Andrew Sprung and Reed Wanless may be the first male graduates of one of Canada’s most prestigious all-girls’ school.
The two studied at Branksome Hall in Toronto’s tony Rosedale neighbourhood and completed high school in 2004. Since then, they’ve transitioned and come out as transgender men.
The men are featured on the cover of the recent Branksome’s alumnae magazine and have been invited to join a new transgender working group designed to help the venerable 113-year-old school with Presbyterian roots face a social issue that’s top of mind.
More than a decade before Caitlyn Jenner became a household name or campuses crackled with gender politics, Branksome Hall was open-minded toward LGBTQ issues, Sprung and Wanless told the Toronto Star. In their last years at Branksome, they both openly identified as lesbian.
Sprung said he felt comfortable because he could present himself as a more masculine girl and no one questioned that.
“Something about being in a single-sex environment, to a certain extent, allowed me to put off more fundamental questions about my gender and identity,” Sprung said.
In Grade 12, some of his friends founded the Rainbow Society, now a Gay Straight Alliance including students from other schools.
A few years out of high school, once they had gone their separate ways, Sprung and Wanless each came out as transgender men and each decided to undergo their physical transitions before launching their careers.
After graduating from University of Toronto law, Sprung was called to the bar as Andrew. He now works as a lawyer for a firm in Hamilton and specializes in representing clients who have suffered an injury or been cut off from long-term disability.
Wanless started going by Reed in his final year at McGill where he was majoring in environmental science and geography. He taught paddling and rock climbing before enrolling in the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education.
The two students’ paths crossed again when Branksome started putting together the annual alumnae magazine’s cover story. The magazine’s editors contacted Sprung and Wanless after the school’s Gay Straight Alliance invited Wanless to attend one of its meetings.
The 2015-2016 issue of the magazine, the READ, is turning heads.
It says the school started the transgender working group in October 2015. Sprung and Wanless will collaborate with 10 other members including faculty, students, a school social worker, psychotherapist and parents. They plan to come up with guidelines by May to better accommodate transgender youth at Branksome Hall.
“This is a continuation of the work we do every day at the school, which is supporting students to be the best they can be,” said Karrie Weinstock, Branksome’s deputy principal.
These are serious matters. A 2015 national survey led by Elizabeth Saewyc, a professor in University of British Columbia’s school of nursing, found nearly two-thirds of transgender youth said they harmed themselves in the past year and more than one-in-three attempted suicide.
Canada’s largest school board, the Toronto District School Board, has addressed transgender issues with guidelines to accommodate trans and gender nonconforming students.
Branksome may also look south of the border for guidance. In recent years storied women’s colleges such as Wellesley in Massachusetts have refashioned themselves in an age of new understandings of gender identity. Last spring, Wellesley became the third U.S. women’s college — after Mount Holyoke and Simmons — to accept transgender women.
Elementary and high schools in the U.S. are beginning to follow suit as more and more transgender students come out younger, said Genny Beemyn, director of the Stonewall Center at the University of Massachusetts. But few grade schools have policies to protect the rights of transgender students, Beemyn said.
In 2014, Wanless returned to Branksome for the first time after his transition for his 10-year reunion.
Now a teacher, he found it even more important to reconnect with his old school — even if he would stick out.
“As the only male graduate, I knew there would be some looks and questions,” he said. “And there were looks and some questions.”
He was the only male in the room other than the catering staff, he recalled.
In the end, he discovered he had the same nerves and jitters many of his peers: he wondered if he was dressed appropriately and how to make small talk with classmates he hadn’t seen in ages.
Sprung and Wanless, both 29, are quick to admit their privileged backgrounds and support from family and friends made their transitions easier than it is for many other transgender people.
But they recognize coming out is never easy.
Sprung and Wanless have high hopes the working committing will come up with tangible guidelines that will make trans students feel welcome and accepted at Branksome Hall.
Wanless wants students who are questioning their gender identity to know there is hope.
“It’s not easy but you can get through it. If you’re open about yourself, and you trust the people around you a little bit,” he said, “you can become who you are and live a happy life.”