Representing Transgender Kids Is Both Empowering And Annoying For This Kansas City Girl

May 2, 2017

Transgender people have been in the news a lot in the last couple of years.

Think Caitlyn Jenner, who continues to make headlines.

Think the many states currently debating so-called “bathroom bills,” which regulate what bathroom transgender people can use.

All the visibility has been a mixed bag for one local family.

At age three, Debi and Tom Jackson's little boy began wanting to wear only sparkly shoes and shop for clothes in the girls department.

In 2015, they posted a YouTube video of their 7-year-old daughter Avery.

Debi and Tom Jackson's address was publicized and they have had hate groups post violent messages on their social media.
Credit Laura Ziegler / KCUR 89.3

In the video, Avery tells the story of her life until then; how she knew she was a girl in a boy's body but was scared to tell anyone, even her parents.

The family hoped sharing Avery’s journey would give other families an idea of what to expect if they had a transgender child.

When I talked to Debi in 2015, she explained it wasn’t just the dressing up. She said Avery's whole temperament changed, she got withdrawn. She stopped smiling.

“Then she got to the point where she directly told us, you think I’m a boy but I’m a girl inside,” Debi says.

Avery’s parents always gave Avery the choice to speak out or be anonymous, although they did try and keep her name out of the press at first.

Not anymore.

I recently stopped by their home, where Avery and her ten-year-old brother Anson are home-schooled. This afternoon, they were sitting at side-by-side laptops and talking back to their respective video games.

With newly-dyed pink, purple and blue hair tumbling down her back, Avery acts like any nine-year-old girl whose big brother bugs her.

"Stop hitting me," she whines. Her brother lobs an arm over her way.

Things have changed a lot for the Jackson family since the beginning of the year. In January, Avery was featured on the cover of a National Geographic issue about gender. There’s been a tsunami of publicity since then, including requests for interviews from around the world. While the family is proud of Avery, she sometimes gets sick of answering questions.  Sometimes she feels reporters are annoying.

"My mom told me you were just coming talk to her. This is the thing they always do," she says.  "I’m the one who always gets the question. I’m not interesting! All I do is sit at a computer animating and playing games."

Avery and her family were out front with their experience early, long before the magazine hit the stands.

It wasn’t easy then. They were kicked out of their conservative Christian church and home-schooling community. They lost friends and family. Tom is a chiropractor. He lost almost half his patients.

But Tom says it's different today.

"It's gotten worse," he says, "because of the political climate."

Hate groups have posted nasty, violent messages on their social media. They’ve been told they’re not fit to raise children.

Jackson says he’s most scared of someone doing harm to Avery or his family.

"When we’re out in public, I literally look ten feet in every direction," Jackson says. "And we’ve been out in public before where someone will walk up to us and say 'I know who you are.' And you have that moment of panic and fear, and they’re like ‘I absolutely love you, you guys are great.’”

Debi says she’s encouraged that most people have been supportive, have thanked the family for sharing their story, even for averting a suicide.

Studies show some 40 percent of transgender people will attempt suicide at some point in their life.

But she still wonders if the visibility is worth it.

"There’s a small percentage of me that says take it all away," she says. "I wish people didn’t know our names, never heard of us. I wish we could go about our daily lives and never think about these things."

But Debi continues to speak out.

She recently was the keynote speaker at a conference for Planned Parenthood Great Plains.  For the umpteenth time she recounted the journey from the very beginning, when she and Tom brought a little boy home from the hospital. She shows pictures, making sure to acknowledge she'd gotten permission from Avery.

There were workshops at the conference on health care gaps for the transgender community and violence against transgender people.

There were young people and older transgender professionals sharing resources and advice.

Carmen Xavier was one of them.

In a conservative blue suit and her auburn hair pulled back in a bun, she told me she’d been an elected official and community leader. She transitioned in her mid 60s, which has been hard. She’s lost friends, and status.

Xavier has heard Avery Jackson speak and likes that she’s getting sick of being “that transgender girl.”

"Isn't it good that the child is becoming bored and irritated with all the attention," Xavier says. "She just wants to be her."

Whatever that her looks like: sometimes a pioneer, sometimes an activist, sometimes just a regular 9-year-old girl.

Laura Ziegler is a community engagement reporter and producer for KCUR 89.3. You can reach her on Twitter @laurazig or email lauraz@kcur.org.