These Transgender Children Say They’re Thriving. They Want to Help Others Do the Same.
Chazzie, center, watched Gia and Nicole put on makeup before heading outside to explore New York City. They are involved with the GenderCool Project, which seeks to highlight positive stories about transgender children. Credit Yana Paskova for The New York Times
Chazzie is 11 years old. She has long, wavy hair and large, expressive eyes. She listens to Demi Lovato and Ariana Grande. She really likes playing Monopoly.
Chazzie was also assigned male at birth. But that, she says, isn’t what’s important.
“People just, like, see me as a girl,” she said.
On Sunday, Chazzie and five other transgender children and teenagers from across the country hung out in an elegant prewar apartment on the Upper West Side, ahead of their Tuesday appearance on NBC’s “Megyn Kelly Today.”
For some, it would be their news media debut. Others have fought for transgender rights in their home states and were well acquainted with the press. But all had the same hope: to shift the conversation about transgender youth from one that dwells on bullying, suicide and murder, to one that focuses on positivity, through an online campaign called the GenderCool Project.
The organization was co-founded by Chazzie’s mother, Jen Grosshandler, who left a decades-long career in public relations and marketing about 18 months ago after working for some of the biggest brands in the world.
Chazzie was born into an “uber masculine” household, Ms. Grosshandler said, with three older brothers. But from the time she was a toddler, she was drawn to toys and games traditionally associated with girls. When Chazzie was around 4 years old, she walked down the staircase with a white Hanes T-shirt wrapped on top of her head.
Chazzie said: “Mom, Dad look at me — isn’t my hair awesome? Isn’t it fabulous? I want long hair,” Ms. Grosshandler recalled.
Years later, Chazzie cried while getting ready for school, and asked: “Mom, what happens if I’m a girl? Because I really believe I am a girl. What will happen to me? Will you love me? Will Dad love me? Will my brothers love me?”
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“That was a huge moment for us,” Ms. Grosshandler said. She eventually left her consulting practice to focus on advocacy.
Soon after, she created the GenderCool Project with Gearah Goldstein, a transgender woman who trains people on how to create gender-inclusive environments.
“Our mission is to just get rid of the stigmas and just live our lives,” said Nicole, one of the participants. “And that’s what everybody else is doing. So my question to the world is: ‘Why can’t we? Why should we not?’”
Landon, left, and Chazzie, who wiped away a tear while describing how she hoped that the GenderCool Project would help other children feel less alone. Credit Yana Paskova for The New York Times
Meet the ‘champions’
The project seeks to humanize members of a minority group who are increasingly visible but who find their gender identity at times overshadowing everything else about them.
“I think it’s pretty unique,” said Debi Jackson, a family organizer at the National Center for Transgender Equality. There are a lot of websites that explain how to navigate a child’s transition, she said, but they aren’t focused on celebrating the kid you have.
Being “gender cool” is about being “cool with whomever anyone else is,” Ms. Grosshandler said. She calls the participants champions. And their stories are aspirational rather than full of adversity.
Gia, 14, is one of her school’s top field hockey players and a straight-A student. Nicole, 16, is an actress with perfectly manicured nails who hopes to appear on Broadway one day. Stella, 13, lobbies politicians for protections for trans students. Landon, 15, is an accomplished trumpet player and artist whose latest work explores “how society puts down men and boys for being feminine.” Daniel, 12, is a photographer. (Their last names and hometowns are being withheld to protect their privacy.)
On Sunday, they sat side by side, laughing and chatting as if they had known one another for years, even though their first meeting in person was only a day earlier. Later, a spirited game of Never Have I Ever (“Never have I ever been to Sephora!” “Never have I ever legally changed my name!”) was followed by a snowball fight in Central Park. Together, they were buoyant.
“We’re all diamonds. Being trans is just one face, one edge of the diamond,” Landon said. “But there is so much else that makes us diamonds. It’s not just a single sliver.”
From left, Landon, Gia and Nicole ate lunch and played “Never Have I Ever” with the group. Credit Yana Paskova for The New York Times
‘I just want to show other people that they’re not alone’
When Gia first transitioned, she was nervous. She had heard only negative stories about transgender people.
“I was confused, honestly,” she said. “Should I really transition? Like, what’s going to come of this?”
Once she did, her fears subsided. “I haven’t had a single person make fun of me.”
That wasn’t everyone’s experience. Stella was bullied, and Nicole said she hadn’t seen her father in four years because he does not approve of her gender identity.
“But I had a very supportive family, except for him,” Nicole said. “I had a very supportive school.”
She and the other participants said they hoped to make the world a less lonely place.
“When other kids see this, they can be like: ‘Oh my God, I’m like that. I’m like that girl,’” Chazzie said, wiping tears from her eyes. “I just want to show other people that they’re not alone.”
Presenting a different narrative
An estimated 150,000 people ages 13 to 17 in the United States identify as transgender, according to a January 2017 report by the Williams Institute at the U.C.L.A. School of Law, which researches law and public policy on gender identity and sexual orientation.
Nicole paused to fix one of her nails. Credit Yana Paskova for The New York Times
In December, a Williams Institute study of gender nonconforming youths in California found that they were more than twice as likely as their gender conforming peers to have experienced psychological distress. The 2015 National School Climate Survey found that transgender students experienced more hostility than others. And four out of 10 transgender adults report having attempted suicide, according to a 2017 study by Human Rights Campaign and the Trans People of Color Coalition, the majority having done so before age 25.
The outlook for transgender youth often improves, however, when they say they feel supported.
According to the group Trans Student Educational Resources, those with supportive parents were much more likely to have high self-esteem and less likely to suffer from depression.
“I see these kids thriving all the time,” said Stella’s mother, Lisa. “It’s not newsworthy because it’s not tragic or sensationalized.”
It’s important to highlight the difficulties faced by trans people, she said. “But it’s also equally important to show how extraordinary these kids are.”
A campaign aimed at ‘folks in every town’
Ms. Grosshandler and Ms. Goldstein have rolled their campaign out strategically.
They introduced it in February because at this time last year, President Trump rescinded protections for transgender students that had allowed them to use bathrooms corresponding with their gender identity.
And they appeared on “Megyn Kelly Today” because her program appeals to different groups, Ms. Grosshandler said, including “many people who have never met a young transgender child.”
Ms. Kelly, a former Fox News host, wasn’t necessarily an obvious choice. But “we felt so strongly that we wanted to talk to folks in every town, in every community,” Ms. Grosshandler said.
The GenderCool Project is a call to action, Ms. Goldstein said. “What are you doing for the community? How are you using voices, how are you telling stories, how are you being inclusive?” As a transgender adult, she added, “I wish I had some positive messaging around when I was growing up.”