Teachers Inspire Ireland 20232024
Ep7 1

2023 Podcasts

The freedom to be who you areEp 7, Jacob Donegan

The teenage years bring challenges for all young people. For this episode Louise is joined by Jacob Donegan who by the age of six knew he was not in the right body. He tells her about the day he saw a story in a magazine about a girl who ‘transitioned to the boy he was,’ and he turned to tell his father, “that’s me.”

Now in his twenties, Jacob has been very open about his transitioning journey on social media. He has 1.2 million followers on TikTok alone.

He chats to Louise about navigating his journey and where he found support. He recalls a teacher in secondary school who was understanding and gave him the, “freedom to be who I was.”

He is hopeful that schools are becoming more supportive of trans students and tells Louise about an all girls school with one trans student and the school reached out to Jacob and asked him to send in a video they would play for the whole school.

Jacob said, “that's empowering. That's amazing. That's beautiful to see.”




Louise:
Hello, and welcome to the Teachers Inspire Podcast. I'm Louise O'Neill and I curate Teachers Inspire which is organised and run by Dublin City University.

We want to hear about the teacher who has made a difference in your life or in your child's life. So remember you can nominate them now for an award at teachersinspire.ie

On the podcast I talk to some of the amazing teachers and the people who nominated them. I also chat to other people who share their fascinating stories about teaching and teachers with me.

On the Teachers Inspire podcast, we realise that your school years are rarely plain sailing and just like life, there will be bumps in the road where you need the support of others and we have heard so many uplifting stories about teachers who have provided that support.

For many students, particularly at secondary level, they have to work out so much. You know: what subjects to take, whether their choices will fit in with their chosen career, and then, you know, what if they change their mind?

And all of that happens while you're dealing with your changing body, your developing personality and discovering more about who you are, finding and making friends…oh my God as I say this, I'm just so relieved I'm not a teenager anymore… but it definitely is not easy.

My guest on this episode is a man who is 22 years old now, but he says, in his words, that he knew from a very young age that he was not in the right body.

Jacob Donegan has been very open about his transitioning journey on social media. He has 1.2 million followers on TikTok alone - oh my God!

Welcome to the Teachers Inspire podcast Jacob!

1.2 million followers, isn't that like, I think I’d be so scared every time I went on, like thinking about that amount of eyes like, I don't want to like freak you out here, but like, do you ever feel like intimidated when you're going on for your 1.2 million followers?!

[laughter from both]

Jacob:
Oh, of course, you are second guessing, it could be a simple thing in the background out of place and 1.2 million people are gonna see that. Yeah, you have to be careful/switched on!

Louise:
Yeah, I don't know if it would be for me. Okay, so let's just, let's just start from the very beginning now, okay, we're going to treat this like a therapy session: Jacob, tell me….

[Laughter]

So now, you know, in the intro here, you said that you knew from a young age that you were not in the right body. And like, what age were you when, you know, when, you had that realisation?

Jacob:
I was around five or six years of age. I was at work with my dad, he used to work in a garage, and I just used to go on a trip with him there every weekend and I walked into the shop and where you see magazines all set up on (a) display of like newspapers and all that jazz, I saw on it (and), all I could read briefly on it, was ‘a young girl transitioned to the boy he was.’

And that was a nine-year-old boy at the time that I was reading (about) and I pointed to that, and I was like, with my dad next to me, ‘that's me.’

Now as a child, obviously, I didn't understand the terminology in which I was saying that to but when I pointed at it, I knew there, in that moment, that I related to what that was saying. And my dad, I remember when I said that my dad kind of looked at me, read the paper and looked at me again and we walked out, it was kind of never seen then.

But that moment there was when I knew something’s different. I didn't know what, because I was only a child, I didn’t live by labels, but I knew something was different.

Louise:
I suppose like, I think because when a lot of people hear that, and probably like your father's reaction was probably something like, ‘Oh, he's just a child,’ like, you know, this is just a phase.

But like I do actually think at that age, we're like the gender detectives, like, you know, you see that with kids like they're so specific about ‘this is a boy’ ‘this is a girl.’ And like, I think to have that instinct so early on, and that obviously never left…

Jacob:
That never left, no. It is as you said the instinct, you have that own kind of instinct in yourself to follow and at such a young age you are more switched on because nobody's opinions can actually terminate what you're thinking.

