Polly Harrington walked into the dining room of her Hamburg home and set a wooden-framed 5-by-7 photo on the white tablecloth.
“Eww. No. Oh, my God,” said her 17-year-old daughter, Matti. “You’re embarrassing.”
It was a photo of Matti as a toddler, wearing light blue overalls, a dark navy blue shirt, arms wrapped around Polly, whose bobbed blond hair framed a wide, content smile. Snuggling little Matti for a photo like this was a dream fulfilled for Polly. Unable to have her own children, she adopted Matti from a Russian orphanage when Matti was 8 months old.
Photos like this bring Polly back to that time, a time when, as a 43-year-old single woman, she finally was able to become a mommy.
Polly’s eyes begin to well.
“What a sweetheart,” she said.
“Was he not the cutest little thing?” Polly continued.
“Yes, he was,” said her brother, Dave Harrington, sitting at the table. “Yes, he was.”
Notice the subtle detail?
The story here is captured in a single word – “he.” Back then, Matti was “Matthew.” She was a “he.”
But in the years that followed that photo, it became increasingly apparent that something was different about Matthew. He liked to wrap towels around himself like a dress and clomp around in Polly’s heels. When he started school, he insisted on lining up with the girls, not the boys. In third grade, he plastered his room with posters of “High School Musical” star Zac Efron.
“I was obsessed with any guy on Disney Channel – like all the girls in my class,” Matti recalled.
Matthew preferred princess castles over dragons and moats, and once snapped the pieces of a plastic golf set in half to turn the toy clubs into fairy wands.
Most of these examples alone, or even taken together, don’t indicate there was anything dramatically different about Matti. To the contrary, it’s entirely normal for children, especially in their youngest years, to swap traditional gender roles in play. But for Matti and other people like her – the most notable now being Caitlyn (formerly Bruce) Jenner – those outside factors were simply visible details of something that ran much deeper.
Matti, like Jenner and less than 1 percent of Americans, is transgender. She feels like she was born into the wrong body – a woman inside the shell of a man. Doctors agree. So also like Jenner, Matti is undergoing medical treatment to change her body into the one she feels she is meant to have.
Matti, whose hair is dyed platinum blond and shaved on the sides (a tribute to her idol, Miley Cyrus), was trying on dresses last week at Monroe’s Place, a cozy, three-level shop in the Village of Hamburg. She was slipping in and out of options in a bottom-floor area crammed wall-to-wall with prom dresses. She loved a strapless white and silver sequined high-low gown, but she kept tugging the sweetheart neckline to keep it in place.
“Ah,” Matti groaned. “The struggle of small boobs.”
The owner of the store, who goes simply by Monroe (“I usually put it in quotes,” she said, refusing to give her last name), interjects.
“As you get older, they’ll become bigger,” she said.
Simple conversations like that, ones that take place in every dress store every day, are golden to Matti. They’re a reminder that she’s a girl – not fully a girl yet, but close, and soon to be entirely.
In third grade – the Zac Efron years – Matti came out to her classmates as gay. By sixth grade, she started wearing tight-fitting clothing and skinny jeans. In seventh grade, she started wearing makeup to school. After discovering the Logo TV series “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” Matti thought she might be happier in drag and started wearing full ensembles of women’s clothing around the house. Matti wanted to wear dresses outside the house, too, but Polly wouldn’t have it.
“When you’re in the house, I don’t care what you do, how you act,” Polly said. “But outside, there are too many people out there that just don’t understand.”
Not surprisingly, Matti knew that. The skinny jeans and makeup had provoked harassment already. But Matti wouldn’t relent. First she stepped into the driveway, then to the edge of the road to get the mail.
“I did not want to be trapped in four walls to express myself,” Matti said. “I’d rather show everyone.”
Matti’s family, meanwhile, had long ago accepted her differences. Her cousin Jillian Smith, who’s one year younger than Matti, noticed when they were both preschool age and Matti – then Matthew – would insist on taking the mother role when they played house. Jillian’s mother sat her down and told her Matti was different.
“I learned to accept people for who they are,” Jillian said. “They are who they are, period.”
Though Matti’s family wasn’t searching for a definition of what made her different, they suspected it wasn’t as simple an explanation as being gay (which doesn’t relate to cross-dressing) or being a cross-dresser (which doesn’t mean a person is gay).
The defining moment – which became transformational – happened in eighth grade. Matti’s grandmother, Sally Harrington, was in Florida and saw an Anderson Cooper interview with transgender kids on CNN. Sally called Polly afterward .
“I know what Matti is. She’s transgender,” Harrington said.
Polly wasn’t sure, but she looked up the interview on YouTube and watched it with Matti. Afterward, Matti turned to Polly.
“Mom, I’m not gay,” she said. “I’m trans. That’s me.”
