By Susan Stevens
As social democrats, we know that the people most affected by any policy should be the ones shaping that policy. Those of us who live in Kansas, Missouri and other red states are seeing the antithesis of this. Republican supermajorities have zero respect for the right to personal privacy and bodily autonomy — not only of people carrying pregnancies, but also of people whose gender identities diverge from the sex they were assigned at birth. It’s essential that we unite with, fortify, and magnify the message of, our trans brethren who just want what everyone in America wants and has a right to expect: the freedom to be themselves and live in safety, with full access to all the opportunities our country has to offer.
Yet for those among us who are not trans to be helpful, we must first listen, so I’ve been reaching out to trans people to see who might want to tell us about their feelings and experiences.
Nickali is the college-aged son of my compassionate, visually creative and social-justice-driven friend Cynthia Butcher, whom I’ve gotten to know during our many years together at All Souls Unitarian Universalist Church in Kansas City, Missouri. She has six children all told. Nickali was in the midst of finals when I first contacted him, but as soon as he could, he poured himself into answering the questions I’d emailed to him. [Cynthia soon followed with her own in-depth responses]
1) What would you like to share about your early years, and your realization of your true gender identity?
Nickali: Hmm, well to start off, I’ve always been different ever since I came out of my mother’s womb. I was never a traditional girl or a “regular” girl.
My mother tells me stories of when I was little, that I personally do not remember, of how around the age of 4-5 she would read me these books about different ethnic groups and she would always ask me “Which one looks like you?” And I would choose any ethnic person that was a boy, I would never choose a girl.
Another thing was when I started to become conscious, I never wanted to do the “traditional” girl stuff. I never wanted to play with dolls or play dress up. I always wanted to do sports and roughhouse. I never wanted to wear a dress: I wanted to wear basketball shorts and t-shirts.
I was considered a tom-boy for most of my life, only because I lacked education on what a transgender person was. Knowledge is power and enlightenment.
The first word I learned from the LGBT community was “lesbian,” this was around age 10. So I thought I was a lesbian because I was a girl and I had a huge crush on one of my girl friends at the time and for a very long time.
Then as time went by, I learned the word “transgender.” This was when I was a teenager — around 15 or 16 — and my mom gave me the courage to take my first steps as a transgender person, because I was skeptical, scared and everything in between. No one around me was doing what I was doing, so it’s hard doing stuff on your own, without having someone lead you that has been in your shoes. Plus people are mean as hell and love to talk about the people who are different.
So my very first step in transitioning was going by he/him and Nickali. This was at the beginning of my high school years and I loved it all. People were mistaking my gender when I identified as female, which created bathroom anxiety for me, but the second I identified as male, I stopped getting misgendered: it was normal and natural for me. I never looked back after I took my first step, then I went through hormone replacement therapy, changing my characteristics into more masculine ones, and then I got top surgery and I have never looked back. This is me.
So, in essence I’ve always been a boy since I came out of my mother’s womb, I just did not have the knowledge to realize exactly what I was, and society puts you in this box for whatever reason, and it’s not a good thing and never will be. I believe diversity is the most beautiful thing in this life, and you’re in charge of your own life and happiness, so why bring others down when you’re not going to be there for them through their hardships — and even if you are in their lives, why bring them down at all?
2) Cynthia, what would you like to share about your experiences raising your two youngest children, and about the emergence of Nickali’s true gender identity?
Cynthia: Being the mother of six children (four biological, two adopted from China) has been a grand adventure. Whether you give birth or adopt babies with no known family information, medical or otherwise, it’s all a crapshoot. None of us knows the medical/emotional issues any of our children are going to face in their lifetimes unless something is discovered in prenatal testing or within one’s own family history. And frankly, I think adoptive parents are a step ahead in that we DON’T KNOW, but we are pretty certain that SOMETHING will eventually pop up.
With Lauren, our first child from China, that SOMETHING turned out to be an umbilical hernia, small deformities in the spinal vertebrae, and more seriously, oral apraxia, which is an inability to use the lips, cheeks, and tongue for speech or swallowing.
Nick came with a small bucket of issues that make him uniquely himself! We knew that he was born without a left ear canal and just a partial outer ear. This is known as left ear atresia. This would make him deaf on the left side, but we didn’t know what hearing he would have on the right side. We suspected that this might delay his speech as well. We didn’t know at the time that this deformity was actually caused congenitally by an impingement of one of the cranial nerves and that it would also affect his spine and motor skills.