Louise: Yeah

Jacob:
You know, it's only your thoughts alone and you're going to live into them thoughts, without anybody else, because you don't understand the opinions of anybody else or what life even is at that moment you’re speaking on, all you know is what you feel, what you are feeling, and I was feeling like the man I am today.

Louise:
Yeah. So from, so you say that was around five or six. Like, what kind of happened after that? Was that, was that something that you kind of kept in the back of your mind, you know, as you were going through like your adolescence or like …because there was more information may be coming out about like trans, you know, people and like you know, what that looked like?

Jacob:
Well, it would be hard to actually put into such a small time

[laughter from both]

Louise:
Give me the exact timeline here now Jacob, okay, in the year you know, 2010 this is what happened!

[laughter from both]

Jacob:
It was, it was… literally (to cut) a long story short, it was basically I knew from then on, but I did not speak upon anything to do with transitioning until I was about 15 (years old).

So, it was a long time holding it back. I did things in between, say, from 11, when I hit puberty and what not, to that age of 15, 14/15, I had kind of made a map or made an idea in which I was going to follow to get to the point of telling my family.

So I came out with a lesbian first to kind of show them, I'm not going to like the gender that you/my biological birth in your head is going to like. I'm not going to have that life that you've had formed in your head.

So that was just a small way, not hurting them, but just easing them in and then through the years, then, that's when I started dropping… I never dressed as a girl really, I never dressed in a dress - I'd always cry.

I always played with action figures; I always had that sign of a boy. So that shock wasn't there. But the shock was going to be that I was going to change that gender. It was no longer going to be a phase or a little tom girl, I was going to be their little boy.

Louise:
Yeah. And I think there is, because I suppose so many people again will say, ‘Oh, you know, there's just a phase.’

And you know, like, a lot of girls don't – and I’m like, there's a difference between a girl who's like, I don't want to dress in, you know, like these clothes. Or a boy who doesn’t want to dress in these clothes and actually being like ‘No’ this is not, like, I understand what my gender identity is and it does not match the body that I've been born into.

I mentioned there in the introduction, just like how difficult puberty is, like, just for everybody, like across the board, it's like this absolute horror show.

[laughter]

And like, I can't imagine then also, like struggling with your gender identity and, and going to like school and I mean, what was that like? You know, particularly I suppose, because of what we're talking about today, like in school, like, did you go to a mixed or a single sex?

Jacob:
I was in a mixed (school)

Louise:
And I'm curious, do you think that was, I mean, I suppose it's difficult for you to know, because that's the only experience that you've had, but I do think that was more helpful or….

Jacob:
Before coming on here, I actually reached out to some of my supporters, and I just asked the ones that are transitioning to give me kind of an insight of what it is for them now so that I can kind of compare it to how my time was in school…

Louise:
all those years ago, now at 22, you old man!

[laughter from both]

Jacob:
All three years ago! Time flies you know!

[laughter from both]

Jacob:
But basically, I had two different - I was reached out (to) by a school previously, and they were all girls school and basically, they reached out to me to make a video as they had one trans man there at the school transitioning.

And obviously, that was very difficult for them because they were around loads of girls and had to follow all the rules provided for the female. So that was very hard for them. But, actually, that school accepted and was kind of putting that blanket over them to protect them, even though they weren't getting that at home. So that was something magical to hear.

But then there was an all-boys one, where that boy transitioned to a girl and that was a whole different atmosphere. So they got horrendously bullied, they were getting bullied from home, from school, teachers, it was a different atmosphere.

And for me going to a mixed (school), I had both. I had the blanket of some teachers, some students and then I had the other side which was the lack of understandment.

The neglect that you get without even knowing who I am, but just the label of transgender and that was coming from teachers, that was coming from students, that was coming…so that that happened, it happens in any walk of school.

It would be obviously harder on some more than others, but you're all going through the same if a person doesn't understand, whether you're an all mixed/girls/boys, they're going to show that, they're going to react in the same way as anybody else would in the other school.

