Jasmyn Morris (JM): Over the last 11 episodes, we’ve been sharing LGBTQ voices… and we’ve heard lots of stories from elders.
But, for our very last episode of the season, we wanted to look ahead… and hear what the next generation has to say.
It’s the StoryCorps podcast from NPR. I’m Jasmyn Morris.
For many kids, the advice to just be yourself can be pretty scary… and so we’re going to hear from two families helping their transgender kids to do just that.
Although assigned female at birth, Gabe López always knew he was a boy. And when he was 8 years old, Gabe came to StoryCorps with his mom, Chris, to talk about how a weekend at a camp for trans kids transformed his life.
Chris López (CL): Do you remember when things really changed for you?
Gabe López (GL): We went to a camp. And I met three best friends — Luke, Brock, and Cooper. They were all transgender like me, so they all wanted to be boys. Brock taught me how to pee standing up.
CL: [laughs] And that was huge for you, right?
GL: Yeah. That’s why I say we’re bros. We know each other.
CL: Do you ever get scared about what it’s going to be like to grow up transgender?
GL: I’ve been wondering if when I’m older, a lot of people will try to hurt me or something … or …
CL: Like if they find out you were born a girl and they have a problem with it?
CL: You think they might try to hurt you in some way?
CL: Were you ever worried about telling me that you were transgender?
CL: Did you ever try to tell me and then change your mind?
CL: How many times do you think?
GL: I think like, four times.
CL: Four times?
GL: I was worried that you liked me as a girl.
CL: Because we used to have a lot of fun?
CL: Do we still have fun?
CL: So it doesn’t really matter if you’re a boy or a girl, right?
CL: I didn’t know that you were dealing with that on your own. If I’d known I would have tried a little bit harder to have that conversation with you, and maybe start it myself.
GL: Um, do you worry about me?
CL: I worry about how other people might treat you. And it makes me upset to think about what you might have to go through. You amaze me every day. And you can tell me anything, anytime, anywhere, and it won’t change how much I love you. I’ll always have your back.
GL: Thank you, mom.
JM: Next, we’ll hear from Kaysen Ford, who first came to StoryCorps with their mother, Jennifer Sumner, back in 2015.
Kaysen was 12 years old at the time, and living in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.
Jennifer Sumner (JS): Tell us a little bit about yourself.
Kaysen Ford (KF): I am a martial artist, I play the stand up bass, I am learning how to play the guitar, and I am transgender.
JS: What level are you in martial arts?
KF: I’m a level two blue belt. That means I’m halfway to black belt.
JS: What grade level were you in school when you decided to tell your friends and family that you were transgender?
KF: It was around fifth grade because up until then, I did not know that the word existed.
I think the happiest moment in my life would probably be January 16th, 2015, 8:45pm. You bought me boxer pants.
JS: You’d been telling me for quite a while that you wanted boxers. And you were just ecstatic.
KF: That was awesome.
JS: I have been extremely proud of you because you have been true to who you are. And you’re very courageous.
KF: It shouldn’t be scary to be who you are. I mean, maybe a little bit at first. But it’s way happier this way. Trust me.
JS: I don’t think you realize what a leader you are. People look up to you because you are not afraid to take a different path. And we know that it’s your life and you’re the one that’s got to live it, but we are there for you every single step of the way. And we’re going to do whatever we can to lighten your load. I’m very proud to be your mom.
KF: I’m proud to be your son.
KF: So my name is Kaysen, I’m 16 and it’s been four years since I recorded with my mom. I remember talking about taekwondo and I remember my mom crying.
JM: [Laughs] Yeah, in your original interview, your mom asked you to describe yourself. You did say that you were a martial artist. Are you still a martial artist?
KF: I am not. They got kind of upset when I came out as trans. And so they wouldn’t let me use the bathroom. And it was kind of insulting because I knew most of the instructors pretty well and they had, like, a meeting on whether I could use the bathroom and they voted. It did not feel good by any means.
JM: Kaysen now spends time at a community space called the Magic City Acceptance Center, where they help lead conversations and give tours.
JM: In your interview with your mom, she called you a great leader at 12. So you’re still a leader?
