Michelle and her daughter M.J. sit in a coffee shop in a Wyoming strip mall, just over the border from their small town in Colorado. M.J., an eighth-grader, shyly sips her iced mocha and speaks with the "likes" endemic to junior-high hallways. Michelle talks with a calm and slightly tired maternal presence. She and M.J. take turns explaining how they learned to remake the boundaries of their own hometown.
M.J. was born a boy, Michelle explains, but as M.J. grew up, she made it clear to Michelle that she didn't feel like one. "I knew something was going on at age two," Michelle says. "But I couldn't accept it at the time. So I put a lot of time into changing her or suppressing her." But M.J. didn't change, and she continued to insist on wearing skirts and dresses and play with "girl typical" toys. In sixth grade, the school counselor called Michelle to tell her that the other kids were teasing M.J. and that it was only getting worse. "They were concerned because she was being open about who she was. The way she acted, the way she dressed," Michelle explains. That's when she knew that it wasn't a phase, and it wasn't a "problem." This was who M.J. was.
In Loveland, Colorado--population 61,000, 92 percent white and heavily evangelical Christian--Michelle didn't know what to expect when she began to work with the school to facilitate her daughter's transition from a boy to a girl. At first, it was difficult. The school "freaked out when I told them," Michelle says. "When we started with M.J.'s transition, I was envisioning riots." And so Michelle became an advocate for transgender people--those who identify as a gender different from the one assigned at birth. Michelle organized trainings for the faculty and staff and prepared "cheat sheets" in case any of their students asked prying questions.
But on the first day of school, nothing happened. No flood of calls, no angry protests, and no bullying. Michelle was "happy and shocked" that M.J.'s classmates seemed to get it. When one student made a mocking comment to another using M.J.'s former name, one eighth-grade boy dismissed him with a simple insight. "That person doesn't even exist anymore," he said. "You're talking about somebody who's imaginary."
Given the spate of television and media coverage on transgender youth--from dedicated episodes of Oprah and 20/20 to a cover story in Newsweek--this might not seem remarkable. But just eight years ago, a school just like M.J.'s, a junior high in a relatively small town, had to be forced by judicial order to allow a trans student to come dressed in her chosen gender. And that school wasn't in Mississippi or in rural Kansas. It was in Massachusetts, the state that only four years later legalized marriage for same-sex couples. A state thought of by many as one of the most progressive in the country when it comes to gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender rights.
Many would view the politically red heart of the country as a harsh, unwelcoming, and vaguely dangerous place for the transgender community. When we think of states like Nebraska and Wyoming, we don't think of M.J.--we think of people like Brandon Teena and Matthew Shepard, both killed in vicious, nationally publicized hate crimes. But the truth of the matter is far more interesting, inspiring, and instructive. Away from the coasts and the urban havens, a vibrant transgender-rights movement is slowly emerging across the mountain and plains states. Through increased visibility, community building, legislative outreach, and face-to-face public education in churches, schools, and neighborhoods, trans people are building a foundation for equality in some of the nation's most conservative regions.
The most compelling thing about this burgeoning grassroots movement, however, is not that its outposts are unexpected, but that its activist strategies are so familiar. More than anything, dispatches from the movement for trans equality only confirm the enduring power of marginalized groups to organize themselves and transform their own political landscape. …