It’s back to school season in Rhode Island. There’s an ever so subtle hint of fall in the air and schools around the state are opening their doors again for students after the long summer break.
With the first day of school comes that familiar mix of nerves and excitement. Will my friends be the same? What new people will I meet? Will I like my teachers? And perhaps no start of school is quite as nerve-wracking as the first day of junior high.
Now imagine that you are not only starting junior high school, you are doing it as an openly transgender student. That’s what Hannah Rini of Pawtucket did. Wednesday was her first day of school at Goff Junior High School.
Credit Elisabeth Harrison / RIPR
Hannah Rini and her mother Michelle of Pawtucket prepare for the first day of middle school. Hannah began living as a girl last year.
At 7:15 in the morning, 12-year-old Hannah Rini stands in front of the mirror brushing her teeth before the first day of school. She’s wearing a brand new outfit picked out just for this day: a sparkly purple and black plaid shirt and sparkly blue jeans. She takes a moment to make sure she has everything she needs in her backpack.
“I packed a lunch and then there’s my notebook and pencil and then just a folder. That’s it,” said Hannah.
The question running over and over again in her mind as she stops for one last check of her layered brown hair is will people accept me, and she has good reason to wonder because Hannah Rini is transgendered. She started living as a girl last year, as a 6th grader. She says most of her friends took the change in stride.
“They didn’t really react like surprised. They knew. I don’t know how but they knew I was trans cause like, maybe how I was acting? I don’t know. They weren’t surprised one bit,” said Hannah.
Those friends will be with her again this year in middle school, but there will also be new people, who will only know her as she looks today, like a sporty, pre-teen girl with long hair and glasses and a nervous laugh that sometimes punctuates the ends of her sentences. Or at least that’s how she hopes they will see her, but in the gossip mill that is Junior High, chances are her story will get out.
“If one person starts a rumor and says hey, well the truth, but as a rumor, and spreads it, and says I’m trans. Then I’m going to have to tell them the truth. Cause I don’t think they’ll understand the full definition,” said Hannah.
The full definition, as Hannah Rini and her family usually put it, is that Hannah has a girl’s head and a boy’s body. She was born Sebastian and lived as a boy until she was about 10 years old. That’s when she heard a story on the radio about a man getting a sex change operation. After that, she went straight to her mother, Michelle Rini and told her she wanted the operation too.
“I was caught completely off guard. She walked in the house and said she wanted to have it as if I was going to make the appointment and next week we would go,” said Michelle.
Michelle Rini works as a mental health counselor in a home for troubled teens, so she may have been better equipped than some parents to find out that her son wanted to be a girl. Still, she was surprised and a little taken aback. She did a lot of research and the family starting working with a therapist and a pediatrician who specializes in transgender children. Then came hormone therapy. Michelle Rini says what cemented it, in her mind, was the day she watched her older daughter Alexis give Hannah a makeover.
“I was able to see the bathroom from where I was sitting at the computer, and her face absolutely just lit up and glowed like I’ve never seen it before, and I have to say it’s been a year and a half and she has not looked back,” said Michelle.
She may not be looking back, but what lies ahead for Hannah is the minefield of adolescence. It’s tricky enough for anyone to navigate, let alone someone growing up trans.
“What we see a lot in middle school is everyone’s trying to, categorize everything in their lives,” said Jaye Watts.
Watts works with the organization YouthPride, which provides support for gay, lesbian, bi-sexual and transgendered young people.
Their brain development at that time is very much everyone’s gonna fit in one box or another box. And so the masculinity and femininity and boys and girls. So there’s a lot of pressure to fit into a box regardless of what that box is.
Watts met with Hannah Rini’s teachers in elementary school before she transitioned to living as a girl and he recently met with staff at her new middle school. He tells teachers to be vigilant about bullying and name-calling, and let students know right away that it won’t be tolerated. Watts also reminds them about more practical issues like making sure a student’s chosen name is on the class roster, not their birth name, so new teachers won’t make a mistake. And then there’s the question he says many adults think of first: which bathroom will the student use?
“Yes. Unfortunately everyone’s worried about where someone’s gonna pee but everyone needs to pee, and everyone needs to be able to do that in peace and we’ve gotta get over that,” said Watts.
After she became Hannah in elementary school, Hannah Rini used the nurse’s bathroom. This year, the school left it up to the family, and they would like her to do just what she wants, use the girls’ room. Rhode Island state law protects transgendered people from discrimination but there is no specific policy for how schools should accommodate them. Hannah’s father, Nick Rini, says he thinks she will fit in just fine.
“She might have an easier time than other kids going through something similar. She doesn’t hold back anything and she, I wouldn’t say doesn’t care, but she is who she is and people accept her or they don’t, and she’s okay with that,” said Nick.
Hannah, her mom and little brother arrive at Goff Junior High School just as the school bus rolls up. Michelle Rini pauses for a minute, looks at her daughter and gives her a kiss.
“Good luck to me. I hope I have a good day. I’m not even that much nervous but, I’m okay,” she said.
And with that Hannah heads off to join the crowd of students milling around outside the school doors. She and her parents are hopeful the year will go by without incident, and they are encouraged by how well she was accepted in elementary school. But they know middle school is a different ballgame. There has already been one problem with name calling on Facebook over the summer. The Rinis say they will be watching and staying in contact with the school if there’s any problem. And they hope that by speaking publicly about their story, they will encourage others to be more accepting of transgender people like their daughter Hannah.