We also didn’t know that we actually had a son. At the time of his birth, Nick presented as female. We actually thought we were adopting a 2-yr-old daughter. The kids are actually 5 weeks apart in age, so we dressed them in the cutest dresses and shoes, put their hair in braids, and bought Nick the same toys that Lauren preferred—dolls and stuffed animals.
We came back to Missouri and started Nick on the same path of doctors, physical therapists, occupational therapists, and speech therapists that Lauren was on. We are very fortunate to be in an excellent school district with early intervention programs and wonderful teachers.
Within a year, Nick had learned to get his point across thru baby sign language, using pictures and enough words that we could finally understand. One day we were reading a picture book together and I asked him to find a picture of a girl that looked like Lauren. He pointed to a drawing of an Asian girl with dark hair who looked much like his sister. Then I asked him to point to a girl that looked like the person we thought he was, a darling little girl. He quickly pointed to a blonde haired boy. Thinking he didn’t understand, I said, “That is a boy. Can you find a girl that looks like you?” He pointed to a dark-haired boy. Trying once more, he pointed to another boy. I thought, “OhhhhhKayyyy!” I’ve been an advocate within the LGBTQIA community for a while, so I wasn’t worried, just surprised. Figured I would just take a wait and see approach.
By the time he was four, it became pretty clear that Nick preferred everything masculine, from clothes to toys to friends. When asked what he wanted to be when he grew up, he started saying, “I’m a girl, but I want to be a boy.” “You can be whatever you want to be,” was always my response. It wasn’t until the night of a friend’s wedding that we knew we were dealing with something different. I had dressed the kids in beautiful dresses I had made for them. Nick didn’t want to wear his. He wanted pants. We told him it was a fancy wedding and asked him to wear the dress this one time. He agreed. When we arrived at the wedding, Nick made a dash under the table where we were seated and cried. He didn’t come out the entire evening. We were heartbroken for him. The next day we went out and bought him boys clothes. He was never happier.
Nick’s brain works in a very literal manner. He knew that he had a girl’s body, but also knew that he should be a boy. We knew then that this wasn’t a fluke, a phase, a tomboy stage, or anything other than a transgender child.
3) Question to Nickali and Cynthia: How would you describe the responses of people around you — family, friends, church, teachers and the larger community — as this identity emerged?
Nickali: My family did an amazing job at raising and accepting me for who I am.
As for my friends, I’ve really only had one friend that burned me.
I won’t say her name, but she was my best friend for a decade and the second I “transitioned” she told me I was going to hell and that really made me mad at a lot of things. It made me mad at God, because if she didn’t have God in her life she wouldn’t have said that, it made me mad at the world because I can’t control how I feel and if I dressed and acted like a female, then I would much rather kill myself than act as something I’m not. (Note: LGBTQ youth have a greater than quadruple risk of attempting suicide than their peers. https://www.thetrevorproject.org/resources/article/facts-about-lgbtq-youth-suicide/) Church people never really affected me because I didn’t go to church during the time period when I was transitioning and I still don’t go to church, not because of my ex-friend, just I never had time and I get very bored sitting still for an hour or so.
When I was a “girl,” random people would just be so judgmental.
One example is I went to the state fair when I was a kid and this random man said I didn’t look like a girl and didn’t look like my girl name, and in my head I’m like, “Do you have anything better to do with your boring life, instead of telling a kid some crap like that?”
Another example was — and I love my father and he has done nothing but support me — but I think he just really didn’t understand me at the time, and this was mixed in with him not wanting to lose his baby girl.
But I was shopping with my sister and my dad at Dollar Tree, let it be known I was still a “girl” at the time. We were at the checkout, and for whatever reason my gender was mentioned, and all of sudden my dad and the cashier were arguing about my gender. And I wanted my dad to stop arguing because it was embarrassing; I was just a little kid who didn’t want that kind of attention, and I grew more anxious because of it.
One last example: I was in summer school with my sister, I was in my single digits and I was using the girls’ restroom, when this teacher saw me and blocked my way being like “Why aren’t you using the boys restroom?!” And as a kid this made my anxiety go up and I told her very shakily “Because I’m a girl?” And she just kept arguing with me; it wasn’t until my sister came up to the teacher being like “Yo, this is literally my sister; I don’t know what you’re doing arguing with a little kid, but this is my sis.” Then the teacher shut up and let me go to the restroom. That day, I stopped using the restroom because I hated conflict like that and I couldn’t help what I looked like.
