Mr. Wilson goes to Richmond: how a local teen helped stop one of Virginia’s most notorious anti-trans laws
The first thing Andrew Wilson, an 18-year-old Chesterfield native, noticed about six months after starting hormone therapy was he grew an Adam’s apple.
“I’m afraid I’m gonna fall on something and catch it… I don’t know how this isn’t talked about more,” he tells me smiling. We’re sitting across from each other outside of Lamplight Coffee on Addison and he’s beaming to say the least.
While the Adam’s apple was the first big physical change, the near-high school grad noticed as he transitioned from female to male, there was a number of changes – good and bad – that occurred as well. All of these changes led up to his biggest public moment, speaking before the 2016 General Assembly as a student who would be harmed by a proposed bathroom bill.
But long before his trip to the GA, Wilson was visiting a Wal-Mart with his grandmother. He was given the chance to pick out a coloring book and he picked out one with a Spiderman theme. His octogenarian escort said no and picked a princess one for him instead.
“My parents never did that for me… that was really hurtful and I look back on it and say, ‘wow… I understand, but damn. I missed out,” he said.
This tomboy nature, and general attraction toward more masculine things, didn’t make sense for a while. He was only 8 or 9 when that trip to Wal-Mart happened, but even then he knew something was different about him.
It took a trip to Busch Gardens in Williamsburg some years later for him to narrow his understanding of who he was. He noticed a beautiful female performer ahead of their male counterpart and that’s when he thought “this is a real thing, I don’t like boys.”
Things added up from there. He always preferred baseball but was forced into softball once the boys on his team began to notice he was a girl and they stopped throwing the ball to him.
All his questioning came to a head before high school. It was around then he realized he was at least a lesbian. Around the same time, a close friend of his tried to end their life after their peers and family responded poorly to them coming out. The trauma of seeing his friend suffer built up hard in Wilson and he knew he had to say something.
“That really messed with me and I just wanted my parents to know who I was, ’cause something like that is pretty traumatic,” he said.
“It was terrifying… it was very tense,” Wilson said, remembering when he came out to his folks. “My dad was eating chips and as I told him [I was gay] he stopped eating and you could stop hearing the crunch. I couldn’t even look at him, it was silence.”
His parents accepted it best they could, but Wilson thinks it was more buried for the time being. He was angry at their response then, but he looks back now and understands they knew how to react about as much as he did.
“I was a little angry teenager,” he said. “I thought it was all about myself.”
And as if being gay wasn’t enough for his folks to compute, within a number of months their spry, soccer-playing lesbian “daughter” was about to drop another bomb.
He’d worked hard to get into Appomattox fearing how he’d be treated at other public schools in the area – he figured the performing arts and science-focused Governor’s school program would be more supportive – and sure enough he got accepted about two weeks shy of his start date.
He wasn’t the only sexual minority on campus, and he almost immediately found like-minded friends in the school’s Gay Straight Alliance. But things continue to wear at him inside. He knew something wasn’t right, and by February of his first year of high school he started socially identifying as a boy.
It started with clothes and the like, and before long he had to tell his folks – it was again met with near silence, but his mom said, as she would countless times in the future, she would respect his choices.
Though Appomattox had a supportive reputation, Wilson found things less than inviting more often than not. On more than one occasion he said he was singled out by his peers for being trans. He remembered one incident where a friend of his called him out from across the lunch table:
“You have boobs, you’re obviously a girl,” the friend yelled. Another friend came to Wilson’s aid and the two had to be dragged out of the lunchroom before it turned into a fight.
“I was shocked that someone would just say that to me,” he said about that day in the lunchroom. “It was difficult for a lot of people to understand.”
The teasing and bullying in school was somewhat common according to Wilson. But when Summer rolled around, his mom took him to a therapist and it wasn’t long before he ended up under the care of Lisa Griffin, a local psychologist, who helped direct him to hormone treatments.
Wilson started to see changes immediately. The Adam’s apple came in, stray facial hairs began to grow, yet it wasn’t until his voice dropped that things started to change for the better. But all that didn’t happen at once, there were more voice cracks than he’d care to remember.
By the time he returned to school his sophomore year, he was living full time as a male and things got way better.
Wilson said his classmates started treating him “like a person” as opposed to some mis-gendered peer.
“Everyone was surprised, it was a lot of fun,” he said. He was just about 16 at the time, and he set up a meeting with the school’s administration and asked what he should do about the restroom, locker rooms, and other traditionally gender-specific needs.
He remembered being told school officials might not be worried about which bathroom he used, but other students and parents might be. They asked him to use the bathroom in the nurses office rather than cause a fuss and he complied – but his Gay Straight Alliance sponsor said otherwise.
