ABOVE: Hanover Middle School. (From Hanover Public School District’s website)
HANOVER, Pa. (AP) | Since coming out as transgender six months ago, Ashton Brooks, 13, has struggled with being bullied while building confidence in who he is.
It was a Sunday night in July at about 7 p.m. Ashton was outside texting one of his friends.
He was sitting on a curb in Hanover Borough near the library when a car drove by. A guy yelled out an offensive word for Ashton and threw a full bottle of water from the car.
It hit Ashton in the middle of his neck, and the car sped off.
“At first I was like, ‘I’m so used to this,'” Ashton told the Hanover Evening Sun.
But about 10 minutes later, he started getting headaches and couldn’t look around because his neck hurt so bad. He got dizzy and nauseous when he tried to look up, so his mom took him to the hospital.
Ashton was born Mackenzie Brooks, but about six months ago Ashton revealed to family and friends that even though he was born a girl, he identifies as a boy and is transgender.
About a year before that is when he started going by the name Ashton and came out as gay. He said he was going through a confusing time and wasn’t sure if he was gay or transgender.
Ashton says he still is at a point in his life where he doesn’t like anything about himself, so when the incident with the water bottle happened it hit him that he was really hurt.
He has been bullied in addition to struggling with being confident in who he is. He’s had to be true to himself, family, friends and peers. His journey has been challenging, but he hopes to encourage others to be who they are.
“It hurts to be who I am because I know so many people are going to judge,” Ashton said.
Coming out to loved ones
Before Ashton told anyone that he was transgender, he said he was in a very hard place. He was already being bullied, and when he came out it got even worse.
He told his best friend first, and she really helped him through it and was just happy for him.
Coming out to his family was the hardest, and when it happened he wasn’t quite ready for it. It happened during an argument with his mom and brother.
They had been arguing about a movie, when his mom had said she wanted her daughter back. Ashton made a comment about not wanting to be a girl, which led them to a deeper conversation about his identity.
“It was definitely hard for me because I didn’t want to say that yet,” he said.
While Ashton was working up the courage to tell people how he was really feeling, he said someone helped him.
“My stepmom’s friend came out as trans and knowing how nice and confident she is with herself, it kind of inspired me to come out,” Ashton said.
Karen Brooks, Ashton’s stepmom, said it was really hard for her when Ashton first came out because Mackenzie had always been her little girl.
The two are close, so Karen Brooks said she is now accepting and will support Ashton with whatever he wants.
“I just hate seeing people be so mean to him because he has such a big heart, and he is such a sweet kid, and he would do anything for anybody,” Karen Brooks said.
Daniel Brooks, Ashton’s father, said it’s not difficult for him to accept.
“I think the most difficult thing is getting used to using certain pronouns just because it is a change,” he said.
The most crucial thing for family, teachers or friends to do with those who are transgender is to let them explore themselves and be completely supportive, Alder Health Services Wellness Coordinator Noah Penny said.
Penny also conducts transgender competency trainings and said by having a support system and being able to explore, transgender individuals are less likely to harm themselves.
“The severity of what they are going through is detrimental to their mental health,” Penny said.
Trying to find acceptance at school
As time went on and more people learned that Ashton was transgender, he became subjected to issues with kids and teachers at school.
He had been attending Hanover Middle School, but he says he was often coming home upset, being ignored by some teachers and bullied by some classmates.
“He got thrown into the lockers, stuff like that,” Daniel Brooks said.
Even though Hanover’s principal tried to help Ashton any way she could, he was depressed and his parents were concerned.
The principal allowed Ashton to work in the office whenever he needed, and if he needed to ever leave and go home he could and it would be excused.
Hanover Middle School Principal Tessa Hilyard said she could not discuss details involving a student. However, she said the Hanover Area School District has a bullying policy and has various initiatives throughout the year to prevent bullying.
They also offer students various methods of reporting bullying, including online where they can be anonymous, and it will go directly to school counselors and building administration.
Hilyard said families are encouraged to meet with building administrators to come up with a plan on a case-by-case basis.
But Karen Brooks said the family was concerned Ashton might harm himself.
So they pulled him out of Hanover Middle, and he finished out the year at Children’s Home of York-Bridges.
While Ashton was at Bridges, the faculty and administration were a little more accepting and would respect his name choice and pronouns, but there were still times he didn’t feel comfortable.
Even something as simple as going to the bathroom made him uncomfortable, and most of the time, he said he just wouldn’t go to the bathroom at school.
“If I go into the girls’ bathroom I’m going to get bullied a whole bunch, and if I go into the boys’, which I have never done, … I would definitely get beat up,” Ashton said.
Bridges administrators could not be reached for comment.
Although a lot of kids don’t accept him and are mean to him, he said he has his own friend group, which is understanding.
This school year, Ashton is back at Hanover Middle school for eighth grade. He said he was nervous to go back but hoping to be more confident than he was the last time.
“I want to look a little different, I don’t want to look as feminine as I was last year, I just want to be myself,” he said.
He is looking forward to some of the school’s extracurricular activities like the ukulele club. He was in it before and is excited to get back.
Ashton also is part of the Young Marines, and he said they do a lot of physical training. His favorite is running. He hopes that with his training in the Young Marines, he will be able to join the school’s track team.
The Hanover Area Young Marines have been like family to Ashton and have supported him 100 percent, Daniel Brooks said.
A feeling of relief
One way he has been able to express himself is through drawing. He has gotten really into anime and can sometimes spend hours working on just one of his projects.
Now that Ashton is out, he said he feels relief, but it was a hard process and took him a long time.
People shouldn’t be telling others who they should be, and it’s none of their business, Ashton said. He also wonders why people who have judged him and are mean to him would treat someone like that for just being themselves.
Some people may also view Ashton as too young to be making this type of a decision, but Karen Brooks said that people don’t know what kids like him are going through and they don’t know how they feel.
“If you feel like you’re something other than who you should be then it’s who you are,” Ashton said.