"When I was young, my brother was my hero."
I was the youngest of 8 kids. My brother wasn't the closest in age to me, but he did a lot of the things that I wanted to do. He was great at skateboarding, great at drumming. He had dirt bikes which I thought was awesome. I always wanted to hang out with him, but I was young enough that he just found me super annoying. One time I put on camouflage and snuck into a paintball game he was having with his friends. His friends all started shooting at me and he's like, ‘Stop, stop! That's my little sibling.’ I just thought he was so cool. I wanted to be just like him.
Because of our financial situation at the time, I wore his hand-me-downs. I have so many older siblings, I had access to them all, but I only wore his because they were just way more comfortable. I felt better in them. I was under 5 when I was doing this. I didn't think anything of it, but when I got to school I got made fun of for wearing boy clothes. I never knew that it was something that was strange until people were like, that's not what you should be wearing. Fortunately, my dad would always say, ‘You wear what you want. You play with what you want. That's just who you are.’
The bullying started in kindergarten. It was the older kids that would do it on the playground. I only had friends who were boys at the time. I would play football and kickball with them. All the girls were like, ‘Why aren't you playing hopscotch with us?’ I'm like, ‘That's just not what I want to do.’ I went through school feeling like I was this weirdo outcast and the things I wanted to do weren't the things I should be doing.
My parents didn't think too much about it until I got into middle school and went through puberty. I never wanted to have slumber parties with the girls. I wanted to be with the boys. That's when I started to realize my parents were a little uncomfortable with who my friends were, maybe with who I was. So for awhile, I tried to fit into the box that my parents and my peers wanted me to be in. Honestly, I became a little bit of a bully. I think it was because I acting so inauthentic. I was feeling hurt so I outwardly was angry toward other people. I wish that I'd known that I didn't have to do that."
-Kayden, Kewaunee WI
"Around sophomore year, I had my first girlfriend and I didn't tell anybody. Nobody knew. My best friend would talk all about her boyfriends and I couldn't say anything. That was tough. I never came out to my parents. I never told them. But they found out. They told me it was an inappropriate relationship to have. Everything blew up. I was grounded for an entire year. I wasn't allowed to play sports. I wasn't able to be on any teams. My phone was taken away. I wasn't allowed to use the internet. I had to go to school and go right home.
My freshman year I had straight A's; I was a 4.0 student. But after that, I plummeted. I was in a deep depression. I wasn't being myself, and because they took away everything and I couldn't see my friends, I was totally isolated. There were no resources for me at all. No support groups. Nobody talked about it. My mom even thought I was on drugs and took me to get drug tested every week. Every week, the test was negative.
My mom wasn’t ready, but thankfully, my dad turned around first. He was like, ‘Okay, this is ridiculous. Our child is depressed. Obviously something's wrong and the way we're going about it is not right.’ After the grounding, and I had a second girlfriend that no one knew about. I remember it perfectly. I was in my room, playing the video game Sims because I was obsessed with it. My dad walks in and he's like, ‘I know you're dating this girl and I just want to tell you that I'm okay with that.’ I started bawling because I was like, ‘Oh, my god. You know and it's okay. I can have a girlfriend.’ That was a turning point."
"I went to college in Oshkosh. I started to learn things through women and gender studies, and it was everything that I'd been looking for. I didn't have words for how I felt and all of a sudden, I have this whole new vocabulary. I just ate it up. Things were good for awhile. I was out as a lesbian, but something still didn't feel quite right.
Then I met my first trans man. I'd never met anybody like that before. I was talking to him and was feeling like, ‘Wow, this is exactly what I'm feeling right now.’ After that encounter, it was like a door unlocked, I knew that I was trans. But I held that door closed. I was like, ‘Well, I may know that I'm trans, but if I come out, that's just going to be a whole 'nother whirlwind for my family. I'm going to lose all my friends all over again.’ The guy that I was talking to, his parents didn't accept him. Everyone at school called him a freak. I didn't want to go through that. I was like, ‘I can just wear guy clothes and be me and I'll be fine.’ But I was not fine. Something was opened for me that day that felt so much truer and I couldn't go back.
I had to just withdraw from school that semester altogether. I was like, obviously something's wrong. I went to a counselor and they were like, ‘Okay, we need to help you with this.’ I made a plan to come out to my parents.
I came out to my mom first. She actually said it before I was able to. She was like, ‘I know why you're having dinner with me. You want to tell me you're transgender.’ I was like ... ‘How do you even have this vocabulary?’ I don't open up very well, so having her say it was a lot easier. I've always wondered why she was so okay with it. I think maybe because of all the things we went through in high school and how I really withdrew from her for 2 years, that she was like, ‘Well, I can't lose him again.’
My dad was concerned about what he thought society wanted for me. He was worried that people would make fun of me. Personally he had gotten a lot more open-minded, but for some reason, it was a lot harder for me to come out to him. I was the youngest and I was his baby girl and I was just very worried about that coming between us. But when I told him he was like, ‘Why are you nervous? Of course it's okay.’
My entire life, I'd never been truly authentic. I've never been me. I've always felt like I was hiding something even from my family members. Now that I'm being who I truly am, that just brings me closer to everyone around me. I'm able to talk about things that are personal and that just opens up a whole new door, for me and my dad especially. He'll ask me questions all the time and he wants to learn. He's like, ‘Is this appropriate to say?’ Or ‘What do I do here?’ He's very into debates. He loves talking about politics and religion, loves learning people's perspectives on things. He's like, ‘Now I have this whole new avenue I can talk about, LGBTQ-related things because you're helping me learn all this stuff.’ He just thinks it's awesome. He's always asking questions.
With my mom, she's more, ‘How are you emotionally? How are you feeling?’ She's always been pretty good with my name change and pronouns and everything. She's never skipped a beat with that."
"For a long time I avoided going back to my small town just because I was scared. I was afraid of being ostracized and shunned like that first trans man I met. Actually, it’s been just the opposite which really surprised me. A lot of people have reached out to my parents because they want to learn more and they have an interest in being educated about this. They wanted to know how to support both me and my parents. I always thought it totally wouldn't be that way… so it’s been really mind-blowing.
I know some people are afraid they'll offend me if they ask certain things and I'm like, ‘Ask me. Ask me anything. If it's offensive, I'll tell you and that's not your fault. You just don't know.’ While I am only one trans individual and my story's going to be different than everybody else, these are the experiences I have and you can talk to me about them.
I'm planning to go to my old high school and talk. They have a gay/straight alliance now! I am also trying to help others not feel so alone. Being a queer person in a small community can feel really isolating, but it doesn’t have to be that way. I grew up in a small town and I live in one now. In every small town, there are LGBTQ people and plenty of supportive people to connect with.
With that in mind, I am starting a new podcast called Among Friends where I interview and talk to LGBTQ people all over the state with a focus on people living in small towns here in Wisconsin.
I believe that in the Midwest and especially Wisconsin, there are a lot of really loving people. When I was growing up, sure, there was also closed-mindedness, but people are only closed-minded because they don't have the resources to understand certain things, and when people don't understand something, they usually have a negative reaction toward it.
I know now that in most cases people don't necessarily hate me, they just don't understand me, and if I give them the chance to understand me, then we can move past negative assumptions. I’m finding that most people want to learn more. It’s been pretty amazing."