Louise:
Yeah. And, you know, on this podcast, you know, I've been interviewing a lot of teachers and people who work in education, and like, the thing that keeps coming up, is they're like, you know, we, we want to protect the student, we want to support the student, we want to make sure that the student feels safe, and that they like, you know, are able to sort of be fully self-actualised and fully themselves.

And I would imagine that if I had those teachers in front of me now, they would say like that, that they would want that for both their cis and their trans students.

So I suppose from your experience of having gone through the school system as a trans student, what do you think, like if you were going to give advice, let's say to any teachers or educators or you know, principals, anyone who sort of involved in the education process, like what would be your advice for those people to try and make that environment I suppose as safe as possible and as inclusive as possible for the trans student?

Jacob:
I feel like a good thing to say just to any teacher is to go into their job daily with understandment. I feel like one of the best teachers I've ever had in my life going through school, and only for him would I have made it through school, was a counsellor and Mr. Conroy was his name and I'll never forget him. He was my saviour.

He understood and gave time in ways that teachers weren't doing. He was speaking to me instead of speaking down to me, and one thing as you're growing up as a child, something that, I am 22 and I can't even kind of grasp the ideology of a teenager, like that's such a small gap, never mind adults that are going into school that obviously are not going to understand a teenager because we are generations, we're going to keep changing.

But one thing that just doesn't need to change is the opportunity that you have to step into understanding the kids that you are teaching and giving them that space to actually open up and be free to be who they are because when you're going into school, as you said, there's already all of them struggles that are written down on the sheet there. And it's just so, so, so, so many.

But the bottom line of it is that you can be that brightness to a child coming to school, because that teacher, even though I disliked school, in my own ways, for many reasons, that one teacher gave me that bright light and understandment and that freedom to be who I was and to give that opportunity to grow into who I was, he gave me that opportunity.

And that would be my upmost…hopefully it's something that they could take with you, but this would be my utmost thing to push forward: understandment and learning the way to communicate to a younger child.

Learning the way to communicate to somebody that's going through struggles because you don't know what they're going through, you only know what they're going to verbally speak to you. You're only going to know that so much of what they open up and open up to you with.

So you have to… it's complete to do with understandment and, and giving them that opportunity to speak without judgment.

Louise:
Oh, what an amazing gift that that teacher gave you. Because I think you're right, it comes down to empathy and understanding and I think what has been really frustrating over the last couple of years has been seeing, like trans people used as almost like a political punching bag, you know, and like, just sort of discussed and debated and it's like, no, actually, there are human beings at the centre of this who just want to live their lives.

And like, you know and as you said there, just to give someone the space to fully be themselves. I think that's what any of us would want, you know,

Jacob:
absolutely.

Louise:
regardless of our gender or sexual identity. And you mentioned your family. I mean, they have been, I think you mentioned that they have been very supportive, haven't they?

Jacob:
they've been supportive, not from the past, now we went through - I don't really like to speak into the negative sides but I know that's part of your journey, which I don't mind sharing.

But when it came to, as I said, I had to come out and give that map of the idea to first came out as a lesbian to actually, like, ease it into them.

They were not accepting; they didn't know the terminology of even transgender. All they knew was lesbian, bisexual like that’s lesbians, bisexual or, or gay. That's, that's all they were raised with.

Louise:
yeah,

Jacob: Again, understanding doesn't just go into schools. This is, this is something where I'm speaking from a personal experience, because it went both ways.

My family didn't understand me for many years of my transition of when I knew I was, who I knew I was, and all that. But in that, what I learned was, I had to give them the opportunity to understand who I was, and they had to give me the opportunity to understand where they're coming from.

Louise:
Yeah

Jacob:
All in all, we were all freaking out because I didn't understand how they were feeling, they didn't understand how I was feeling. But at the end, we were doing that out of fear, that was pure fear. And we weren't given that space to actually understand each other.

Louise:
Yeah.

Jacob:
so that's what that's what I spent them years doing. They didn't accept me. So, I gave them time and I used the right vocabulary towards them to lead them in, where they're not feeling like I'm shoving it down the throat of ‘this is who I am, you must accept me.’

Because I'm asking them to accept me, so I need to accept their ways. So it had to go both ways.

