Trans in the South: Meet Kids Finding Acceptance in the Bible Belt
Fluttering around her balcony garden, Allie pauses to check on her plants and herbs, her long golden hair spilling over her shoulders and down her back. She beams, marveling over her growing cabbage plant.
“I got this from school,” the nine-year-old says proudly. “That’s the first plant we ever had in the garden.”
Allie, whose name has been changed to protect her privacy, then bounces across the balcony to see if any eight-legged tenants had checked into her bug hotel, then back again to run her fingers through a hanging Boston fern named Max.
With her booming personality and bubbly chatter, Allie is an exuberant, confident third-grader. She is also a transgender child living in southern Alabama, a bastion of conservative values, gun shows and Republican voters.
“I have so many friends like, ‘I can’t believe you live in Alabama, especially having a child that’s transgender,” says Allie’s mom Kimberly, who was instantly smitten with Southern hospitality. “When we go out places, everybody’s so friendly and so nice. They all want to talk to you.”
After all, Alabama is home to Roy Moore, the embattled Senate candidate who campaigned on anti-LGBT vitriol and still garnered 48 percent of the vote. Alabama was ranked the number-one most religious state by the Pew Research Center and the state doesn’t have a non-discrimination law covering gender identity or sexual orientation.
Yet southern Alabama has been a kind of haven for Allie and her family.
“Since we’ve moved here it’s like almost every stereotype that I’ve had about Alabama has been kind of destroyed,” Kimberly says. “I definitely worry about her safety here, but honestly she is at risk in even the most liberal areas of the country as well. There’s hate and misunderstanding in regards to the transgender community in every part of the country.”
The warm welcome Allie has gotten in southern Alabama was a far cry from the chilly reception the family received at her former New Hampshire elementary school. Her transition from male to female at the age of six was begrudgingly tolerated at best, Kimberly says.
The principal’s response, she says, was “‘We’ll comply with what you want but we’re very clearly not excited about it.'”
When Kimberly and her fiancé, Joe, met with the principal of her new school in Alabama, they were fully prepared to homeschool Allie if her transgender status was met with criticism or judgement. Instead they were greeted with open arms by the school’s principal.
“She was like, ‘”Look, a student’s a student. My job is to take care of all the kids and make sure they’re all safe and they are all in an environment where they’re comfortable and they can learn,'” Kimberly recalls the principal telling her. “‘And just cause your kid’s transgender doesn’t change that.’ I was like, ‘Hoo, are we sure we’re in Alabama?’ It was awesome.”
All over the Bible Belt, transgender children and their families are finding acceptance and support in traditionally conservative towns. The tide is slower to change here than in more liberal locales, but there are signs that even the most conservative areas are not just tolerating the LGBTQ community, but laying out the welcome mat.
In Mississippi, the controversial H.B. 1523 law is still in effect, allowing legal, religious-based discrimination against LGBTQ people and families, yet the small town of Starkville proudly put their rainbows on display this year for its first-ever Pride parade. It was the largest parade in the city’s history, according to local reports.
Transgender advocates say each experience of acceptance creates a ripple effect that helps bust stereotypes about both transgender people and Southern values.
“The stereotype of conservative communities, [that] there’s an outcry against these young transgender kids, it’s just not true,” says Jennifer Grosshandler, mother of a 12-year-old trans daughter and co-founder the the GenderCool Project, a newly launched nationwide nonprofit that works with transgender children and teens to help them share their stories. “Conservative towns and conservative communities are full of awesome people who are going to support these children. The more stories are told, the more we normalize this conversation.”
There are no hard numbers on the population of American children who identify as transgender, but a 2018 study published in the journal Pediatrics found that of nearly 81,000 ninth and 11th-grade students surveyed in Minnesota, about three percent – or more than 2,100 students – identified as transgender or gender nonconforming.
“What we are trying to show is that there’s no harm in acceptance or simply tolerance,” says GenderCool co-founder Gearah Goldstein, who is herself trans. When communities accept transgender children, “the end result is a thriving child, a thriving family and in essence, a thriving community. Because no one is being harmed.”
Nearly 500 miles away from Allie’s balcony garden, 15-year-old Landon is living openly in his suburban east Texas town. He was chosen as one of The GenderCool Project’s five champions – trans teenagers from across the country that are excelling in sports, school, activism and the arts – and has been been advocating for transgender rights all over Texas, from speaking out against the state’s bathroom discrimination bill at the state capitol to posing for photos with actress Laverne Cox at scholarship event.
