Update: At Oliver’s request, the family name was removed in 2017.
The family’s Lakewood home seems ordinary — a modest, tan-brick Tudor with red-orange window trim. On Easter weekend, a white “He Is Risen” sign juts from a bed of colorful pansies in full bloom, and a wreath of pastel-painted eggs adorns the front door.
Inside this familiar facade, a child grew up in a most unfamiliar way.
Although he looks, sounds and acts like almost any 17-year-old boy, Oliver was born a girl.
The evidence is displayed in an ornate, gold-colored frame mounted on the family’s dining room wall. A studio portrait shows a 2-year-old blond-haired, blue-eyed girl named Olivia, sitting in a white, billowy dress gathered around her tiny toddler body.
“I loved that dress,” says Oliver’s mom, Marjorie. She found it at one of those small-town boutiques in Fredericksburg, and it’s still a point of pride — the perfect dress to encapsulate the fleeting moments of her little girl’s first few years.
“It was an awesome dress.”
Today, Olivia is Oliver. He has the same eyes and smile, but on this early spring day, he sports a classic look — a blue button-down shirt, light pink shorts and brown loafers. He’s an animal lover, a guitar player and a theater nerd. He graduates from Woodrow Wilson High School next month with a 3.6 GPA. In the fall, he’s headed to California Polytechnic State University to study veterinary medicine.
He’s happy, healthy and transgender.
When they settled down and started their family, Marjorie and husband Justin say they opted not to learn the gender of their children until delivery. First, there was Hannah, a girl through-and-through. Oliver came second.
“It felt totally different,” Marjorie says of the second pregnancy. In the womb, this baby was much feistier than the first. “We were ready for a boy, and a girl came out.”
They adored their surprise daughter. “There never was a cuter little girl in pink,” Marjorie recalls with a broad smile.
The family is gathered in the living room and, as his mother walks down memory lane, Oliver sits quietly next to her on the edge of the red sectional sofa, his head down, his legs apart, his forearms rested on top of his knees.
He’s not loving this part of the story.
Marjorie does most of the talking, candidly recounting the life of her daughter, who is now her son, and the path to understanding and accepting that her child was different. Justin, sitting in an armchair across the room, appears more stoic.
“It took me longer to come around,” he admits, even though he comes from what he calls a liberal New York family, in contrast to his wife, who grew up in Highland Park. Justin says it was difficult to let go of Olivia, to which Oliver mutters, “I’m the same person.”
Justin, who is an ER nurse at Parkland Hospital, learned the depth of his child’s feelings when the transgender topic arose at medical conferences, but he feared that no one would ever accept Oliver.
“The fact that he was able to still have friends and live as Oliver, to me, that was just everything,” Justin says.
Oliver is part of a rare subset of people who do not identify with the gender they were assigned at birth. The Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law estimates there are roughly 700,000 transgender people in the United States, less than 1 percent of the population. Oliver has undergone hormone replacement therapy that causes his female body to present male characteristics such as a deeper voice and more body hair. When his experience began more than a decade ago, there wasn’t even a widely known word for it. This was the stuff of alarming television documentary episodes — shocking to most people, but illuminating for the family.
“I’m a pediatrician,” Marjorie says of her job at Baylor Pediatric Center, “and I didn’t know what transgender was.”
Perhaps even more astounding is that, in a time when transgender individuals can legally be fired from their jobs or refused service at a business, Oliver was born to parents who supported him and grew up in a community that embraced him.
Still, the journey to becoming himself wasn’t easy.
As far back as he can remember, Oliver says he knew he was a boy. By the time he turned 4, he began dressing like a boy and playing with trucks and Buzz Lightyear action figures. He kept his hair short, and he never looked like a girl again.
“My mom thought I was just a tomboy,” he says. “She let me do what I wanted to do.”
After all, tomboys run in the family. Marjorie was one herself, and so was her first-born, Hannah. But Oliver’s tendencies ran much deeper, and he still struggles to put it into words.