Louise:
My God that's very wise, that’s very wise…

Jacob:
No but that is the way. And that is how life is. If, if I was to react to them the way they reacted to me with fear and negativity and using vulgar words, because of that fear, then we wouldn't be where I am today with the most accepting family I've ever had, like I'll ever have, because they're brilliant. They are my rock.

My mother is my best friend, and she was the hardest one in going through this because she was losing her daughter and gaining a son. It was like grieving to accepting you know, yeah, so with all that, again, like understanding that's such a powerful thing to do, because they didn't accept me, but the past is the past. I'm never looking back. I'm only going forward and they are by my side now due to that, due to giving them that space to understand.

Louise:
Yeah, oh, my God, I think that's kind of a lesson for us all there. And with your, with the TikTok- she says like a 100-year-old woman – now with the Tik Tok Jacob…

[laughter from both]

Louise:
With your TikTok, are these the kind of conversations that you are having on there like, is it/are you trying to sort of like create that space for people to talk and for understanding or is it just, you know, having the craic?

[laughter]

Jacob:
I go on, now I go on an on-and-off thing. I've recently coming to find things with myself that I've been suffering with as a child going through school, actually would have started in school, and that's anxiety, self-doubt, all that thing that comes with the kind of, as I said, the neglect and the lack of understandment through school. So you adapt a lot of fears.

My biggest thing that I want to do in life, and my biggest thing that I just want to push forward for, is to do something in forms of speaking. And so, in the past year, I've been pushing myself out to overcome my anxiety by speaking in front of people so that I can go forward into schools.

Louise:
Yes, that'd be great.

Jacob:
That's something that I really want to do because one thing that I realised when I was in school and you'd get maybe a bullying talk or you’d get an LGBT talk, I wasn't connecting to them. I wasn't connecting because they weren't speaking from their heart, they were speaking from a piece of paper.

Louise:
Yeah.

Jacob:
And I feel like especially with the LGBT they weren't teaching, they weren't teaching these people, these people that didn't understand, allies, even people that hated… they weren't teaching them who we were as people or what we are as people. They were just reading off a piece of paper.

So, I want to take on that role of just standing in front of these kids and when, when they walk out, whether it be about bullying, harassment, or LGBT, if it's bullying, the bullies that are sitting in that class, I want them to sit and think, to know what they're going to further do to these people's lives if they continue that bullying and continue that path.

But also, I want to show the people that are victims that nobody's words define who they are. I want them to understand that words are only words until you let them in and manifest them into something bigger. So I want to kind of go in with the ambition of motivation and to inspire young kids to just, just be better, be themselves and be better. Push forward. Don't get lost in the noise.

Louise:
Yeah. And I think as well, it's, I suppose, you know, we saw that even with, like, you know, the referendum like that it was, it was stories, it was people telling their stories. Because I think it's when you, when you have a face, and when you have someone who's like, you know, I'm standing here, I'm a human being, you know, like, it's, it's a lot more difficult to sort of just dismiss that or to, you know, I suppose, as you said, turn it into like a kind of a political game in some way.

So I think that will be really powerful if you were to go into, into schools in particular I think, because, you know, as you said either it's going to be a student who is struggling with their gender identity, or someone who is like bullying someone else who is struggling, I think that would be, I think that would be really powerful.

Jacob:
I think it will definitely work to push me forward because I know that we were speaking earlier on the TikTok bit and my posts and even now I realise that my posts aren't where I want them to be because I have that fear, like a lump in my throat, whenever I want to say something to do with transgender.

Like I had a full series called ‘Real Talk with Jacob’ where I’d allow parents, I'd allow young kids to ask me questions that are uncomfortable and that they feel like they're walking on eggshells with while asking, because I know that some trans people don't like to be asked certain questions, but me, I want to be open to all questions, educational purpose wise.

So I do want to push forward now to change my videos, right now it's more trending sounds, I want to turn my whole page into just what I said there – teaching, I want to be able to use my voice in ways without this anxiety riddling over me.

Louise:
And why do you think that anxiety is? Is it a fear of what people will say? Do you get that, do you get that kind of negative backlash?

