DURHAM, N.C. -- Growing up, 17-year-old Hazel Hart said she always felt like she was performing herself, never truly at home in her body.
"For a long time, I was not happy with myself, and I didn't really know why," Hart said. "I barely even knew being transgender was a thing, let alone something I could be or was. It was a long time of, 'I don't like how I look, how I talk, how I act, but why? What would I like to do?'"
Hart, now a graduating senior at Jordan High School in Durham, North Carolina, joined her school's LGBTQ+ club, Spectrum Alliance, near the end of her sophomore year in search of some of those answers.
She began experimenting with new names and pronouns, all within that safe space of an accepting community.
"One of the great things about an LGBTQ+ club at school is that it's a great place for you to experiment with new things -- try new names, new pronouns, new styles without judgment," Hart said. "Spaces like that really helped me, and if it doesn't work, OK, we change it up and try something else and see if that sticks."
Hazel said one of her biggest allies was Spectrum Alliance's faculty advisor, Paige Holt, who teaches science at Jordan High School.
"It's been awesome to see bit-by-bit you figuring out who you are and not putting pressure on yourself to know it all right now, but just accept things about yourself as you find them out and embrace that and experiment and try new things," Holt said to Hart in conversation.
By March 2020, as Hart was midway through her junior year, she came out as transgender and began using she/her pronouns.
"It's a very great moment where you just kind of realize this is what I am, this is a name I like, these are pronouns I prefer," Hart said. "It's a feeling of discovery and elation."
On March 14, 2020, North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper ordered all public schools to transition to remote learning. Jordan High School, which is part of the Durham Public School district, did not reopen for middle and high school in-person instruction until April 2021-- more than a year later.
While some students struggled in the remote learning environment, Hart saw the time in her room as an opportunity to work on her appearance, to figure out the clothes she wanted to wear, to adjust her weight and grow out her hair.
"The idea of not immediately having to have it right, of being able to turn off my camera and mute myself -- because I wasn't really comfortable with other people seeing me the way I was -- was very helpful," Hart said. "I couldn't just leave school one day as a boy and come back as a girl. It was gradual and the pandemic for me, at least, was a great time to make that gradual change."
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While she wished for a bit more time, Hart said she's happy with who she is now.
"Every day I do less and less. I'll be honest, every day I wake up and I feel more like myself. I look in the mirror and I recognize myself more," Hart said. "The imposter syndrome has gone away a little bit every day to the point now where I just am Hazel. I am who I want to be."
This Pride Month, we're celebrating members of the transgender community as a part of a special series called Our America: Who I'm Meant to Be. Click here for more stories from your city and around the country.
'I am who I want to be': North Carolina transgender teen finds herself during COVID-19 pandemic
WHO I'M MEANT TO BE