Millersville, Md. (AP) – Matthew Nolte’s report card is stacked with A’s, but he scratched out the name on it – which is not Matthew – until the paper wore away, leaving a rectangular hole.
Matt, a junior at Old Mill High School, is a transgender student fighting for the school system to recognize his preferred, not legal, name.
“I know in my heart and in my soul that I’m a boy,” Matt said. “It’s a mixture of sadness that people see you that way, and anger that you were born dealing with this.”
Matt’s short hair is shaved at the sides, bringing out his soft features. His one-size-too-big button-up shirts hide his body shape. At times he lowers his voice when he talks, but strangers still mistake him for a girl sometimes. He hopes that will change this year – he has begun hormone treatment.
In November, he made his case to school officials, standing up at a board meeting in front of the superintendent.
“When I’m at school, this name that was assigned to me at birth follows me everywhere – from my grades, which I am quite proud of, to the attendance list that is called out every day,” he told George Arlotto and school board members. “I feel that I can no longer bear hearing this name every day.”
He did not share his birth name with The Capital.
Arlotto said the county is figuring out how to support transgender students.
“They’re new for us as a large school system,” he told Matt.
The issue isn’t new only to Anne Arundel.
Schools across the country are struggling to make policies that cover such issues as preferred names, sports team assignments and bathroom use.
Some schools make exceptions for preferred names on such things as attendance sheets. School systems and states have passed rules stating that students have the right to be referred to by their identifying name and pronoun of choice.
The Anne Arundel County school system is drafting guidelines for supporting transgender students.
School board President Stacy Korbelak said she’s open to adding a preferred name to some school documents and asked system officials to look into it.
Matt said his legal name shows up on transcripts and grade and attendance sheets.
He winces when substitute teachers checking attendance call out his legal name, revealing his former identity.
His classmates, he said, will “think it’s funny – oh, he has a girl’s name. Those are the ones that get stuck in my head.”
At an Annapolis restaurant in December, a waiter mistakes Matt for a girl. Matt shrugs and rolls his eyes. When the waiter returns, Matt stretches out his hand and says, “My name is Matt.”
The waiter apologizes. Later, when the waiter brings the check, he asks to see Matt’s photo identification to verify his credit card.
After scanning the card, he reads Matt’s feminine birth name out loud. That prompts Matt to explain he is a transgender man.
In January, a barista at a coffee shop in Crownsville makes the same mistake. Matt pauses, then introduces himself.
Explaining his gender is part of his life.
Matt dressed like a girl when he was younger because he wanted to fit in. He saw girls with long hair and skirts and imitated them. But after eighth grade, he decided to dress like a boy.
“I wasn’t going to live being so uncomfortable,” he said.
He first told his therapist about his gender identity, then his friends – and then his parents. Some teachers were understanding, others were not. Matt recalled an administrator calling him “it.”
At home, matters were more complicated.
Until December, Matt said, his mother prevented him from getting the hormonal and surgical treatment to physically become a male. She didn’t want him to legally change his name.
He felt forced to leave his mother’s house because she didn’t accept him. His mother declined to comment for this story.
Matt now lives with his father, Greg. Together they won the legal right for Matt to begin hormone treatment.
Matt, who takes medication for depression and anxiety and has been hospitalized for mental health issues, said that since then he has felt hopeful and less anxious.
“I am 10 times braver than I was last year,” he said.
Brave enough to question a school system.
Anne Arundel doesn’t have systemwide policies for restroom and locker room use for transgender students or on how teachers should address these students.
Individual schools, for example, make their own rules on which bathrooms transgender students use. Matt uses the boys’ bathroom in Old Mill High School, but used the nurses’ bathroom at Glen Burnie High School.
He remembers that at Glen Burnie he would be late to class because the nurses’ bathroom was farther away than the boys’ room. Then he’d have to explain his tardiness.
Katlyn Falls, a counselor at Old Mill, said school staff use Matt’s preferred name whenever they can. They sometimes print out labels of Matt’s preferred name to put on top of his legal name on tests or weekly grade sheets.
But it’s not done consistently, and the wrong name was called out recently in class, Matt said. Transcripts use legal names.
Falls said Matt advocates for himself.
“He’s really faced everything that’s been thrown his way head-on,” she said.
In December, teenagers sporting hair dyed in colors as diverse as their gender and sexual identities walk around Owen Brown Interfaith Center in Columbia during the Families & Allies of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community’s Christmas party.
Here, young people who feel alienated in their schools and communities talk about their lives and identities. Parents gather in a separate room to socialize.
Matt moves from person to person, warm and energetic with strangers and friends alike.
One of Matt’s friends, a 14-year-old transgender boy, is at the party. He asks to stay anonymous because some in his life don’t accept his identity.
His mom, Debra, is friends with Matt’s dad. At a round table, surrounded by Christmas decorations, they chat and laugh.
Debra home-schooled her son for a couple of months, while he bought male clothes and told friends and family about transitioning from a girl to a boy.
Debra, who lives in Severna Park, said she worried she couldn’t shield her son from bullies and others who don’t accept his identity.
“You never want life to be harder for your children,” she said. “It’s sad that life will be harder.”
Some of her son’s friends from Severna Park Middle School stopped talking to him after he told them about his identity.
The teenager, who is legally changing his name, binds his breasts with a sturdy cloth. The better the binding, the more painful.
He wants to have surgery to have his breasts removed.
As Debra’s son prepares to go back to school in a new area, Debra said she’s nervous about how he will be treated.
Greg, Matt’s father, has the same parenting challenges. He worries about his son’s safety.
To support Matt, Greg goes to gender conferences and gatherings for the LGBT community. He went to the school board meeting with his son.
When Matt first shared his identity with his dad, he was scared he would be rejected.
“You’re my kid,” Greg told his son. “I love you no matter what.”
Matt is more than an advocate for transgender students; he’s an ambitious and energetic teenager. His class ring has “Carpe Diem” (”Seize the Day” in Latin) engraved on one side, an academic symbol on the other.
He wants to be a doctor. He also loves architecture. Being a pilot sounds cool. Then there’s cyber security.
One day he’ll pick one.
“When I get an idea in my head, I stick with it.”
In his free time, he looks for adventure, ranging from piloting planes to rope courses to white-water rafting. In his backyard, a zip line stretches across trees.
“I live for danger,” Matt said.
And for change.
“There’s always a possibility for change,” he said, “which definitely keeps me hopeful about things that can happen within the school system.”