Growing up as a girl – and an identical triplet – Zachary Kerr never felt quite right with himself.
When asked "What do you want to be when you grow up?" for instance, the answer from his little girl self was always "a boy." It was charming at first, he recalled. But later, it became worrisome.
A tomboy who preferred rough-housing, he would often leave home dressed in clothes designated for his female gender. Then slyly on the school bus, he changed into outfits snuck from his older brothers' closets.
He felt confused and alone. At age 14, he came across the transgender concept: people whose gender identity is different from what they were born with. It clicked; things finally made sense. He slowly started to make the transition from female to male.
"I was depressed because I didn't end up in the right body," said the 20-year-old Methuen native, who went to Methuen public schools and is now a freshman at Wheelock College. "I want people to see that you can be trans, and you can be happy."
Displaying an incredible amount of frankness, poise, and self-confidence, Kerr is an advocate and a role model for the transgender community. Still undergoing his biological transition from female to male, his goal is to educate people of all types about transgenderism, and provide support to youths who are struggling with gender issues, as well as their families and caregivers.
In this quest, he works closely with the Massachusetts Safe Schools Program for Gay and Lesbian Students, and Greater Boston PFLAG (Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) through educational outreach programs. Essentially, he shares his personal story in a variety of settings — schools, churches, corporations, state agencies — with teenagers, adults, teachers, businesspeople, and officials. After college, he plans to continue, with a goal to pursue social work.
"It's a learning process for everybody," he said of becoming transgender.
For youths struggling with their identity, he said he knows how it is to feel alone. "There are support systems out there."
Kerr offered this guidance for families and friends: "This is really hard to understand, and that's OK. It's not OK to hate and discriminate because you don't understand. It's not OK not to try to educate yourself."
For his efforts, Kerr was recently recognized with a TeenNick HALO award from Nickelodeon, which celebrates young activists; he was one of just four recipients nationwide, and was accompanied on stage at a live broadcast by Josh Hutcherson of the "Hunger Games," who founded the ally group Straight But Not Narrow.
Throughout his work, Kerr has been a defining influence for a number of people.
"Zach inspires me with his honesty, his openness, his maturity, and by how comfortable he is with himself," said Deborah Peeples, president of Greater Boston PFLAG, and mother of a transgender young adult. "He demonstrates his courage by sharing his very personal story, and recognizes the power of putting a face to the issue of gender identity and how that helps break down barriers and build understanding."
Kerr's transition began in seventh grade, when he "came out to himself," and slowly revealed his identity to his friends, triplet sisters Amy and Sara, and three older brothers. Eventually, he worked up the courage to tell his parents, with his mother nearly having to pry out the words, "I know I'm really a boy."
From there, he made the social shift, wearing boys' clothing, identifying as a male, and legally changing his name. He also takes a testosterone shot once a week, which dropped his voice, caused him to grow facial hair, and "all that fun stuff that goes with puberty."
Although there has been the occasional person to say "stupid things," the shift has been largely positive for him, with the support of his family, friends, and classmates.
His mother and father did initially have a tough time, feeling, in a sense, that they were "losing their youngest daughter," he said.
But seeing how happy he was in finally discovering himself, he said they assured him: "We've always had a son. You just had the wrong title."
Taryn Plumb can be reached at email@example.com.