Trans kids at the formal

It's high school formal season, and students throughout Victoria have been getting ready for the ball.

For most of them, the big night is the first time in their lives they're really on show before the eyes of their whole community. For every teen living the red carpet dream, there's another dreading the "prom" nightmare.

For trans kids, navigating the path to a new identity, choosing what to wear for their school's big night can be especially fraught. The studies from the front line of trans teens' lives indicate that they still face enormous challenges - a Telethon Kids survey released last week of 859 transgender youth reported that 80 per cent had self-harmed and three quarters had been diagnosed with depression or anxiety.

Schools are difficult spaces to break away from accepted norms, but in increasing numbers, teens are finding the courage to be who they need to be, and schools - sometimes - are supporting them.

In a week when the campaign against same-sex marriage suggested that the worst possible consequence of reform would be a boy in a dress, The Age interviewed four trans teens who decided to get dressed up as who they really are.

Trans teen Felix Wolffe suited up for his high school formal.

Trans teen Felix Wolffe suited up for his high school formal. Photo: Justin McManus

Felix Wolffe, 17, home schooling

"I'm a 17-year-old transgender male from Hoppers Crossing. My formal experience wasn't the normal kind of high school experience because I went to an all-girls school. I'm currently enrolled in Distance Education Victoria so I study at home and I'm a part-time worker at McDonald's.

It was kind of hard being trans at an all-girls school so that was a thing. Most of my friends were supportive but I was still forced by my family to wear a dress. There wasn't pressure from my school, more so my family but compared to the formal I went to with Minus18 [an organisation for young LGBTI people], it was like hell basically.

I wore a tux to the Minus18 formal; I actually borrowed my grandpa's tux. It fit like a glove. It actually felt like I was being myself for once, like I could be myself and I wasn't put into a box that I couldn't get out of. My grandpa knew and he was a bit reluctant but I kept pushing for it.

I haven't been in touch with my school since, not at all."

Jett Wickham, more comfortable in a suit.

Jett, more comfortable in a suit. Photo: Simon Schluter

Jett, 17, Elisabeth Murdoch College, Langwarrin

"I used to go to a religious high school until year 10, in which I moved to a public school.

At the first school I was forced to wear the 'girls' uniform and hated every minute of it. I tried to get students on board with a petition to allow both sexes to wear whatever uniform, but everyone thought I was fighting a losing battle as well as one that was unnecessary.

When I moved to my new school, at first I had to wear the girls' uniform. I didn't make friends easily because I was out of the closet. I later found out a lot of things were said behind my back.

When the Safe Schools Coalition became a thing, my school joined and then the uniforms got separated into winter and summer, so I was allowed to wear the more masculine uniform that I was most comfortable in.

My year 10 formal, I wore a suit. I was allowed to but I was terrified I wouldn't be allowed in. We had a meeting about the formal before hand and teachers had stated that 'guys, you have to wear a suit and girls, you have to wear a nice dress, OK?' The school didn't want people turning up in jeans and a T-shirt.

But even knowing the context, I was really scared I wouldn't be allowed in. I was but I ended up leaving early as it was obvious that people were staring, including teachers. One teacher even told me later that I shouldn't have worn a suit because he wanted to see me 'in a pretty dress, like the other girls'."

Charlie Orlowski can wear anything he likes to school and the school formal.

Charlie Orlowski can wear anything he likes to school and the school formal. Photo: Simon Schluter

Charlie Orlowski, 17, Alia College, Hawthorn East

"I was previously at an all-girls school until mid-year 10. When I left, they were just introducing pants for the winter uniform. And students there are still trying to get shorts for the summer uniform.

At my current school, it's casual clothes and there's definitely a higher ratio of queer and trans and gender-diverse students. Whether I wear a dress or trackies, people still refer to me as a boy and respect me for who I am.

At my old school you had to wear dresses because that's what was seen as feminine, but where I am now I can wear whatever I feel comfortable in.

Our formal is actually the year 12s graduation because there's only about 80 students at this school so we all go and we dress up pretty fancy for it, it's like a formal, just for graduation. I was there for last year's graduation and it was really cool because anyone could wear what they wanted even - and I'm a trans-guy, I could wear a dress and people would still respect me for who I am."

Freya Corlis-Richards had a great time at her last school formal.

Freya Corlis-Richards had a great time at her last school formal. Photo: Simon Schluter

Freya Corlis-Richards, 16, St Leonard's College

"I'm a 16-year-old trans-girl from Brighton and I go to St Leonard's College, which is a really good school for gender acceptance.

My year 11 formal was earlier this year and I have my year 12 one next year.

It took a bit of work looking for stuff because a) I wanted something that would look good on me and b) would fit. And so I had some things shortlisted on Carousell and eBay and what it ended up being was this salmon-coloured, full-length dress and it was very typical for a ball gown.

And that was paired with some flats because I can do heels but I'm not very good in them. Overall, that choice of clothing helped me embrace my femininity.

My parents support me and help me with everything. From the start of the year, I was already wearing the female uniform and was already out to the school and they were using the correct pronouns and the names. So because of that, they were fine with me wearing whatever I wanted to.

I went by the rules of any cisgendered [same gender since birth] girl.

Formal was actually quite fun. I hadn't been to any formal event before so it was a first for me and it was quite a fancy event. It was a fun time because people were all dressed up and people would tell me, 'You look pretty'."

Minus18, Australia's youth-driven organisation for LGBTI young people, holds formals each year in Melbourne and Adelaide.

For support go to www.minus18.org.au

This story Trans kids at the formal first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.