STAMFORD, Conn. (AP) - On the surface, Jessie Tarzia’s bedroom looks like one belonging any 18-year-old girl.
Glass jars filled with well-used paint brushes sit on one shelf, and on a pink bucket chair is a white ukulele. The bookshelf is lined with nonfiction about the supernatural and horror novels, her favorite genre. A bulletin board features photo-booth snapshots with Jessie and her friends striking silly poses at a “Sweet 16” party. There’s also a tall, white umbrella lamp for filming YouTube videos, a remnant of her vlogging days.
Jessie is a high-school senior, a painter, an actress, a daughter, a big sister and a friend, among other things. She is also one of 1.4 million transgender people in the United States, according to estimates by UCLA’s Williams Institute. Being transgender is just another component of Jessie’s life. But coming out as a young student in middle school presented a unique set of challenges.
“I noticed something was different when I was 5 years old,” she said. “I just didn’t feel comfortable with myself, with the clothes I was wearing, the way I acted, my interests. There were definitely some things I felt were still very boy-like…but I always felt there was this need for me to do something else.”
Given the name Justin at birth, Jessie always wanted to wear dresses, play with dolls and put on makeup.
One night, when she was about 8 years old, she told her mother, Janet: “Mom, I think God made a mistake. He gave me the wrong body. I’m supposed to be a girl.”
It was around 2008, before the rise of transgender figures like actress Laverne Cox or former Olympian Caitlyn Jenner. Janet and Jessie’s father, Nick Tarzia, said they lacked resources to learn about raising a transgender child.
“There’s no manual,” Nick Tarzia said. “There’s no ‘What to do when your child tells you she’s transgender.’ You’re trying to figure it out yourself.”
The Tarzias let Jessie - who struggled in school due to attention-deficit-related learning disorders - dress in a more traditionally feminine manner. However, her classmates at Rogers International Magnet School were confused by the change.
“They didn’t really understand,” Jessie said. “They were just kind of like, ‘You’re different and we don’t feel comfortable being around you.’ So I was pretty ostracized.”
It was around fifth or sixth grade when Justin befriended girls in her class who were more accepting. As she got older, she began forging renewed friendships with boys.
“It’s difficult when you’re a little kid to understand gender,” she said. “It’s not so black and white. To them, they’re going through a period where they’re trying to understand themselves, too. It’s hard to have someone who is so different… come into their lives, and for them to automatically accept that, I imagine, is very difficult as a cisgender child.”
When Justin started eighth grade, she changed her name and began introducing herself as Jessie, the final step of her coming out.
“I think people knew before,” Janet said. “It was just the name hadn’t changed. But people knew in seventh grade, in sixth grade…We all already were kind of there.”
Jessie had support from her school and classmates. When she went to school using her new name, many classmates accepted the change, and stood up for her against students who were critical of the transition.
“It made me feel good to know there were people supporting me other than my family,” Jessie said. “There were people who genuinely cared about my well-being and my happiness. It felt really freeing…to have people accept you as who you are.”
Christian, Jessie’s 17-year-old brother who also attended Rogers International, said he saw classmates struggle with his sister’s change, but the staff supported her.
“I think the school handled it well,” he said. “Some of the students weren’t the best…But (the teachers) were always looking out for her.”
The Tarzias met regularly with Rogers staff to discuss Jessie’s 504 plan - granted to her under the federal special-education law for children with disabilities. During those meetings, Jessie’s gender transition was discussed, and the school arranged for her to use the bathroom in the nurse’s office. But when the Tarzias learned about the Connecticut law allowing transgender people to use the bathroom of their preference, Jessie began using the girls restroom.
“I had enough of walking so far out of my way just to go to the bathroom,” she said. “I just went into the girls bathroom and when I came out, the world hadn’t exploded. Everyone was completely comfortable with it.”
Overall, Jessie and her family said the Rogers community made them feel supported as she transitioned. Janet said it was not necessarily because parents and teachers knew how to handle a child coming out as transgender; the community was just focused on accepting Jessie.
“They were always about her welfare, her feelings, what was best for her as a child,” Nick Tarzia said.
Jennifer Argenio, a social worker at Rogers, said the entire school community was proud of Jessie’s transition.
“I believe Jess’ journey, which began while attending Rogers, is a true reflection of the caring and supportive nature of our staff, students and community,” Argenio said. “Each and every day, we strive to make sure all of our students are equipped with both academic and social-emotional supports.”
After graduating from Rogers International, Jessie was overwhelmed by the larger class sizes and workload when she arrived at Stamford High School. In addition to her learning disabilities, she was diagnosed with clinical depression and anxiety, which according to the American Psychological Association, affects transgender people at higher rates than the general population.
As a result, she missed much of her sophomore year and her grades suffered. The district helped Jessie’s parents get her into The Spire School, which focuses on individualized education for students with social and emotional difficulties. At the West Side school, Jessie’s grades improved and she’s been accepted to four colleges. She hopes to study social work and become a licensed therapist to help adults struggling with gender identity.
Jessie still acts in productions with the Stamford High theater company, The Strawberry Hill Players. She was recently the lead in “Joanna’s Story,” a one-act play about the struggles of growing up transgender, a plight she feels is important for the general public to understand. It’s no wonder: A recent Harris poll showed only 16 percent of Americans say they personally know someone who is transgender.
After the hit show, many people said how proud they were of Jessie.
“We could not have done this alone,” Janet said. “It really takes a village…I am so grateful to live in the right village.”
Information from: The Advocate, http://www.stamfordadvocate.com
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