Montrose Center program reflects changing face of LGBTQ movement.
By Kim Hogstrom
Four years ago, when James and Ann Elder’s eight-year-old started exhibiting atypical behavior for a girl, the loving parents took their child to Texas Children’s Hospital.
There, they visited with Dr. Marni Axelrad, one of Houston’s leading experts on gender variance in school-age children.
“Dr. Axelrad spent three hours with us,” Ann Elder recalls. “Then she told us that she thought our child may be transgender. The doctor explained that it is possible that Ben was born as a boy in a girl’s body. Dr. Axelrad suggested that we go home and let Ben take the lead—let him make the determination.”
Axelrad says she always advises parents that if her diagnosis is correct, their child will send signals about when it’s time to transition.
“We encourage the parents to let the child start by dressing as preferred at home, then move on from there,” she says.
Things progressed quickly for the Elder family. Ann Elder recalls that for Ben, wearing boys’ underwear was “really important.” So the very next day, she bought him camouflage-print briefs. He quickly put them on, then strutted around the house, grinning and showing off.
“I will never forget that,” his mother says. “It was a defining moment. My child was beaming with joy. He was glowing. I thought to myself, ‘As a parent, I must help him to be this happy for the rest of his life.’ He’s 12 now, and he’s been Ben ever since.”
Kimberly Shappley had a similar experience with her six-year-old daughter. By age three, Kai was regularly telling her mother that she was in the wrong body. As a devout Christian and conservative Republican, Shappley struggled to accept Kai’s gender identity without a support network to lean on.
“One night, when Kai was four, I went to tuck her in bed,” Shappley recalls. “Kai was asleep. When I felt her legs, they were cold, so I flipped on the light and saw that her legs were marbled and turning blue. She had taken a pair of small panties from a doll belonging to a neighbor, and somehow managed to squeeze into them. It was one of those moments for me—one I could no longer ignore.”
Giving birth to HATCH Junior
Today, Ben and Kai are fortunate to have fully supportive parents who have become advocates for their children. Needless to say, not all LGBTQ youth are so lucky. In fact, statistics on the matter are stark.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, studies show that lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth are nearly five times as likely to attempt suicide as their heterosexual peers. And for trans youth, the problem is even worse. According to the National Transgender Nondiscrimination Survey, more than 40 percent of trans people reported having made a suicide attempt, compared to less than 5 percent of the general population. Ninety-two percent of trans people who reported suicide attempts said they had tried to kill themselves before the age of 25.
For the last 30 years, the Montrose Center’s HATCH Youth program has been addressing the needs of LGBTQ youth between the ages of 13 and 20 in the Houston area. As just one indicator of HATCH Youth’s remarkable success, none of the program’s thousands of young clients has ever taken their own life.
Now, HATCH Youth is set to mark the start of its fourth decade by launching HATCH Junior, a groundbreaking new program that will serve children ages 6 through 12 (such as Ben and Kai) and their families. HATCH Junior, which launches in January, is believed to be the first program of its kind operated by an LGBTQ community center in the Southwest.
“Kids are identifying as LGBTQ at younger ages than ever,” says Anna Garza, HATCH Youth’s assistant director of programs. “We will help not only these children, but also their families with support and resources that are nearly impossible to find elsewhere. HATCH Junior will fill in the gaps.”
Kimberly Shappley says that if something like HATCH Junior had been available when Kai started talking about her gender identity, it would have “saved both of a us a lot of pain and misunderstanding,”
“It took me forever to find any resources to help us,” she says.
Ben Elder, meanwhile, plans to be first in line to join HATCH Youth.
“I can’t wait to make a whole bunch of new LGBTQ friends, especially trans boys, ” Ben says.
Noting that modern American medicine is finally starting to recognize gender dysphoria in children, Dr. Axelrad says programs like HATCH Junior can be “critical to the futures” of LGBTQ youth.
“As soon as these children find and express themselves, they blossom,” she says. “These children can and do lead healthy, happy lives if they are raised in supportive environments.”
Recognizing this need, a handful of mothers with trans children in north Texas founded their own support network in 2015. Dallas-Fort Worth Trans Kids & Families (DFWTKF) began with about 20 members, but has since grown to 600 mothers, fathers, and children sharing their insights and experiences.
