Landon Callahan, 25, provides professional development trainings to schools and other education organizations about supporting LGBTQ+ young people and their families. As a transgender man, he knows firsthand how difficult it can be for LGTBQ+ students to navigate the K-12 system. Callahan shares the challenges he faced in school, how those triggered mental health challenges, and his hope for other trans youth. This interview was edited for length and clarity.
I identify as a transgender man. I knew that about myself since I was probably 2 or 3. My parents remember me asking questions about my gender identity and sex assigned at birth that seems a little bit out of the ordinary for what a cis[gender] kid might be asking. It wasn’t until I was a freshman in high school that I really understood and found the term transgender.
I had always struggled with mental health issues, substance abuse issues, and never really connected that to the gender identity piece until I finally did come out and those symptoms got significantly easier to manage. Ever since I was really young, I had a lot of anxiety, panic attacks, a lot of problems sleeping—just a lot of anxiety and depression. I remember at 4 or 5 telling my parents that I wasn’t going to live to be a grownup. Looking back, it wasn’t really necessarily like suicidal ideation at that age. It was more just—I couldn’t actually visualize what it would be like to be an adult, because I just did not identify with my name, my gender, with all of those things that were assigned to me.
[The anxiety] became a lot more connected to gender identity around puberty education: separating into boys and girls and having those conversations around puberty made the anxiety significantly worse. [I was] really feeling isolated, especially in middle school, dealing with a lot of the social roles changing around what’s acceptable for boys and girls to do. Being a tomboy, dressing masculine, wasn’t as much of an issue in elementary school—other kids didn’t really care, but, as kids got older, having sports teams that were co-ed, having sleepovers and birthday parties that were all gender-inclusive just shifted.
Ever since I was really young, I had a lot of anxiety, panic attacks, a lot of problems sleeping—just a lot of anxiety and depression.
The social roles around dating definitely were more challenging in middle school. That’s really when the substance abuse issues got worse. I was abusing the anxiety medication that I had been prescribed, and then by my freshman year, I ended up leaving school because of suicide ideation, substance abuse issues, a lot of mental health issues. It was during that time when I had asked my parents to transfer me to a vocational school where [students] would be [coming from] 13 towns, and it would be a fresh start. That was really when I was able to come out and socially transition.
I’m really thankful that my family is and always has been incredibly supportive. I had been in therapy since I was 3 or 4. Around that time, the therapist had actually brought up to my parents that I might be trans, but at that time, there weren’t a lot of resources for trans kids, so his advice to my parents was to just wait and see and to follow my lead. They were always very supportive of my gender expression and definitely got me a lot of help around mental health.
I think my school definitely could have been a lot better. I think part of it was just ignorance, especially when I was in elementary school. Being transgender was not something that most people were aware of, especially when it comes to young people. When my parents said that I wanted to opt out of being part of the gendered puberty lessons, there really wasn’t any question [like] “What’s going on? How can we support you?” It was just, “Why? You’re the only family that’s not participating. That’s going to look weird.” My parents felt really judged by that or that they were making the wrong decision.
In middle school, people were not aware of what it meant to be transgender or how to support students in that way even though I wasn’t out. I remember abusing medication and showing up to school and I don’t remember a teacher ever asking, “What’s going on? Are you okay?” The general lack of awareness at school was definitely hurtful, but I think the support at home made a huge difference, as well as having supportive friends. I experienced a little bit of bullying, but nothing to the extent that people might assume when you’re talking about transgender young people.
I was the first publicly out transgender student out at my high school, so they really had no experience with that. That definitely was challenging. Initially they had said that they didn’t want me to use any of the gendered bathrooms, because they didn’t want to make any other student uncomfortable. They had me use the nurse’s office bathroom, which I didn’t mind for a little while because I felt safer in a single-stall bathroom, but after a while, it felt really stigmatizing. It was really out of the way, so I started using the men’s bathroom, without telling the school, and I never had any issue with that, partly because I passed as male and navigated the school as a guy and people didn’t necessarily know that I was trans. Because it was a new school, there was that opportunity to have some level of privacy. They also didn’t know how to change my name in the records. Eventually, they did sort that out by the time I was a senior.
My transition and my safety didn’t feel like the priority. The priority seemed [to be] making things comfortable for other people. I think part of that was because they had never dealt with making any of these changes. But there were other transgender students that were out to me or were out to certain people but did not want to come out to the school after seeing the kind of barriers that I had to deal with in order to just have a regular high school experience.
My transition and my safety didn't feel like the priority.
After I started to medically transition, my mental health got significantly better. It didn’t go away entirely. I still struggle with anxiety. I think the depression has definitely been much better. But I think the main difference is that the mental health challenges that I have now are not really related in any way to my gender identity or gender dysphoria. I think the national conversation around transgender rights, especially for young people, contributes to my anxiety, but I don’t think that that’s the driving factor. There’s ebbs and flows, but I think I’ve gotten better at dealing with it and not having the burden of having this secrecy or shame around my identity has made it a lot easier to also be honest with people and ask for help.
Just in general, high school is really challenging for a lot of students. But in my experience, as cliché as it sounds, it does get better after high school. I still do have a lot of hope that, for trans young people, that their mental health can get better in spite of all of these really legitimate challenges.
A version of this article appeared in the October 25, 2023 edition of Education Week as At School, ‘My Safety Didn’t Feel Like the Priority