“I honestly can’t really explain it,” he says. “I didn’t feel like a girl. All my friends and family referred to me as ‘she’ and ‘her,’ so that kind of hurt.”
For his seventh birthday, he decided he wanted to go shopping for all new clothes in the boys’ section — everything down to his underwear. In keeping with her parenting philosophy of allowing her children to express themselves however they like, Marjorie indulged her daughter’s request.
“I just remember how at peace and excited he was,” she says.
This was all harmless enough for a while. Then, in seventh grade, Oliver’s world collapsed.
“I’m getting my period. I’m developing breasts. I’m not biologically male. It just kind of woke me up,” he recalls.
In their household, where both parents work in the medical field, human anatomy is not an uncomfortable subject.
“My mom’s very open about that stuff and likes to talk about it all the time,” Oliver says. “She would give me books to read and stuff, so I knew all about it. I knew it was coming, but I was hoping maybe it wouldn’t come.”
Three months later, he’s lying in his parents’ bed with his mom and older sister, who are sorting through the girls’ earrings. His lack of interest prompts Marjorie to finally insist, “Just tell me what you are. I can’t go on like this. Let’s talk through it.
“At that point, he said, ‘I know I have a female body, and I know I like girls, so I guess I’m a lesbian.’ ”
They learned he was transgender a short time later from the psychologist Oliver had begun seeing that year.
For two years, Oliver hid behind breast binders and baggy clothing at J.L. Long Middle School. At the end of eighth grade, he began transitioning socially. Having always been known as Olivia, the tomboy, he enrolled at Woodrow as Oliver, the boy.
He began traveling to Los Angeles to see a specialist, Dr. Johanna Olson, featured on ABC’s “20/20” as an expert on caring for transgender youth. At the time, such resources existed only on the west and east coasts.
At the end of his freshman year, Oliver began transitioning medically from female to male, receiving testosterone injections. In 11th grade, during Thanksgiving break, he underwent top surgery — a two-stage mastectomy to remove his breasts.
Performing the procedure on a minor is debatable, says pediatric endocrinologist Dr. Ximena Lopez. She runs the new transgender program at Children’s Medical Center in Dallas, known as GENECIS (GENder Education and Care, Interdisciplinary Support) — the only program of its kind in the Southwest. Children’s adheres to The Endocrine Society’s clinical practice guidelines, which do not recommend surgery on patients under 18.
“Most surgeons are very wary of doing this,” Lopez says. “I don’t push for it. That’s an irreversible process. If they do it, it’s because the family is experiencing a lot of distress.”
Oliver’s transition had been going well, but when Olson recommended a mastectomy as the next step, Marjorie was stunned.
“It was something Oliver desperately wanted,” she says, but “I certainly thought we would wait for surgery until he was 18. I wasn’t sure I was ready. Of course, Oliver was beyond joyful. He was so excited that she suggested that.”
In addition, Oliver hopes to eventually have bottom surgery, or genital reassignment, but the procedure has not yet been perfected. Lopez says the female-to-male change is more complicated than the reverse, so it’s common for transgender men to wait.
Everyone who knew Oliver, however, did not wait for him to change medically before they began making conscious efforts to call him Oliver and use male pronouns. In tenth grade, he legally changed his name.
“All of my friends were really accepting,” he says. “They’ve known me my whole life, and they just want me to be happy. I don’t know how I got so lucky.”
Ashley Bull, a longtime neighborhood resident and nurse at Lakewood Elementary, has known the family since their children were in kindergarten together. Bull’s daughter Rosalie is one of Oliver’s close friends.
“Rosalie was just matter-of-fact about it,” Bull says. “We’re going to call her ‘him.’ ”
During Oliver’s transition, some everyday things became unusual. The first time he went shirtless at a pool party was a little startling, Bull says. But the fact that his parents were so open and accepting made it easier for everyone else.