(Note: This restroom experience is an example of how even a trans child with a supportive family like Nickali is still at risk in an unsupportive society. Children, and people in general, who avoid going to the restroom when they need to because of anxiety over situations that they have no control over may develop urinary tract infections and other potentially-serious health problems.)
As a teenager, I was in Blue Springs, but I believe the hardest part is when you’re in the middle of transition or at the very beginning, because you’re confused about who you are, so when people ask questions, you just look like you’re not sure, but it just takes time to make your own mind up. Personally, I’ve always looked more masculine than feminine and acted more masculine, so when I transitioned it was a breeze and mostly everyone in my life hopped on it really quickly. I do know some other transgender people didn’t have it as easy as me, so when they’re in the middle of their transition, you’re looking at them like what are you? And the best thing you can do is just straight up ask, “What are your pronouns?” Don’t be nosy and ask for their whole life story, unless they want to talk about it, but just ask their pronouns and be respectful. Even if you don’t agree, give them the respect you would give any other human. “Love thy neighbor” right? So give them the respect and decency of a human being.
Cynthia: As the years progressed, I would start the school year off with an email or visit to his teacher. I explained that Nick preferred to dress as a boy, hang with the boys, and thought of himself as a boy. Pronouns weren’t an issue yet, but I warned the teachers that if they called kid groups by gender, Nick would only line up with the boys. I cannot tell you how fortunate we were to have some of the most understanding, caring teachers on the planet. Nick being Nick was NEVER a problem for them…
…As for the responses from people within our community, there were very few negative comments. The kids were seeing an educational psychologist for a few years. When we found out she believed children could be guided out of their dysphoria thru therapy if it was started before puberty, we immediately cut ties with her. I let her know in no uncertain terms that this line of therapy, or as I call it, the secular version of “praying the gay/trans away,” was not a valid process and would only do serious harm to our child.
Other kids were accepting and supportive for the most part. It wasn’t until Nick wanted to start dating that we discovered that some of their parents weren’t.
And when Nick started living as his true self, using he/him pronouns and changing his name, I continued to send beginning-of-school emails to his various teachers. I explained that Nick was listed by his old name and gender, but that he was now going by his new name and pronouns. I told them that we were very supportive of our child, but that I recognized that some people may have personal or religious beliefs that did not see gender dysphoria in the same way. I asked that if this included any of them, that they just be upfront with me so we could move Nick to another class. My goal was to provide Nick with an educational experience that included acceptance and safety, and I also wanted to ensure that the teacher felt comfortable with all of their students. Many of his teachers responded with supportive, loving comments, and no one ever asked to have him moved. I don’t believe he ever had a problem with teachers or high school staff.
Of course, our school district had not always been that way. There were other openly trans kids who paved the way legally for Nick to be allotted the rights to live as himself. My heart and love goes to each of them. I know it was not an easy path to pave.
We chose to become members at All Souls Unitarian Universalist Church because of their history of social justice work in the LGBT community. We were accepted from day one. No child or adult has ever been made to feel less than because of their gender or sexuality. I’m very proud to continue that legacy by serving on the Advocates committee as the LGBTQIA Advocate whose goal it is to ensure that All Souls remains a supportive, protective and welcoming place for the gay and trans community.
4) Question to Nickali and Cynthia: What would you like to share about your experiences within the Kansas City area healthcare community?
Nickali: Honestly, I’m not exactly all that sure, I know I’ve never had a problem with getting medication and getting the surgeries I’ve wanted, but my mother is the one that truly deals with all the healthcare, but personally I think they’re really helpful and amazing.
Cynthia: Actually transitioning into Nick started towards the end of middle school. Kansas City’s Children’s Mercy Hospital had just started a Gender Pathway Services Department (GPS). It’s actually an interdisciplinary approach involving physicians in the areas of Adolescent Medicine, Endocrinology, Developmental and Behavioral Health, the hospital Chaplain, and Speech Therapy, a group whose goal it is to assist gender questioning, transgender, gender non-binary or gender fluid youth and their families. Their team efforts help to determine the extent of gender dysphoria then providing treatments that include gender blockers and hormone replacement therapies as deemed appropriate for the individual. They also have a parent assistance program that connects families with other parents who have gone thru or are navigating the transition journey. Lists of community resources and referrals are made as adolescents near the time when they reach adulthood. For us, these services made the transition process less scary. We knew every step of the way what to expect and what would and wouldn’t be covered by insurance.
