ST. ALBANS — At 20, Jesse Ray Thomas has spent most of his life hiding his true self from friends, family and society. It was just recently, after years of struggling to understand his own identity, that — in hopes of inspiring others fighting similar battles — he found the confidence to share his story.

Jesse Ray was born Jessica Marie Thomas, but has been transitioning into a man since he was a sophomore in high school. He is the third child in a family of four daughters, and from the time he was five years old, he knew he wasn’t a girl on the inside.

“I used to take my dad’s clothes and hide them in my room. When my parents weren’t home, I would put my hair up in a hat and dress how I felt comfortable,” Thomas said.

At 14, Jessica Thomas had a stereotypically feminine exterior, with long blond hair, make-up and “girly” clothes. She excelled in school, sports and had the world at her feet. To everyone else life seemed perfect for her, but internally, the pieces just didn’t fit.

“I went a long time hiding it. I didn’t understand that I was transgendered or that I was supposed to be a boy. I would dress feminine and wear makeup, but in the back of my head it haunted me,” Thomas said.

Although Thomas never felt like a woman, his gender confusion didn’t start to truly alter his life until puberty.

“I first came out to my parents as gay, and said I liked girls. That seemed to be the only thing I really understood. My mom was really, really upset. To her, I was her princess. For me not to be the perfect child in her eyes was really saddening,” Thomas said.

Thomas came out to his father, Todd, in a letter six months after telling his mother. His dad did not speak to him for two weeks after reading the letter, but eventually came around.

“My parents have come a really long way. You could tell at first they were discouraged. They knew this was going to be hard for me, and that I would be picked on,” Thomas said.

Thomas finally started to understand his feelings when, as a sophomore, he joined Pride Alliance at Bellows Free Academy, St. Albans. He met a transgendered man who worked for Outright Vermont, an advocacy and support group for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and sexual identity questioning youth.

After speaking with him, Thomas’s life changed.

“He came out to me as transgendered and explained what that meant. It was like the whole world opened up to me,” he said. “I realized, wow, this is what I am. I finally had a definition to how I felt. Once I knew that it was possible to switch over, that’s all I wanted, that’s all I could think about,” Thomas said.

Education necessary

Thomas’s mother, Gyneth Thomas, was in complete shock when she learned Jesse wanted to transition.

“She wanted to know, ‘Why can’t you just be a girl who likes girls? Why do you have to change your whole body and risk yourself medically?’ I spent a long time trying to get her to understand that my body didn’t have to do with who I liked dating. It was about me, inside, and how I felt and that it didn’t match up,” Thomas said.

Gyneth said she regrets how she initially reacted to Jesse wanting to become a man, and advises parents in similar situations to educate themselves before acting on their emotions.

“As a parent, you’re not always understanding. You think, is this just a teenage thing? Are they going through a spell? It’s important that you support them. When he came to me, I was like, ‘Wow, you’re hitting me with a bomb.’ And that wasn’t the right way to react,” Thomas said.

In rural areas like Franklin County, Gyneth understands most people are not familiar with stories like Jesse’s. She never anticipated having a transgendered child, and she knows now how important it is to be educated on the topic.

“If one day your child, or anyone for that matter, comes to you and says, ‘This is who I am: this is me,’ don’t make them feel like they are less of a person because of it. They have to know that they are still good people, even if you don’t understand it,” Gyneth said.

Time eventually helped Gyneth understand that Jesse wasn’t just going through a phase. On his seventeenth birthday, Thomas said she gave him a card that read “Happy Birthday Son,” and from that point on, Jesse knew he had the full support of his parents.

“It was the most meaningful day of my life. I’ve never felt more love from my mom than I did then,” he said.

Misery in school

Although Jesse’s parents came to understand his decision, coming out as transgendered as a high school sophomore was nothing short of miserable.

“I had a really hard time in school because I wasn’t allowed to use female restrooms or male restrooms. I had to use the unisex bathroom in the nurse’s office or I had to go all the way to the building with the cafeteria,” Thomas said.

Thomas said he often received detention slips for taking too much class time to walk to the restroom, but the principal dismissed the notices and was sympathetic to his situation. The student body generally didn’t understand what Thomas was going through, and he endured a great deal of bullying. Although some students and teachers were kind to him, he said he spent 60 percent of his time in the guidance counselor’s office, where he often ate lunch or did his homework.

“Jesse was a very popular, attractive girl, and that was part of the challenge,

Gyneth said. “Here was this pretty girl wanting to be a guy. When he wanted to transition, he lost everything. He didn’t exist,” she said.

Before coming out, Jesse had a birthday party his freshman year that more than 60 kids attended. “It was bigger than any party any of my other daughters had ever had,” Gyneth said. The next year, after Jesse came out as trans, only six people showed up to his birthday.

