Michelle and her daughter M.J. sit in a coffee shop in a Wyoming strip mall, just over the border from their small town in Colorado. M.J., an eighth-grader, shyly sips her iced mocha and speaks with the “likes” endemic to junior-high hallways. Michelle talks with a calm and slightly tired maternal presence. She and M.J. take turns explaining how they learned to remake the boundaries of their own hometown.
M.J. was born a boy, Michelle explains, but as M.J. grew up, she made it clear to Michelle that she didn’t feel like one. “I knew something was going on at age two,” Michelle says. “But I couldn’t accept it at the time. So I put a lot of time into changing her or suppressing her.” But M.J. didn’t change, and she continued to insist on wearing skirts and dresses and play with “girl typical” toys. In sixth grade, the school counselor called Michelle to tell her that the other kids were teasing M.J. and that it was only getting worse. “They were concerned because she was being open about who she was. The way she acted, the way she dressed,” Michelle explains. That’s when she knew that it wasn’t a phase, and it wasn’t a “problem.” This was who M.J. was.
In Loveland, Colorado — population 61,000, 92 percent white and heavily evangelical Christian — Michelle didn’t know what to expect when she began to work with the school to facilitate her daughter’s transition from a boy to a girl. At first, it was difficult. The school “freaked out when I told them,” Michelle says. “When we started with M.J.’s transition, I was envisioning riots.” And so Michelle became an advocate for transgender people — those who identify as a gender different from the one assigned at birth. Michelle organized trainings for the faculty and staff and prepared “cheat sheets” in case any of their students asked prying questions.
But on the first day of school, nothing happened. No flood of calls, no angry protests, and no bullying. Michelle was “happy and shocked” that M.J.’s classmates seemed to get it. When one student made a mocking comment to another using M.J.’s former name, one eighth-grade boy dismissed him with a simple insight. “That person doesn’t even exist anymore,” he said. “You’re talking about somebody who’s imaginary.”
Given the spate of television and media coverage on transgender youth — from dedicated episodes of Oprah and 20/20 to a cover story in Newsweek — this might not seem remarkable. But just eight years ago, a school just like M.J.’s, a junior high in a relatively small town, had to be forced by judicial order to allow a trans student to come dressed in her chosen gender. And that school wasn’t in Mississippi or in rural Kansas. It was in Massachusetts, the state that only four years later legalized marriage for same-sex couples. A state thought of by many as one of the most progressive in the country when it comes to gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender rights.
Many would view the politically red heart of the country as a harsh, unwelcoming, and vaguely dangerous place for the transgender community. When we think of states like Nebraska and Wyoming, we don’t think of M.J. — we think of people like Brandon Teena and Matthew Shepard, both killed in vicious, nationally publicized hate crimes. But the truth of the matter is far more interesting, inspiring, and instructive. Away from the coasts and the urban havens, a vibrant transgender-rights movement is slowly emerging across the mountain and plains states. Through increased visibility, community building, legislative outreach, and face-to-face public education in churches, schools, and neighborhoods, trans people are building a foundation for equality in some of the nation’s most conservative regions.
The most compelling thing about this burgeoning grass-roots movement, however, is not that its outposts are unexpected, but that its activist strategies are so familiar. More than anything, dispatches from the movement for trans equality only confirm the enduring power of marginalized groups to organize themselves and transform their own political landscape.
Without doubt, trans people in the mountain and plains states face harsh realities: employment discrimination, obstacles to health care, violence, and few community resources. But even in the reddest of states, successes like M.J.’s are not unique. Moreover, these stories presage even broader long-term change. For each local success or modest legislative action, the effect is the same — laying the foundation for greater victories tomorrow. After all, as Mike Thompson, the executive director of Equality Utah explains, “If you can convert people in the reddest of states, then you can convert people anywhere.”
***After working for a construction equipment company for 25 years in rural Iowa and rising to the position of parts-department manager, Lauren Jansen decided it was time for her to come out as transgender and to publicly transition. Her boss was initially supportive. Then, Jansen says, “One person way up in the company who had the authority used it.” In return for a quarter-century of service, the company fired her just before Christmas with the words, “Deal with your gender issues elsewhere.”
Yet, in the midst of this demeaning process, Jansen found unlikely allies among her co-workers. “The guys that actually did the dirty work — they were my biggest supporters out there,” she explains. Just after completing her transition, she was walking along the street, and, she says, “there were some guys doing concrete work. And one came over and shook my hand and said, ‘You’re very courageous’ and ‘Do what you need to do.'” After moving to Omaha, she found the same kind of support.
Many advocates believe that fundamental change can only come when more trans people are willing — like M.J. and Jansen — to be “out” and tell their stories in their communities. Parallel polls have shown that, in the case of gay rights, as more and more people came to know gay people as friends, co-workers, and family members, support for gay rights grew as well. There is reason to think that similar progress can be made as more trans people feel safe enough to be “visible” — out and open in their communities.
