- Associated Press - Saturday, February 1, 2014

MADISON, Wis. (AP) - The student leaders of the Gay Straight Alliance at Madison West High School sat around one recent day over their lunch hour, reviewing reaction to the presentations they’d given the day before to several freshman health classes.

The panels on sexual orientation and gender identity had gone well, though the students were a little surprised by how personal the questions got. One audience member asked a transgender student what “physical parts” he had.

“I feel like the trans kids always get those questions,” said junior Ayden Prehara, 16, who will be co-president of the Gay Straight Alliance next year. “It’s more annoying than anything.”

Ayden is a veteran presenter on such panels, not just at West but at other district schools and at schools across southern Wisconsin. He’s been open for some time about being transgender, having transitioned from female to male at age 14.

First-ever data released in January show Ayden is far from alone. The Dane County Youth Assessment, a survey given every three years, found 1.5 percent of Dane County high school students self-identify as transgender, or about 250 students out of 17,000.

Ayden said he knows at least 10 other transgender students just at West High School.

“West is a unique place in that everyone seems supportive, or at least no one is openly hateful,” he told the Wisconsin State Journal (http://bit.ly/1cpHYP5).

Barely an inch of bare wall space peeks through in Ayden’s bedroom. There’s a huge, multicolored “Born This Way” banner, and posters of all of the members of the pop group One Direction.

He saves mementos, including ID tags from the various state and national conferences he’s attended and spoken at. Quotes from his favorite book, “The Perks of Being a Wallflower,” circle the room.

“We accept the love we think we deserve,” reads one.

Ayden pulled a bin of medical supplies from a bedroom shelf. For more than a year, with a physician’s approval, he has been injecting testosterone into his thigh every other week, the first step in his physical transformation.

“This little guy is pretty brutal,” he said, cradling a needle in his palm.

But he loves the results. After about two months, his voice began to deepen. Around seven months, facial hair sprouted. “Now I have the ability to grow an awful, awful boy beard,” he said.

His hairline became boxier, his face more angular.

When Chris Prehara, Ayden’s mother, began talking about the transformation one recent day, Ayden ribbed her, saying, “Five bucks she starts to cry.”

“I guess I see them as two different people, but it’s hard not to blend the two,” she said of the daughter she gave birth to and the son she now has. “I guess we all go through changes. His is more drastic.”

Ayden grew up a tomboy and in sixth grade thought he was a lesbian. By seventh grade, he started wearing boyish clothes.

“At the time, it was emotionally troubling,” Ayden said. “It brought out a lot of anxiety at school and some negative vibes toward myself.”

About the same time, he started watching YouTube videos of people who had changed genders.

“The Internet was a really big part of my coping mechanism,” he said. “Anything I wanted to know, I could look up. It was a really nice way to explore it without having to identify myself as transgender right away.”

Near the end of eighth grade, Ayden remembers his mom casually asking if he thought he was a boy. “I said yes.”

Ayden’s parents said they initially knew next to nothing about transgender issues, but they have never felt the need to reach out to a support group.

Ayden has become so knowledgeable about transgender issues that he’s been the one educating us,” said Todd Prehara, Ayden’s father, who works at Promega Corp.

“The way we view it is that it’s not something wrong with him that needs to be fixed,” said Chris Prehara, a supply-chain manager for an online company. “These kids are just who they are. It’s not a choice. You just need to love them and support them.”

Ayden has one sibling, Ryan, 15, a sophomore at West. When asked how Ryan found out his brother was transgender, Ayden couldn’t remember and yelled the question to Ryan down the hall.

“I’m not an idiot,” came the response.

“That works,” said Ayden, laughing.

The Prehara family moved from Georgia to Madison three years ago, during the summer when Ayden transitioned from female to male. The timing was coincidental but helpful, Ayden said. No one at his new school ever knew him as a girl.

“I haven’t had a lot of the problems that some transgender students have had, and I think part of that is because I don’t have a back story,” he said. Also, students who transition from male to female seem to face more discrimination, Ayden said.

He has seen the chilling statistics about transgender youth, such as high rates of suicide attempts but said they don’t apply to him.

“I don’t want people to assume that ‘transgender’ means ‘depressed,’” he said. “I think I have myself pretty much together.”

Ayden speaks highly of West and especially of people such as Ellen Pryor, the dean of students, and Liz Lusk, the district’s resource teacher for students who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or questioning (LGBTQ). His parents say they haven’t had to advocate for Ayden because he’s so good at it himself.

“The school knows I’m not going to accept things that aren’t up to par,” Ayden said.

Pryor, the faculty adviser to West’s Gay Straight Alliance, described Ayden as having a low-key, no-drama personality.

“It’s so impressive to see a student like Ayden, who’s gone through so much change, be so self-confident and solid and kind,” she said.

It often falls to Ayden to educate others on transgender issues, a responsibility he has taken on willingly and with good humor, said Isa Meyer, 17, a West senior and co-president of this year’s Gay Straight Alliance.

“He’s just a natural leader and never complains,” she said.

This June, Ayden and his parents will travel to Cleveland for what, in the transgender community, is called “top surgery.” His breasts will be flattened and his chest contoured to be more typically male.

He will be 17 by then, about the earliest surgeons will do such surgery. Until then, he wears an undergarment called a binder that evens out his chest.

The family is setting aside about $10,000 for the surgery, which includes a week or so in a Cleveland hotel during recovery, said Chris Prehara. Insurance does not cover any of it, she said.

“The way his father and I look at it is that he was put in the wrong body and now it needs to be corrected,” she said.

Ayden declined to say whether additional sex-reassignment surgery is something he’ll pursue.

“I feel as if the issue of what genitalia a trans person has is a way of over-sexualizing the person’s identity,” he said. “It takes away from the bigger issues trans people face in their lives.”

As for the surgery this summer, Ayden is slightly nervous but eager. “All good things come with risk,” he said.

He looks forward to getting back to Madison and being a typical high school senior.

“A lot of the time, I don’t even think about being transgender,” he said. “It’s a part of me. It’s not all of me.”

___

Information from: Wisconsin State Journal, http://www.madison.com/wsj

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