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BY AJ TRAGER
FARMINGTON HILLS – Hunter Keith is not your average 16-year-old. The 11th grade high school student attends Frankel Jewish Academy in West Bloomfield and spends a great deal of time educating, advocating and conducting outreach for trans activism in southeastern Michigan — all while wearing T-shirts and ballcaps.
His parents met close to 30 years ago. His mother, Roz, grew up in Michigan and spent some time living in New York until she, with her husband, moved to New Jersey. In 2000, one year after Hunter was born, they moved to Metro Detroit.
Hunter enjoys his small high school of 200 people and has grown up with the same 50-person graduating class for most of his school career. He reports that even though he is openly out with his classmates and the school, he has not received any instances of bullying, harassment or hate speech within the school campus.
“They’re like my family. It’s a really accepting environment,” Hunter said. “It’s cool because you know everyone and then you can also get really close with the teachers because they know everyone, even if they’ve never had them as a student. It’s an atmosphere where if a student is uncomfortable with one teacher, they can come to another teacher that they trust and talk about that and see if something can be changed.”
The school has an inactive Gay Straight Alliance, according to Hunter, who would like to see an organized GSA group with a more direct objective and would even like to serve as the president of the student organization in this upcoming school year.
In middle school, Hunter had begun dressing himself in items from the boys’ clothing department and asked his parents if he could get a shorter haircut. A boy’s haircut.
Roz remembers asking Hunter when they had returned home from shopping one day, “‘This is all very masculine. Is that the look you’re going for?’ I just didn’t get it,” Roz said. “It’s not like it never crossed my mind. I know a lot of trans guys who start out saying to their parents, ‘Oh, I’m a lesbian.’ And I think part of that is confusion and part of it is they feel like that’s an easy way to pave the way. But I never went there.”
For as long as he can remember, Hunter knew he was different. He first heard the term “transgender” in fifth grade when it hit him. “Yeah, that’s what’s wrong. That’s why I feel different,” Hunter said.
Over the next few years he did extensive research and kept it at the back of his mind, until one day when he couldn’t anymore. That is when he came out to a few friends and became more and more sure.
Hunter came out to his closest friends in seventh grade, his parents in eighth grade and then came out publicly on Facebook in ninth grade.
“I found it a bit awkward. It’s an uncomfortable conversation. I knew what I was talking about. I had been researching and researching but my mom hadn’t been — because she wouldn’t have known to. I had to explain what everything was instead of just a short and simple, ‘I’m transgender,'” Hunter said about coming out to his parents.
Roz and her husband never separated the toys into “boys’ toys” and “girls’ toys” and tried very hard to maintain an honest, inclusive and open environment for the family. Hunter and his sister could play with whatever toy caught their fancy for that day, and Hunter said that he had a lot of support growing up.
Before he came out as trans, Hunter was really anxious all the time. Looking back, the best way he could describe it was “angry.” But after he became comfortable with himself, things got better. He feels he has undergone a complete shift in mental health and is significantly happier.
“I think with kids that — even if they feel like their identity is different early on — once they start going through puberty, it’s like such a big turning point and trigger because now their body is betraying who they feel they really are,” Roz said. “I think it’s great now with all this awareness that kids can be so open and aware and parents more educated. Because if kids are insisting at an early age, at least they can block the puberty and buy some time so they don’t have to suffer the consequences of going through a puberty that they don’t want. That causes a lot of depression and anxiety.”
Hunter and Roz thank social media for opening up the conversation and bringing awareness of trans identities and trans issues to the lap of thousands of people, as well as providing a space for trans people to interact and find a sense of community.
“Another thing that is cool about social media is a few years ago trans kids would come out not knowing any other trans kids and they would be alone,” Hunter said. “But now I know so many trans people I have met through social media and who have seen something that we’re doing and have come forward to ask for help. So it connects the community.”
“When Hunter came out two and a half years ago, there wasn’t stuff coming across my news feed, there weren’t shows on transgender kids or adults. There might’ve been a random interview by Katie Couric asking someone about what’s in their pants and if they’ve had surgery. But it’s so different now, and that’s the upside to digital media and getting information out there quickly and easily to lots and lots of people,” Roz said.
Stand With Trans
Stand with Trans is a nonprofit organization that was designed as a way to formalize support and to create programming that would empower trans youth and help them feel validated so that they could transition and live authentically. The group was started in February 2015 by Roz and members of Ally Moms, a group of mothers of trans children that stretches across the U.S., Canada and Australia that aims to help youth at all stages along their transition. The group began as a reaction to the death of Leelah Alcorn, a 17-year-old trans girl from Ohio who committed suicide after continuous rejection from her parents.
Many of the moms wanted to show trans youth that they weren’t alone, and that even if they weren’t getting the support and understanding at home, there were moms out there that cared.
Stand With Trans has organized a one-day Youth Empowerment Workshop for Oct. 18 at Affirmations that will include multiple sessions on how to create a community and will provide a space for youth to network, make connections and feel good about who they are.
In coming months, Stand With Trans will seek to add structure to Ally Moms and will integrate an application process, background check and training for all members. Roz hopes that by late fall there will be a training webinar available for moms all around the country that will focus on how to be a good listener, how to determine if there’s a crisis situation and how to set good boundaries.