Elijah McBride, a 16-year-old rising junior at South Williamsport Junior-Senior High School, nervously dips his foot into the icy pool. His girlfriend, Sadie Wentzel, offers a reassuring smile from the deep end. This is Eli’s first time swimming in years–an activity he never would have considered before publicly coming out as transgender in June of 2019. He takes a deep breath, rolls up the sleeves of his swim shirt, and jumps.
Eli, whose hobbies include marching band, chorus and theatre, knew something about him was different from a young age. But it wasn’t until he learned what the word “transgender” meant at 10 years old that he started putting the pieces together.
“That’s when I really started thinking ‘Hey, something’s not right,’” Eli said. “It took a lot of time for me to actually be able to accept myself. I had to talk to other people that I trusted, either in that community or that I just trust (in general).”
‘Is this OK with God?’
Still unsure of this newfound identity, he kept his discovery a secret. At 13 years old, he began going to therapy but did not tell his therapist that he identified as trans. “It was like a Catholic, Christian-run place, and I was just kind of nervous about that,” he said. Eli, whose biological sex is female, came out to his older brother, who is a Liberal and majors in pastoral work, first. “My brother was a big help getting me through a lot of it. . . (It was a) really good thing to talk to him about, because one of my biggest worries was, ‘Is this OK with God?’”
In May of 2018, Eli decided to come out to his mother, Maureen McBride. The pair have always had a close relationship, but Eli had recently become moody and secretive.
“I knew something was going on,” Maureen said. “Over the years, you see your child and you’re like, ‘Well, I don’t know what he’s feeling.’ Is he a tomboy? Because that’s what I was when I was a kid.”
Eli chose to play it safe by showing his mom a movie with a transgender theme first. “It was like, a couple times in successive days,” she said, laughing. “ I said, ‘Oh, there’s a message here!’ But it just felt like the pieces fell into place. I could understand his feeling of isolation and being secretive, when he tends not to be. . . I was so honored that he let me in on that.”
‘It was pretty terrifying’
On June 8, 2019, Eli took the plunge and came out on Facebook. He had just finished 9th grade, and wanted to give his friends and family the summer to get comfortable with using his new name and pronouns.
“It was pretty terrifying,” Eli said. “I gave (my brother) my phone for the day and said, ‘Don’t let me look at this!’ But once l got back (online), everybody was being really supportive. Even people that I thought would be questioning me were being great. I was like, ‘All right, this is awesome.’”
Smitten from the beginning
That same month, during rehearsals for the Community Arts Center’s Student Summer Stock production of Newsies, the newly-out Eli met Sadie. From the beginning, she was smitten. “You know when you suppress what you’re actually feeling and you’re like, ‘I’m not gonna think about that?’ Sadie said. “I did that the whole show.”
To this, Eli blushed. “The entire cast knew that I liked her, but they all didn’t think that she liked me back. So they kept discouraging me. They were like, ‘Don’t go for it–don’t do it!’ But it happened, so.”
Because the pair met at the start of Eli’s public transition, Sadie knew his status right away. She had never dated a transgender person before, but she didn’t think it was a big deal. Now, over a year later, she is even prouder to call Eli her boyfriend.
“I’m really proud of it. I’m really proud of him, because it’s not a good time (for trans people),” Sadie said, turning to Eli. “You’re such a good person. He’s like the best person I’ve ever met.”
Fighting the hate
Unfortunately, not everyone has been so accepting of Eli’s identity. During his sophomore year, a group of kids in his grade made over 70 fake Instagram accounts to harass him. Eli has repeatedly tried to block and report them, but most of the accounts still haven’t been taken down.
“It used to really get under my skin, but now I’m just like, ‘You know what? If you have nothing better to do than create this many emails and accounts, then I’m already doing better than you.’”
As Eli continues to mentally embrace this element of himself, he is embracing it physically as well. After taking testosterone for seven months, he is growing more comfortable in his body. So far, Eli has noticed his voice deepening, facial hair growing and his muscle tone increasing. He is currently researching potential surgeons for top surgery, which he considers to be the final step in his medical transition. The process has been challenging.
“You have to find a surgeon that does not have 50% of their surgeries as unsuccessful,” Eli said. “The one that I’m looking at most is wonderful, but he’s in Florida. So it’s difficult finding one that you can afford, one that you trust, and one that won’t mess anything up.”
When he does find one, he plans to set up a GoFundMe account, asking friends and family to pitch in whatever they can.
A light for others
As Eli reflects on his journey so far, he wants to be a light for other transgender youth who live in small towns like Williamsport and South Williamsport. He urges them to keep an open mind.
“The people that you’re surrounded by have been conditioned to think a certain way,” he said. “I want to give my dad as an example. He was scared (when I first came out). He did not know how to handle it whatsoever. But the more time you take to educate someone, the more change will happen. Especially if they’re your family — They might not agree with it right away, but there will still be that love for you. . . So make sure that you’re patient, and do your best to educate people.”
Maureen beamed with pride. “It had been so long since I’d seen such a huge smile on his face,” she said. “When he came out of that and he was finally being his authentic self, it was really a blessing. I’m like, ‘That’s the person I know.’”