Editor’s note: Katie Hill is a transgender teen from Bixby whose story was chronicled in an award-winning Tulsa World series in May 2011, “Becoming Katie.”
BIXBY — The graduating seniors at Bixby High School walk to their seats in the Mabee Center under a sword salute by the Marine Corps Junior ROTC students of Lt. Col. Randy Hill’s class.
Fashion among Bixby’s senior class girls dictates many wear neon-hued platform stilettos with their Spartan blue graduation gowns and caps.
About one-third of the way through the alphabet, Hill’s daughter, Katie, glides across the stage, and the school administrators offer her a steadying hand down the stairs, as they do for every senior girl — even though Katie is wearing sparkly flat sandals.
No platform heels are needed. At 5-foot-10, she’s tall enough to model or be Miss Universe, if she wanted. (The pageant recently allowed its first transgender competitor.)
Katie takes her seat and waits patiently through “achieve your dreams!” speeches by the principal and three valedictorians, through her peers in A through G of the alphabet. When the time comes, she saunters back to the stage and waits for her name to be called so she can grab her diploma cover and shift the tassel on her mortar board.
“Katie. Rain. Hill.” Applause, and cheers from her family and friends. Like any other graduate.
That walk across the stage made Katie the first openly transgender student to graduate from an Oklahoma high school — but she wasn’t alone, says Oklahomans for Equality director Toby Jenkins.
A few days after Bixby’s ceremony, another girl graduated from a Tulsa-area Catholic school, and several other schools have openly transgender students, he said.
Katie has been a girl in the legal and emotional sense since about her 15th birthday, when she told her mother she was a girl trapped in a boy’s body. Katie was born Luke, but being a boy just never fit.
She sank into a deep depression for several years before she realized she was transgender and asked her mother for help becoming Katie.
At her graduation in May, her mom, Jazzlyn, was in her cheering section along with her grandma, brothers, her new boyfriend and his mom — and her father, Randy.
Since Katie’s story first appeared in the Tulsa World in May 2011, some of the biggest changes involve the men in her life.
Randy Hill was at Bixby’s graduation to oversee his JROTC students, but he was also there for Katie.
He joined his ex-wife, family and friends for dinner at a restaurant before the ceremony, then sat in an arena seat saved by Jazzlyn next to his son, Jake.
He’s still a man of few words, but he and his daughter are talking now.
“It’s still hard, but we’re trying,” Katie said. “He’s finally starting to see where I am coming from.”
A few weeks before graduation, they even danced together.
Randy and Jazzlyn both cried as they watched their daughter give a speech when receiving the Carolyn Wagner Youth Leadership Award at the Oklahomans for Equality annual gala in April.
“It was beautiful,” her mother said.
For two years, Randy had been mourning the loss of his firstborn son, Luke, Jazzlyn said, but he finally realized “it’s still this amazing, incredible kid we had.”
“I see it now,” he told her at the gala. “I know this is who she’s meant to be.”
A few days after graduation and her 18th birthday, Katie traveled to California to say goodbye to the last living piece of Luke: his genitals.
After learning about Katie’s long struggle with gender identity and being bullied in her first attempt to attend school as a girl, an anonymous donor offered to pay for Katie’s gender reassignment surgery anywhere she wanted, including travel expenses. It was a nearly $40,000 gift that would have taken Katie and her family years to afford, and they say they are floored by the donor’s generosity.
This meant no waiting until her 20s and no traveling to Thailand for less expensive surgery. Katie chose Dr. Marci Bowers, considered a pioneer in the field of male-to-female transgender surgery, completing about four per week at her clinic in San Mateo, Calif.
To surgically transform male genitalia into female, doctors perform vaginoplasty, removing the testicles and inverting and reconstructing the penile tissue into a fully formed, sensitive vagina.
It’s a painful, involved four-hour surgery, and the results can vary widely depending on the condition of the patient and procedure used. But for a transgender person, it’s usually the final liberating step to a sense of self that has long been in discord.
That is why Jazzlyn never hesitated in scheduling Katie’s surgery so soon after her 18th birthday.
“Knowing what Katie went through for eight-plus years — there’s nothing worse than watching your child suffer,” she said. “It’s still my baby — male or female, she’s still my child. And I don’t have to kneel at her grave.”
Seeing the difference between sullen, depressed Luke and effervescent, confident Katie is all the evidence her family needs.
One day Katie must find a way to repay “some incredible angel” who made this all possible, her mom told her. She needs need to help another child, like this person helped her.
A new crush
At the table in the restaurant before Katie’s graduation, there were 10 other people, but the guest of honor spent her night transfixed by one: Arin Andrews.
Katie and Arin met a few weeks before the gala and quickly became “FBO” (Facebook official).
Katie and her previous boyfriend, Brandon, had broken up a few months prior, and she was ready to move on.
Now, Katie and Arin, 16, are inseparable. They’re constantly in each other’s arms, cellphone pictures and status updates.
They have a special and unusual bond: He, too, is transgender.
Arin was born Emerald, a pageant princess who attended private Christian schools until she told her mother on the way to a dance recital: “Mom, do you know what it means to be transgender? I think that’s what I am.”
Arin’s mother, Denise, chatted with Katie’s mom at the graduation dinner about how their transgender teens dating is rather unusual — though transgender people may be gay, straight or bisexual. Sexuality is a separate issue from their gender identity.
But is it confusing for a girl who was born a boy to date a boy born a girl?
“It’s never hardly about that. It’s about the person,” Katie said.
Through the Tulsa chapter of Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG) and various academic scholarships, Katie will attend the University of Tulsa this fall.
“I’m still on my knees praying about it,” Jazzlyn said. “There’s no way I could possibly afford TU for her without this.”
Her time at Bixby High School ended quietly, without the drama that began her junior year, when she dropped out and opted for Internet homeschooling after being badly bullied on her first day attending school as a girl.
“It’s a different world,” she said. “Now people just treat me like anyone else.”
Some kids apologized.
Katie’s not sure how, but she thinks she can help other kids by helping people understand gender identity disorder.
She once planned on “going stealth” — living her post-surgical life as a woman and erasing all history of her life as a boy — but now she wants to share her story to help others, even the Luke part.
“I realized, because of this, it’s a part of who I am,” she said. “I don’t need to go stealth.”
Thirteen days after her surgery, Katie was at the lake with Arin, wearing shorts. She can’t swim yet, so she danced on the boat.
The first week after surgery was the worst. “The pain was almost unbearable,” she said.
She wondered about the timing. It’s summer, and it could be weeks before she can run or swim. But the pain is fading, and her physical appearance matches what she always felt inside.
When Katie first came to Jazzlyn in tears about being transgender, worried she might live as an outcast, her mother promised there would be light at the end of the tunnel.
“Katie, one of these days you’ll see — this is not a curse, this is a blessing,” Jazzlyn told her. “You’re meant to do something great with this.”
Something that was a dark period in her child’s life has turned out to be an incredible blessing, Jazzlyn said. “I never thought the light would be as bright as it is,” she said.
Katie is typical of her generation, in that she wears her heart on her sleeve and her life on her Facebook wall.
Three days after she returned from California, started feeling better and spent time with family and Arin, Katie updated her status again: “So happy with life.”