With additional reporting by Stephanie Scamuffo
Announcing to the world that you were born with a man’s body but identify as a woman is one thing when you’ve lived your life in the spotlight as Caitlyn Jenner has. It’s another thing completely when you call Wilton ‘home.’
Shortly after the Vanity Fair cover story with Jenner, GOOD Morning Wilton editor Heather Borden Herve and intern Stephanie Scamuffo sat down with Matt Brush, 18, a transgender man who graduated from Wilton High School in 2013. We talked with him about what his own experience has been, how he felt through high school, and what his life is like now–as a student at UCONN, as someone who works as a facilitator and educator on LGBTQ issues, health education and women’s studies…and, simply, as Matt.
Stephanie: Have you visited any of the schools since you have been home?
Matt: I visited the high school about a month ago; I was at Middlebrook just last week actually, and I visited a couple teachers–actually, they came to see me because they heard I was in the school. It’s weird to see people now because, they’re like, “Woah, I didn’t even recognize you!” I walk into the middle school or anywhere, and I’ll go up to people and be like, “Hey,” and I’ll just get this blank stare. Like, “Who are you again?”
Heather: What an interesting phenomenon, that you have to reintroduce yourself.
Matt: Like the pharmacist doesn’t recognize me anymore–I’m a different person.
Matt: Some people use it to their advantage, like, “I can be anyone I want.”
Heather: That might actually be a refreshing thing. Life kind of starts over in a way.
Matt: It does, it’s nice. [laughs]
Heather: How long have you lived in Wilton?
Matt: We moved here in 2007, so I was here eight years. I started in 7th grade.
Heather: So you went through two years of Middlebrook and four years at the high school. When did you say, “That is not who I am, this is who I am?”
Matt: Not until college. I started at UCONN in the fall of 2013. And I called my dad on the phone one day, after class one morning, and I just blurted it out to him–“Dad, I don’t think I’m going to live the rest of my life as a woman. I think there’s something I need to change.”
I had come out as gay back in high school, sophomore–maybe junior year–and I was dating someone all through high school. So I kind of assumed this identity that other people had placed on me–“You’re a girl who likes girls.” So that’s what people were telling me, that’s the role that I was put in, and so that’s what I was for a long time.
But when I got to college I started meeting other people that had started transitioning, and who were in varying stages. I kind of realized my gender was separate from my sexual orientation, which I think is something that people struggle with personally, but right now we’re hearing a lot about it in the media. People don’t understand what the difference is–that they’re related, but not the same.
Some people call me a “late bloomer” in terms of being trans, because a lot of people say, “I knew since I was 4 years old.” I have a friend who says that he used to go to sleep and think, “If I’m good enough, I’ll wake up and I’ll be a boy.” I don’t think I ever really had that because my parents let me have my self-expression. I wasn’t any particular kind of girl, or type of kid, I just was me. I got teased a lot in middle school for being a tomboy and people used to make fun of me, but for me, my parents and my family were so supportive. They always said, “Wear what you want.”
It wasn’t an issue of you can’t be gay or you can’t be this, that, or the other. I have an aunt who’s gay, so both my parents were from the beginning, “Oh, maybe she’s gay and she’ll grow up and that’s fine, we love her anyway.”
I don’t think anyone really saw the trans-thing coming. But I started questioning in high school. I talked to my girlfriend at the time about it, and I felt she was pretty unreceptive to it. She was one of the first people I told and I felt as though the relationship didn’t have room for my developing identity. That relationship had problems on its own, that was one of the many.
At that point I kind of shut it down and thought I couldn’t make that kind of decision because it was really daunting. Thinking about the people that I’d heard about, with just the little research that I’d done on the internet. It involves hormones and it involves surgery and these are all things that cost thousands and thousands of dollars. And I was just a teenager, in high school, and there was just too much going on. You know, put it on the back-burner.
I think once I got some time to myself at college and separated myself from my family, I started seeing myself as an independent human being, I realized what I was doing wasn’t fitting what I needed. I was also sick of living in this kind of a limbo of people labeling me a certain way because I looked a certain way, and me not feeling comfortable with the way people saw me. So it was kind of a disconnect of how people saw me and how I saw myself. I was just wearing the clothes that I thought were comfortable, and for other people, it was, “Is that a boy or a girl? What are you doing, are you in the right bathroom?” Stuff like that.
Heather: I imagine going to college eased that up because, no matter who you are, part of that whole process of going away to college is figuring out who you are.
Heather: By 2007, it certainly wasn’t as broadly accepted as it is today. So how did you find the environment at Wilton High School? You said sophomore year is when you came out.
Matt: I don’t think I ever really formally ‘came out,’ I more came out as dating this girl–we were just the token lesbian couple everyone knew, that’s who we were.
I was in the GSA [Gay Straight Alliance] freshman and sophomore year. That organization was just not organized and subsequently fell apart. There was no structure. [But] I found it helpful because we went to the True Colors Conference, which was up at UCONN. I fell in love with the campus when I went up there for the first time.
