He Wasn’t Who He Saw in the Mirror

Transgender teen finds himself and becomes an outspoken advocate for others
Joel Johnson, soon to be a senior at East Hampton High School, will start the school year as a male student, after a recent surgery and legal name change. Bridget LeRoy

    “I had been born female but never felt that way,” said Joel Johnson, an East Hampton High School student who came out as transgender on April 21, 2012, and started publicly identifying as male that June.

    Since then, Joel has been able to literally become “himself,” transitioning from female to male with a legal name change, hormone therapy, and finally “chest-masculation” surgery in Pennsylvania last month.

    “Having my parents introduce me as their son and having my siblings greet me with ‘brother’ made a huge difference,” he said last week.

    He is still recovering from what is commonly called “top surgery” and said he is “beyond excited” to start his senior year without having to “chest-bind ever again,” an unpleasant process that he said was “seriously hindering my life” and causing painful bruises and blisters.

    “I’m free at last,” he said, adding that he is not planning further surgeries. “Bottom surgery is somewhat experimental and extremely pricey,” he said.

    He has been open about the process, believing that sharing his story might help people understand and accept him and others in similar situations.

    Joel’s transition had nothing to do with sexuality, he explained. He identified as “straight as female, which made me gay as a trans guy,” he said, and that confuses some people.

    When Joel first told his mother, Bridget LeRoy, that he was transgender, she spent about three hours asking, “Are you sure?” Ms. LeRoy recalled this week. After she told her husband, Eric Johnson, they spent another three hours mourning the loss of a daughter, “but we tend to turn things around quickly,” she said.

    They had accepted their daughter, Joelie, the way she was. “She was not a lesbian,” she was not “a tomboy,” Ms. LeRoy said, and it was clear that she was not happy.

    “I just want my children to be happy,” she said. “Rather than an extraordinarily depressed daughter . . . who would not look in the mirror since the age of 3,” she now has a son who “has done more in the last year as a guy than most 17-years-olds.” Along with the changes Joel made in his own life, he has also made changes and had a big impact in the community, his mother said. “What more could a parent want?” Joel has become an outspoken advocate for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender youth and has won local and even national recognition for his efforts. “It makes me very proud,” Ms. LeRoy said.

    In the spring of 2012, Ms. LeRoy had a meeting with Adam Fine, the principal of the high school, telling him, “Next year she is going to be a he.” His response, she said, was, “This is going to help us grow as a school.”

    Joel began hormone therapy last fall. Before he could start on testosterone therapy, “My mom and I drove to Brooklyn every week” to see caseworkers and physicians, he explained. The two-and-a-half-hour drive each way after school was “what anyone would do for their child,” said Ms. LeRoy.

    The cost of hormone therapy was minimal — $75 for a six-month supply of shots, with insurance.

    The surgery came after more than a year of gender therapy, visits with a psychiatrist, a psychologist, medical doctors, phone calls, parent support groups, and lawyers, Ms. LeRoy explained this week. There were hours of questioning from experts before the decision was final.

    Ms. LeRoy, a reporter for 30 years (including at The East Hampton Star), “did extensive research,” she said.

    Her stepmother, Kay LeRoy, formerly of Amagansett, “offered to pay the full amount for his top surgery, about $8,000,” Joel’s mother said, adding that if it was not for his grandmother, he would not have been able to pay for it.

    She is glad he had the surgery before his senior year at high school, “so he could fully participate as a student.” Hopeful for scholarships, Joel has his sights set on college, with the top three choices being Washington University in St. Louis, Soka University in California, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

    Despite the emotional pain of not feeling comfortable with his appearance, Joel has been on high honor roll every semester, and has also excelled as a student, activist, artist, writer, and poet. His awards have included the Frederick Douglas and Susan B. Anthony Award for humanitarianism. He was also a national runner up for the Gay Lesbian Straight Education Network’s student advocate of the year, chosen from over 500 nominees. 

    “Students in the hallway bow to him,” his mother said. Last year, when he became the president of the East Hampton Gay Straight Alliance, “It was a pretty intense year” with the suicide of David Hernandez, a gay student from Ecuador whose family indicated bullying as the cause. The Long Island Gay and Lesbian Youth organization came to the club to talk about the possibility of a new center, Joel said. “We were all pretty sure it was a pipe dream.”

    Joel had started going to LIGALY events the day before he came out, which he considers a testament to organization’s “ability to create a safe space.” He then began “ridiculous” trips that were 60 miles each way to a youth center farther west on the Island. It was “worth it every time,” he said.

    At early advisory meetings on the center, he was the only young person, “but I felt that if the center was for us, one of us had to be there.”

    After an invitation from the Rev. Mark Phillips at the Old Whalers Church in Sag Harbor, a temporary location was opened there on Aug. 10. Over 200 people attended the grand opening, including kids from schools across the East End and many school representatives and local government officials. Joel spoke, saying that for every kid there, there were 10 who were afraid to come forward.

    “I wasn’t expecting a center to open until I was away at college,” Joel said last week, but “we have somewhere to call our home away from home . . . for events and meetings and just seeing each other outside of school. . . . It’s more than we ever dreamed, and it’s only the beginning.”

    “I can’t wait to see what LIGALY will do once it gets a permanent space,” he said.

    Joel will turn 18 in three months, and “he is changed,”  his mother said. “His personality has come out. . . . The girl was like a Halloween costume, and now it’s off,” she said. “He hasn’t worn a shirt since the surgery, he is so happy and proud.”

    “I’m just waiting until he is not sore so I can get a full-on hug.”