Nick had already started puberty by his freshman year of high school. With the help of GPS, we were able to get our insurance company to include hormone blockers under our plan. At age 16, Nick could start hormone treatment. Once again, GPS worked with our insurance company to cover his injections. We were prepared to fight these battles on our own, but are so grateful that we didn’t have to.
At age 18, Nick underwent top surgery. This is not a service that CMH provides, so we were referred to an amazing surgeon in Kansas City that works almost exclusively with transgender people. Again, we knew what to expect and what would and wouldn’t be covered by insurance. By this time, our insurance company had made significant inroads to providing coverage for gender reassignment surgeries. The surgery went perfectly. When he woke up, Nick told me that he finally felt like the guy he’s always been. I cried, his doctor cried, the recovery room nurses cried. Nick just smiled.
5) What thoughts and feelings are going through your mind in our current political climate?
Nickali: Honestly it makes me so mad, people in power are making laws about what people can and cannot do without even being in our shoes. Without even realizing you’re playing the role of god of making these supreme laws when just like everyone else, you’re human and this is extreme, but if you got shot, you would bleed out too, so stop making these supreme laws because you’re indirectly killing people.
If I can’t be who I am as a person, I really truly would rather kill myself, now it’s your fault that I couldn’t get the medication I needed to feel human and to feel like who I am as a person in my mind.
Cynthia: Where do I start on my thoughts concerning what is happening in Jefferson City right now? There are currently 30 bills in the Missouri State Legislature that are designed to limit or eliminate medical services for transgender youth and adults. It seems like the Republicans are coming out of the woodwork to get their name on something in order to win the votes and funding from their anti-LGBT GOP constituents. The hate pouring out of their rhetoric is shameful, to say the least, and harmfully dangerous at the other end. I am a registered Democrat who leans Socialist on many issues, yet these legislators are supposed to be my voice at the Capital. I don’t feel heard. Is it because I will not vote for these people? Is it because my donations go to those who share my views? Should that matter at all? Aren’t they supposed to hear the concerns of all of the residents in their districts? Why aren’t they offering support to marginalized populations? Wouldn’t doing so strengthen the District as a whole, making it a healthier, safer place to live?
When we heard about the Missouri Attorney General’s plan to make it significantly harder for transgender adults to get the care and services they need, my husband, Brian, and I decided that if this had an adverse effect on Nick getting testosterone or the hysterectomy he has planned for later this year, then one of us would be moving out of state with him so we could establish residency for college and get him the life affirming treatment he so desperately needs. Is this a path we want to go down? No. But we made a promise to the Chinese people that we would love and protect our children as if we had given birth to them. We see them in no other light. They are our children. We would do anything, and have gone thru much, to ensure they grow into successful, healthy and happy adults.
Indeed, Nick and his adopted sister Lauren are high achievers. Both graduated with honors from high school. Nick was in the Golden Regiment Marching Band and Lauren competed on the debate team. Nick is studying accounting and Lauren will get her BS in K-12 Special Education. Both plan to go on for Master’s Degrees.
So far, the AG’s attempts at curtailing treatment for trans adults does not affect Nick’s access to medication. It does, however, make him spend money getting three different referrals from mental health professionals before the surgeon can go forward with the hysterectomy. Three—two from PhD level therapists and one from a Master’s level therapist. Really. He will be 21 years old. He has been in treatment for gender dysphoria since age 12-13. He’s had a double mastectomy to bring his body in alignment with his gender. And still he needs to spend hundreds of dollars to get letters from three people to say he’s still transgender. I’ve never heard of anything more asinine.
6) Have you gotten to know any transgender people who lack adequate health insurance? What is it like for them, and what policies would you like to see put in place so everyone has access to good healthcare?
Nickali: No, not really, I don’t have that many transgender friends that are close to me. I’ve heard stories though and when I put myself in their shoes, I just feel really bad because they can’t be who they think they are.
Cynthia: I have gotten to know other transgender youth and adults. Many of them do not have the family support or financial resources that we do. Most don’t have health insurance. I’m talking young adults who are no longer welcome in their parents’ homes. Some work multiple part time jobs while putting themselves through school. Some are working just trying to keep a roof over their heads. And some have no roof at all. It’s heartbreaking. We need our legislators working to provide people with affordable healthcare, with public housing, with a safe supportive community for these adults. We need better mental health services for all people. Hell, forget better. We need some semblance of a mental health care system in all of our communities. Our society deserves better than what we are getting. Our more progressive political leaders shouldn’t have to make deals to get their legislative feet in the GOP door. We deserve better.
Susan Stevens is the Chair of the Kansas City, Kansas chapter of SDUSA.