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‘If there are no words for who you are, then you feel invisible’

Author Alex Myers recently spoke at Choate Rosemary Hall in Connecticut at the school’s fifth annual gay-straight alliance conference. He’s the first conference presenter to be transgender. Video by PBS NewsHour

Before there was a “T” in LGBT, Alex Myers had to fight for visibility. The abbreviation has since expanded, and the word “transgender” now has a solid foothold. But not long ago, there was no established community for transgender people.

Alex grew up as Alice in a small rural town in Maine. Growing up, he barely knew what “gay” or “lesbian” meant. And it wasn’t until attending a queer support group as a rising high-school senior that he even heard the word “transgender.”

He learned that being transgender meant someone whose sex assigned at birth is different from who they know they are on the inside. It’s also a word used by people that don’t belong to socially-defined gender categories.

Soon after, Myers cut his hair short and asked people to refer to him using masculine pronouns. He came out as transgender in 1995, before his senior year at Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire. Myers was the first openly transgender student to attend Harvard University in 1996. And, this past Sunday, he was the first transgender speaker at Choate Rosemary Hall’s fifth annual gay-straight alliance conference.

“If you can’t describe yourself, if you can’t look back in history and find people like you, if there are no words for who you are or what you feel, then you are invisible.”

“In the 1950s, [Choate] was a community primarily of wealthy white males,” said Jim Yanelli, director of student activities at the high school, once the stomping ground for President John F. Kennedy during his high school years. “So, the community has evolved considerably over the past 50 or 60 years.”

“There wasn’t a ‘T,'” Yanelli said. “There were gay kids, and then there were straight kids. We didn’t understand shades and variations.”

When Connecticut passed anti-discrimination laws in 2011 that prohibited discrimination on the basis of “gender identity or expression,” Choate updated its school policy.

Changes to the school’s non-discrimination clause “signaled to kids, who have thought of themselves as being on the fringe and somewhat hidden in the shadows, to be more welcomed at the table and more part of the conversation,” Yanelli said.

Choate school officials also said that no parents have come forward to express concerns about its ongoing conference on sexual minorities and straight supporters, or “SMASS.” More than 50 students attended the conference, 18 of them from Choate.

Before giving his talk, Myers, who worked to change Harvard’s own non-discrimination clause to include gender identity, spoke with some of the students from Sunday’s conference on the school soccer field.

“It’s really nice to see the words written into the rule book,” Myers told the students. “Gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender students at Choate, they exist, and you’re making them visible.”

Labels can allow us to claim our identity, he later added.

“Words become, in a positive way, a vessel or container for who we are,” Myers said in his presentation. “If you can’t describe yourself, if you can’t look back in history and find people like you, if there are no words for who you are or what you feel, then you are invisible.”

Thursday night on the NewsHour, Alex Myers, author of “Revolutionary,” shared his story with Hari Sreenivasan.

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