KF: I try to be. I just try to greet new people. I’m like, “Hi, I’ll be your friend.” Because it’s hard when you get there the first time. There’s not many LGBTQ spaces in the South, especially in Alabama. And so no one’s really experienced it before. We all kind of teach each other, just kind of by being there.
JM: So what are you proudest of these days?
KF: I’m honestly pretty proud of myself. I just hope to keep growing as a person and to not stop learning things. And like, be the best person I can.
That’s good advice, from 16-year-old Kaysen Ford.
We’ll hear from more LGBTQ teens after this short break. Stay with us.
JM: If you’ve been listening all season, you know we’ve been asking you to record conversations with elders on the StoryCorps app, as part of our effort called Stonewall OutLoud.
Well, for the rest of this episode, we asked LGBTQ youth who go to that same community center that Kaysen does in Birmingham, Alabama to listen to a couple stories… and then have their say on the StoryCorps app.
The first story they heard… is a kind of complicated love story.
In 1977, Bayard Rustin met Walter Naegle. They fell in love, and were together for many years.
This was way before marriage for same-sex couples was a reality. So as Bayard was getting older, they decided to formalize their relationship the only way they could – Bayard adopted Walter.
Here, Walter tells his niece, Ericka, what it was like to fall in love with Bayard – and about the unconventional choice they made to protect their relationship.
Walter Naegle (WN): The day that I met Bayard I was actually on my way to Times Square. We were on the same corner waiting for the light to change. We looked at each other and lightning struck. He was my partner, my life partner for ten years.
Ericka Naegle (EN): So how did adoption first come up?
WN: Well I think because of our age difference it was just assumed if we live out our natural life spans he was going to die before I did, and he was concerned about protecting my rights because gay people had no protection. At that time marriage between a same sex couple was inconceivable. And so he adopted me, legally adopted me in 1982. That was the only thing we could do to kind of legalize our relationship. So we actually had to go through a process as if Bayard was adopting a small child. My biological mother had to sign a legal paper, a paper disowning me. They had to send a social worker to our home. When the social worker arrived, she had to sit down with us to talk to us to make sure that this was a fit home. But, you know we did what we did because we loved each other and because we were happy together.
EN: So when Bayard did pass away what was that like?
WN: I think I miss his being, his essence. He had wonderful hands. He used his hands when he was talking to people, and he could make you feel like you were the most important person in the world. And so the idea of walking around the city streets, and never having him come around a corner… I think I miss that the most. After he died, I remember calling people. I remember calling people, and instead of saying, “I’ve lost Bayard,” I would say, “We’ve lost Bayard.” It wasn’t just about me. It was a loss to the society.
JM: That’s Walter Naegle remembering his partner, Bayard Rustin, who was a big deal in the civil rights movement, but he was often kept behind the scenes… because he was gay.
Sophie: My name is Sophie. I’m 17 years old. I’m in Birmingham, Alabama, and I’m speaking with my good friend Skyler.
Skylar: My name is Skylar. I’m 17 years old and I’m speaking with my friend Sophie.
Skylar: I liked when Walter described Bayard. He sort of like glowed through the recording.
Sophie: What surprised you about this story?
Skylar: The adoption part surprised me a lot. I’ve never really heard of anything… like this story happening before.
Sophie: Mmhm. It was like, okay, you’re gay, you found someone that you’re in love with, like, find whatever way you can be together.
Sophie: What do you think the message of this story is?
Skylar: You do what you gotta do. [giggles]
Sophie: The LGBTQ community today has a lot more rights than we used to, but it makes us think about where we came from and the fact that they started it for us.
JM: One thing that hasn’t changed – for many LGBTQ kids – is how rough childhood and those teenage years can be.
And so next, we’ll hear from Darnell Moore. He grew up in Camden, New Jersey in the late 1980s. And in those days, when he was a teenager… he didn’t yet know he was gay, but he did know he was an outcast.
At StoryCorps, Darnell sat down with his friend, Bryan Epps, to remember that time in his life.
And just a warning, this conversation includes strong language.