“We just followed Margie and Justin’s lead,” Bull says. “It’s a big deal, but at the same time, they made it not such a big deal.”
Outside their circle of friends, things were more precarious. One year during his transition, a family walked by them at the Lakewood Home Festival, pointed at Oliver and said, “What is that?”
Oliver doesn’t remember this, but Marjorie does. She replied coolly, “This is Oliver. He’s transitioning. Oliver, you want to tell them about it?”
But even as his parents empowered him, they say others had concerns. At the YMCA’s co-ed Camp Grady Spruce, which he had attended since age 7, he remained in the girls’ cabin the summer before ninth grade. He had started going by Oliver, but had not begun hormone treatment.
“One summer I’m Olivia, and the next summer I’m Oliver,” he says, which made the camp director uncomfortable. Oliver says he was told not to speak of his transition and was heavily supervised around the girls.
Marjorie admits she was “incredibly naïve” sending him off to camp.
“They called me right away,” she says. “He was bawling his eyes out, which is not like Oliver.”
She says the director was looking out for him as much as the other campers but misunderstood what transgender was.
“They didn’t get it,” Marjorie says, “and they weren’t going to get it in two weeks.”
The YMCA says it worked to ensure Oliver had a supportive outlet for the conversation, saying in a statement:
“There is no reason why every person, regardless of gender, income, faith, sexual orientation or cultural background, cannot have the opportunity to enjoy camp to the fullest. We share the values of caring, honesty, respect and responsibility — everything we do stems from it.”
The next year Oliver found a home at the California-based Camp Aranu’tiq for transgender youth, where he met other campers like him. Many had experienced severe bullying, attempted suicide and moved away from their hometowns to start over.
That Oliver was able to stay and transition in the same community that knew him as Olivia is extraordinary — but it didn’t happen without some hardships.
In public, he always has passed as a boy. But when he entered Woodrow as Oliver instead of Olivia, using the boys’ bathroom and theater dressing room became problematic. Marjorie recalls two incidents in which an adult complained to administrators, and Oliver ended up in the principal’s office.
“To me, it was the first time I really hit a wall and felt attacked and that my child was being bullied,” she says. “I lay there on the couch at night sobbing.”
Woodrow principal Kyle Richardson says the situations quickly fizzled after he made it clear that Oliver was indeed allowed to use boys’ facilities.
“It just works itself out,” he says. “Usually what will happen is, if you have a discussion about something, everybody’s got an opinion. But if you put something into practice, people react very differently then. That’s not a big deal.”
People have a right to voice concerns, he says, but it’s unusual in the Woodrow community.
“Oliver’s being transgender is pretty far down the list of things that come to mind when I think about Oliver. I know him as a student and as an actor. Oliver’s Oliver.”
AP English teacher Keith Black says Oliver is “just a standard top-tier student at Woodrow,” and from what Black has witnessed, other students treat him like everybody else. They don’t tease or harass him.
Does that mean he’s accepted or simply tolerated?
“They just said, ‘OK’ and went on with their lives,” Black says.
As Oliver enters adulthood, a new avenue for kids like him has emerged here in Dallas. Lopez launched the GENECIS program at Children’s earlier this year, after seeing a family wracked by gender dysphoria. Their daughter identified as a boy and had just hit puberty.
“She was terrified,” Lopez says. “She was thinking about cutting off her breasts. The parents were desperate.”
Lopez trained at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. Dr. Norman Spack of Boston Children’s Hospital, which established the first transgender program in the United States, visited and introduced one of his patients. Lopez says people often confuse gender identity with sexual identity and that, in fact, about 90 percent of transgender people are heterosexual, like Oliver.
Little research has been done to determine the cause of gender dysphoria, Lopez says, but the brain offers some clues. Transgender adults and adolescents have undergone MRIs to compare brain activity with that of other people.
