PART TWO: Katie Hill braves returning to school, finds love
BY CARY ASPINWALL World Staff Writer
Sunday, May 08, 2011
5/31/12 at 5:20 PM
BIXBY - Katie Hill tries not to take it personally when people don't understand what transgender means. She didn't know herself for a long time.
A common assumption is that it's something like a drag queen, or a person who likes to dress up in the opposite gender's clothing on occasion.
Except that for transgender individuals, it's not about the costume or outfit. They genuinely feel like the gender they're born into simply doesn't fit.
"It wasn't my fault," Katie said. "It was just nature handing me something that wasn't fair. I couldn't look in the mirror without wanting to cry."
It's hard to look at a 16-year-old considering gender reassignment surgery and not think: "But she's so young!"
In life experience, yes. In terms of children experiencing gender identity disorder, not really.
Dr. William Reiner at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center specializes in pediatric urology and child/adolescent psychiatry. His patients are children born with chromosomal and genital abnormalities that cause reproductive health issues, intersex children and, on rarer occasions, transgender children.
Katie is not one of his patients. Most of his are younger.
Some children start exhibiting gender identity disorder as young as 3 or 4, Reiner said. In many cases, they won't necessarily end up as transgender adults.
Katie Hill poses for a portrait in her living room. Photos by ADAM WISNESKI/Tulsa World
It's simply part of an "extraordinarily" complex journey of humans that scientists believe can be influenced by genetics, environment, temperament and personality.
If children are still exhibiting gender identity disorder by ages 12-13 and into adolescence, they most likely will remain transgender for the rest of their lives, Reiner said.
Pediatricians can give children who have gender identity disorder puberty-blocking hormones to allow more time to decide before their bodies fully develop into mature characteristics of their birth gender. In most cases, doctors recommend waiting until age 16 to let them begin living as the opposite of their birth sex.
But doctors have to weigh that against the anxiety and depression that transgender children often struggle with.
"If you ask what is the right thing to do with children who are transgender, the answer is we don't really know," Reiner said. "What's really important is to listen to the kids and try to figure out what it all means to them."
Becoming Katie Hill meant that she would never have to live unhappily as Luke again.
That didn't mean being Katie would be easy.
Katie's first day of her junior year at Bixby High School upset her so much that she left the district she had attended since elementary school and enrolled in Oklahoma Virtual High School.
Katie heard that some parents called Bixby High School and said they wanted their kids' schedules changed so they wouldn't have classes with her.
"They did not want their kids to be in a room with a child like 'this,' " her mother, Jazzlyn Hill, recalled.
Enrolling Katie at another high school in a different district wasn't an option. Jazzlyn and her ex-husband Randy Hill both work, and no one could drive Katie across town every day to go to another school.
Randy teaches the ROTC program at Bixby High School. He did not respond to interview requests for this story.
Katie planned to finish her high school degree at home, where she felt safe to be herself without taunting and whispering from classmates who used to know her as Luke. But she would have no Spanish class, no prom or school dances, no lunch period with friends.
Hill gets a hug from her boyfriend, Brandon Dumontel. Born Luke, Katie always felt she was a girl trapped inside a boy’s body. Many people confuse the gender identity issue with sexual orientation, leading to questions about their relationship.
An "A" student, she planned to breeze through her coursework and move on to college.
But after months of studying at home, Katie's choice became tolerating isolation or teasing.
She decided she would rather put up with stares and whispers than spend eight hours each weekday at home, alone with nothing but her books and computer for company. She needed human contact beyond Facebook and texting.
At Bixby High School, a Safe Team is in place to protect her and all students from bullies. There are friends, in addition to the stares, and teachers who are fond of her.
And there's Brandon.
Brandon Dumontel is 18 years old, polite and sweet without being Eddie Haskell.
He's nearly as lanky and thin as his girlfriend, and just a smidgen taller.
Katie and Brandon met at the mall through mutual friends they knew from Camp Anytown, a program of the Oklahoma Center for Community and Justice.
Neither has a driver's license, so when they first began dating, Brandon rode his bike seven miles just to see her.
They play video games and go to dances organized by Openarms Youth Project, a community group for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender teens, young adults and their friends. He bought her flowers and a little silver ring.
Katie's relationship with Brandon confounds some people, because most confuse the gender identity issue with sexual orientation.
"He's straight," Katie explained. "I'm not like, an exception. He sees me as a woman."
Katie hangs out with friends Nick Weaver, left, and his sister, Cat Weaver at Tulsa’s Openarms Youth Project. OYP gives a safe place for teenagers who are gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender to hang out and support each other.
It's a common misconception that being transgender is part of a person's sexual orientation, said Dr. Laura Arrowsmith of Oklahomans for Equality.
But sexual orientation is who you want to sleep with; gender identity is who you want to sleep as, she explained. Transgender men and women can be gay, straight or bisexual.
Brandon is a straight teen who grew up with an unstable family situation. He grew tired of the conflict and bounced from one friend's couch to another until he ran out of places to crash.
