressful,” he said.
Zachary Collins, English teacher at Arlington Heights and co-sponsor of the campus Gay Straight Alliance (GSA), said many transgender youth don’t use the bathroom at school.
“Ben’s story is all too common in the transgender community,” Collins said.
Benjamin also avoided locker rooms. He took ROTC because everyone wears a uniform and there is no opportunity for people to watch him while he is changing clothes.
“I did not take gym. I took ROTC so I could get out of gym,” Benjamin said.
“The best part is that everybody looks exactly the same and so people would call me, ‘sir,’ and things like that and that was validating to me,” Benjamin said.
It was after he graduated that Benjamin realized that a nurse’s bathroom or other accommodation could have been an option for using a bathroom or locker room.
The Fort Worth district’s guidelines provides that transgender and other students should have access to using a single-stall restroom, a gender-neutral restroom “or the opportunity to visit the facility when other students are not present.”
In reference to locker rooms, the guidelines say that any student “who has a need or desire for increased privacy” may have access to reasonable accommodations, including as a locker near the staff office or supportive peer group or a private area of the locker room (such as a restroom stall with a door or an area separated by a curtain).
Benjamin said the guidelines offer needed protection to transgender youth and other students.
“If any students need protecting, it is trans students and LGBT students in general,” Benjamin said. “We aren’t the ones picking fights. We aren’t the ones watching people in the bathroom.”
He said the Fort Worth school district’s decision was courageous.
“To see Fort Worth ISD doing this — it’s amazing,” Benjamin said. “The people coming after me will have this protection. ... so many people before me didn’t.”
‘I wouldn’t look in a mirror’
Benjamin grew up in Everett, Wash., and was confused as he began to explore his gender identity.
“Why do I feel like I want to be a boy?” was a question he desperately wanted to answer.
“It started in fifth grade and it progressed through middle school,” Benjamin said. “That’s when I started looking up things — that’s when I started looking up all these different questions I had about myself.”
As a child, Benjamin had long hair and often dressed in hand-me-down clothes from his brothers. The working-class family didn’t have a lot of money for lots of toys, he said. Instead of playing with dolls, Benjamin played soccer, baseball and basketball and rode bikes with his brothers.
He found answers to his gender questions at the public library. On the internet, there were YouTube channels with biographies of trans people. Social media provided news posts about people like Benjamin.
“I had a shirt that said ‘Freak’ because that was exactly how I felt,” he said. “I felt like I was sort of this monster. There was nobody around me who felt the same. For me, these feelings started so young.”
He felt trapped as Tia — and everything that she brought with her.
“I had a lot of mirrors and I had covered them up,” he said. “I wouldn’t look in the mirror ... I did not want to see myself in the mirror because I was not seeing me. I was seeing Tia.”
Benjamin said in middle school he mostly dressed like a girl. He wore make up and straightened his hair. He said he felt at that age, is wasn’t acceptable to not embrace femininity.
“I was definitely compensating,” he said.
To rid himself of Tia, he cut off his long hair and began dressing in boy’s T-shirts and jeans.
It was a gradual transformation that did not always go unnoticed.
Benjamin said late in eighth grade, his now boyish appearance resulted in taunts — mostly by girls, he said.
“Where I used to live, people saw me go from this overtly feminine girl, to all of the sudden I started cutting off all my hair, I stopped using make up. I was not wearing any feminine clothing,” he said.
He moved with his father to Fort Worth as a sophomore and had already told his parents he wanted to live his life as a male instead of Tia Marrie Juan.
“Of course, my dad is very accepting now, but at first he had no idea what to do,” Benjamin said. “He had no idea what it meant. Even now, a few years later, he is learning things.”
The father declined an interview request from the Star-Telegram.
While his family knew of his plans to transition, others did not. Sure, his appearance was shifting toward that of a boy, but he did not publicize his change.
“I had come out to my parents, but I had not come out in my life,” Benjamin said. “On Facebook, to my friends, I was still Tia.”
Bullying is a ‘daily occurrence’
Benjamin said the bullying was at its worst in middle school.
He said when his hair was longer and he appeared more feminine, his hair was lit on fire by a girl sitting behind him. He said he believes he was picked on then because he wasn’t seen as a typical girl.
Another time, when he was looking more like a boy, the boyfriend of a girl who was taunting Benjamin picked him up and dumped him in a trash can.
The mean treatment continued after he entered Arlington Heights.
He said he was called a “fag” in the school library. He said another student would shove him into the lockers on a daily basis.
Benjamin said he didn’t report the bullying, in part because he feared retaliation.
“I didn’t report it because I knew nobody else would report it,” he said. “I did not want anything to get worse.”
He said he was unaware that the Fort Worth district had a policy that provided students protection from “discrimination, harassment and retaliation.”
Collins said bullying is a concern for LGTB youth.
“They want to go to school and be safe,” Collins said.
The National Transgender Discrimination Survey found that 85 percent of Texas transgender students in grades kindergarten through 12 reported “alarming rates of harassment and discrimination.”
Forty-six percent of the 266 respondents reported physical assault while nine percent reported sexual violence, according to the survey conducted by the National Center for Transgender Equality and National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. Eleven percent left school due to severe harassment, the survey states.
