STATE OF OPPORTUNITY. Can Kids in Michigan Get Ahead?
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This special reporting project wrapped up in May 2017. Read more.

Breaking ground: being young and transgender in Michigan

Michigan is in the midst of a controversy surrounding transgender people’s access to public bathrooms.

It’s a hot-button issue evidenced by the nearly 10,000 people who have filed public comments on the State Board of Education’s draft of voluntary guidelines for schools to meet the needs of their transgender students. By comparison, no other proposals have received more than 40 comments.

A lot of those misconceptions [about transgender people] are really coming to the surface now in the public discourse are really old stereotypes that used to be attached to homosexuality. And they're still lingering around in the media and they're still lingering around in our politics and they just happen to be now attached to trans people.

It’s an indicator that trans people and trans issues ignite strong emotions. Those emotions can lead to fear and even hate.

Many people across Michigan and across the country have questions about transgender issues that they may be afraid to ask. Cael Keegan, an assistant professor of Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies and Liberal Studies at Grand Valley State University, helps clear up some of the misunderstandings and misconceptions. As a professor of gender studies, and a trans man, Keegan has extensive experience helping people understand transgender people and transgender issues.

“Trans people fall outside of our normative definitions for gender and sex,” says Keegan. “We have a gender and sex system with really only two options: male, female … and so if you think about how humans are naturally very diverse. There are lots of people who have experiences that fall outside of that [male/female] organization … Trans people are really just people who, for some reason or another, disagree with their assignment in that system.”   

What are the most common misconceptions?

“A lot of those misconceptions that are really coming to the surface now in the public discourse are really old stereotypes that used to be attached to homosexuality. And they’re still lingering around in the media and they’re still lingering around in our politics and they just happen to be now attached to trans people,” says Keegan. “The idea of being gay or trans is a choice. The idea of being gay or trans is some kind of psychological deficiency. The idea that gay and trans people abuse children or are seeking to abuse children. These are all stereotypes that used to be attached primarily to gay men in our culture, especially in the 1950s. And gay activists and supportive medical professionals did a lot of work to disabuse the public of those assumptions.”
Keegan addresses a number of issues including the confusion that exists between trans people and cross-dressers, drag performers, and lesbian and gay individuals. He also touches on the origin of the prefix “trans.” (Listen to the full interview with Cael Keegan below)

Most people can tell you that middle school is one of the toughest times for a child. The transition into young adulthood, both socially and physically, is a multi-layered challenge many have faced. This made Kylie Clifton's decision to come as transgender even more difficult.

At the age of 11, Kylie Clifton took the first step toward coming out to her classmates by taking a trip to the salon.   

Kylie Clifton has long, thick waves of blonde hair, the same sandy shade as her mom's. And the day Kylie's mom took her to the salon to get those hair extensions – that was a big day. And not just because, for the first time, Kylie felt really pretty. "Today is the first day of the rest of my life," 11-year-old Kylie posted on Instagram that evening. "So happy I don't know what to do with myself." Just a few months before, Kylie was still living as Kyle – an earnest, thoughtful boy who struggled with anxiety.

Kylie tells Michigan Radio's Kate Wells about the experience of coming out to her parents, her classmates, and all of the issues, both social and legal, that face her and other transgender kids in Michigan. (Read the full story here.)

For some students, the process of coming out as transgender can be a slow and anxious process. For Eliza Downie, she began that process as she started to enter high school. 

Downie noticed that she was different after she left the comfort of a home-school environment and started attending public school. There, she says, traditional gender roles were forced upon her, where they hadn't been with her parents at home.

The summer after freshman year, Downie began asking friends to refer to her as a girl and to use female pronouns. After the reaction from friends was very positive, then came the difficult task of telling her parents. She was unsure of how they would react, but in the end, they were very supportive. This helped ease the transition of coming out to the rest of the school, which she says occurred more organically, rather than holding a big announcement.

The biggest difference throughout this whole process for Downie has been emotional. 

"I started to become a lot more confident in myself and not have as many self-disliking problems," said Downie. "I started to have a bit of self-loathing. But [coming out] started to help. I've realized that my personality is good, and not wrong." 

Listen to the an extended interview with Eliza Downie below as she talks about the process of coming out, the challenges of bathrooms at school and how life is treating her now. 

Dr. Toni Caretto, a clinical psychologist who practices in Farmington Hills, brings a unique perspective to the issues facing the transgender community. From working with transgender adults, she saw the terrible toll of years of struggle, years of enduring hostility, hatred, rejection.

By 2010, Toni shifted focus to work with gender-non-conforming children and with their families.

According to Caretto’s website, 6.9% of teens have attempted suicide, but that rate among transgender youth skyrockets to 33.2%. This can start with whether or not a child has a supportive family. Caretto says those who do not have that support run the risk of numerous pitfalls including depression, suicide, drug abuse, and school failure.

“They oftentimes make many attempts to not have it be true,” said Caretto. “So they often pursue efforts to cure themselves via marriages and career choices and drinking and behaviors and attempts to fit into the role that they don’t feel suited for. And it leaves behind them a wake of damage, both to their own personal lives and often the lives of many around them.”

Caretto talks more about the issues that she has seen in her practice, and what advice she would give to parents who have transgender children. (Listen to an extended interview with Dr. Toni Caretto below.)

For some parents, hearing their child tell them that "God made a mistake" brings both challenges and growth.

For Pete Tchoryk, the journey began with a battle over his child’s refusal to wear an Easter dress. After a prolonged discussion with multiple therapists, doctors, and diagnoses, Tchoryk and his family came to understand his son's frustration as more than just a common case of a stubborn toddler. 

Tchoryk talks about his son Kai and the how far the family has come since that fight over the Easter dress. (Listen to an extended interview with Tchoryk below.)

Listen to the full show at the top of the page, or choose a specific segment. The show includes all of the guests referenced above, as well as an “audio FAQ” featuring a variety of transgender individuals talking about the wide-ranging, and often inappropriate, questions they have received.

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