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LGBTQ+ Student Perspective: ‘My School’s GSA Saved My Life’

Esmée Silverman, 21, is a junior at Reed College in Portland, Ore., studying religion “to help bridge the divide between the trans community and religious communities.” They run a nonprofit called Queer Youth Assemble in their free time to foster community with other queer youth. Silverman, who attended high school in Massachusetts, shared their coming-out story and how important community support has been to their mental health. This interview was edited for length and clarity.

I’ve always been close to the queer/trans community, even before I was fully out. I was in 7th grade and a lot of my friends just happened to be queer and trans, and that really helped me understand and learn more about the community and myself.

I came out as pansexual in 2016. But during my freshman year of high school, I still didn’t feel like all pieces were fully together in terms of identity and eventually came to the realization that I was trans. It was something that really terrified me. I was a basketball player for the past eight years. I wasn’t popular, but I had friends. If I came out as transgender, it could potentially make me even [more of an] outcast than I already was, and subject me to more bullying and harassment and potential assault. At that time on the news, every single day, there was a trans person who was assaulted, there was a trans person who was killed, there was a trans person who was mocked at their school’s assembly. That scares you. That s— stays with you. It makes you really visible to society. It makes you really comprehend how society is set up and how society is structured.

When I finally came out [as transgender], it was like a huge weight off my shoulders, but I was obviously met with a lot of questions from people in my school and people in my community, from my own family.

[Before I came out, I remember] I went to the guidance counselor because I was having an anxiety attack. The [class] period before, I had just gone into the boys’ locker room to change, and that’s honestly a pain that I still struggle to talk about to this day—having to go into the locker room that doesn’t correspond with your identity every single day. [I was thinking] if I came out, where would I go to change? Where would I go to the bathroom? At that time, I didn’t know [our school had accommodations] and in all honesty, those were the least of my concerns. My concern was: Am I going to survive this next day? Am I going to ever feel this weight off of my chest? Am I gonna get kicked out of my house because my family doesn’t accept me? Am I going to be ostracized and bullied because students don’t understand anything about being trans?

It’s really underestimated the impact of going from a president like Barack Obama—who openly supported gay marriage [and] who openly supported trans youth—to Donald Trump, a president, who not only seemed to relish in the opportunity to strip away as many rights and protections as possible, but he emboldened the silent group of people who had the unpopular opinions that transgender people should be using the bathroom of their assigned sex at birth, that believed in conversion therapy, that believe that hormone therapy is child abuse. He emboldened their ideas and gave them a platform to stand on. That really impacts you when you’re growing up.

I decided to join my school’s GSA for support, for community. This is before I even knew I was trans, but I still felt a very strong connection towards the queer and trans community. I undoubtedly made a decision that shaped my entire life by going to that group. They gave me hope. It gave me solidarity, gave me confidence and made me feel like I had other people I could talk to, relate to. That’s a really important thing to have when you’re struggling, and you feel overwhelmed.

I was thinking of suicide constantly during my freshman year of high school, and I was not alone in that thought—I know plenty of queer and trans youth who have thought about suicide because of all of this stuff. They think it’s easier than coming out. They think it’s easier than potentially facing these punches and these verbal jabs. If that doesn’t speak toward the problem, I don’t know what does.

My school’s GSA saved my life. It gave me community. It gave me camaraderie. It made me feel like I could authentically be myself. Sure, my family was accepting but it’s not like you can talk about every single thing—they don’t understand it. Sure, my friends were accepting, but there’s only so many times you can talk about queer topics and then they tell you to stop being political and to just shut up. This place gave me my identity back.

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