Darnell Moore (DM): At thirteen, I was a nerd. I took such great pride at wearing dress pants and button up shirts, unfortunate white socks like I was a preacher. And my grandmother would send us to the store, and I hated going to the store because I know somebody between my grandmama’s house and the store would be somebody wanting to pick on me for some reason.
So, at the time, I was coming from the store. It was broad daylight, and I see a group of boys walking towards me and I, I knew something was going to happen. As they approached me they called me names faggot, sissy, and they had a milk carton. I didn’t know what it was filled with, but it spilled a bit. And, uh, it was gasoline. My next-door neighbor was one of the young men. And he emptied the gasoline on me. I recall him attempting to light a match and it just wouldn’t light. That happened three times. And by the time he tried to light the match again my aunt had came outside.
I just remember my aunt dragging me to the local hospital with gasoline in my eyes. And I smelled like that for twenty-four hours.
I was never really angry. I just was embarrassed. You know, I was picked on in front of teachers, in front of adults on streets, so I was used to it. And I don’t know why it took me until adulthood to actually get in my head that that was literally somebody trying to end my life.
Brian Epps (BE): Do you know where they are now?
DM: I don’t. Actually I tried to search for the one neighbor who poured the gasoline on me. And it’s so funny, you know, in recalling the story, even while the other guys were punching me, I was only focused on him because I think I’ve always wanted his friendship. I just never imagined that a kid that knows your name, who lives in the same neighborhood as you… would want to do something like that.
I wish I could have asked, “Why would you want to light me on fire?” What did I do to him to make him want to do that?
JM: After friends, 17-year-old Elliot and 13-year-old Emily, listened to Darnell’s story, they had a few thoughts.
Elliot: I remember being in my school and just feeling kind of like nobody knew much about me, but they already had their assumptions of me. It can be very… odd when somebody else has already come to the conclusion that you are gay. And then suddenly you’re like, ”But maybe I am.”
Emily: ”You mean I am this bad thing that people have been telling me I am!” [laughing]
Elliot: Yeah. Have you experienced bullying?
Emily: I did have a person who was my friend for years. Once I came out to her, she told me I was going to go to hell, and then just stopped talking to me altogether.
Emily: It, it really hurt me because she was my best friend at the time and I trusted her.
Elliot: Nowadays, it feels like kids wouldn’t do something like this. But, I’m sure there may be a story that comes across one day very similar to Darnell’s. And, we’ll all be like, ”Well we thought the problem was gone.” But, it can happen.
JM: And, as we know, violence does still happen. One of the deadliest mass shootings in modern U.S. history took place just three years ago at Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida.
That night, a gunman opened fire, killing 49 people.
So, this leads us to our next conversation that was recorded just a few days after that shooting.
Joel Tucker and his friend Gordon Blake used to hang out at a gay-friendly bar called the Backstreet Cafe in Roanoke, Virginia. And as Joel told Gordon at StoryCorps, he was there one night in 2000, when a man entered the bar with a 9mm gun.
Joel Tucker (JT): I was with my then partner, just got off of work. My back was to the door. And this guy walks in with a trench coat. He bought a beer, and he sat down at a table behind us. He saw two friends of mine and one of them was Danny Overstreet. He pulled a 9mm out of his coat and just started shooting.
Danny was killed. And I reached behind my back because I felt a stinging and there was blood all over my hand.
They took me to the hospital. And I was not out at all, with anyone. The newspaper called in my room and I was so paranoid and scared that I said something that I wish I would’ve never said, and that was that I was not gay and I was straight and I was there with my girlfriend.
They put my address in the paper and I was so afraid that I would be washing my dishes, it was a wooded area out from my kitchen — I thought, “Oh my God, someone is going to shoot me through the window because they knew exactly where I live.”
I went back to work on Monday with the bullet still in my back. And even at work I wasn’t out. So I really didn’t think that they would want me back, but they really helped me get through the process.
Gordon Blake (GB): So where were you when you found out about the shooting in Orlando?
JT: I caught it on the TV on the morning that it happened. And everything that happened to me completely flooded back.
My heart went out to those people so badly. When I think about all these people that are dead because of them just enjoying their life. And I think about all those people that are laying in those hospitals and suffering. You have got to be strong. Don’t let something like this ruin your life because it could’ve ruined mine.
