TW: themes of body dysphoria, harassment, and suicide.
Growing up and discovering your sense of self is universal across all cultures. From childhood, to teenage years, to finding your way into adulthood and beyond, everyone has their struggles, realizations, and good times. The years between teenage and adult are especially full of such experiences.
“I really just love how honest they are,” says Grace Coleman, a supervisor of the Operation Fresh Start Legacy program, which serves ages 16-24, “Like, [younger] kids…they’re open and honest in an innocent way. These guys [participants] come with all these experiences.”
Young adults in this age range often feel pressures from school, jobs, and society. In the 2021 Dane County Youth Assessment, when high schoolers were asked if they felt nervous, anxious, or on edge, 36% responded sometimes, 31% often, and 16% always, compared to 17% who responded not at all. Of all Dane County high schoolers, 30% responded that problems in the U.S. and in the world caused them stress and anxiety.
Those feelings aren’t helped when the popular opinion of teenagers and young adults is often dismissive and negative.
“They’re so intelligent, they have so much going for them, and they just need someone to help them realize that,” said Grace, “I think we, as a society, spend a lot of time focusing on negatives, right? Like, what you did was bad, we don’t do that. And it creates this image of ourselves, it’s really negative. We forget what we’re like [when young] because every time we get caught doing something, we get punished for being ourselves, being curious, trying to explore.”
Growing up is even more challenging for transgender and nonbinary young people. According to The Trevor Project’s 2022 survey, 74% of LGBTQ youth in Wisconsin reported experiencing symptoms of anxiety and 59% reported symptoms of depression. Researchers from The Trevor Project also found, in 2020, that transgender and nonbinary youth were 2 to 2.5 times more likely to experience symptoms of depression, consider suicide, and attempt suicide compared to cisgender LGBQ peers.
Kiley shares that reality. “I had that dark past, I had many times trying to just end it,” she said, “I thought I was the one who had the disease, you know. That I was unworthy of love. It didn’t occur to me until I was older that I do deserve love. I am worthy of being on this planet, just like anyone else, and if whoever created me, if it was a mistake, then why did He create us?”
Growing up, Kiley knew she was trans, but it was a long road to accepting herself and for others to accept her, too. “I always knew from a very young age that I was trapped in the wrong body,” recounted Kiley, “When I first started noticing signs, I looked online for days, trying to figure out what’s wrong with me.” She discovered the word trans, when your gender identity differs from your gender assigned at birth. “When I first started telling people, oh hey, I’m trans, please call me by these pronouns, my parents weren’t accepting in the beginning. But when I first did my hormone treatment, they were like, okay, this is for real. And then when I was open about it in school, I was bullied. Because, you know, I didn’t look the part. I didn’t fit into girl society.”
Throughout high school, Kiley experienced bullying and harassment. It reached a dehumanizing peak and she dropped out, getting a job at a retail store instead, working hard and soon taking the role of manager. It wasn’t until her younger brother talked about OFS that she considered finishing school. “He was like, you would love it, you get to work, you get paid. And also a high school diploma. And I was like, that’s really cool, I’m 21 and he said [the upper age limit] was 24. I was like, 24, wow, well maybe I’ll go get myself an application and change my life.”
Her supervisor, Grace, wanted to create a welcoming space. “I was scared that she was going to go through the same thing she had been going through her entire life," said Grace. "But she’s such a strong person. She came in here, and she’s doing her thing. And everybody seems to accept that broadly. We’ve had one incident of someone making a comment, and everybody here as a collective unit was like, no, we’re not doing that. This isn’t who we are.”
Allyship is vital for trans youth and young adults. So far in 2023, 558 anti-trans bills that seek to block access to healthcare, education, legal recognition, and safety were introduced in the U.S. and 82 have passed, compared to 26 out of 174 bills in 2022. Growing up and existing as trans is increasingly dangerous. But Kiley expresses a different reality now.
“At OFS, I feel 100% safe in my own skin and in my body,” Kiley said, “No one has ever made me feel unsafe or unwelcomed. And my great supervisor, who's my best friend, Grace, she’s helped me accept who I am.”
“Every day, I wake up feeling grateful for, like, just waking up and having this experience. And [OFS staff] continuously helping me throughout my journey.”
As Kiley comes to terms with her past, she steadfastly focuses on her future. “My dream job is becoming an advocate and helping people. I can help them get back on their feet and make them feel loved for who they are.” Her future plans include renovating a school bus and traveling the country to as many states as she can.
Seeing Kiley shine every day, it’s obvious that she has experienced her own struggles, realizations, and good times. She says, “Love is love and you do shine. You have someone right here who is experiencing the same things, so stay positive and things will be okay. Walk to the fullest. One day you will catch your dreams and your dreams will come true.”
To learn more about being an ally for transgender and nonbinary young people, see this guide from The Trevor Project.