I don’t think anyone had the guts to say anything to our faces, but the little that I did hear, behind our backs. I remember one incident with prom tickets. One person was spreading a rumor that we got free prom tickets–these are $80 tickets, so I would have been pissed too. I approached her about it, and said, “Just because I’m taking someone of the same sex? It won’t affect anybody.
When prom finally did roll around, senior year, the same person, I heard even more about her talking about that both [my girlfriend and I] went in tuxes. She had a real problem with that. We had hot pink vests and ties, I thought we looked great. But she had a real problem with that.
My friends were always really supportive of my sexuality. In junior year, I wore a tux that year as well. I showed up to a pre-prom party, and we were taking pictures. I looked like a guy in the suit, and I went with all the guys to take the picture, and I remember one of the moms tried to get me out of it, because she was like, “Guys only,” and one of the other moms was like, “What are you talking about–the guys, they look great!” I was just like, “Whatever, I look great in those pictures.”
All the stories I can remember involving my gender, they’re always uncomfortable. But nobody was ever a jerk to me about it.
For a very long time I had a crippling fear of public restrooms, I hated them. Almost every time I went into a women’s restroom, someone would say something. I would get yelled at, or I would get chased out of them. Now men don’t actually care, you can walk into a men’s room, and they would just be like, “Whatever.” That was something that I always had a lot of anxiety about.
One year on the band trip, we had stopped at a gas station to go to the bathroom, and I went into the women’s room. I came out and there was a mom who was a chaperone on the trip, and she looked at me and she looked at the sign, she looked at me, she looked at the sign, and she walked out and she looked at the sign again. And I’m like, “Its all right, I’m fine.” In those situations its not my job to soothe your weirded-out-ness.
Even though it was different to have someone gender-nonconforming, someone who looked not like any particular gender, it was a challenge for some people, but I never got any direct negativity.
Heather: On the flip side, were there people who went out of their way to say, “Of course, whatever you want to be, we’ll take you however you want to be.” Outside of friends and family, were there people in Wilton who were more accepting?
Matt: I sent an e-mail in my freshman year of college after I came out, to the teachers at the high school and the middle school. I sent a mass e-mail and it was even before I decided on a name, I was still going by M.G., my initials–which people still call me. The responses I got from that were wonderful. In particular I remember Ms. Lussier, whenever I go back to see her, she’s just always been great.
Mr. Fishman was always really great with that, he ran the GSA. His door was always open; if you were having a bad day he was always the kind of guy you could go to and talk to or just sit in his office. Mr. Gawle, he has always been. I was in three of four jazz bands at one point; I was in marching band all four years; I’ve done little events for him and stuff, like Christmas stuff. Mr. Rhodes too, but I don’t think any of the teachers ever made me feel uncomfortable about my gender and that was something I really valued. I think they knew I had a lot of anxiety about it and they knew that it made me uncomfortable and subsequently really just kind of made it something that was transparent and it was just, it is what it is.
That being said I remember substitutes, it was always weird when they came in, there were times when I would get misgendered by teachers and stuff.
Heather: That’s interesting, talking about the misgendering. This is just thinking out loud, but just like the Wilton Board of Education is reevaluating the grade weighting policy, I wonder if they’ve ever considered a policy that is more pan-gender accepting? Just think how graduation has blue robes for boys and white robes for girls–it’s limiting, isn’t it?
Stephanie: Or a gender neutral bathroom?
Matt: Not a lot of people think about it, but in terms of policy change, it’s very simple. It requires very little effort to change things–like white and blue robes, that bothered the crap out of me, that I couldn’t wear a blue robe. It wasn’t that I wanted to wear blue, it was that I did not want to be gendered.
I have a friend who’s currently going to WHS, and he’s going through everything I’m going through, just two years earlier. He’s allowed to use the boys’ room. There’s anxiety there because, just because a teacher is okay doesn’t mean a student won’t be a jerk about it. He also doesn’t take gym because he can’t exercise with the chest binder that he wears. So he has some sort of other arrangement, but the only gender neutral bathroom that they have are the faculty ones, which all have keys and are single stall, and the nurse’s room. It’s humiliating to go to the nurse’s office just to go to the bathroom and it’s totally out of the way.
Heather: I want to write this with no room for interpretation–the way you want it to be covered and how you want to present everything.
Matt: Thank you. I appreciate that. It’s sometimes a challenge. Just like etiquette. Like, how the word transgender is an adjective, not a noun. You would never call someone “a transgender”; it would be like calling someone “a gay.” It’s not quite right, it’s not wrong, but it doesn’t sound right. It just sounds like you’re talking about an alien or something. Just like a person with brown hair, a person with a disability, it’s “someone who is transgender.”