“[She] looked at me and said I shouldn’t be accepting this, I should be treated equal,” he said.
Instead of walking the three floors to the nurses room whenever he needed to pee, he took to using the boys room without permission and found little resistance.
“Everyone at my school is pretty accepting,“ he said, stressing it was the physical changes that really helped reinforce the gender change. “You’re not really respected as a transperson unless you physically transition and most situations won’t take your gender identity seriously otherwise.”
Still athletic, Wilson played on Appomattox’s boys soccer team – to clarify, they only had a boys soccer team and Title IX says, in the event of single gender sports teams, they must allow both to play.
This was the last bastion of bathroom-related controversy for the high schooler who often found himself changing in bathrooms or hallways instead of in the boys locker room.
“It wasn’t a big deal that I wanted to play, but it was really uncomfortable to talk to my coaches and navigate locker room situations and everything and they didn’t really know how to navigate it either,” he said.
But that changed his junior year when his team was heading to an away game and they had little time to change before hitting the road.
His coach had made a point to say all the players needed to be some place at a certain time to leave for an away game, “unless you need to go someplace else to change.”
“He looked directly at me and everyone else looked at me and I was like, ‘well shit, thanks man,’” Wilson said with a laugh looking back. He entered the boys locker room and put his kit on and he hasn’t looked back since.
From there the unlikely advocate began taking on leadership roles at his school’s GSA, and other trans kids started looking up to him for advice and guidance. He started helping to plan meeting events and the school’s annual Day of Silence event. But he always got the most out of the meetings themselves.
“Everything gets talked about and no one’s afraid to announce who they are,” he said, pointing out that lots of kids share stories of troubles at home and how their family isn’t accepting. “It’s the only place they can really vent.”
Other duties involved Wilson being pretty open about his personal experiences with transitioning. He found himself and other leaders educating people on pronouns and trans issues and even dedicated all of the last year to trans issues.
“We had a lot of trans issues with me and sports and so we decided to spend more time on it,” he said.
Fast forward to this past General Assembly session when a Fredericksburg area delegate proposed a bill which would require transgender students and citizens to use bathrooms associated with their birth gender in schools and public buildings.
Wilson was among those who’d heard about the bill and was shocked to hear it even being discussed. Virginia was already making national headlines for a lawsuit filed by a Gloucester County student suing his school board over a similar bathroom policy.
Between graduating in a few weeks, and generally being a teenager about to graduate, Wilson was ready to express concern over the issue, but he wasn’t ready to jump on the front lines of something which was sure to draw eyes. But a phone call from a younger trans classmate changed that.
He spoke to his mom about testifying before the General Assembly and typed up some testimony to say before the committee. His mom supported him enough to write him a note so he could skip class, and even said she was proud of him for standing up for what he believed in.
“She’s really respectful towards people and their decisions as long as they can live with it,” he said.
The next day he was in a packed House General Laws committee hearing explaining how the proposed bill would hurt him and others like him.
“House bill 781 and House Bill 663 would penalize me and fine me f0r using the correct bathroom, ” Wilson said with the bill’s sponsor standing inches away from him. “These bills would also separate me from the rest of my teammates which is downright humiliating. It’s discriminatory and I wish you would see the negative impactions this has on transgender people like myself and others across the Commonwealth.”
Sadly, the bathroom bill passed subcommittee, but Wilson wasn’t defeated, he returned later that week to speak before the committee. This time, with the room packed with Equality Virginia supporters visiting for their annual Lobby Day event. The bill was killed by an 8-13 vote.
Legislators rationalized the vote against the bill saying it was against procedure for the GA to pass a policy which could influence a case currently before the courts, like the Gloucester County case, but either way, the bill was killed.
Wilson was ecstatic and even go a chance to meet the Governor later in the day.
With that behind him, Wilson’s got his eyes set on the future. He’s been accepted into VCU and George Mason University up in Northern Virginia, but he’s waiting to hear back from a few other state schools first. He’s thinking he’ll major in political science, but no matter what he does, he hopes he gets the chance to continue helping people.
“I’m doing what I want to do, and I’m feeling good about it,” he said. “I might as well stick with it. I’ve had a lot of people come up to me and thank me for it. I feel like it’s worth it.”
Ever aware of his own status as a trans-man capable of passing, with a skin tone often left unquestioned, he hopes to use these privileges to help others if he can.
“I know a lot of people who’ve come out to me, but not at school -they’re worried about their families, even teachers,” he said.
He was terrified at first, but now he can’t imagine his life without the chance to make things better.
“Sometimes I just want to be Andrew… but I don’t want people to not [come to me for help], I might be the only trans person they know – especially someone my age whose already physically transitioned.”
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