Aiden Ever After
The life, loss and legacy of a transgender student at B-CC
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One spring night in 2010, a month shy of his 18th birthday, Aiden Rivera Schaeff sent text messages to several of his closest friends.
Ava Dodge, a senior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School, saw hers the next morning as she got ready for school. “I love you,” the message said. It had been sent at 3 a.m. Ava knew her friend was nocturnal, as well as spontaneously affectionate, so she replied, and didn’t think anything more about it.
Aiden’s girlfriend, Dakota Martz-Sigala, got a longer text, telling her not to blame herself for anything and encouraging her to pursue her dream of becoming a singer. This valedictory message worried the 15-year-old when she saw it the next morning, so she called a mutual friend who lived down the block from Aiden. The friend crawled into Aiden’s house through the dog door after he didn’t answer his phone. When she saw that he wasn’t in his room, she woke his parents, Patty Rivera and Cathy Schaeff, who were alarmed enough to call the police.
By then it was too late.
Aiden was a cute, skinny boy with sapphire eyes, a fringe of dyed black hair and a wry smile—artistic, funny, kindhearted. He was, friends say, the person you could call in the middle of the night if you were upset or depressed; he didn’t judge you or make you feel that your troubles were a burden.
He was generous to a fault—sometimes giving away brand-new clothes, to his mothers’ exasperation. He drew cartoons of himself and friends. He could strike up a conversation with anyone. “Aiden had more fun than anyone I knew,” says Monica Lesar, a close friend who is now a freshman at the University of Maryland in College Park. “But that doesn’t mean he was happy all the time.”
He had a flair for style and loved cutting and dyeing hair. Cathy Schaeff, an associate dean of undergraduate studies at American University, would come home from work to find “eight kids sprawled in the basement with dripping, dyed hair, watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer.”
The Rivera-Schaeff home on Middleton Lane, a couple of blocks from B-CC in Bethesda, was a natural after-school hangout. But even after the family moved to Silver Spring in the summer before Aiden’s senior year, kids would come over and open the fridge as if they lived there. Like many teens, Aiden rebelled against household rules and restrictions—occasionally cutting class, arguing over chores, experimenting with drugs. And like many parents, Rivera and Schaeff preferred knowing where their teenager was and who his friends were, so they kept the pizza deliveries coming.
Aiden was a charmer, and his many friendships—with both boys and girls—were gratifying, particularly given the difficulties he’d had since the end of ninth grade.
That’s when teasing, bullying and even violence became pervasive elements of Aiden’s life. That’s when he transitioned from being a girl to living as a boy.
Aiden was born Caitlin Rivera Schaeff on May 25, 1992, in Kingston, Ontario. Cathy Schaeff, a biologist who had married Patty Rivera in a Metropolitan Community Church ceremony three years earlier, was the birth mother. The sperm donor was a friend of Rivera’s, an actor and a “deep and trustworthy man,” she says, who remained a family friend. Caitlin’s first year and a half, as well as subsequent summers, were spent among a doting circle of friends and family in Canada.
Then, in 1993, Schaeff accepted a job offer at American University in Washington, D.C. Rivera, a journalist and technical writer, elected to stay home with Caitlin, who attended preschool at AU and then elementary and middle school in the District. With the exception of one middle school teacher, the fact that Caitlin had two moms was a nonissue for her teachers, friends and their parents, Rivera says.
Nonetheless, Rivera and Schaeff decided to move out of the District. Attracted by the stellar reputation of Montgomery County public schools, they rented a house in Bethesda and sent Caitlin to B-CC. Empathic and friendly, she soon had a new coterie of friends, most of whom would stick with her throughout her transition.
Research suggests that one in 500 children are gender-variant, meaning they have interests and behaviors outside the cultural norm for the biological sex. Most become gay, but an estimated 20 percent never become reconciled to their birth sex and take on the other gender as an identity—through dress and behavior, name change, or permanent physical alterations as a result of hormones or surgery.
Many express the belief that they were born the “wrong” gender almost as soon as they can speak, says Dr. Edgardo Menvielle, a psychiatrist who specializes in gender at the Children’s National Medical Center in Washington, D.C. “They have a great sense of urgency about expressing the gender they feel they are,” says Menvielle, who treated Aiden during his transition. He adds that while it is not known what causes a child to become transgender, the parents’ own sexual orientation is not a likely factor, given that most transgender children, like most gay children, are born to heterosexual parents.
Honey-haired and chatty, Caitlin played with dolls and preferred dressing in pink and purple as a little girl, though she was shocked in preschool, Rivera recalls, when her classmates informed her that girls were not allowed to be pirates; she had never heard that professions were gender-specific.
Occasionally, Caitlin would tell her parents that she was a boy, Rivera says, “and we’d say, ‘OK,’ or we’d say, ‘Well, not really, but maybe you’re a girl who likes to do boy things.’ ” By elementary school, Caitlin was rejecting girly clothes and pleading for jeans and T-shirts from the boys’ department. Her mothers acceded, but insisted on panties, rather than boys’ briefs—fearing a teacher might deem them unfit parents were the boys’ underwear to be seen.
Sometimes people would ask Rivera whether she’d be pleased if Caitlin were to become a lesbian. “Why would I want my child to grow up in a condition that would make her life harder—so she can be like me?” she says. “If she can catch any break in life, let her catch a break.” At the same time, when Caitlin told her moms that she was gay during ninth grade, Rivera and Schaeff took the announcement in stride.