In rural Nebraska, transgender residents of small towns are choosing visibility, too. Ashley, born and raised in a town of 100 people, works on her family corn and soybean farm (she set up her interview time while driving her tractor). With her mild-mannered Midwestern demeanor, Ashley described how she came out as transgender but decided to stay in her hometown. “I asked my dad about whether I could stay on the farm or not. He said, ‘I suppose you could.'”
So she stayed. And she didn’t budge when she was harassed. “I got hate mail at first, crank phone calls,” she says, from “people who didn’t want me to stay here.” The first time she took her kids to the county fair after her transition, Ashley says, “I could tell [people] were talking about me, but they were also getting to know me.” More exemplary, she says, was the small-town judge that signed off on her name change and warmly wished her well. She speaks with pride of her service on the local volunteer firefighting unit. After one decade volunteering as a man, she’s already worked a second one as a woman.
At the heart of Ashley’s story is a simple truth about what can happen when individuals decide they shouldn’t have to hide their identity from their own neighbors or family and friends. “It’d be so easy to just melt into society,” Ashley says. “And a lot of trans people do, and I’ve thought about it, and I decided I can’t do that. I don’t feel like we’ll ever get anywhere.”
“In some sense,” she continues, “my activism is staying in my town.”
Visibility is a conscious strategy for change. “We just need to be out there and be real with people, not painted on our forehead and carrying signs, but be out, everyday people,” Ashley says. To her, to transition but not openly claim her transgender identity would simply be “another closet.” Instead of legislative advocacy, Ashley says, “I’m more into educating people one by one, and it has been an awesome experience for me.”
***Salt Lake City is well known for the intimidating heights of Temple Square, the heart of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. But just a few blocks to the east is a lesser-known community hub: the bustling building complex of the Utah Pride Center. Offering services to the entire LGBT community of Utah, the center has made transgender rights a priority, with a focus on supporting the leadership of the trans community. There is a strong do-it-yourself ethic, Jennifer Nuttall, adult-program director says. “Lots of people have passion, but they have a regular full-time job; they can’t dedicate all their time to working for a nonprofit.” So the center trains trans community members in everything from how to facilitate a group, to how to build a database, to how to get people to attend meetings.
The hallmark of the movement for transgender rights has always been the ability of trans people to be their own best advocate. From bargaining for basic medical care with nurses at a veteran’s hospital to having the cops called on them while picking their own kids up from elementary school, many trans people all too often face a daily battle where each challenge on its own could be debilitating. The center’s strategy is built on the awareness of this reality.
The center also seeks to educate potential allies who are in positions of authority — especially those in the medical field or government who encounter trans people in their jobs. “We have an LGBT-affirmative therapist guild, and we’re putting together a cultural-competency training [for] them,” Nuttall says. With a grant from the Tides Foundation, the center is also training both foster parents and the staff of the Department of Children and Family Services on youth gender identity and sexuality — making Utah only the second state to do so.
Teinamarrie Nelson, associate director and co-founder of Transgender Education Advocates (TEA), is optimistic about the prospects for equality in Utah. “I think things have steadily come around,” she explains; being transgender is “not quite the obstacle that everyone might think it would be here.” TEA takes an approach similar to that of the Pride Center — empowering trans people, while at the same time educating the doctors, foster parents, and government workers who affect their lives.
Sitting in the café section of the Pride Center, a woman named Aere pages through a thick photo album in her lap and explains the history of Engendered Species, one of the oldest transgender-advocacy organizations in the region. “If you [saw] other groups’ albums, you’d see pictures of trans people in a room,” she says. “But in our album, there aren’t many pictures in rooms; we came out of the shadows. We did things in normal public.” She flips through the pages, pointing to pictures of interstate bicycle tours, canyon hikes, and Main Street parades. “I still remember when it was scary,” Aere says. “Everything you want to do, there is a ghost standing by. And the more you do the activities, the less ghosts there are stopping you from doing it.”
Reaching out to the broader non-trans community, Engendered Species regularly sends speakers to give talks to classes at the University of Utah, and representatives make presentations to local homeless-shelter staffs to increase awareness and sensitivity to trans issues. These activities — which both build intra-community strength and help others understand the lives of trans people — put a face to the issue of trans rights.
***For people transitioning from one gender to another, the whim of a single state administrator can determine what name they’re allowed to have or even what gender they’re allowed to be. It takes individuals on both sides of the bureaucratic divide to move past those obstacles — both average citizens brave enough to stand up for themselves and officials willing to look past their own prejudices. Nelson points to rising tolerance as a result of the cumulative effect of the work of local groups like TEA and other leaders. Even in conservative Mormon enclaves like Davis and Weber counties, Nelson reports that judges now routinely allow people to change their name when they transition. “To have a judge be like, ‘OK, I get it,’ is very incredible,” Nelson says.
Two states away, Nebraskan advocates have begun strategizing about how to create more systemic change by engaging the state legislature on these issues. Lauren Jansen is a board member of the Nebraska activist group Coalition For Equal Protection (CFEP), which does informal lobbying in Lincoln for LGBT issues. Their progress, though, is often hindered by a lack of resources. “We need to have a trans person actually go down to the state legislature, the Capitol, and have the ability and time to sit there and just meet with individual legislators,” Jansen explains. “I would love to do that, but I have a daytime job, plus Lincoln is 60 miles away, so it’s really difficult, if not impossible. But that’s what it’s going to take.” Support in the state legislature is at the germinal stage, but “there are a couple state senators that are very strong allies,” Jansen says.
