ROME (AP) — The Ripetta school of art in Rome recently joined a handful of high schools in Italy that give transgender students the right to be known by a name other than the one they were given at birth.

The initiative seeks to create an environment where transgender students feel secure and reflects a growing awareness in Italy of gender dysphoria among teenagers and children.

“I’m very happy about this,” said Matteo Coccimiglio, an 18-year-old student at the school who was born as a girl but identifies as a man and is in the process of changing his legal gender from female to male.

He hopes the new rules at his school will help other teenagers transitioning their gender to “feel more protected” and “go through a lot less trouble than I went through.”

Matteo said he felt trapped in his body growing up. He said he was bullied and suffered from anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts. By the time he was 14 he mustered the courage to tell his parents that he wanted to change his gender. While they were supportive, it’s been a long journey for the family.

His father, Franco Coccimiglio, said he initially struggled to come to terms with Matteo’s desire to become a man, but now fully supports his transition.

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“My only regret is that we could have started earlier,” Coccimiglio said.

Even though surveys show public opinion is increasingly supportive of LGBTQ rights, Italy is still a conservative society, influenced by the Catholic Church’s views on sexuality.

A 2016 survey assessing public support for transgender rights in 23 countries by the Williams Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles, ranked Italy 16th, below the U.S. and the six other Western European nations.

Some Italian universities allow transgender students to choose their name and gender in internal documents, even if they haven’t yet legally changed their gender, but only recently have similar rules been adopted by a small number of high schools.

The Ripetta school adopted the new policy in December to give transgender students in transition a “serene” environment and the freedom to be themselves, said Sonia Mugello, a teacher at the school.

Psychotherapist Maddalena Mosconi, who heads a unit for minors at the gender transition center at San Camillo hospital in Rome, noted that transgender students are often bullied and more likely to drop out out of high school than the general population.

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“On many occasions, I have had to deal with adolescents who abandoned school due to bullying, due to being made fun of, due to not being accepted the way they are,” she said.

Mosconi said the average age of people coming to her center for help is decreasing, which she attributed to growing awareness about transgender issues in Italy.

After graduating in June, Matteo wants to pursue a career as a cartoon animator. He started hormone therapy six months ago and is also undergoing psychiatric therapy. Gender reassignment surgery isn’t required to change gender in Italy, but Matteo says he wants to have surgery to masculinize his chest.

“Somebody thinks that we do this to be recognized by others as (male or female),” he said. “But we don’t care about this at all. We just do it because when we look at ourselves in the mirror, we can at last say ‘I am finally myself’.“

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Karl Ritter in Rome contributed to this report.