It starts with a name. All identities do. In theory, names don’t actually say that much about people; there are egotistical Jennifers and funny Jennifers and Jennifers with no personality at all. But our theoretical Jennifer is beside the point entirely, because while names may not describe a person’s personality, they do offer a base for building identity. As soon as you read Jennifer, did you picture a girl? Maybe somebody you know? Maybe yourself?
Enter Sean Bilodeau, band director at Holliston High School. This year Mr. B, as he is affectionately known by his students, came out as transgender, and the story begins with his name.
“For a long time, I saw my life as cursed,” said Mr. Bilodeau on his new name. “The name Sean translates to ‘a gift from god’.” After spending a long time not truly being who he was, the meaning behind the name Sean is truly significant to him. The choice wasn’t instantaneous, however, and Mr. Bilodeau spent long hours researching names with his wife.
“I [would] have names and she [would have] names,” he said. However, both he and his wife are teachers with lots of students, and of course this brings “positive and negative connotations,” to certain names.
The pressure was intense, and ultimately, he “wanted something that was very clearly male.”
According to him, one of the most difficult parts of transitioning has been being misgendered. Even if it’s simply being called “ma’am” at the supermarket, it can be offputting.
“I feel like I look like a guy,” he said, and going from a place like the school, where he is well known and accepted, to the public is a jarring transition of its own.
Another challenge has been essentially experiencing what it’s like to be a teenager again. He began treatment in September this year and struggles with voice control and mood swings. Sound familiar? The mood swings, in particular, have been difficult.
“You know it’s happening, and you know why it’s happening, but it’s still hard,” he said. It’s a long process but, “it’s really just getting used to it.”
However, despite some drawbacks, the whole experience has been liberating.
“Overall, it has been so positive,” he said, “my wife has commented that I’m so much happier.” And the support that he has received from the people in his life, like his wife, has not gone unappreciated.
“I was afraid I was gonna lose my family support, and I was scared I was gonna lose my job,” he said, but in the end, everybody “has been amazing.”
Of course, Mr. B is well aware that the whole world may not be as tolerant as the environment at Holliston High.
“I’m on a support group online, and I have a friend who’s a second grade teacher in Texas,” he said. In their situation, they wouldn’t experience the same accepting reaction as Mr. B did if they came out as transgender in their workplace.
“I feel so lucky to be in Holliston with the community and with the support we have from administration,” he said.
This has been an immense and difficult journey so far, but like most journeys, there has been a guiding light to ease the process. The Yoda to Mr. B’s Skywalker has been Caitlyn Jenner, whom most have seen in the press this year. The celebrity came out as a transgender female earlier this year, and has been one of the most prominent voices of the transgender rights movement in recent history.
In particular, one quote truly stood out for Mr. B.
“If I was lying on my deathbed and I had kept this secret and never ever did anything about it, I would be lying there saying, ‘You just blew your entire life’… ‘You never dealt with yourself,’ and I don’t want that to happen,” said Caitlyn Jenner for Vanity Fair (July 2015).
“This has been kicking around in me for years,” said Mr. B, and seeing Jenner, a former olympian and reality TV star, lead the way was a huge inspiration to him.
Mr. Bilodeau passes this torch on by encouraging all his family, his friends and especially his students, to be themselves.
“It’s really important for me that the people in my life love themselves as who [they] are,” he said. This has been especially potent recently as Mr. Bilodeau and his wife have become parents to their first born son, Tenzin.
The arrival of his son was one of the major reasons Mr. B decided to come out when he did.
“I want him to know me as his dad,” he said.
We talk a lot about heroes. About people who inspire, who fuel change, and alter the course of society. But every hero has his or her origin story — Superman, at the very beginning, was just an alien, crash landed on Earth. Captain America was a boy too weak to defend himself from neighborhood bullies. But as in any good story, our protagonists grow up to be mighty defenders of what is good and right. And it starts with somebody who feels lost discovering him or herself.
This is not, of course, to say that our real-world heroes have to wear their underwear on the outside of their pants and save people in the literal sense. Sometimes ordinary people need only courage and honesty to become inspirational. This is who Mr. B has become. Whether it’s to his adoring students, or just to somebody looking for a role model, Mr. B sets a tone of acceptance and self-confidence for anybody he’s around.
“Who you are at a given moment is who you are,” said Mr. Bilodeau, “and don’t let anyone take that away from you.”