GB: I’ve known you for a long time, Joel, and I know it’s difficult for you to share. But this was one person who hated. And I have seen hundreds of people who love. And I think love wins.
JM: 18-year-old Rae and 17-year-old Gabby sat down together to listen to Joel’s story about the Backstreet Cafe shooting, which they’d never heard of before. But they did have memories of Pulse.
Rae: That was about the time I came out to my mom. And I remember her waking me up and saying, like, there was a shooting at a gay nightclub. And I feel like… she was scared that I was in this community that so many people had very strong opinions about, and she didn’t want me to be in harm’s way. I mean I think that’s a lot of the reasons why she hasn’t openly supported me going to Pride is because she’s afraid that since we are living in the Deep South, that there will be people who have very opposite viewpoints… on our community.
Gabby: There’s always that risk that someone’s going to try to hurt me, but no matter what risk I’m going to be put at, I’m still going to love who I love, and I’m going to love them unconditionally, and no one’s going to stop me.
Rae: Is there anything you’d want to say to Joel if you were able to?
Gabby: I’m very proud of you for being who you are. Because that’s what we need…to see people who are going to be who they are no matter what. You just need to be you and be you unashamedly.
JM: Speaking of being who you are, we wanted to leave you with one last conversation between a mother and her grown son, who came out to her in the 1980s.
And just a heads up, they drop some f-bombs.
Rita Fischer (RF): When you called and came out it was quite a shock. I had no inkling–none whatsoever. You tell me you’re gay, and I said, ”Listen. Give me a half hour to come to myself, and I’ll call you back.” And so I did call back and I said, ”This is not telephone discussion. I think you best come speak with dad and I. But don’t worry we’re going to love you the same way.”
Jay Fischer (JF): When you talked about not knowing about me being gay, I mean, I consider you a lot of things but dumb isn’t one of them, and I had left so many clues.
RF: I don’t know what clues you’re talking about.
JF: I had somebody over for three times a week for five years.
RF: In my house?
JF: In your house. I had a fuck buddy.
RF: That’s what you call them? Fuck buddies?
JF: [Laughs] Well I can call them a lot of things. But…
RF: [Laughs] I don’t know what you call them, but I didn’t know, and that’s all. I would not be so dumb now. I have what they call gaydar.
JF: God bless.
RF: I can pick them up in a minute.
And the very high point for me was when you, Jay, and Michael had your commitment ceremony.
RF: Dad and I were celebrating our 50th wedding anniversary. And you suggested that we make it a joint celebration. And when dad and I walked you down that aisle. I was so overwhelmed that I thought I was going to drop dead from a heart attack. It was one of my bursting moments of pride.
JF: I consider you a blessing to both me and Michael. And that’s as best as I can put it.
RF: I think straight parents should be involved with their gay children. I told everybody and anybody who would listen to me, that I had a gay son and that I was very proud of my gay son.
JM: That’s Rita Fischer with her son, Jay.
Rita – now 95 years old – has walked in New York’s AIDS Walk since 1986, and has raised more than $800,000 in that time.
That’s all for this episode, and for this season of the StoryCorps podcast. We will return to your podcast feed in the fall with a new season and a new theme. Until then, you can find StoryCorps on NPR’s Morning Edition every Friday.
This episode was produced by Afi Yellow-Duke and me. Our engineer is Jarrett Floyd. Our fact-checker is Natsumi Ajisaka. Special thanks to producers Jud Esty-Kendall, Nadia Reiman, Von Diaz, Mia Warren, Kerrie Hillman, StoryCorps facilitators Christina Stanton, John White, Emily Janssen, Camila Kerwin, and everyone at the Magic City Acceptance Center.
We also want to take a moment to thank Cass Adair and Laurie Essig for their help with scripts this season. To Patrick Wolf for our theme song, and to Michael Caines for creating artwork based on the stories you heard throughout the last 12 episodes. You can check it out at StoryCorps-dot-org.
For the StoryCorps podcast, I’m Jasmyn Morris. Until next season, thanks for listening.