Co-founder Melissa Ballard says that although DFWTKF’s gatherings are held in north Texas, it has members in the Houston area. She hopes that for those families, HATCH Junior “will provide the social outreach we parents seek for our kids and ourselves.”
“Kids are identifying as LGBTQ at
younger ages than ever.”
—Anna Garza, HATCH Youth
“We all want our children to play with other LGBTQ kids, and each member can support and learn from every other,” Ballard says. “Our group sure does that.”
Gender Infinity is another Houston nonprofit organization that serves trans people of all ages. Rather than duplicating efforts, the Montrose Center plans to collaborate with Gender Infinity on HATCH Junior.
“We are lucky to have Gender Infinity in Houston,” says Kent Loftin, the Montrose Center’s development director. “They bring together helpful resources to make the world a better, safer place for trans people.
“Together, we promote justice, equality, and hope in the celebration of infinite gender possibilities,” Loftin adds. “While HATCH Junior is open to more than trans youth, we certainly plan to continue to work together.”
HATCH Youth was founded in response to a request from a lesbian teen who attended a Unitarian Universalist church in the 1980s. The young woman was desperately searching for a place where gay and lesbian teens could meet and support one another, an element often missing in their lives. Founded as the “Houston Area Teen Coalition of Homosexuals,” HATCH Youth now includes five programs, including HATCH Junior.
The other programs are Project Remix, which helps LGBTQ kids reinvent their lives after making negative choices; Phoenix Youth, which serves LGBTQ youth of color; the Safe Zones Project, which holds weekly support groups with students on high-school campuses; and NEST, which has a goal of ending LGBTQ youth homelessness by 2020.
Faces of a movement
In many ways, trans youth like Ben Elder and Kai Shappley, along with their parents, have become the faces of the LGBTQ movement in recent years, especially in Texas.
Since the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in favor of nationwide marriage equality in 2015, anti-LGBTQ groups have turned their attention to trans issues. This was evident during the battle over Houston’s Equal Rights Ordinance, when opponents built their campaign around the fear-mongering lie that it would lead to predatory men in women’s bathrooms.
The anti-HERO campaign subsequently morphed into a statewide effort to pass a “bathroom bill” that would restrict trans people’s access to public restrooms, including in schools.
The Shappleys and Elders both traveled to Austin to testify against the bathroom bills in the Texas Legislature this year, and their stories have been featured widely in the mainstream media.
Kimberly Shappley, who’s been fighting to get the Pearland Independent School District to allow Kai to use girls’ restrooms, was recently named faith outreach coordinator for the statewide LGBTQ advocacy group Equality Texas. Shappley happens to be an ordained minister and a member of Houston’s Lakewood Church.
Since Kai entered first grade in 2016, Pearland ISD has required her to use a separate restroom in the nurse’s office. Superintendent John Kelly even issued a statement on the issue that compared trans rights to legalizing polygamy and pedophilia.
Meanwhile, Kai has had two “accidents” in the hall while waiting for a staff member to let her into the nurse’s restroom.
“It traumatized my daughter,” Shappley says. “Some of Kai’s friends were there, and saw what happened. Kai was mortified and cried all the way home.”
The Elders are facing a similar battle in the Clear Creek Independent School District. Throughout elementary school, Ben was allowed to use boys’ restrooms. But when he started middle school this fall, the policy changed.
“He was told he had to use the special staff restroom now,” Ann Elder says. “We went all the way up to the assistant superintendent to be heard. I tried every angle to help the man understand. It didn’t work.”
Next year, in seventh grade, Ben hopes to begin playing intramural sports. But under the current policy, he will not be allowed in boys’ locker rooms, which could prevent him from participating.
“We will see how it happens as the time nears,” Ann Elder says. “This is what it’s like to have a trans child. You just have to keep fighting.”
In addition to Austin, Ben Elder has been to Washington DC to lobby Congress on behalf of LGBTQ rights. He has even been invited to the White House, where he met vice president Joe Biden twice.
“The second time we visited, Vice President Biden spent some time with me, and then he hugged me. I really liked that,” Ben says.
Following the hug, and while saying their goodbyes, Biden bent down, took Ben’s face between his hands, and said, “Ben, when you are elected president of the United States, please don’t forget your old pal Joe.”
This article appears in the December 2017 edition of OutSmart Magazine.