GREENWICH, Conn. (AP) – In ninth grade, Evan Connors was taken to the hospital three times. He was reclusive. He was mute. He hated himself.
“Ninth grade was like getting sucked into a black hole,” he says. “I’d just … do things to myself that weren’t good. It was horrible, it was scary, I didn’t know who I was.”
His mother, Wendy Connors, didn’t know how to reach her child.
“I vividly remember standing in your room when you were so, beyond,” she says to him.
Terrified, as any parent would be, Wendy told herself she was going to stop what she saw happening.
“I said, … ‘I’m not going to lose my kid, I’m going to change things right now. I’m going to pull you back out.’And you know, it was just a matter of love and talking and making sure I didn’t just give up. And here we are. Right?”
Evan nods. Despair only brought the pair closer. So, three years later when Evan told his mother he might want to change, Wendy supported him – even though the change was a big one.
Evan Connors used to be Meghan Connors.
After struggling through freshman, sophomore and junior years at Greenwich High School, finally, last summer, Meghan told her mother she might be a man.
Wendy was skeptical. “Is this real or are we trying something else out to see if it fits?” she wondered.
Before the school year was over, both were sure.
Evan Connors is transgender. While he was born biologically female, he says his internal sense of self is male.
His path to where he is today was often bewildering, and often painful. But, unlike with previous generations, it paralleled a movement that was slowly and quietly gaining momentum.
In recent years, transgender characters started to appear in popular television series such as “Orange is the New Black” and “Glee.” In January, President Obama spoke to the protection of transgender individuals in his State of the Union address.
Then, in April, when Caitlyn Jenner announced herself to the world – two months after Evan told his mother he was definitely male – she thrust a simmering movement forward and sparked a conversation that has generated a growing tolerance for transgender rights.
“It’s the craziest timing,” says Wendy about the events coinciding with the transformation of her child.
Those events have begun to make life a little easier for a group of people among the most marginalized in society.
“I’ve always felt different than a girl,” Evan says.
He’d always been a “tomboy.” Meghan and her mother would argue at clothing stores over which department to go to – the men’s or women’s. At 10 years old, she was the only girl on her youth football team, attending all of the practices and displaying a competitive ability, though, he now says, given significantly less playing time than other, male teammates.
But Meghan, who played basketball and football and ran track, quit doing all those things once she entered freshman year. She hated gym because she didn’t like using the locker rooms.
That year she also secretly began dating a girl, and thought she was a lesbian.
“(In ninth grade) I was just scared,” Evan says. “I didn’t know many people then that were either openly gay or openly, whatever, so I didn’t have that support system.”
Meeting regularly with a social worker at school helped. Sophomore year, she posted a picture of herself and her girlfriend on Instagram.
“There were a lot of questions being asked at first,” Evan says of his peers, though nobody was cruel at school. For that he is grateful, but adds he still felt isolated, and often lost.
“I didn’t have anyone to talk to that felt the same way as me.”
The high school’s gay-straight alliance, dedicated to LGBTQ and allied students, disbanded after his sophomore year, Evan says, the same year he as Meghan came out as lesbian. School officials say LGBTQ support groups met regularly this past academic year, but Evan says he wasn’t aware of any.
Knowing people who were gay or transgender growing up could have made his freshman year a little easier, or at least helped him find himself quicker, Evan says.
Before senior year, Meghan cut her hair and began toying with the possibility of identifying as a male.
“I discovered new things about my identity after getting a haircut. Looking at myself in a mirror, as a guy, and seeing how good I looked – not in a cocky way – but it gave me confidence,” he says.
Friends were generally supportive of his new, masculine appearance. In classrooms, some teachers were confused.
“First day of school I had a teacher tell me they never heard of a guy named Meghan. I was just like, ‘Yeah, it’s weird isn’t it?'” Evan says.
Substitute teachers were worse.
“They would always think I was kidding around with them when they said my name in class. Or they kept repeating my name and I just kept saying ‘here.’ I hated that. I always tried to avoid that.”
One thing that helped ease the anxiety was an after-school job at a local ice cream shop. Uniforms there were gender neutral. Pronouns rarely came up. On the job, Evan says he didn’t have to think about what others thought of him, and that helped him feel more comfortable in his own skin.
“It’s just a silly old ice cream store job, right?” says Wendy. “But look, look what it’s done.”
Evan averts his eyes, shifting his baseball cap lower on his forehead.
In February, Evan had a breakthrough. Writing his college essay – about being a lesbian – the words didn’t ring true.
“It was a lie. I still had something missing,” he says.
That’s when he confirmed for his mom what he had previously suggested: No more just toying with the idea of masculinity.
“I said this is real, this has not gone away, these feelings are still here.”
After shifting his gender identity and his name, Evan stopped using the Greenwich High School bathrooms, which are divided into male and female.
Public bathrooms still give him social anxiety.
“I’m still not where I want to be as a guy, and as a girl, it would be weird,” says Evan, sporting typical teen male clothing: baseball cap, baggy shorts and sneakers.
He purchased a binder, an article of clothing commonly used by female-to-male transgender people to flatten their chests. He said he’s not interested in getting surgery on his intimate parts at the moment, but he is considering hormone therapy this fall. He and his mother have already found a place in New Haven where he could go.
From the point he committed to being male, things began to get better. But social anxiety is a large part of the transgender experience, the clinical term for which is “gender dysphoria,” “dysphoria” being a feeling of anxiety and discomfort.
Evan still hasn’t spoken to his father about being transgender. He says he doesn’t want to make his dad feel uncomfortable by confronting the issue. His mother has talked to his father, but he persists in calling Evan “Meggie.”
Every time Evan hears that old name, he cringes. He said it reminds him of the person he pretended to be, not the person he is. It reminds him of that black hole in ninth grade.
“To see the progression from that time to where we are now, I can’t even tell you how proud I am of this kid sitting here, just the confidence and the ability to sit and talk openly and present yourself as yourself,” Wendy says.
“I mean, at 18, for anyone to feel that confident about who they are, really, just to even be so positive. And we haven’t been positive all the time. To see that smile and that head held up high, it’s just amazing. I’m so excited for the future, now that we’re headed on the right path.”
“Are you going to cry?” asks Evan.
“Almost,” his mom answers. “Just because I’m happy. I’m so proud of you.”
Evan graduated in June. At the ceremony in Cardinal Stadium he wore red, the gown color for male students. Evan’s classmates voted him “Most Changed” in this year’s yearbook.
In the fall, he plans to attend Southern Connecticut State University in New Haven.
“I feel really comfortable going to my college next semester,” says Evan, who reached out to SAGE, an LGBTQ group at the school that he plans on getting involved with in the fall.
Evan and his mother also reached out to the university to see what accommodations were available for someone in his situation. The school was able to arrange for him to have a transgender roommate.
When the two met at orientation, his new roommate was the first transgender person Evan had ever met.