Being 12 can be a rough time for anyone. You start to go through puberty and your body is changing. But for Lee Richardson things didn’t seem to be going right at all. Everything just felt wrong.
Richardson wasn’t becoming a man.
“I had realized I was transgender around sophomore year of high school. But growing up in a small town with a graduating class of 100 people, I didn’t really feel comfortable coming out in high school because it was these people I grown up with my entire life. I had this gut instinct that if I came out in high school, it would have gone really bad,” Richardson said.
He was in denial and was trying to convince himself that he was a cisgender woman and was only going through a phase. It wasn’t until the late fall of 2015 when he hit a breaking point and could no longer physically or mentally live not being trans.
“Every time someone would use my birth name or female pronouns, it would make me physically sick to me stomach, because I knew it was wrong but no one else did,” Richardson said emphatically. “I knew it was something that I had to do.”
Before coming out in public, Richardson first told his aunt in an email after a Christmas function. She was immediately supportive. Then he told his friends back home. And on Jan. 2 2016, Richardson came out publicly as a transgender man on Facebook.
He wasn’t sure how the rest of his family would react.
“My family took it really well. Definitely a lot better than I anticipated them taking it, which was probably more of my paranoia about not being accepted than actually knowing my family,” Richardson said. “My family will love me no matter what. They’ve been really supportive the entire time. They’re always asking questions to try and understand it better and it definitely helps a lot.”
One of Richardson’s biggest supporters has been his mother, Beth.
“At first I was a little bit shocked. I was shocked that we hadn’t had a conversation about it first and had found out through Facebook. It took me out of the blue because it wasn’t something that I had seen coming,” she said.
After his announcement, Beth said she started to think about things she might have missed or paid more attention to regarding her child. If she knew what she knows now, she said she might have been able to pick-up on what was going on. And while supportive, she said the news did prompt some sadness.
“I fully supported Lee in his decision to do what he felt comfortable with because I love my kids and I want what’s best for them. But I also felt sad because as a parent you to go through what I’ve determined is going through a grieving process when someone has passed away, because in a way I’ve lost my daughter,” she said.
But Beth’s mission now is to not only help her son, but to help others understand transgender individuals better – especially among less accepting older people. It’s new to them, she said, and it’s going to take time for them to adjust.
Beth said individuals who want to come out need to find people who will support them, be it immediate family, extended family, or friends. To the parents of those who come out, she said it’s important to love them unconditionally, accept them and be open-minded.
“You’re children are who they’re going to be and who they are, and it’s not always who you think they’re going to be, and that’s ok,” she said holding back tears.
An accepting place
Since he came out as transgender, Richardson feels well accepted at CU.
When he came back to campus after winter break, his friends welcomed him back with open arms. None were shocked and they immediately got behind him. But while he was still living in his old suite in Morrill, he soon didn’t feel comfortable there. A week later, his friend and former CA, Ana Haytko, asked if he wanted help moving into a different room on campus. Later that day, with the help of Haytko and Area Coordinator Shaun Williams, Richardson found a new single room in Babcock Hall.
But living alone wasn’t fun and Richardson felt that he needed a roommate but wasn’t sure who to live with. He talked with his friend and President of Spectrum Pride, Kyle Gosly.
“At the time, a friend wanted a roommate and Lee also asked me if I wanted to be his roommate and so I took it up,” Gosly said. “Though my former roommate at the time is very nice, he’s not in my crowd so I thought it might be better to go live with Lee and show some support.”
Members of Spectrum Pride including Gosly, Haytko and vice president of the club Chelsea Carey, feel that they are a well-equipped group open and caring to those who are transgender and those seeking to come out.
The group also strongly pushed for the gender-neutral housing so that the university becomes more inclusive and is ready for the future.
But peers haven’t been the only members of the Castleton community who have been supportive of Richardson.
Professor Stephanie Wilson of the communication department was relieved to see maturity from Richardson when he first contacted her over break.
“He sent an email saying that he would show up as Ashley on my roster and asked me to please refer to him as Lee and use male pronouns,” Wilson said. “It helps us as professors to help and support students in a way that they need. If we don’t know then we can’t help.”
Wilson feels that Castleton is full of people who want to support each other and will help those who need it. She is also for the gender-neutral housing because she feels that everyone should have the option to feel comfortable and safe.
With transgender individuals, Richardson knows there are questions people have and he’s out front about answering them.
He said he tries to use gender-neutral restrooms on campus a much as he can but, if he can’t find one, he goes to the men’s room. However, he feels more comfortable showering in the women’s room because he is afraid of confrontation in the men’s room.
If people date him, he said, they need to accept that they will be dating a man.
Living as a transgender person can be tough, and Haytko pointed out that violence, sexual assault and homelessness is high amongst trans individuals and the average life span is only 30 years old.
“My advice to accept trans people or non-gender-conforming individuals is to support them 100 percent and really, really, really try with the pronouns. They may say it doesn’t matter, but it really does and it hurts when you’re misgendered,” Haytko said.
And by being supportive of transgender individuals, Haytko and others say the Castleton community can help break down stigmas and misconceptions.
“I think he is incredibly brave and generous, because he’s going through something that’s new for him and he’s willing to open and share that process and to help to make a transition for similar students,” Wilson said. “He’s also being very generous to those of us who this is more new to us and I think in sharing in his experience it helps us to understand better and to support and nurture our students the way that we’re here to do.”
Although the transition has been an adjustment for her, Beth Richardson praised her son for his courage and strength.
“Lee is one of the strongest and most amazing people I know. I’ve learned a lot about myself too going through this process and it’s made me a better parent,” she said.
If you need a support network, members of Spectrum Pride want to help. And to learn more about Richardson, or transgender individuals, check out his blog “You, Me and the Letter T” on WordPress.com