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Beyond the Gender Box: Teenager in transition

Will Copeland, at left, with his brothers at age 3 and, at right, age 4.
Provided by the Copeland family

The last time transgender teen William Copeland wore a dress was to his aunt’s commitment ceremony. The 5-year-old caved to parental pressure but on his terms: no bow in the back and only for the vows, not the reception.

“Big mistake! Huge mistake!,” his mother Laurie Copeland winces. “Why did he need to wear a dress to a lesbian wedding? They wouldn’t have cared if he’d worn a tux.”

Despite any early missteps, if you could special-order a family for a transgender child, it would be the Copelands of Creve Coeur.

Inside the soft yellow walls of their two-story home, an 11-year-old rescued Lab named Alex lies on the carpet, surrounded by comfortable chairs in which parents Ken and Laurie and sons William and Daniel, 23, gather to tell the story of William’s transition. David, 21, is away at college.

Their support for William, sometimes called Will, is palpable, creating a warm and open atmosphere for conversation about a very personal topic that would make any other 17-year-old boy cringe.

But William is confident and forthcoming.

“I can’t remember a time that I didn’t feel like I was supposed to be a boy,” William begins.

‘Why did God make me wrong?’

When William was born, his parents named him Grace (yes, he’s been both Will and Grace). He shunned Barbie to play with Ken — but only as an action figure. In family board games, he never chose a female playing piece although his older brothers sometimes did.

From left, Daniel, William and David Copeland
Credit Provided by the family
From left, Daniel, William and David Copeland

A parent could dismiss those variations against stereotypes. But when he was only 2 1/2, he asked his father, “Why did God make me wrong?” and never wavered on his insistence that he was not a girl.

In kindergarten in the Ladue School District, he wore his brothers’ hand-me-downs and his hair short, and had only boys for friends. The Copelands explained to teachers and the administration that their child wanted to be a boy. But protocol sometimes demanded adherence to a gender box.

“When we lined up as boys and girls, there was this big hubub about this girl who looks like a boy,” he remembers.

His parents intervened. “Is it really important to line the kids up boy-girl?” they asked. “Absolutely not,” school officials responded, agreeing to organize them by numbers.

Still, boys and girls were sometimes separated at recess. One time, William cried and the teacher let him go outside with the boys.

“I was like, ‘Oh, yeah, now I can feel like a guy,’” William remembers.

But “angry and fearful” is how he remembers feeling during most of his elementary school years.

Ken and Laurie Copeland
Credit Provided by the family
Ken and Laurie Copeland

No one openly confronted William or his parents about the accommodations. But Laurie Copeland heard from friends that, “There were people saying, ‘I can’t believe they’re letting their kid do that.’”

Those people — many people — might have fought their child harder, tried to make him fit in, punished him. The Copelands sought information. They worried and wondered. And hoped: Is he just a budding lesbian? Or maybe, intersex? The word “transgender” wasn’t even in their vocabulary. Or their pediatrician’s.

Medical tests showed his makeup was typical for a female. But there is no test for self-identification.

“The doctor was as mystified as us,” Laurie Copeland says. “He didn’t have any experience with this and he didn’t have anybody to send us to.”

Preventing puberty

Middle School can be a cruel passage for anyone. William was particularly worried about P.E. Before sixth grade, the Copelands stepped in.

School officials agreed William could take gym with the boys and change clothes in the girls’ bathroom, instead of the more open locker room. In seventh grade, they gave him the key to a teacher bathroom.

“Only one kid said he thought it was weird that I was in P.E. with the guys,” William remembers. “And all the other kids were like, ‘Shut up!’”

Otherwise, no one directly questioned William or the Copelands about this arrangement, either. But the biggest threat lying in wait wasn’t at school. It was inside William’s body.

Ever since he was little, William worried about puberty. A child can get by as a tomboy. It’s much harder for a developing young woman.

“I was terrified of growing up,” William says.

Researching online and cobbling together a local network turned up a solution to the puberty problem: puberty blockers.

By this time his parents had also discovered the term “Gender Identity Disorder,” which will officially change to “Gender Dysphoria” next month in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual. While labels rankle those who assert our medical system has created a condition born of gender stereotypes, a diagnosis is often required for intervention.

William Copeland talks about puberty blockers

Racing the clock, the Copelands finally got an appointment with a local endocrinologist who would prescribe a drug to block estrogen from feminizing their son. That means he’ll never grow breasts so he’ll never have to go through “top surgery” to masculinize his chest.

