By embracing gender identities, Park City teens hope to change perceptions of LGBT community
Park Record intern
Park City High School juniors Morgan Pinkney and Sam Sullivan are not afraid of being who they are.
Pinkney was female until ninth grade, when he began to identify as male and use he/him pronouns. Meanwhile, Sullivan is non-binary, meaning they don’t identify as male or female, and instead use they/them pronouns. The pair, who are dating, hope that by living openly, they can change perceptions of the LGBTQ community.
But their experiences have not always been easy.
Sullivan, for instance, has found that being non-binary is difficult for society to accept. Many people don’t understand how an individual can be neither male nor female. Sullivan says that people seldom try to use the proper pronouns, often resorting to hurtful comments instead, such as saying that being non-binary is the same as a person identifying as a “T-Rex.”
“That makes me think maybe it would just be easier to pick a side, but I don’t want to because that’s not how I feel,” Sullivan said.
While they both knew at a much earlier age that their sex assigned at birth was not something that resonated with them, it wasn’t until ninth grade, while scrolling through Instagram, that Sullivan and Pinkney discovered the pronouns they better identified with. Pinkney remembers staring at a transgender man’s page for hours on end. He said he began putting his long hair up in a hat and wearing more masculine clothing, which made him like what he saw in the mirror. The feeling that he was hiding something began to fade. Eventually, he began experimenting with male pronouns, fully committing to them by his sophomore year.
For Pinkney, coming out was synonymous with choosing to live.
“When I came out, it was because I couldn’t do it anymore,” he said. “I was either going to come out or be dead, there was no in-between.”
While Sullivan admits that coming out in high school was difficult, pretending to be someone they weren’t was even harder.
“It hurts when people are identifying you the wrong way and calling you the wrong thing, and I’d rather feel better now than later,” they said.
Along with coming out came the reactions of others, which were sometimes difficult to hear. Despite a few lost friends, hurtful jokes and some incorrect pronouns, however, Pinkney and Sullivan say that students and faculty at Park City High School do their best to be inclusive and progressive.
In 2015, for instance, the school became the first in Utah to add a gender-neutral restroom, which the couple sees as a sign that the community is moving in the right direction.
“Trans folks and non-binary folks have a higher rate of UTIs and bladder infections because they won’t go to the bathroom because they don’t feel safe to,” Pinkney said. “So the bathroom is really helpful, especially for people who are closeted and don’t feel comfortable using the restroom of their choosing.”
Besides support from the school’s Gay Straight Alliance, of which Sullivan is the sexuality and gender specialist, Sullivan also received help from the Utah Pride Center in Salt Lake City. According to Liesl Archbold, the Pride Center’s youth and family program coordinator, the center has connected with more than 20 GSAs in Utah. Despite Utah’s conservative culture, there are many teens just like Sullivan and Pinkney. From Jan. 8 to Feb. 27, the Pride Center provided services to 426 youth and parents, Archbold said.
Through her work at the Pride Center, Archbold has found that many LGBTQ teens in Utah struggle to obtain jobs due to their gender presentation or experience daily prejudicial insults in the workplace. She said that many teens also lack transgender inclusive health insurance, which can make getting gender-affirming medical care difficult.
While at the Pride Center, Sullivan picked up on another difficulty many teens experience. Sullivan learned about how fearful some teens who grow up in religious families are to express their true identities, sometimes even committing self-harm or suicide.
Pinkney is empathetic towards LGBTQ teens in such households.
“You could be ex-communicated and then you would lose your community, your family, your friends, just everything you have, and that would be terrifying,” he said.
While clothes helped affirm Pinkney’s identity and made others more willing to use his correct pronouns, he wants people to know that dress and expression are separate. Even someone who looks more female in the eyes of society, for example, may identify as male. Rather than making assumptions based off the way someone looks, it’s better to ask what pronouns they want to be addressed with, he said.
”A good thing is to say what pronouns you use when you introduce yourself so they can say it back,” Sullivan said. Pinkney added that including the pronouns in the introduction helps make it less of a “weird” thing to do.
But both Pinkney and Sullivan want people who are unsure about how to interact with the LGBTQ community to feel comfortable asking questions.
“It’s OK to ask questions because I think sometimes people are nervous about that because they don’t know what’s OK or not OK,” Sullivan said. “But most people in the LGBT community are very open to answering those questions and most of them aren’t actually very offensive.”
From their viewpoint, the best thing a community can do is provide education about LGBTQ issues. Sullivan thinks that if students were taught at a younger age about the LGBTQ community, then they might have the words to not only express themselves but also an understanding and awareness of how others identify. The PCHS GSA currently visits health classrooms in the school to give short lessons, but Sullivan said it needs to be a part of the school’s curriculum.
“Education is the only way to change anything,” Pinkney said. “So people know what it is and know how to interact with each other.”
For now, though, Pinkney wants people who are misinformed to know just one thing.
“You don’t have to understand it,” he said, “but you should respect it because we’re just people.”
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A district spokesperson said six students were removed from an area in the school as police conducted a search.