Back to School

By Laura Latzko, July 31, 2014.

Moving away from home, making new friends, paying bills and learning to cook are just some of the challenges students face as they leave high school and head off to college.

And transgender activist Max Janssen is no exception.

According to Max, being selected at the recipient of a $1,000 scholarship from Parents, Friends and Lesbians and Gays Phoenix (PFLAG) has better equipped him for his next transition: moving from the city that he's grown up in to Chicago for college.

"My whole life it was no question; you graduate and go to college," Max said.

While the expectation was clear, the journey wasn't always so easy.

A Class Act

Although Max admits he's always loved to read stories such as "The Odyssey" and "Iliad" in his free time, he often had a hard time concentrating, which made it difficult get good grades in subjects such as math.

"I feel like I was never a good student because I was never really challenged. It was all basic work and I got bored," he said.

Throughout junior high and high school Max attended a number of different public schools, as well as online schooling, prior to his graduation with Chandler High School's class of 2014.

"I knew I had to graduate for my parents' sake," he said. "I knew I could make it, I just had to keep trucking on."

And he did. Max, the youngest of four children, was the first in his family to graduate from high school. And, thanks to the arts school Max attended from 9th to 11th grade, he knew exactly what he wanted to study in college.

Creative Expression

Max credits his time enrolled at the New School for Arts and Academics for encouraging him to explore acting and film.

"I've always been interested in telling someone else's story [and] film is a good medium to do that," he said. "You can get a glimpse into other people's worlds."

Although Max hasn't had the chance to make his own film yet, the aspiring filmmaker said he learned a lot while working with a friend who taught him about camera angles and storyboards.

"I'm learning as I go," he said. "I think, like with acting, it is how determined you are to do it."

Max was accepted to Columbia College in Chicago, the only school he was interested in because of its art curriculum, where he will work toward a film degree.

"I think people who are involved in the arts think differently," he said. "They question why they are doing this."

Watching shows on the History Channel and documentaries over the years fueled Max's desire to delve into the lives of "regular people" through film.

"I like the idea of highlighting people you would never think about," he said. "To be shown someone else's life ... makes you more aware."

As a high school student, Max was able to make a difference through his involvement with PFLAG, a support group for LGBT youth as well as their families and friends.

While he'd like to take a break from his advocacy efforts to focus on school and work, he already has aspirations to explore transgender rights and social justice issues within the LGBT community in his future films.

And he already has a wealth of experience to draw from.

Max and his mom, Tammy, posed for the NOH8 campaign. Photo by Adam Bouska

Max and his mom, Tammy,

posed for the NOH8 campaign.

Photo by Adam Bouska

The Art of Advocacy

While working with Trans* Spectrum, a support group that provides service, support and a social outlet for transgender and gender non-conforming individuals and their allies, Max mentored transgender kids as young as 7 years old.

"Doing my part is showing that trans people are people, that they deserve respect just like everyone else," he said.

Max is no stranger to the spotlight.

Not only did he serve as the 2012 youth grand marshal in the Phoenix Pride Parade, he's given speeches at colleges and universities to audiences ranging from psychology students to foster parent groups.

Max said he believes speaking in front of health care workers and individuals working in high-risk situations, he can help them to better understand transgender issues. And, this belief has been reinforced by positive feedback, according to his mother.

"The more you make it normal for people to see, the more people see he is just a normal kid," Tammy said. "I want people to see we have to listen to these kids when they are kids to keep them from harming themselves or having really awkward lives."

Max Jenssen

Making the Move

Max, who describes himself as still being a little "awkward," said he has become more self-assured over the years because of his transition.

"I am more confident in myself and what I have to offer people," he said. "A lot of that has to do with feeling comfortable with myself."

And the timing couldn't be better, as Max currently faces a new set of challenges that include moving away from his boyfriend and finding an LGBT-friendly place for him and his 12-year-old cat to live.

In the meantime, there's a good chance "ABC News" viewers in the Phoenix area will be hearing more from Max again soon. In an effort to share his story, Max agreed to have various moments of the past four years of his life documented.

"I wanted to reach someone like me because I know what it is like to not know who you are and to feel wrong," he said. "I did it to help people who feel as helpless as I felt."

The network has delayed airing the footage, but Tammy said there is a good chance it could air next month on Nightline.

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