Hiding in Plain Sight
The shorts fit terribly, but they would have to do. I stuffed my white blouse into my too-tight waistband and forced the clasp shut. The itchy, navy cardigan restricted my arms if I ever needed to raise them above my head, and the gold and red crest was always visible from across the room. My knee-high socks often found their way to my ankles and it was a miracle if my shoelaces stayed tied by second period. I would cram my toes into my worn-out Sperrys and not until the end of the day could I kick them off by the kitchen rug.
The ritual of donning my all girls’ school uniform was never one I looked forward to, yet it was one I completed every morning over the course of four years. The only solace I could find was the plaid shorts my mother had to order specially from the uniform store’s supplier to get a size that fit me. The fact that they hugged my hips in every wrong way couldn’t matter, because the taste of masculinity was an oasis in an endless sea of flowing skirts and swaying ponytails. Making it through an all-girls high school as a trans student meant cherishing the small victories: tucking men’s deodorant into my backpack, slipping on a pair of men’s socks, a new name scrawled across my coffee cup, or fresh haircuts that looked less and less like my mother’s.
It was hard to forget how not-a-girl I was when attending a school that marketed itself as a haven for scholarly young women. The slogan of “ALL-GIRL” was plastered across the walls of every classroom and upon the cardigans across our chests. Our head of school would open our morning announcements with a joyful “Good morning, ladies!” as she beamed at an auditorium teeming with young girls. Teachers would never neglect to stress that we, a community of young women, had a duty to take up space in male-dominated fields such as engineering or politics. Messages of women empowerment were ingrained into the school’s culture, from our humanities curriculum to graduation speeches to school assemblies. To take up space in a community that I knew, secretly, was not intended for people like me, made me feel like a fraud amongst my peers. There was no doubt that I attended a school of brilliant young women, and not a day went by where I did not feel like an imposter.
Discovering my transness after slipping away to an all-girls school initially felt like a sick joke. Ohio’s lack of discrimination protections for the LGBTQ+ community and the Catholic Diocese of Columbus schools’ readiness to fire and expel queer people meant that I spent my middle school years firmly in the closet, terrified that I’d be expelled if my school found out that I liked girls. To walk away from my Catholic community and attend a secular, all-girl high school meant abandoning my childhood friends, the church I attended, the sports teams I played on, my Sundays at youth group—the only community I had known my whole life. I took the plunge to attend an all-girl high school half an hour away for the chance to spend my teenage years a little more authentically, only to unearth another identity that had to be hidden away.
I knew I was in trouble when I found myself becoming a little too happy wearing boys’ clothing, or being called “sir” by accident in the Starbucks line. My classmates were fairly homogenous in their gender expressions—I could count on one hand the number of students who regularly opted out of the uniform skirt. To wear the boys’ uniform was a completely different challenge when there virtually was no boys’ uniform. The joy I felt squeezing myself into my new shorts after weeks in the mail was coupled with the knowledge that I would stick out in the halls on my way to class. Although there was a certain grace I was allowed in how masculine I presented at school, I constantly had to balance a tightrope between acceptable queer presentation and an unacceptable transness.
Being a queer woman at my high school wasn’t the worst thing you could be, and it was an easy excuse to wear men’s clothes and cut my hair like a boy. Sometimes PRIDE Club wouldn’t meet for a few months on end or a sheltered classmate would make an ignorant but not ill-intentioned remark, but there were worse things you could be at a school that was primarily for white, wealthy students. I just felt lucky that I could say the words “my girlfriend” out loud without fear of total social isolation.
I became accustomed to passing my transness as off as being a butch lesbian because being a queer woman was generally tolerated. Hiding in plain sight became an acquired skill, as I wouldn’t flinch at wearing men’s clothing but shied away from outright stating my gender identity.
It wasn’t as if I was the only trans student at my school, but I was certainly the worst at hiding it. While we obviously weren’t a large group, other masculine students and I were generally allowed to exist in our own way, often resulting in a designated lunch table for primarily short-haired, pants-wearing students, where we could talk about our girl crushes and the newest Panic! At The Disco song. Because other queer students and myself were able to find each other, I had been able to experiment with a new name and pronouns as early as sophomore year, but only in hushed lunchroom conversations and group-chats. I toyed with the possibility of coming out in the back of my mind throughout senior year, as I contemplated whether or not it was worth entering a game of chicken with my school’s administration. It was a long-accepted convention for decades that trans students would simply bite their tongue. They would not come out until after graduation for fear of discrimination from other students, or being “kindly asked to leave” by the administration, due to the sheer threat they posed to the school’s image.
But when I got to know the underclassmen of my robotics team, and one-by-one they cut their hair short and asked me where I’d gotten my uniform shorts, it became a real possibility. Overhearing them ask each other a little too earnestly “If I was a boy, what name do you think I look the most like?” made my heart ache a little too much to not say anything.
I came out publicly on social media during spring break of my senior year, past the point where it became inconvenient for my private school to “ask me to leave.” For the most part it was either little surprise or largely ignored by my school community, but getting to answer underclassmen’s questions or see the newfound hope in their faces made everything I had been through—the anxiety, the feelings of otherness, and the ill-fitting shorts—all feel that much worth it.
Over a semester into college and I still get a rush whenever I openly share my pronouns in a circle of new people. Being able to share my whole identity, as a queer trans man, still feels incredibly raw and foreign. Nowadays, I’ve swapped my blouse for a patterned button-down and my Sperry’s for men’s tennis shoes. I am no longer constrained to a form of neutered self-expression that fits into a neat, “all-girl” slogan. Now, rather than hiding in plain sight, others can see all of my truth.