Transgender teen navigates a path to acceptance

Quinn Spence is a 15-year-old male transgender student at Albert Einstein High School in Kensington. He made the transition from female to male last summer. Photo by Dan Schere

Quinn Spence remembers the moment he began to question who he was. It was in 6th grade while talking to a friend.

“She was questioning her identity, and I realized that it wasn’t so binary, like ‘you’re gay or you’re straight or male or female,’” he says. “And it brought up vague feelings I had had in the past of looking up to people in the LGBT community and not knowing why I was so drawn to them.”

Quinn is now 15. When he entered Albert Einstein High School in Kensington as a freshman last fall, he went as a male. But becoming comfortable enough to abandon the female identity he had been raised with took a journey of three years and a few awkward moments, despite growing up in the environment of a liberal household, accepting synagogue and county school system known for its diversity.

Sitting in the living room of his Rockville home with his parents, Christopher and Melissa Spence, and dog Charlie, Quinn retraces the steps of that journey.

In 6th grade, besides his close friends, the only person at school Quinn discussed his gender identity with was a science teacher with a “safe space” sticker on her door. But at his synagogue, Temple Emanuel, he found a home away from home and a confidante in youth group adviser Lillian Feldman-Hill. He started participating in the youth group, part of the Reform movement’s NFTY movement, and Feldman-Hill helped him navigate the social and practical issues that come with transitioning to another gender as a teen, such as asking students to call him by his last name.

“She was really open to getting me into gender-neutral housing and helping me meet people who were similar to me and going through similar experiences,” he says.

The next year, Quinn decided it was time to tell his parents who he was. They had talked in the past about the importance of accepting people for who they were. But he was still nervous about their reaction.

Quinn was so nervous that he enlisted the help of a friend to put his announcement into the form of a letter, which he read to his parents.

“It was really scary, and at first no one [him and his parents] was sure how to talk about it, but over time we became a lot more open to discussing gender and identity and that kind of thing,” he says.

Quinn’s parents say it took at least six months after Quinn came out to them before they became used to the idea of their child as a boy.

Quinn Spence with his parents, Christopher Spence and Melissa Spence. Photo by Dan Schere

“It was almost denial,” Christopher Spence says. “It wasn’t a negative reaction, like anger. It was more just, ‘There’s something else going on here.’”

Melissa Spence says that at first she suspected Quinn was going through a phase.

“Quinn’s always been very precocious and reads a lot,” she says. “We stopped being able to control or monitor everything he was reading. We thought, ‘Maybe it’s because he’s reading about kids who are going through these things, or there’s other things going on.’ Middle school was difficult and maybe that answered some questions.”

But denial eventually turned to acceptance, and the Spences gradually told family and friends about Quinn’s journey.
“Quinn is an amazing person, and I don’t care if you’re in a male body or female body,” Melissa Spence says, turning toward him. “The only thing you want for your kid is for them to be happy and safe.”

For the next two years, Quinn discussed his transition with close friends and family, at an art camp during the summer and at NFTY events during the school year. But there were only so many people at school Quinn could speak with about his gender. His health education teacher practically never referred to the LGBT community, using the word “gay” once all year long, despite teaching a curriculum that covered issues such as sex education, mental health and suicide prevention.

“We had a box where we could submit anonymous questions to the teacher, and a couple of times I would submit questions to the box saying, ‘You didn’t say how this affects people who aren’t heterosexual,’” he said. “And he never knew how to deal with it.”

Outside of the classroom, Quinn encountered students who were ignorant or transphobic. Quinn says some students knew he was transgender, and he would be asked personal questions such as, “What’s your birth name?” In some cases, he told the person it was “none of their business.” In others he chose not to respond.

Quinn officially changed his name in the summer of 2017 in preparation for starting high school, so that all of his records would be up to date, Melissa Spence says. The family met with a counselor to discuss practical issues such as using the appropriate restrooms and making sure students and teachers knew he would be using male pronouns.

“I went to a new school where people didn’t know anything about me, whereas at my middle school everyone kind of thought they knew these things about me, so I didn’t bother transitioning since I knew I was going to be leaving,” he says.

Quinn credits NFTY with helping him become more comfortable with his transgender identity, and says before becoming involved he had not known any other trans people his age.

“That definitely played a role in terms of increasing my confidence, because I saw all these people not too much older than me really being themselves,” he says. “And I’m still in touch with a lot of people I met at my first event.”

Quinn has also been involved a social group called Rockville Open House that meets monthly at the Bender Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington for LGBT teens ages 13 to 18. He says the group frequently discusses LGBT representation in the media, political issues and life at school.

“Quinn came in confident, eager to make friends and with a strong and wonderful personality that showed a lot of self-confidence and pride,” says Rabbi Sarah Meytin, who started the group.

Meytin, who has a full time position at B’nai Shalom of Olney, says transgender students have a harder time fitting in at school than others in the LGBT community. She thinks now that same-sex marriage is legal in the United States, gender equality is “the next big frontier” that society must confront when it comes to LGBT rights.

“Just understanding gender as a spectrum is the next thing we [as a society] need to tackle,” she says.
In the Washington area, eight Reform congregations have made a commitment to design facilities and programs that are gender-inclusive — a recent mission of the Union for Reform Judaism, says David Fishback, a member of Temple Emanuel’s board of trustees.

The congregation’s Kulanu Committee, which works on LGBT inclusion, has recently been working to fill the needs of congregants with varying gender identities through accommodations such as non-gender-specific restrooms and the elimination of gendered language from the liturgy, Fishback says.

Quinn is still asked personal questions or called by the wrong pronoun from time-to-time, but he has come to appreciate the motivation behind the words.

“I don’t hold a grudge against people who are asking questions that they think are innocent,” he says. “It’s when people say things that they know are hurtful … I ignore them.”

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