“History is understanding the world as it was. Science is understanding the world as it is.”
So says Year 12 BSSC student Felix Barton, whose love of classical studies stands side by side with a passion for particle physics and quantum mechanics.
In January Felix attended the National Youth Science Forum (NYSF) in Canberra where he had some really great experiences—like visiting the Canberra NASA facility, and being told that his generation are destined to be the first to watch the sun set on Mars.
“We were also challenged to think about a ten-year goal,” Felix says, “I don’t have a clear pathway yet. But I can’t see myself working as a researcher—in either science or the classics—but I want to make a tangible difference in the world.
NYSF was also profoundly important for Felix because of deep and possibly enduring connections made with other students.
“On the last night there was this party in the rec room,” he says. “I had this really in-depth and respectful discussion with one of my new friends about my transgender experience.”
This was one of a number of breakthrough moments for Felix who is successfully negotiating a complicated journey from being born physically resembling a girl, to fully embracing his identity as a transgender person. This journey has been made harder by undiagnosed autism that was only formally identified during Year 11.
“I’m still in the midst of my transition,” he says. “And now with the autism diagnosis—well, that’s a relief because I always knew something was different. I’m still putting myself together, but I feel the best I’ve ever felt.”
Felix’s experience of primary school was dominated by a sense that body language was some kind of secret code that everyone else understood but he couldn’t. And worse still, everyone seemed to be able to see ‘into’ him—while he had no insight into them.
“I felt scared and reacted by trying to protect myself by being as blank and small as I could—almost kind of ‘ornamental’. One primary teacher, Jason Hague, really looked out for me. That was so important. What is interesting now is that the people I did understand were my autistic cousins.
“But things just got harder. In late primary school quite a few friends moved away and I was left mostly alone with my lack of social skills. I also began to notice that boys began to treat me a bit differently—that was such a strain.”
If all this wasn’t challenging enough: puberty began. It triggered a deep longing in Felix to go back to the past.
“I didn’t understand that I had a gender issue. I was just myself and puberty was like the end of gender not mattering. It was like a tumour growing on me and sucking everything out of me,” Felix says.
“The first time I actually thought, ‘But I’m not a girl,’ was when my mum took me to have a bra fitted. I felt completely disconnected from my body. I could not understand why everyone kept telling me I was ‘normal’. It’s now such a relief to say, ‘I’m trans’.”
Felix told his parents when he was 15 that he thought he was a boy.
“I had felt like I was lying to everyone and I just couldn’t go on pretending to be a girl. I had long dark hair until the end of Year 10.
School finished and three days before Christmas Felix had his hair cut. On Christmas Day his grandad initially wondered who this new boy was.
Despite all the challenges and pressures that Felix faced, he didn’t baulk at grabbing opportunities that came his way. These adventures often triggered important breakthroughs. One came during a World Challenge hike a couple of months before his 16th birthday.
“The leader of the group saw I was struggling—there were issues such as having to use the girls’ toilets—and he asked if I was okay,” Felix recalls. “I told him what was going on for me and he replied as though it was the most ordinary thing in the world, ‘Oh, so you’re transgender.’ It was a thunderclap moment for me.
“Then on a regional exchange at the John Monash Science School I ‘came out’ and the school was fantastic. They asked me what I wanted (and also said I could use the disabled toilets). I came back from that experience determined to be my new identity.
“Starting at BSSC I was anxious but actually it was quite easy. This environment is a lot better for me. I was really excited about having a clean slate and control over how I presented myself.”
Felix has not underestimated his need for extra support and has been a part of a transgender group at Headspace for quite a while.
“I’ve had a number of other issues and mental health problems, so the support from them has been fantastic. Some of the friends I’ve made there also attend BSSC so there is already a ‘tribe’ here too.
“Being autistic can be hard, but it’s just life for me,” Felix says. “My autism doesn’t make life less happy. And my special interests bring me so much joy.”
Felix is a passionate podcast listener, and loves reading, but he also delves below story and enjoys the theory of fiction, deconstructing theories and looking for tropes in the books he reads.
“I love patterns and this is probably what draws me to my approach to fiction and also to science: in a world I can’t always understand, there are patterns; rhyme and reason. And my curiosity has helped me to see things as a puzzle.”
Meanwhile, Felix is celebrating the changes to legislation that are allowing transgender young people to access hormone treatments and surgery.
Looking back over the last eight or so years, Felix has some advice he would have loved to have had back when he was twelve.
“If I could go back I would say to myself: ‘You do deserve to have people care about you and love you; you are not a bad person. There’s nothing ‘wrong’ with you and you are not your problems. Forgive yourself for all those behaviours and mistakes that now make perfect sense’.”
Obviously Felix cannot go back. But he can make a difference for those who follow.
Now a tutor for Year 7 to 10 students, Felix is especially interested in working with kids who are at risk of disengaging from school, who are neuro-diverse or have learning challenges. He is also mindful of the increased suicide rate in those in the LGBTI+ community.
“I still overhear transphobic comments too often.”