At 13, he wore the first of three surgically implanted patches, each lasting one year. They cost a staggering $15,000 each but insurance paid most of it. Now, he gives himself testosterone shots. The early intervention was life-changing.

“It was like every worry I’d ever had was gone,” William says.

Even so, that kind of permanent medical decision is not easy for a parent to make.

“It was hard to know who to trust. But ultimately we had to trust our child,” Ken Copeland says.

What’s in a name?

In third grade, William wanted to change his name. “To Kevin from ‘Home Alone’ or Andy from ‘Toy Story,’” Laurie Copeland explains.

“But we didn’t let him,” Ken Copeland adds. “Now, I wish we would have.”

William Copeland and his brothers at PrideFest 2012 with William's friend Jacob, to William's right, posing in front of protesters from the Westboro Baptist Church.
Credit Provided by the Copeland family
William Copeland and his brothers at PrideFest 2012 with William's friend Jacob, to William's right, posing in front of protesters from the Westboro Baptist Church.

The summer before sophomore year, he legally changed his name to William, after a favorite great uncle. But in the halls of Ladue Horton Watkins High School, William still goes by “Grace.” Grace is also his name on Facebook, although his home page says he’s male.

“There are kids at my school who just think I’m a guy named Grace,” William says. “In order to change my name at school, I’d have explain it all to everybody and I don’t want to have to do that.”

It’s a kind of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” situation at school. He’s waiting until he goes to college to start using his new name full-time.

At church — Kirkwood Baptist, an unusually liberal Baptist congregation, Laurie Copeland says — he does go by William. Just as his lesbian aunt paved the way for acceptance in his mother’s large extended Catholic family, his great uncle’s respected position at church has made life easier there.

“It’s like, ‘If Bill’s OK with it, then we’re OK with it,’” William’s mom notes.

Right before ninth grade, the Copelands asked their son’s teachers to use male pronouns. Kids followed their lead.

It made sense to change pronouns at home then, too. Even in a supportive family, sadness bubbled to the surface as the reality sunk in that their daughter was no more.

“It was really hard, emotionally, at first,” Ken Copeland says. “Now, the hardest thing is when I’m referring to Grace as a little kid and as a baby.”

“For me, too,” Laurie Copeland agrees.

But oldest brother Daniel is surprised at how easily he transitioned.

“I came home for college and they said, ‘OK, we’re using male pronouns now.’ And I thought I was going to slip up all the time, and I did,” Daniel says. “But after a year, it was habit to say ‘he.’”

The future

In 2011, Laurie Copeland and another mom started a local parent support group — Transparent— to help families find resources for their trans children. Currently, about 30 St. Louis-area families are involved. Doctors at Children’s Hospital sometimes sit in on Transparent’s meetings. “We’re teaching the doctors,” she says.

Families from the group, including Wiliam, his mom, his brothers and a friend, marched in the St. Louis PrideFest parade last year and will participate again this summer. William is also helping people understand trans issues by speaking to students at UMSL and Webster University. Meanwhile, he’s navigating a tricky rite of passage of his own: dating.

“There’s a girl I’ve been talking to — we’ll see how it goes,” William says. “But there’s the fact I don’t have a penis.”

She may or may not know — or care.

But whether or not this situation works out, William sees a bigger life for himself outside St. Louis. His best friend who now lives in California sends word that “the girls out here will love you.”

With his 4.0 average and the prospect of a compelling college essay based on his transition, William is assured a wide range of university choices according to school counselors, his mother says. He’s thinking about the University of Southern California but George Washington University in D.C. is his top pick at the moment and he’s visited Tulane.

William’s immediate future does not include plans for surgery. After thoroughly researching the topic of gender reassignment surgery, he’s dissatisfied with all available methods. He calls the results of a procedure known as phalloplasty, a “Frankenpenis.”

His hope is that science will eventually create a viable option.

“Fortunately, he has a grandmother who’ll pay for it,” his mom offers.

“That’s a little bit weird, Mom — my grandmother paying for my penis?” William replies.

All mom and dad really want for their son is what all parents want: for him to be happy. The chances of that seem great.

“I used to be really worried about my future,” William says. “But now I’m not so concerned. I think it will be OK.”

(This article originally appeared in the St. Louis Beacon.)

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Follow Nancy Fowler on Twitter: @NancyFowlerSTL

Nancy is a veteran journalist whose career spans television, radio, print and online media. Her passions include the arts and social justice, and she particularly delights in the stories of people living and working in that intersection.

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