“He gave up everything so that he could be himself. In a normal environment, no one accepted him. He thought, ‘OK, I’m finally going to feel good about myself. I’m going to dress the way I feel I should dress and be the person I want to be,’ and because of that, the rest of his world fell apart,” Gyneth said.

As a girl, Jesse played on the women’s basketball team at BFA. After coming out, he said he didn’t feel accepted by his teammates.

“I ended up quitting and I haven’t played a sport since then, because I don’t have a team that I fit on, really,” he said.

Thomas sank into a deep depression his junior year, and was prescribed anti-depressants. When he felt there was nowhere to turn, he attempted suicide. Afterwards, he was taken out of BFA and sent to a suicide house for teens and adolescents. Later on, he was sent to New Beginnings, an alternative high school also in St. Albans, where he was able to finish school without constant bullying.

Never happier

Since his dark days in high school, Thomas’ life has improved dramatically as he finally learned to accept himself.

“I have never been happier than I am right now,” Thomas explains. “If I didn’t have this positive attitude, I wouldn’t be here.”

When Jesse turned 18, he started taking testosterone injections and began living as a male full time. He now works for his father and lives in an apartment in St. Albans. He does advocacy work with Outright Vermont, and even won the Outright Youth Support award in 2012.

Over the past two and a half years, he has received 121 shots of testosterone. Thomas said it was a slow process, but in just the first month he noticed changes — his voice deepening and the appearance of facial hair. “My life would have been a lot easier for me if I had started hormones sooner,” Thomas admitted. After taking hormones, “some parts look normal, and some parts don’t. It’s just different,” he said.

Because of the testosterone, Thomas has finally become comfortable in his own skin. The physical changes allow him to build confidence he never had as a girl, and others have taken notice.

He has gained an enormous following on social media, and he said he receives an average of 50 messages on Facebook a day from strangers telling him he is a role model.

“The biggest thing that keeps me going is the amount of people who tell me they’re inspired by me. They made it through their depression because they saw I could do it, and it gives them hope not to give up,” he said.

Thomas said what he looks forward to most in life is getting married and having a family. Thomas tries to constantly “out” himself on social media, so most people he comes across already know he is trans. In terms of dating, when he talks to women he might be interested in who don’t know his background, he said he eases into the topic by asking their opinion on LGBT relationships.

“They either say, ‘Oh, I’m open to that,’ or they’re like, ‘No, that’s disgusting.’ So, depending on how they answer that question, depends on how I finish the conversation,” he said. “When people who don’t already know I’m trans start to talk to me and seem interested, after I explain it to them, 90 percent of the time they decide to no longer speak with me,” he said.

Thomas has experienced life as both male and female, and he notices the difference in how people treat him as each gender.

“The way that a female is treated in this world compared to a male is different. A man treats another man with so much more respect than he treats another woman. And that’s in my own opinion and my own experiences. I could be walking down the street, and have the first 10 guys I pass say, ‘Hey how’s it going man?’ As a female, if you walk by, they either don’t say a word, or they whistle at you,” he said. “As a man, when you walk in to the store, the person in front of you shuts the door on you. But if you’re a woman, they’ll hold the door for you and be kind,” Thomas said.

Thomas knows there will always be people who judge his decision to become a man, but he refuses to let the negativity bother him.

“I’ve had people send me messages telling me, ‘this is un-Godly, this is a sin, you’re never going to be a man.’ The amount of people who support me, compared to the amount of people who don’t, makes me say that it’s OK that you’re not OK with my life. I’m OK with it, and I have people who are OK with it,” he said. “I may get five messages from strangers who put me down, but I get about 500 messages from people who raise me up.”

Thomas feels the last step in his transition will be “top surgery,” or breast removal. He has started a “gofundme” account to raise money for the $7,000 procedure, as he is waiting to hear from his insurance company on whether it will be covered. His goal is to have the two-hour surgery by his 21st birthday in March. At this point in his life, Thomas said he is opting out of other surgeries, because in his opinion, it is too costly and too much of a risk.

“If I take the time to explain to people: This is my situation, these are the changes I am able to make, they realize that I can have kids, I won’t have breasts, I can have bottom surgery, my voice does change. In their mind, I’m just a girl who’s dressing up as a boy. They say, ‘But you’re still a girl?’ and I say, ‘I never was a girl. I may have been born in a female body and my parents dressed me as a female, but inside, I was never that.’”

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Jesse Thomas’ surgery fund information is posted at on line (http://www.gofundme.com/5svws8). An excellent resource for learning more about transgendered persons and the issues important to the transgendered community is also available on the Web (http://www.glaad.org).