One might think the odds would be against finding a progressive-leaning podcast in conservative Livingston County. Add to that the fact that two of the three co-hosts are trans, and the odds might go higher than even Las Vegas bookies could calculate.
And yet, The Stir podcast defies those odds, recording every other week in a home near Howell. Co-hosted by Kasey Helton, a cis woman, along with Jace Arledge, a trans man, and Ella Nikitin, a trans woman, the show seeks to highlight local issues and people that aren’t often given a platform in rural mid-Michigan.
Recent shows have included discussions on racist and homophobic graffiti left in a school parking lot in Brighton, content-neutral policies in Fowlerville Community Schools and an interview with a founding member of the advocacy organization Stand Against Extremism LivCo (SAGE).
For those who might question if there’s an audience for a progressive podcast in a very red Republican county, Helton, a 46-year-old who works in the healthcare field, adamantly says there is, and insists it has been neglected for too long.
“I think that is a descriptor that is very much in flux right now,” she said. “We have the city of Howell and the city of Brighton. Both went for [Democrats] Elissa Slotkin and Gretchen Whitmer. It's definitely a slow progression where we are going from the red meat county that it's been ever since I moved here in the ‘80s, to a more pinky purple. So that to me is a major reason why I wanted to do this podcast.” She added that they also seek moderate and independent viewpoints for conversations.
Helton has made her own headlines as a progressive provocateur who was reported to the Livingston County Sheriff’s Office by a local nurse who Helton wrote about on social media for spreading misinformation about Covid during the pandemic (no charges were filed by prosecutors). Still, she knew she didn’t want to do the podcast alone.
“I felt like a partner is really important to have and I got very lucky because I got two partners and I wasn't expecting that,” she said.
Arledge, a 57-year-old school bus driver from Fowlerville, says he and Helton hit it off when they met at a Pride event in Howell in 2021, where she was volunteering at the Free Mom Hugs booth. Helton says she instantly knew Arledge had to be a part of the podcast.
“I have been following Jace on TikTok because Jace's a big talker,” she said, laughing. “But Jace has a gift for looking at things from a spiritual perspective, but also as part of his experience as a trans man.”
Helton said a mutual friend then suggested they also bring on Nikitin, a 22-year-old IT professional from Hartland. With the lineup set, Helton said she was excited at the opportunity to help present the trans experience to people from firsthand voices.
“That was really important because there's been a lot of vicious and personal attacks of LGBTQ people out in this community,” she said. “And there's a lot of reasons for that that have nothing to do with who Ella and Jace or anyone in this community actually is.”
Arledge says the representation that he and Nikitin provide for the trans community is important in an area that doesn’t have a lot of that experience.
“For the middle of the road person, if they watch The Stir, they're going to say, ‘Wow, you know, this isn't what I expected with trans people. I expected this weird stuff.’ I'm not going to say that all trans people are like us, because we're all different. But at least it gives us that platform. I've said this for years: If I don't like you, it's not because of your color, your race, or your creed. It's because you're an asshole,” he said, laughing.
Arledge added that the only measure that anyone should ever be judged by is their behavior, yet his experience has been that many people refuse to do that.
“I've been called a pedophile in Fowlerville, and I've been fighting all that because I'm trans,” he said. “It has nothing to do with anything else. They have nothing else on me, but ‘You’re a pedophile.’”
In fact, Arledge is a married father of five who said that even though he only came out and transitioned four years ago, he’s known since he was 4 years old that he was different.
“I have an older brother and, you know, kids back when they're younger, they all look the same except for the down parts,” he said. “I figured by the time I hit a certain age, I’ll have one of those too, but it never happened. So, I played the role that I was supposed to play.”
He refers to the time before he came out as trans as his pre-self, and isn’t at all bothered by references to that part of his life.
“This shows you how different trans people are,” he said. “I don't consider it my deadname because that person is still alive. It's just transitioned. It's like a butterfly. I mean, I was well-known. I've sung all over the state, but I did that a lot as a mechanism to hide. It was sort of hiding in plain sight, I guess.”
Nikitin, who came out just last year, has a somewhat different story to tell.
“I have autism. I used to be like, ‘I don't want to tell people about that.’ Now, I'm like, ‘Yeah, I have autism.’ I'm going to tell you about it. And obviously I'm trans as well. I always knew I had autism. I was diagnosed when I was 3. So I knew I was different, but that was just because I have autism. Well, it turns out that there was a little bit more to the story than that. It wasn't the end all be all. Turns out that I’m trans. So that's fun,” she said, smiling.
Regardless, Arledge says The Stir is not a podcast that focuses on trans issues.
“They think that all we're going to be talking about is trans issues, and that's not it,” he said. “That's not what this podcast is.”
To emphasize that point, Nikitin noted that she recently filed paperwork to run for the Livingston County Board of Commissioners.
“My campaign is not about trans issues,” she said. “That's not why I'm running for county commissioner. It’s about public transportation. Have you ever tried walking down M-59? It is not pleasant. There are cars speeding past you. The sidewalk ends randomly, and it's not safe.”
Despite that, Nikitin knows many will just assume that because she is trans, she’s running solely to elevate trans issues.
“Probably a lot of people are going to think that, and honestly it’s at the bottom of my list, because that's not a county issue,” she said. “It might be a school board kind of issue. Sure. Maybe a state or a federal issue? Sure. But I don't see it being a county issue at all.”
But for Helton, there is a presumption that trans folks only care about, or are qualified to discuss, trans issues. She hopes The Stir will change that.
“I don't look at Ella or Jace as trans,” she said. “To me, Jace is a man, Ella is a woman. And I'm a straight cis woman. But I don't see why this is such difficult math for some people. It’s really not that hard to, once you get to know people, just respect them.”