Jazzlyn knows her heart is too big; she's too understanding. But she couldn't let a nice kid like Brandon live on the streets. So she let him move into her house (with strict ground rules, of course).
Brandon had to leave his friends at Union High School and transfer to Bixby.
Not long after New Year's Day, Katie decided she was brave enough to go back to school.
At first, some students talked loudly about her and spit on her. School officials dealt with it swiftly.
But she prefers it to spending eight or more hours a day by herself.
When Katie got her driver's permit, she ran to one of her favorite teachers, Mrs. Jurkiw, to show her: "Sex, F." Validation, on a blue-and-white card.
Katie and Brandon planned to go to Union High School's prom with two of their friends from the Openarms Youth Project.
The tickets were about $30 cheaper than Bixby's prom, and they felt more welcome, Katie explained.
"I didn't want to go with all those people," she said.
Hill buys a soda with her boyfriend, Brandon, at Tulsa's Openarms Youth Project.
Some of the kids still talk about Katie and Brandon behind their backs, how Brandon is dating "it."
This hurts Katie's feelings, because she's a person, not an "it."
A real live girl, who found a deep purple prom gown with golden sequins on eBay. It would double as her gown for the Oklahomans for Equality Gala.
She hoped they could find Brandon a tuxedo with a matching purple vest.
"He drooled when I first put on my dress," Katie said.
In the TV movie version of life, Katie would have passed her driver's license test on the first try so she could drive herself to work and to the mall with friends in the new car her father bought her.
She would have been the belle of the ball at the prom, possibly crowned queen with her rail-thin frame and startling cheekbones.
But this is real life. She fails her driving test - twice.
Her family's beloved Shih Tzu dies. She gets sick and misses the prom.
The white Saturn coupe her dad bought her is parked on the lawn, undriven.
She's not talking to her dad. He slips and calls her Luke or "him" sometimes, Katie said.
To Katie, referring to her in the feminine is a big deal. It means something to her.
She goes to school every day in the same place her father works, but she won't talk to him.
Jazzlyn said Randy has complained to her: "I don't understand; I didn't do anything to him."
That's just it, she told him. You're not accepting it.
"I don't think he's ashamed of her; he just doesn't know how to talk to her," Jazzlyn said.
She tries to soften Katie's attitude toward him: We've all got faults, you know.
"He's still your dad," she reminds Katie. "I know he loves you."
Even as a young child, Katie pictured herself as a woman when she fantasized about her grown-up life.
Hill laughs with fellow transgender outreach members, Hellen Johnson, right, Violet Fenn, left, and Jen Lillie, center left, at the Equality Gala.
"In my dreams, I would have long, black hair; beautiful, white sparkling teeth; and perfect green-blue eyes like my mom and dad," she said.
The piercing blue eyes, in the lone remaining portrait of Luke in the Hill home, those are her father's.
The driver's seat
Katie was tested for female chromosomes or the presence of female reproductive organs to determine whether she might have been born intersex, but all the tests came back negative.
"This isn't a choice. If it was, I swear to God I wouldn't have chosen this," she said.
Her birth certificate is the only remaining document listing her as "male." She was born on Mother's Day.
House Bill 1397, signed into law by Gov. Mary Fallin in April, makes it possible for Oklahomans who've had gender-reassignment surgery to change the gender listed on their birth certificate.
Oklahomans for Equality maintains that Katie will be the first openly transgender teen to graduate from high school in the state.
She'll turn 17 this week. In the next few years, she hopes to take the final step of having gender-reassignment surgery to complete her physical transformation to a woman.
People seeking gender-reassignment surgery typically must first live for at least one year as the opposite gender, complete a year of hormone therapy and then receive approval from at least three qualified medical professionals.
The surgery costs about $20,000 and is not typically covered by insurance. Many Americans go to Thailand for the procedure, where it's less expensive and quite common. But the travel expenses are steep.
Katie likely will have to work for years to pay for the surgery; her family currently can't afford it.
Until then, she'll go to school, work at a fast-food restaurant in Bixby, and obsess about spending time with Brandon.
She'll try for a third time to pass her driving test, and Jazzlyn will sigh and hope for the best.
Isn't that all any parent can do at this point?
Buy a sturdy car and insurance, teach them how to drive safely, give them maps - and one brave day, hand them the keys.
Katie will get in the driver's seat and adjust the mirror.
She will like what she sees.
This is the second of a two-part series about transgender teen Katie Hill.
In Saturday's story: At 15, Luke Hill tells his mother: "I'm not gay, Mom. I'm transgender."
Original Print Headline: After years feeling lost, Katie finds her new identity.
Cary Aspinwall 918-581-8477
Katie Hill gets a hug from her boyfriend, Brandon Dumontel. Born Luke, Katie always felt she was a girl trapped inside a boy’s body. Manypeople confuse the gender identity issue with sexual orientation, leading to questions about their relationship. ADAM WISNESKI/Tulsa World