Hunter Schafer is one of several North Carolina residents challenging the state's controversial new discrimination law in federal court.
Schafer, 17, is a junior at the UNC School of the Arts high school, and she's transgender. She was labeled male at birth, but transitioned to female her freshman year of high school. Her parents are Katy Schafer and Mac Schafer, a pastor at Hudson Memorial Presbyterian Church.
Jess Clark sat down with the three of them as they share the story of Hunter's transition.
When did you first realize you didn’t identify as a boy?
Hunter: I’ve always had this persistent need for femininity and expressing that—like ever since I was a teeny, tiny toddler.
Katy: I would say age two. We would show Hunter all the superheroes and he would want Catwoman or Hawkgirl... And I’m saying "he" because he was our oldest child and our son....
We made a point to see a preschool teacher when Hunter was three… I remember asking her "Is this 'normal' that our kid comes to school every day and puts on a pink dress, when all the other little boys have on plaid vests and fireman coats?" And that was not what our kid did.
Hunter, you came out as gay before you came out as transgender?
I came out to my parents as gay in seventh grade—like a gay boy at this time. And so they were beginning to understand where I stood as to where my sexual orientation was at the time. But gender identity was still a very separate thing from that. But coming out as gay—that set me apart enough for me to think about what else set me apart.
Katy and Mac, how did you react to Hunter coming out as gay?
Katy: We were going to love our kid no matter what. Everybody was on board. But it didn’t move forward from there. I just didn’t understand why it was still so difficult to buy clothing. If I took Hunter to the mall I didn’t understand, if Hunter is a gay male, why can’t you walk into something like the Gap and buy clothes? Like why is this always an issue?
Hunter, can you describe how you were feeling in your eighth grade year, and why you were so anxious?
It was later in the year and I could start to see peach fuzz on my upper lip... I was just really worried that I was starting to develop these secondary sex characteristics— especially facial hair just terrified me. That was something that just did not resonate with me at all, and I don’t really know why... [Gender dysphoria] is mostly this feeling of just dread and wrongness.
How did you come to learn about transgender identities?
I met some really open minded people that were educated in all the LGBT terms and what it was. And they were "fangirling" over people, Curt and Blaine on Glee... It was, like, a really positive new image of that whole community that kind of let me explore that part of myself. And so it was in seventh grade that I came to terms with the idea that maybe I wasn’t a boy.
Katy and Mac, Hunter says she tried to come out to you twice as transgender before her message finally hit home for you. Why do you think it took so many tries?
Mac: For me it was harder than Hunter being gay because I thought, this is not something that will just be who Hunter is on the inside and may be expressed in relationships, but how Hunter even appears has the potential to change.
Katy: I remember saying to Hunter, "Well just because you’re an artist and just because you like pretty things, that doesn’t mean you’re transgender. It doesn’t mean you’re a girl."
Mac and Katy, What was it about that third attempt that finally allowed Hunter’s message to get through to you?
Katy: The anxiety level in Hunter was so apparent that I know that we could not continue kind of turning an eye or not listening. I felt like we were reaching a crisis point, because we had kind of lost our kid. I think Hunter was just really struggling inside, and the anxiety was coming out. I remember there were lots of tears. It was kind of just this reality of we were going to have to let go of who we thought our kid was going to be... There were some things that had to be put away.
Mac, was there an important moment for you when you realized Hunter was transgender?
Mac: I remember going to pick Hunter at fashion-design camp. And they had a fashion show the final night of camp. And Hunter came up to me the morning before the fashion show and said "Dad, do you mind if I wear heels?"... Inside everything in me was going "no, no, no,"...but outside I said, "Yes, you can."... I think that’s when everything became real. And I thought, you know, the ideas I’ve had in my head of raising a son, in a sense, I’m putting those away and have grief in saying goodbye to that idea, but joy in sense of Hunter being birthed into who she was created to be.
Katy and Mac, how did you know this wasn’t just a phase, or that it was serious enough to take a medical intervention?
Katy: As a mom, I look over this trajectory of 17 years, and the draw to what is traditionally feminine has always been there. Since Hunter could express any kind of option for one thing or the other, maybe from 18 months on, it has always been the thing that you would have thought a girl would have chosen. So I can’t look at the arc of Hunter’s life and deny that that hasn’t been there always... It was always there. We just didn’t know what to call it.
Was it hard to start using the pronoun “she” for Hunter?
Katy: Some of Hunter’s friends really showed us---they were so far ahead of us. Kids would get in the car, and then one of them would say something about Hunter and use the pronoun "she." And I would think, "Is this kid talking about Hunter?" And so I realized most of Hunter’s friends used "she" for a pronoun… Instead of going straight to a feminine pronoun, I really found myself as a mom just focusing on using Hunter’s name. If you hear me talk a lot I won’t use the pronouns, and I will just say "Hunter."
Mac: When Hunter expressed that female pronouns were important to her, that was a game changer. And that’s when we really started using the female pronouns. And we would make a lot of mistakes, but eventually at least for me it became very natural to this point where I don’t think twice about it.
Hunter, you use hormone therapy so that your body matches your gender identity. Does it ever validate you in some sense when someone just assumes you are a cisgender girl (designated female at birth)?
It used to, because I was like "Ooo! I’m passing! I am looking more feminine than masculine!" But now as I’m exploring the nonbinary part of myself, it’s becoming almost—not annoying—but like I just wish that some people could see more to me than that right away ...
I do like people to know that I’m not a cisgirl because that’s not something that I am or feel like I am. I’m proud to be a trans person.
What does it mean to explore a nonbinary self?
I just feel like I don’t really need to be put in the male or female box… Taking myself out of the binary is something that’s appealing to me, and not having one of those labels. Because gender has kind of been this crazy thing that I’ve had to—not defy—but move past and through because I’ve moved from male to female and now I’m swinging back to somewhere in between. So kind of existing without that is appealing to me in a lot of ways.