Guest Opinion: How Castilleja taught me to be a man

Transgender Palo Alto teen shares story of acceptance

From its founding in 1907, the Castilleja School has consistently graduated excellent women. The all-girls school has always been a leader in inspiring intellectual discourse, guiding the pursuit of wisdom, and educating the women who go on to be our leaders. However, I am the first person to graduate Castilleja as a young man.

While Castilleja certainly deserves its high regard for helping in the development of young women, I will add to the praise: Castilleja was the best preparation I could have hoped for to become an excellent man.

I entered Castilleja in 2009 as an sixth-grade girl. Over my seven years there, I realized that I was a transgender boy.

Sophomore year, I decided that I could no longer hide. I wanted to change my name, be referred to by he/him pronouns, take testosterone, get chest surgery, and let everyone know that despite being a girl for the prior 15 years, I was growing into a man.

I also realized, however, that Castilleja was not a school intended for boys. I was unsure if I would be allowed to stay. Upon assurance that I would continue to be welcome, I was unsure if I wanted to stay.

I ultimately made what retrospectively was one of the best decisions of my life: to be openly transgender and to stay at Castilleja. Castilleja was -- and always will be -- my home. I felt welcomed and respected and loved for all of my time there and couldn't imagine giving that up. I knew that finishing my last two years of high school as the one boy at an all-girls' school would present its own set of challenges, but I thought it would be worth it. It absolutely was.

One of the most important lessons that I learned at Castilleja -- and that my male peers across the country by no means encountered as fully as I did -- is that women are extraordinarily talented, brilliant and capable. I hope this does not strike anyone as a revolutionary concept, but even today, it can be easily overlooked.

Women still have less airtime in classroom discussions, are far less likely to hold positions of authority at work, and receive less pay for the same job. It is no surprise that boys across the country grow up believing that they have some right or predisposition to power and respect that girls do not. Even boys in the most gender-equal households with the most feminist principles are socialized to see men as superior.

I, however, was largely spared the ingraining of this falsehood. To me, the idea of women filling positions often dominated by men -- the president, the CEO, the data analyst or engineer or surgeon, the team captain, the role model, the loudest voice in the room -- is not merely an idea but rather the only reality I have ever known.

At Castilleja, every club I joined was led by a woman, every decision on student government was made by a woman, every opinion or reflection or analysis shared in class was by a woman, every challenge to my own understanding was presented by a woman. I know with unwavering certainty that women not only can be but unquestionably are strong, confident, bold, brilliant, analytical, independent, focused, logical, passionate and disciplined.

At Castilleja, there is no option for a characteristic or aptitude or subject area to be reserved for men. Women adeptly fulfill every role that a man ever could.

To be a good man in the world of today and of tomorrow, it is essential to understand that women are fully capable of embodying all things traditionally more "masculine." I know this to be true, and I credit the strength of my conviction to Castilleja.

However, Castilleja also taught me something of equal importance, and something that is certainly less recognized: that all things "feminine" are every bit as valid, interesting, important and worthy of appreciation. In a world where traditionally masculine traits are disproportionately valued, it is an irreplaceable opportunity to freely explore and understand the immense worth of traits traditionally considered to be feminine.

Most parents of youth today are familiar with second-wave feminism, but even that ideology has male-centric value systems: "progressive" cultural norms often allow girls to be more like boys but deny boys the opportunity to be more like girls. Being surrounded by girls gave me the singular opportunity to be a boy who was allowed to act "like a girl" and was therefore allowed to form my understanding of myself and of the world free of gendered constraints.

At Castilleja, I learned how to have a critical mind, but I also learned how to have an open and compassionate heart. I learned that it is OK to cry, to ask for help, to be afraid.

I learned how to listen -- not just wait for my turn to speak but to receive the other's words as a gift. I learned how to be patient. I learned that "I feel" can be just as -- and sometimes more -- powerful than "I know" or "I think."

I learned how to be gentle, soft and kind. I learned that I am relationship-centered, and no matter what field of study I pursue, I want to spend my life caring for others.

