A transgender student’s perspective on identity, gender, growing up in rural Maine

Editor’s note: This is the first in a two-part series about Mea Tavares’ experiences as a transgender person in Maine.

Mea Tavares.

Mea Tavares has always stuck out. The first time someone asked if he was gay was in fourth grade. In sixth grade, a peer said, “I can’t believe you’ve always been a girl.” When he was young, his mother had to explain it wasn’t OK to only wear shorts when he swam.

For Mea, who was raised in Damariscotta and is now 28, growing up as a child in a female body, but presenting as a male identity, was the beginning of a long journey filled with pain and joy. People who are transgender are often classified as being born into the wrong body. But Mea thinks about it differently.

“My body is trans. It’s always been trans,” Mea said. “The changes I’ve made were never an aim at correcting something that was wrong. It was just completing a sentence.”

Transgender people feel a persistent difference between their assigned sex and understanding of their own gender. Some undergo surgery and hormone regimens to change their physical characteristics. But Mea doesn’t identify completely with either a male or female gender. His sex is female, but he identifies his gender as encompassing aspects both male and female. His gender is transgender.

A word often used to describe the transgender experience is “transition.” Transgender people are often referred to as “male to female” or “female to male.” But how one fully transitions is an individual preference. One might feel “fully transitioned” after having “top surgery” — language used to define a double mastectomy. Or one might feel fully transitioned by being public about one’s gender identity and going by a different name — more of a social transition.

Sex and gender are complex issues, and there are more varieties than many realize. But for a long time western cultures have primarily recognized two sexes: male and female. Mea shared his story to generate awareness and understanding. But by doing so he puts himself at risk. He and others have been verbally harassed, excluded and physically assaulted for their differences.

Yet education and healing are part of his life’s work. Mea now lives in Portland and is a pre-med student at the University of Southern Maine. He is also a student supervisor at the Center for Sexualities and Gender Diversity at USM and gives talks across New England about transgender issues and suicide prevention for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender youth.

Mea and I attended Medomak Valley High School in Waldoboro at the same time and knew each other peripherally. But I understood nothing of his experiences then. He first came to Medomak in 1999, his sophomore year, at a time when he was trying to fit in fully as a female, in female clothes, with a male boyfriend, going by his birth name. It didn’t work.

“My mother has retrospectively said it was the only time in her life that she couldn’t see me,” Mea said.

Within a few weeks at Medomak, he was outed as being attracted to women. But even though his sexuality was revealed, he didn’t feel safe discussing his gender. “I was out and proud as being attracted to women, but I could not say … ‘I’m not a woman.’” he said.

Being gay was enough to spur harassment, including a physical attack.

Mea and a girl he was dating were in the hallway when a group of girls started calling them nasty names. Then, when Mea’s friend turned to put her books in her locker, one of the other girls stepped up and kicked her in the back, slamming her into the locker.

Surprised and saddened, Mea put his arms around her and walked her away as she shook and cried. The girls followed them, swearing at them. They said, “That’s so disgusting.”

It was the response from an administrator, though, that sealed Mea’s anger. After just experiencing a physical assault motivated by hate, the administrator said to Mea, “Well, what were you doing?”

Mea said that was when he decided to graduate early. The girl who attacked his friend got two days of in-school suspension.

After graduating one year ahead of time, in 2001, Mea began to slowly develop a vocabulary about his transgender experience. “I knew bits and pieces of my gender, but I never fully thought, I’m a boy,” he said. He had a turning point when a friend asked him what he wanted, and he said he just wanted a flat chest. His friend said, “You can have that, you know.”

So Mea started binding his chest and trying to pass as male. Though it was painful — he couldn’t breathe well, and his ribs were bruised — he felt good about how he looked. The reality of how he appeared on the outside was aligning more closely with how he felt on the inside.

When Mea’s younger brother learned of his changes, he was relieved to finally have a “context for our relationship that felt true to him,” Mea said. His parents were also supportive, though it took time for them to understand. Now they call him “son.”

“I was really lucky in that I had parents who, even though they didn’t get it, they were supportive of me, so they really pushed themselves to understand,” Mea said.

A significant part of Mea’s early trans experience involved choosing a new name, both for his safety and to better represent his identity. (Mea, like many transgender people, is private about his birth name and doesn’t share it publicly).

“I spent about a year not really identifying with any name,” he said. “The people I was out to, they were like, ‘What do I call you?’ I was like, ‘I don’t really know. Why don’t you make something up?’” So his friends invented different nicknames. And sometimes when Mea had to sign his name, he would simply draw a star, to represent his middle name, Starr.

He needed to find a name that represented him but was similar to his birth name — to honor the original choice his mother made for him. He ultimately chose Mea because it means “me” or “mine” in Latin. The “a” at the end of Mea aligns with his feminine aspects, and the name wasn’t already assigned to a gender, so he could freely define it.

As Mea continued to grow into his understanding of who he was, he drew strength from Native American concepts of sex and gender. Mea is part Penobscot and knew that many Indian tribes historically revered transgender people and regarded them as two-spirited. They were considered to have more knowledge than someone of one gender and were often healers.

It is fitting, then, that Mea is studying to one day help provide relief for transgender patients. You will read next week about his own experiences with medical staff, why he decided to get a double mastectomy and his continuing work to encourage the type of acceptance so often extended by his ancestors.

Mea Tavares.

Erin Rhoda

About Erin Rhoda

Erin Rhoda is editor of Maine Focus, a journalism and community engagement initiative by the Bangor Daily News.