Heather: What pronouns would you like us to use? I don’t want to label you…
Matt: In a [recent] article, someone wrote, “Matthew Brush, who transitioned from female to male.“ Again not wrong, but he wrote that my friend was “a transgender man,” and I like that, I guess. Female to male isn’t wrong, but there seems to be this obsession and curiosity among people who are cisgender–which means “not-trans”–an obsession with, “What were you before?” or, “What was your name before?”
As a community we tried to move away from that. It’s like saying, “You can do whatever you want, you can have all these surgeries, you can say this until you’re blue in the face, but at the end of the day, you’re still this.”
It’s the same thing as using words like ‘biologically.’ That word means nothing. Biologically, sex is way more complicated than male or female.
So I guess, I would say, I’m a transgender man. I could also say, I’m a transsexual man–‘transsexual’ means someone who has pursued surgery and hormones, and typically refers to a more binary person, someone who’s gone from male-to-female or female-to-male, someone who doesn’t necessarily define as ambiguous or gender queer or something.
‘Transgender man’ works–it validates my identity as a man, but it also include another part of my identity.
Heather: It just lets you chose how you want to be defined. It’s kind of unfair to make people put any definition on themselves if they’re not ready to, but if that’s the way you’re ready to say, “This is how I’d like to be referred to,” then that’s awesome.
But for a lot of readers, it’s probably not in the realm of their experience or understanding.
Matt: For most people it’s hard enough to get the idea of being trans in a binary sense–you can only be male or female, you can only be one or the other, not a combination. My identity has changed a lot and is different depending on who is asking. Like when my dad asks about it, it’s easier for me to say to him, “I’m a man, I’m a boy, I’m your son, I need you to see me as 100-percent male and that’s it.”
I do identify on the binary spectrum; I don’t necessarily define as genderqueer, I very strongly identify as a man with masculine characteristics. However, society tells me that I am a man because I wear men’s clothing. I have a low voice, which is associated with testosterone; I have the secondary characteristics of a man, so it’s a complicated balance of how I see myself and how other people see me. A lot of people who are non-binary or gender nonconforming have labels placed on them whether they want to or not.
When I tell large groups who I don’t think have a good understanding of what ‘trans’ means in a broad sense, who have more of an understanding of people like Caitlyn Jenner, going from male to female, or someone like [actress] Laverne Cox or Chaz Bono, who show no signs of ambiguity in their gender, who typically have surgery–which unfortunately has now become the standard that we have created for transpeople. You’re born one way and later you become the “opposite” sex, when in reality people have deep, complicated, [identities].
I can’t explain to you how I feel about my gender, it’s something everybody feels, but it’s confusing when everybody is telling you the way to be, or there’s ‘only’ two ways to be, when in reality we’ve made it up. Why is blue a boys’ color? Why is pink a girls’ color? It used to not be a girls’ color. It’s hard for people to look at because it makes them question everything. It makes them question their own gender, it makes them question the people around them, and I think having ambiguity is a threat to people.
One of the first things you notice about someone, as soon as you meet them, you typically classify them as either male or female, and when you can’t do that, you don’t know where to start, and that’s really, really hard for people. I’ve had the privilege of experiencing that anxiety going away because now when people look at me they don’t question anything. But there are some people who never have that. And there are people who don’t want that, there are people who like being questioned.
Heather: With the perspective of having grown up in Wilton, what do you want Wilton to take away from this interview.
Matt: For everyone learning about the trans community, and just learning about different people–just listen. Because you can’t learn anything if you’re talking, you have to listen. The best way you can learn is to talk to people about their experiences, and do your research, do your homework. I encourage questions, and I love questions, but Google is a great thing.
There’s definitely resources out there for people to just read. I encourage people to take in multiple perspectives, look at all of the media rather than just one news source. It’s also important to be nonjudgmental and understand that everyone does things differently, everyone is going to live their lives in a different way, and if that’s what makes them happy then you should be happy for them and support them.
And if it makes you uncomfortable you should look at why it makes you uncomfortable, because you might learn something about yourself. I think a lot of people who have outbursts or negative opinions about stuff like this, I just encourage them to look at where those feelings are coming from. It takes so much more energy to hate people than to love people. And at the end of the day if someone wants to do something to make their life better, just do your best to support them.
Heather: Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Matt: What I would say to Wilton is that everybody is struggling, you have to remember that everybody is struggling. That’s something that not everybody thinks about, but if you can understand that someone is going through something that is probably one of the hardest things they’ve ever had to go through, then you can really have a wonderful perspective on life and care for people the way you should. I think establishing that new normal is important, but like in high school, I got good grades, I was in band, I did all sorts of stuff, and you know what, I turned out all right. And I’m trans. It’s just another thing.
Editor’s note: This article has been edited to remove some references to the subject’s previous girlfriend, who objected to the recollections and felt they did not portray her or her actions accurately. The current version continues to reflect the way Brush says he experienced events and the participants from his perspective.