I learned that many of the best things in life cannot be seen or touched, and sometimes not even understood. I learned how to empathize, how to comfort and how to nurture.

As I go into college and the vast world beyond it as the young man I have finally become, I am forever grateful to Castilleja for teaching me, above anything else, how to love freely, love wholly and love boundlessly.

Elijah Thornburg is a transgender student and writer who studies social science and is committed to social justice and community education, particularly regarding LGBTQ+ people. He can be reached at

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35 people like this
Posted by Stephanie M.
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Jul 1, 2016 at 11:59 am

Thank you Elijah for sharing your story and the lessons you've obtained within the school setting. It's incredible how supportive our community can be. Wishing you much success in your next adventures.

31 people like this
Posted by Honor Spitz
a resident of another community
on Jul 1, 2016 at 4:10 pm

Eli, you are a credit to the human race; the whole wide world needs more people like you, more men and woman with your insight and compassion.
I have always been proud of the fact that I am a Castilleja alum; now I am all the more proud to be a part of this "Castilleja family" that has supported you and given you room to be who you are.
Castilleja has a new and wonderful spokesman.

24 people like this
Posted by Georgi
a resident of Mountain View
on Jul 1, 2016 at 6:15 pm

Beautifully written from a beautiful human being. It was such a pleasure teaching you over the past seven years. I can assure you that CASTILLEJA and I learned more from you than you ever learned from us!!!

13 people like this
Posted by Marjorie Red Pine
a resident of another community
on Jul 2, 2016 at 2:00 pm

Proud of you, Eli!

19 people like this
Posted by Ginny Contento
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jul 2, 2016 at 4:11 pm

You ROCK!!! What a credit you are to Castilleja. And what an inspiration you have been, opening space for EVERYONE to be their truest, most courageous, best self. Thank you for the tremendous care and love you put into writing this remarkable piece. So beautiful to see you solidly on "your path."

18 people like this
Posted by Elyce Melmon
a resident of Woodside
on Jul 2, 2016 at 4:45 pm

Congratulations Eli. You make me proud to have been associated with Castilleja. You are a beautiful writer, which, I am certain, is a reflection of being a beautiful person.

7 people like this
a resident of College Terrace
on Jul 3, 2016 at 4:14 am

SEA_SEELAM REDDY is a registered user.


You have the courage to have dealt with your situation and it is good that the school supported you.

Best wishes. Let's know how you are doing once in a while.


6 people like this
Posted by Member
a resident of another community
on Jul 3, 2016 at 4:58 pm

Eli, you are one hell of a guy! Congratulations on your graduation from Castilleja.

Best wishes to you as you start the next part of your life.

8 people like this
Posted by Diane Morin
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 3, 2016 at 6:40 pm

Truly a terrific, fine, smart, funny, insightful, kind, adventurous young man. May you continue to thrive, enjoy life and model for all to see what "gracious" is about... Congratulations Eli!

9 people like this
Posted by Helen
a resident of another community
on Jul 4, 2016 at 11:48 am

The way Castilleja has handled its first trans student should set the bar high as an example for any school. This makes me more proud to be an alumna of this school than any other school news since I graduated in 1997, but I expect nothing less from an institution where even in the 90's I felt safe and accepted enough to come out as bisexual at an all-school assembly. Elijah, best of luck to you. Castilleja has given you, like all its graduates, a wonderful gift: the self-assurance and empowerment to affect real change, along with the guiding moral principles and character to do good in the world.

3 people like this
Posted by Alder yarrow
a resident of Stanford
on Jul 4, 2016 at 1:55 pm

Bravo, young man. For everything.

2 people like this
Posted by Julie armitano
a resident of Palo Alto Hills
on Jul 5, 2016 at 9:36 am

I am proud of you.
Best of luck.

5 people like this
Posted by Gunn grad
a resident of Gunn High School
on Jul 5, 2016 at 9:23 pm

An amazing young man and an extremely well-written piece. Castilleja was very, very lucky to have you!

Like this comment
Posted by Jennifer Ayer
a resident of Portola Valley
on Jul 22, 2016 at 10:57 pm

What a beautifully written piece. Bravo Eli.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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