“People definitely have these stereotypes about what it means to be a queer person in the South,” Landon says. “I even have these perceptions of the South: extremely conservative, Trump flags around every corner. And, in some cases, that’s true.”
But living in plain sight, he says, are legions of LGBTQ southerners and their allies.
“What I found so surprising is the massive community that we have here,” Landon says. “People that are proud and out and who are able to live their lives at work, at school and with their families.”
It’s only when transgender people bump up against outdated fears and opinions, or are grilled about how and where they use the bathroom, Goldstein explains, that they are forced to validate their existence time and time again.
“It’s so important that people can see Landon and go, ‘Yeah he’s a good dude, whatever. Oh he’s trans, OK,” Goldstein says. “And you can say, you know, nothing to see here. It’s not a big deal.”
That’s what makes Landon such a good role model for his entire community, says Aaron, his dad, and for everyone else who might not have met a transgender person.
“People have given him a chance and gotten to know him, just as a kid,” Aaron says. “And then he just gets gets to be another person judged on his actions, his character his accomplishments.”
Landon himself doesn’t view himself through a trans lens, and he doesn’t want other people to, either.
“I’m not Landon the trans guy,” Landon says. “I’m so much more than just my trans identity, such as an artist, a musician. I play the trumpet in my school band, I like to write poetry, I like to take pictures, I like to work out with my dad. It’s so much more than just being trans.”
Aaron admits he had a learning curve for parenting a transgender child. As he and his wife Erika watched Landon repeatedly throw fits over dresses and skirts as a young child, and demand a “boy short” haircut, they assumed Landon would eventually come out as a lesbian.
For Aaron, the struggle to accept the idea that his child might be gay stemmed, in part, from being raised in the deeply conservative Pentecostal church.
“It was probably an annual, if not more frequent sermon on the evils of being gay,” Aaron says in a soft Texan drawl. “I was kind of told what I should believe on it and once those sermons were over I didn’t have good reason to think about it again.”
Landon began his transition at age 11, with an email to his parents to finally share his secret — that he was meant to be a boy. He agonized over each word, terrified of what hitting “send” would mean for him and his relationships.
“It was such an uncertain action. I remember writing in my journal that I was pretty sure my parents would be supportive, but I was still scared to death of how this coming out and how these few words would change my life forever,” Landon says.
The email was as life changing for his parents as it was for Landon.
“The three of us just hugged and cried,” says Aaron. “We assured him that everything was going to be OK and we didn’t know what we needed to do, but we were going to find out.”
Though Aaron left the church 10 years ago over a difference in ideologies, the idea of a transgender child seemed completely foreign – and terrifying. He carried a lot of fear of what Landon’s life as a trans man might hold.
“I had to let it all out so I’d go outside or in my car,” Aaron says, “and I mean I would just cry and cry.”
It was meeting a transgender man who had built a successful life for himself at a local PFLAG chapter that convinced him to let go of his gripping fear and see that Landon’s life could be just as rich and full as he’d imagined. They’ve also found a tremendous amount of resources for Landon, all just a short drive away, including a medical clinic that specializes in treating transgender patients.
As Landon began his public transition, he and his parents realized almost everyone was willing to embrace him for who he was.
“I have had almost no detrimental experiences in my personal life with those I interact with daily,” he says.
Still, he’s had his identity questioned since he was a child, from the grandparents that insisted on gifting him a pink bike instead of the blue he asked for to the anti-trans bathroom bill supporters who want him out of the men’s room. Even his otherwise supportive high school pushed back, telling Aaron and Erika that Landon needed to use the nurse’s bathroom. His parents told them, firmly, that Landon would use the boy’s room or the school would face legal action.
Acceptance at school, by their peers and the faculty, is a critical step to success for transgender children like Allie and Landon. But even more important than acceptance, Goldstein says, is inclusivity. “That’s where it’s truly important, where, if you do not feel like a connected part of society, that damage is really unimaginable,” says Goldstein, “You’re not just helping the trans kids, you’re helping the entire school by being inclusive.”
Yet the family isn’t blind to the safety concerns that transgender people face daily as they decide when to disclose and to whom. In eastern and southeastern Texas alone, there have been four murders of transgender people in just over a year, including one just miles from Landon’s home.
As a “cis-passing, white male,” Landon says, “I am far less vulnerable than so many transgender individuals. [But] I recognize that these privileges very much impact how innately safer I am, and at a lesser risk of being physically harmed.”
Still, avoiding risky situations is an ongoing conversation Landon’s parents have with him.
“I am aware of how I need to navigate potentially dangerous situations,” Landon says, “and I acknowledge that I may not always be safe, especially with how openly I share and disclose my trans identity and experiences.”