“There’s a specific part of the brain where we can differentiate between males and females,” she says, and those areas light up based on which gender the subject identifies with, even if they have a different physical anatomy.
The body and the brain are at odds, but it’s not always that simple.
Last year, Facebook announced more than 50 different gender options for its users.
“There are other patients who are in the spectrum,” Lopez says. “There’s always a possibility that a child can change their mind.”
That’s why the standard of care at GENECIS involves six months of psychological therapy before considering any physical intervention. Once the family and team of medical and mental health specialists agree the gender identity issues will likely persist, they begin treatment with puberty blockers that give the child time to adjust without added stress. Next, they might begin hormone replacement therapy.
GENECIS does not perform surgeries, but that could change in the future. Lopez says she expects The Endocrine Society’s new guidelines, expected to be released this year, to lower the recommended age for surgery from 18 to 16.
“I think there are going to be significant changes,” she says. “These guidelines are going to be more flexible.”
The need for a transgender program at Children’s came down to life and death, Lopez says. The rate of suicide attempts among children with gender dysphoria is 60 percent, according to TransPulse, an Ontario-based research group that studied youth aged 16 to 24 who did not have parental support. Even parents who reject the transgender notion have sought Lopez’s help after realizing that their child could die from this.
“Once it happens to their child, it’s a very powerful thing,” she says.
Since the program launched, Lopez has received 80 referrals — mostly local and “more than we expected,” she says.
Children’s also has received a couple of comments from religious people opposing GENECIS.
“I think they don’t understand what transgender means. They think this is the same as being gay. And they already have issues with that. We have a role to educate people. The world is changing.”
Oliver exemplifies that change — even though he had to fly halfway across the country a few times to get there. When Lopez evaluated him at Children’s just a few months ago, she saw “a happy guy.”
“He’s incredibly sure of himself,” she says. “He looks like a male in every way. There’s no doubt that he’s a boy. This is a good example of the new generation of transgender youth who are getting help and support from their parents.”
Oliver doesn’t mind talking about his journey, but he’s not shouting it from the rooftops. While he admires well-known and vocal transgender activists, he still prefers to blend in. He’s preparing to “go stealth” when he begins college in California, meaning he will not reveal outright that he’s transgender.
Although he came from a supportive community, Marjorie worries about what will happen when he leaves the nest. This year, Texas lawmakers have introduced bills that would make it a crime for transgender people to use the bathroom that matches their self-identified gender.
“That really upsets me and disappoints me to where I can’t even read about them,” Marjorie says. “You pray, and you’re scared for all your children.
“I’m more scared for Oliver, for sure. It’s a changing world out there, but I have to have faith that it’s going to be OK.”
At the end of the day, Oliver says he just wants to be a normal guy. He pictures his future with a wife and maybe a couple of kids, although he can’t have biological children.
And yet, Olivia is immortalized in the baby portrait that still hangs on the dining room wall 16 years later.
“It does bother me,” Oliver says. “If it were my decision, I honestly, obviously, wouldn’t want it to hang …”
“Tell me about that, because I’ve been wondering,” his mom interjects, walking in from the kitchen. “Would you rather it not be hung up?”
“Yeah,” Oliver answers.
“How come you’ve never said anything?”
“Because you’ve never asked.”
“Interesting …,” Marjorie says.
She revels in this moment of discovery, and then concludes: “It’s just part of who we are. I probably wouldn’t take it down.”
As much as Marjorie loves that beautiful dress, she remembers how miserable it made Oliver and how much he cried before the photographer finally got a smile out of him. She remembers this every time she looks at the picture — that the girl portrayed in it never really existed — and she realizes how far her family has come.
That’s why she’s leaving it on the wall.
“It’s something I’ve wanted to ignore,” Oliver says, “but now I’ve grown to be proud of what I’ve gone through and who I am.
“I guess it just shows how much I’ve changed. It’s a good reminder. But at the same time, I’m in a dress.”
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