Friday, January 31, 2014

Just a girl, in the world

For Riley's parents, one of the first giveaways was the tea towel. At three years of age, Riley would shape it onto her head like a pair of pigtails and flick it from side to side. "She got into trouble with the person who ran her pre-school," says Riley's mother, Carol. "They said, 'This boy has got to stop playing with the girls and getting the girls to dress him up and wear tea towels on his head.'"

Riley, 15, from Sydney's north shore, is biologically male – but says being born a boy simply never made any sense. The high school student is one of an increasing number of teenagers who identify as transsexuals – those who feel they are trapped in the wrong body. Some are so sure that nature got it wrong that they are taking the bold step of "transitioning" – presenting themselves outwardly as the sex that they feel they are – during their teenage years or even earlier.

For Riley, 2012 has been a watershed year. After going to school with bras secreted under her school shirt and with minimal make-up, she started wearing the girls’ school uniform. She is also doing some schooling of her own, teaching the teachers in the correct use of transgender pronouns. "They were having a lot of trouble with calling me 'she', but they are getting better," she says.

When I meet Riley at her suburban home on a Sunday morning, she's dressed in jeans, knee-high boots, a cropped leather jacket and a T-shirt that boasts she's an "Angel by Day, Devil by Night". Her hair is styled perfectly, framing her prettily made-up face – as befitting for someone who is studying hairdressing part-time at TAFE along with her school subjects. We sit in the living room, where the table is scattered with photos of her as a young child. She seems to be constantly in fancy dress: vibrant-coloured outfits, make-up, glittery headbands. In one photo she's dressed in a cowboy suit but still manages to look feminine.

"All my life I've never really been a boy, I've never liked boy things," she says. "It was always Bratz dolls and Barbie dolls and everything." Her current obsessions are roller derby, vintage fashion and rockabilly music.

Riley's parents, Carol and Chris, have always been incredibly supportive, which has helped her navigate the difficult path through school. "In primary school it was hard but looking back it was easier than high school," Riley says. "When it came to sleepovers, it didn't matter if you were a boy or a girl. Now in high school it is completely different: guys don't sleep at girls' houses, girls don't sleep at guys' houses. People get confused as to which one I am, so sleepovers are not really happening.”
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