With a hip goatee and retro glasses, I’m immediately struck by the handsome, broad shouldered 17-year-old young man with an easy smile. I take note of his physicality because I know Nathan Jones was born biologically female as Natalie.
After much soul-searching and many consultations with therapists and doctors, Natalie’s parents made the brave, yet still controversial decision to allow Natalie to join the ranks of the first generation of transgender kids. Nathan wanted to transition socially and medically before reaching adulthood.
"I've always felt like I've had a boy's brain," Nathan said. "And I always felt like I was trapped in this girl's body."
Though born a girl, Natalie Jones (a pseudonym) was just 4 years old, declaring, “I’m a boy." In the second grade, just to clear up any confusion, Natalie took black crayon and in big, bold letters wrote “I AM NOT A GRIL” (You’ll excuse the misspelling of a second grader.) and “I AM A BOY”. His teacher scooped up the notes and sent the child to the school counselor. But instead of getting in trouble, the guidance counselor gave her good guidance, providing a haven.
The story would not have been possible without the quiet tenacity of ABC News' "Nightline" producer Melia Patria. Nathan’s family trusted her enough to allow to Patria to follow Nathan’s transition for four years. Often with just a DV camera in hand, Patria returned to Nathan’s story at crucial moments and managed to capture his remarkable evolution: From a seemingly depressed, self-conscious, monosyllabic 14-year-old into the self-confident young man I see before me.
Our cameras were there when he legally changed his name to Nathan; when he embarked on testosterone therapy; and when he had his breasts removed at age 16. He had been a brooding teenager who strapped down his breasts and wore hoodies with shoulders hunched over on scalding summer days for fear of showing his breasts. After the “top surgery," as it's called, he lost the bindings and the hoodies. His posture changed, and he felt comfortable enough to go swimming for the first time in years.
“It's been forever since I've been at a pool and felt comfortable being in a pool with my shirt off," Nathan said. "I can't even describe the feeling. It's kind of life changing.”
Nathan’s parents ask that you have tolerance in hearing his story. And before judging, know this: In the last six months at least six transgender teens have commit suicide according to news reports, and it's often because they're unsupported by parents or peers. In fact, a staggering 41 percent of transgender youth will attempt suicide before age 25.
Dr. Marvin Belzer runs the largest transgender youth clinic in the country as the Director of Adolescent Medicine at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles. Belzer pointed out, "They get into adolescence, and their body starts going through the wrong puberty. And it just becomes a panic, and they get depressed and suicidal. The percentages [of] how many were spat on and how many were hit, how many had to drop out of school, are horrendous."
Nathan, too, was teased and physically bullied in school until he eventually decided to be home schooled. Though he lost touch with that second grade counselor who made him feel safe all those years ago, we wondered if we could find her. And sure enough we did. We quickly made arrangements for a reunion.
Amy answered the door with a squeal of delight, "Look at you! Oh, my gosh! Oh, that's my-- my wish and my dream come true." With a laugh, she added, “You've changed just a little.”
Within moments, there were tears in her eyes.
Amy remembers one day in the sanctuary of her office when then Natalie said to her, "My mom says I'm always gonna be a girl," and the young child cried.
Nathan said, "You sat me down and you just told me that there were other people like me, and I'd never heard that before. I never knew that there was anyone else like me. I thought I was the only one. And that one thing -- it has kept me going all these years, just the fact that you said that to me meant so much."
“What Natalie was telling me was so real," Amy said. "And I never knew until this moment that you'd never had anybody say that to you."
Nathan's parents join the conversation, and Amy tells us that when she retired after a 20-year career, she kept only one file: Natalie/Nathan's file. She hoped that this day might come.
Amy said simply, "I couldn't not know the end of this story."
It's been a decade since Nathan, then Natalie, was sent to Amy's office for passing out those black crayon notes in class. Amy pulls out that one student file she had taken with her. Inside were the notes that the second grader had scrawled all those years ago with the so vivid, simply, yet powerful declaration, which could not be more clear, "I am not a girl." "I am a boy."
"There was a lot of time where it was really hard, and it just kept me going," said Nathan.
“That means a lot to me,” replied Amy, smiling broadly. "And look how handsome you are. Oh, my gosh!"
"Just thank you for everything," added the young man, who is now so well-adjusted and boasts a wide set of friends. "You never made me feel like I was wrong and so many people had made me feel like I was wrong. But I got so much comfort in having you."
Nathan continued, "I don't want another kid to have to go through life thinking they're different. They need that one person that says, 'You -- you're all right."