Jacob:
Oh I had loads, I had loads through my years. I've had people spit, drivers in cars video me, beat me up, I've had a lot through my years to do with transitioning and to do with TikTok, I was a double target because I was known all Ireland wide at such a young age and not understanding what that's like.

Louise: Yeah, yeah,

Jacob: So it turned and they're all going to add up into who I am now. Like, if I was to speak in front of people, I feel that comfort now because I pushed myself to do it, but my leg will always shake, my arm will start shaking.

Louise: of course, you are so young as well, you know.

Jacob: So I want to break that now and to change my page to kind of making sure I'm getting over this mental struggle I'm having myself while also getting other people over theirs.

Louise: And I suppose, what do you think, I mean, you know, if you see so many, you know, say Pride groups and organisations, you know, that are running festivals, and you know, like, obviously, Pride and things like that during the year, particular in universities, like, you know, do you feel like that is, I mean… how does that make you feel, like, do you think that's a good, I mean obviously I think it’s a – I mean it’s such a leading (question)

[laughter from Jacob]

but do you think that's a good thing? Obviously, it's a good thing,

[laughter]

but how does that make you feel?

[laughter from both]

Jacob:
It's fantastic to see, it's brilliant to see that people are joining in together and it's not just LGBT community anymore, it is allies and everything, it is such a powerful group now with that, you know, the love is definitely overpowering the hate these days, which is amazing considering the amount of hate that's spiraling in at the minute, you know, these groups are fantastic.

Maybe just Pride or even just a small group for kids and it's all LGBT, they are all small steps in the right direction and 10 times better than 20 steps in the wrong way.

Louise:
Yes, exactly and hopefully, you know, for, I suppose teenagers who are, you know, let's say 10 years kind of younger than you, and that are kind of beginning this journey, that hopefully that they will, I suppose that that will be some comfort to them as they as they go through, as they transition and they go through this.

Jacob:
It will, and it will be open now for them to kind of find people that are like minded with them as well because growing-up I didn't have anyone that was transgender around me at all.

Louise:
So, Jacob earlier you mentioned that a school had reached out to you. I think it was an all-girls school, had reached out to you, I suppose for your advice in their attempts to help a trans student in their school. Does that happen frequently? Like do you think that, I mean, is that a sign of, I suppose, a movement towards like greater acceptance and inclusivity in schools?

Jacob:
I definitely think in the space of three years going from school to now, there's so many changes that you can see, that you do feel in your heart like this hope. You feel hope in your heart because you can see it, that simple, simple thing now of all-girls school reaching out to me to send a video into their school that they're going to play to their whole school for that one young trans man was just, that's, that's empowering. That's amazing. That's beautiful to see.

Because that is, even though I'm not getting asked every second week to do this, that's a small step that is, that school has turned against probably years and years and years and years of the rules of that would not have been allowed, like, especially a Catholic school put together. It's just not allowed, it wouldn't have been allowed.

So to actually get that forward and see that, yes. There's many, many movements going forward. I did do a talk with SpunOut and it was with an older trans woman Zara, and she opened my eyes as well, because I'm living in it now where I'm not seeing a lot of movement, because you still have that, that negativity, and it's very hard to keep positive in that negativity.

But just speaking to her, she's opened my eyes that actually there was a time where she couldn't even leave the house. She couldn't even leave the house without fear of being beaten, fear of even to go as severe as being killed, that's how it was…

And now we can walk out, as I'm sitting here in front of you, and you're you're giving your time to acknowledge me as, as myself and as transgender. That's, that's a movement. That's something that wouldn't have happened five years ago even, never mind ten, never mind twenty.

So yes, I think there's a lot of movements forward now. And I think, especially with this, you kindly asking me to come on, and let me speak, I think this is even going to put a nice movement forward to maybe remove that stigma of teachers and reaching out in fear of being judged. As I know, there's a lot of judgment with transgender right now.

Louise:
Well, I think you're the one who did us a favour so we really, we really, really appreciate you coming in and talking to us, Jacob. So, thank you so much.

Jacob:
Thank you.

Louise:
Now remember, you can find out more about Teachers Inspire, you can nominate a teacher for the award, and you can find links to other episodes of the podcast at teachersinspire.ie or you can listen wherever you get your podcasts. Until next time….

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