Landon has become an outspoken, go-to voice for transgender rights. After his transition, he got his principal’s support to open a middle school Gay-Straight Alliance chapter.
Last year, at just 14 years old, Landon testified before the Texas legislature against the state’s so-called bathroom bill that would prevent transgender people from using the restroom that corresponds with their gender identity.
“Because I have a strong support system at home and in my community and among my friends, it’s important for me to be open and be vocal and fight for those who can’t,” he says. “Being visible in the South for me is not a choice.”
Earlier this spring Landon took the stage to share his story at an area Human Rights Campaign gala. “His success is a credit to an entire community of support. It just wasn’t one person or one family,” Aaron says. “When people come up to us saying, ‘Oh you must be so proud of him.’ We thank them as well for their part to play in who Landon is.”
Like Landon before her, Allie began blazing her own path from a very young age. “She’d put on a dress and then play with cars,” Kimberly says. By the age of two, “it kind of started turning into princesses and tea parties and she always wanted to do dress up stuff.”
By four, Allie began referring to herself as a girl during playtime and would role-play female characters, such as a mom or sister. Kimberly floated the idea to herself that Allie might be gay, but didn’t give it too much thought. Her concerns were more for the reception that Allie might get while out in traditionally feminine clothing.
“I didn’t know what other people were going to do. Where we lived in New Hampshire, it wasn’t the greatest area,” she says. “I was afraid, too, that she would feel bad about herself. That people, other kids would tell her the opposite of what I’d been telling her her entire life which is you do you, you’re fine.”
Then, when Allie was six and in the first grade, she chose to dress up for Halloween as a female character from the fashion doll franchise Monster High, complete with a wig and makeup.
“When we were out trick or treating, she ran into several kids that she knew from school and they didn’t recognize her at all,” Kim says. “That, I think, was one of the key things that got her to finally be like, ‘This is who I am.”
A few weeks later, Allie’s struggle with her gender identity came to a head. “She told a teacher there that she wanted to die because everybody thought she was a boy and she was a girl,” Kimberly says. “It was terrifying. You never think a child that young is going to have thoughts like that.”
Kimberly wracked her brain and blamed herself. “I was like, I’ve been as supportive as a I can and my kid still wants to die. What did I do wrong?” she says. “And how do I fix this?”
Their pediatrician diagnosed Allie with gender dysphoria and told Kimberly and Joe to follow her lead in terms letting Allie live openly and fully.
“We asked [Allie,] ‘Do you want us to refer to you as she and her, and a girl? Do you want me to say my daughter instead of my son? And she was like ‘Yes, that’s what I want.'” Kimberly says. “And I said OK.”
They started by taking her on a shopping spree for a new wardrobe.
“It was all the sparkly tutu-y skirts,” Kimberly says, “and anything that had sequins and glitter and bows.”
When she went back to school as Allie and with she/her pronouns, the reaction was mixed – and not just from the school staff.
“They decided that I could go to the girls bathroom,” Allie says. “There was this girl. I was in first grade, she was second grade and she didn’t like that I was transgender. She was like, ‘You’re supposed to be a boy, you’re supposed to go in the boys bathroom.'”
When asked what she thought about that, the light dimmed from her eyes and she dropped her voice.
“Didn’t really like it,” she says, before quickly changing the subject back to her garden.
When Kimberly and Joe decided to move from their rough-edged New Hampshire neighborhood, they cautiously took up an offer from Joe’s brother to join him in Alabama. “The stereotypes about Alabama are, we hate the gays, and rednecks and Confederate flags,” Kimberly says. “I was like we’re going bring this kid to the school and they are going to be like, “That child is an abomination’ or something.”
But the exact opposite happened.
While Allie’s principal in Alabama, her teachers, the school nurse and the secretary that handles student files knows that Allie is transgender, they have not disclosed to anyone in the community, including her friends and classmates.
Allie is free to disclose that she is transgender, Kimberly says. “I dread the thought that friends might reject her or someone might harm her in the future,” she says. “As of right now, she understands that not everyone agrees with and accepts who she is and that while she shouldn’t be ashamed of who she is, she should definitely be cautious.”
But for Allie, being transgender is almost an afterthought in her daily life. She’d much rather talk about her cats or her latest comic book ideas.
“I wouldn’t go up to somebody and be like, ‘Hi my name’s Kim and I identify as a female and I have a vagina.'” Kimberly says. “Anybody that’s cisgender doesn’t have to tell their friends what genitals they have, so why does somebody who’s transgender have to do that?”
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