While states like Nebraska and Wyoming lack a paid lobbying force on behalf of the trans community, Equality Utah has a well-coordinated advocacy effort at the state government level, largely due to funding from local donors like B.W. Bastian, one of the co-founders of WordPerfect. Mike Thompson, the executive director of Equality Utah, says that trans rights are at the forefront of his organization’s legislative work. “Gender identity and expression will be there in every bill that we do,” he says.
Utah might be one of the most conservative states in the nation, but at least among Democrats, Equality Utah is a force to be reckoned with. Their political action committee’s donations make them the third-largest contributor to state Democratic legislative candidates. Even among Republicans, Will Carlson, an Equality Utah employee, says, “When you sit down with these individuals, they’re not hate-filled. It’s just a lack of awareness. It’s just a fear.” And in Utah’s other power center — the leadership of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — some allies have expressed support, albeit behind closed doors. While Mike Thompson of Equality Utah concedes that “the idea of ‘transgender’ is contrary to church doctrine” and “officially the LDS church doesn’t have any relationship” with Equality Utah, “there are examples of bishops who have an ally mentality.” A remarkable feat, given the deep conservatism of the Mormon church.
***For some people, however, being trans in the heartland has brought with it an exasperating amount of grief from their fellow citizens. Although the progress is real, so are the obstacles. Alongside the great strides of young people like M.J., organizations like TEA, and rural folks like Ashley, others have more chilling stories.
In the small, comfortable, wood-paneled den of a house just outside Cheyenne, Wyoming, four local trans activists — Shawn and Jasmine, a married couple who transitioned gender at the same time; Lindsay, a trans woman and Marine Corps veteran; and Lauren, a leader in local organizing for LGBT issues — recount the difficulties they’ve faced. Each takes a turn explaining what it was like to be transgender in the state that sent Dick Cheney to Congress for 10 years.
“When you’re trans in Wyoming, you’re wearing a bull’s-eye on your back,” Jasmine says. “The best protection for Wyoming is having pepper spray, a stun gun, and an expandable tactical baton.” She flashes her nails dramatically and laughs. “I didn’t grow these for my health.”
Lindsay tells the story of how she was twice involuntarily committed to a mental hospital as a danger to herself for no other reason than that she was trans. “The last time was the day before New Year’s. It took me 11 hours to convince the medical authorities that I didn’t want to hurt myself and that having my operation was not mutilation of my body.”
Employment discrimination has touched almost everyone. Jasmine and Shawn both worked at Lowe’s, a home–improvement store, until they were both disciplined over a peck on the cheek. One day during a cigarette break, Shawn reports, “I gave Jasmine a quick hug and a kiss. Two hours later I was written up for PDA, and she was fired.” Lindsay faced similar discrimination. After years of uniformly positive performance reviews, she was written up six times and fired only a few weeks after she came out.
And while Lindsay points out that Wyoming is a place where not too long ago “a young gentleman in Laramie” — Matthew Shepard — got killed “because he talked to the wrong people in a bar,” the situation in other states can also be difficult. “There are very real consequences to coming out or transitioning on the job,” the Pride Center’s Nutall says. “There’s real risks that people have to respond to.”
Despite the growing strength of the community, many are left out due to a lack of resources. “I know that for every one queer youth here, there are 200 not here,” says Rachel McNeil, youth-program director at the Pride Center. For many young people, it’s not safe to be openly trans in their families or neighborhoods. “I have youth who will travel two hours each way to come out here,” McNeil says. But without the money, resources for parents and youth are hard to deliver.
Many trans people are also subject to horrifying neglect by their own doctors. Ashley reports that doctors refused to treat her friend in South Dakota, even when she was hemorrhaging. Navigating the medical establishment can be treacherous even when not facing outright discrimination. The national standards of care “don’t mean crap” in Wyoming “because they don’t understand the basics,” Shawn says. “It’s all piecemeal here.” On multiple occasions, doctors have refused to prescribe Shawn the hormones he needs. Lindsay travels 50 miles to see her doctor, after going through several physicians before finding one who would take her.
Yet the optimism among many trans people in these states is palpable. Momentum is building with each TEA Awareness Days festival, every harvest on Ashley’s farm, and every fellow student whom M.J. educates. The community is coming together and coming out as never before. Following on the heels of these successes will come more elections, more victories, and a stronger voice for trans equality in the heartland.
Michelle, M.J.’s mother, relates a great victory that even she thought was beyond reach. “I remember in sixth grade when she asked me about going to [the] eighth grade formal, with her hair up, and high heels, and the tendrils coming down; I had to keep telling her no. But, look at how far we’ve come. She’s going to her eighth-grade formal as she was meant to go to her eighth-grade formal, and to me that’s amazing.”