Terry Thompkins, board member of the Transgender Education Network of Texas, said the bullying is steady for students who are open with their gender transition.
“That’s a daily occurrence,” Thompkins said. “If they are brave enough to let the rest of the world know who they are, then they expect there to be retaliation on a constant basis.”
Benjamin’s transition also forced him to make difficult decisions.
As a member of the Arlington Heights’ choir, Benjamin wanted to wear the male outfit instead of being steered toward dresses. But when that wasn’t allowed — his school name was still Tia — he decided to quit and didn’t sing his senior year.
He said he struggled with bouts of depression and contemplated suicide.
In the wake of the shootings at a LGBT nightclub in Orlando, Fla., Benjamin used his Facebook page to explain his feelings and the difficult path of a person in gender transition.
“It's so hard to be proud of who you are and to live comfortably when things like Orlando keep happening,” Benjamin wrote on his Facebook page. “Recently I have been trying to be more out in the world and trying to make myself more happy in my own skin but there is always this fear of if I'm too obvious I could die. ... Even while people are dying people are talking about how they deserved it and things like this. This is the reason people stay in the closet, this is the reason people like me live in fear, why sometimes we can't leave our homes, why we hide, and I'm sick of having to live in fear. ... He who does not know love does not know God for God is love. 1 John 4:8.”
‘I just don’t have the correct parts’
Benjamin said he came out to friends during his junior year. But because he didn’t publicly broadcast his gender identity, not all of Benjamin’s teachers knew that he was transitioning.
The school district guidelines, implemented in late April, say that all personnel should acknowledge “the gender identity that each student consistently and uniformly asserts” and that they must “use the name ... preferred by the student.”
Benjamin said while his appearance caused some people to be a little standoffish at Arlington Heights, he never experienced any abuse by staff or teachers. He described some of his teachers as “amazing.”
Jacinda Adams, 17, became friends with Benjamin after they met in an English class their sophomore year. Benjamin was a friend whom she didn’t judge by appearance.
“Ben just looked like a tomboy,” Adams said. “I didn’t really care. I didn’t care what gender Ben was or anything. If he wanted to tell me, he would tell me.”
Benjamin said he became more masculine as he grew older.
“Most people could tell there was something with me. I think most people just thought I was very, very butch,” he said.
Benjamin said many people, who aren't familiar with transgender issues, think transgender men are women masquerading as men, but that is not the case.
“I just don’t have the correct parts,” he said.
Benjamin said he would like to get hormone replacement therapy and “top surgery,” which is a term used to describe a procedure used by female to male transgender people that involves getting breasts removed to create a masculine chest.
Those medical treatments aren’t cheap, he said. The website topsurgery.net estimates the cost for top surgery can range between $3,500 to $9,000.
Testosterone treatments can cost about $60 to $80 for doses that last for about five to six weeks, said Nell Gaither, president Trans Pride Initiative in Dallas, a social service organization that offers transgender people help with healthcare issues.
“I want to fully become out,” Benjamin said. “I want to start taking testosterone because so far I am ‘pre’ everything, so I want be able to fully out.”
Collins said there are many misconceptions about transgender youths, including that they will begin a gender transition and then change their minds or that the transition will be completed quickly.
“It’s not just about throwing on some clothes and it’s not like taking a magic pill,” Collins said.
‘A major step in his identity’
David Mack Henderson, president of Fairness Fort Worth, an organization that supports the LGBT community, befriended Benjamin as the transgender issues emerged in Fort Worth.
About three weeks before graduation, Henderson and Benjamin talked by telephone.
“He needed to talk to someone. That was me,” said Henderson. They discussed Benjamin’s bathroom strategy and how he typically hung out in the library.
With only a few days left of school, Henderson asked Benjamin: “What would you love more than anything?”
Benjamin talked of his wish to have his male name read at graduation.
Henderson and Benjamin collaborated with a school intervention specialist, district staff and the school principal to help create a memorable graduation moment.
“Everybody was on board, including my dad,” Benjamin said.
Though the commencement program listed him as Tia, he beamed while being introduced as Tia Benjamin Juan as he walked across the stage at TCU’s Schollmaier Arena.
Friends and family sitting noticed.
“I had some friends go to graduation and immediately they were like: ‘Oh my gosh, congrats. Benjamin that’s amazing.’”
Adams, who graduated with her friend, said the moment was special for Benjamin.
“He was really excited to graduate. He did tell me he was nervous about it,” adding that Benjamin wore a suit — minus a tie — under his gown.
School board Trustee Judy Needham and Arlington Heights Principal Sarah Weeks were at the graduation ceremony and were touched by the moment.
Weeks said she had never received such a request from a student but was happy to oblige.
“It’s a support for our students,” Weeks said.
Needham said Benjamin’s experience brings home how the transgender issues are about real students, not politics.
“In his journey, it is a major step in his identity,” Needham said.
Benjamin plans to attend Tarrant County College and begin to study for a career in sustainability or social work. He said he hopes his story will encourage transgender youths.
“I want to make a difference,” Benjamin said. “That’s the big goal in life.”
This report includes material from the Star-Telegram archives.