That single realization crystallized Matti’s world.
“I’m normal. I’m really a girl, and I like boys,” she said to Polly.
The next day, Polly took Matti shopping for women’s clothing.
Matti immediately started wearing her new wardrobe in school and identifying as a female. This is when people began referring to Matti as “she” rather than “he.” Matti’s demeanor – which Polly recalled as a constant “frown on her face” – changed.
“As soon as we allowed her to wear girl clothes, she got the smile back on her face,” Polly said. “She was who she wanted to be. She was happy.”
Much of the teasing Matti endured in school had subsided. By now, the kids were accustomed to her standing out, and Matti remembers her eighth-grade teachers at Hamburg Middle School being “awesome” with the change. Her family was fully supportive.
“It was a no-brainer,” said her uncle, Dave Harrington.
The bigger challenge now would be physical. Matti began seeing Dr. Tom Mazur, a psychiatrist who specializes in an area of medicine called disorders of sex development and works at Women & Children’s Hospital of Buffalo. Matti had seen Mazur when she was younger, as well.
Her visits with Mazur led Matti to consult an endocrinologist. Puberty-blocking medications weren’t an option. At 14, Matti was through puberty. Instead, the doctor prescribed testosterone-blocking pills – which shrink the testicles, inhibit erections and cause a decrease in body hair– and estrogen patches – which help develop a female figure, including breasts.
Though Polly was fully supportive of the change, it came with a sense of grief. Mazur explained to her that it would feel like experiencing the loss of a son, with the gain of a daughter.
“The hard part was losing my little boy,” Polly said. “That was difficult.”
Matti, sitting across her mom, said: “I was perfectly fine by it.”
Matti’s situation is rare. Most reports nowadays in the midst of the Jenner coverage cite the work of Gary Gates, a UCLA researcher who estimates the number of people who identify as transgender to be 700,000 nationally, or no more than 0.3 percent of the population.
According to a Buffalo News article from October 2013 for which both Mazur and Matti were interviewed, there are about six transgender kids and teens attending Western New York schools. That figure is an estimate based on patients Mazur had seen at the time, and it reflects of the inexact nature of the overall statistics.
What the numbers don’t capture are people who identify as transgender privately. Few do it as openly as Matti, who has posted numerous YouTube videos about her transition, along with song covers and vlogs about her life.
Today, in virtually every visible part of her life, Matti is fully a girl. That’s true in a gown (she attended Hamburg’s junior prom last month), on a runway (she’s taking modeling classes) or in the hundreds of selfies and videos she posts on social media. Matti’s Facebook is capped at 5,000 friends and she has 8,000 followers, many of whom ask her questions about her transition.
She’s taking cosmetology classes in high school and hopes to build a career in the entertainment industry.
“I want to do something where people will know who I am, and I’ll be a household name, which sounds really weird,” she said. “But it’s a dream of mine to be a celebrity walking a red carpet.”
Matti hasn’t been especially interested in the Bruce-to-Caitlyn Jenner story.
“I don’t like the Kardashians,” she said, referring to the famous family into which Jenner married.
But she is impressed at Jenner’s transformation.
“She’s beautiful,” Matti said a couple of days after Jenner’s Vanity Fair photos were released.
Matti’s own transition isn’t yet complete. Physically, she’s a girl from the waist up only, which complicates small desires like wearing a bikini and everyday tasks like changing for gym class. Matti uses the nurses office.
“I’m comfortable in my body now,” Matti said.
She then paused to reconsider, her steely blue eyes jumped upward toward the ceiling.
“Like halfway comfortable in my body now,” she clarified. “I don’t know; it’s hard to explain.”
Polly jumped in.
“You’re about 80 percent. It’s just the one thing you have to get rid of – the male organs,” she said.
“Then I’d be 100 percent.”
Soon she will be. At 18, pending coverage by her insurance company, Matti will be able to undergo gender reassignment surgery. For now, though, Matti does her best not to think about or talk about her single remaining male feature – or her male past. So she recoiled slightly when her mom pulled out that toddler photo, or an eighth-grade school photo that depicted Matti, early in her transition, in a mint-green blouse and airy white skirt.
Matti balances the photo assault by pulling her iPhone and opening Instagram to a post that has a pair of photos. On the left is one that shows Matti with wavy, sun-kissed hair that plunges to her hips. She’s wearing a blue crop-top sweater, denim shorts, and has a yellow flower in her hair. At right is a current photo: platinum hair, a wide, bright smile, and a white, long-sleeve, midriff-bearing shirt.
“In my eyes, there are at least four different people here,” Matti said. “We have baby me and awkward-stage me” – she’s talking about the first two photos – “then slow, figuring myself out.”
She points to the final photo: “And then this is who I am – the same girl, just different paths in life.”