Leading Alongside Transgender Youth

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Episode 74 │ Leading Alongside Transgender Youth

Wednesday, Oct. 11, 2023

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Show Notes

Harleigh Walker and Jeff Walker

As new state and local laws target LGBTQ+ students, what can families do to ensure schools treat all students with care and empathy? Teen transgender activist Harleigh Walker and her father, Jeff Walker, join the show to share their advocacy experience. They highlight how harmful policies are impacting school life for kids around the country and what you can do to help.


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Like this episode? Share your thoughts with us via social media @National PTA and by using #BackpackNotes. Be sure to visit PTA.org/BackpackNotes for more resources from today’s episode.


Helen: Welcome back to Notes from the Backpack, a PTA podcast. I'm Helen Westmoreland.

Kisha: And I'm Kisha DeSandies Lester. We're your co-hosts.

Helen: At the end of 2020, we sat down with Ellen Kahn and Jodi Patterson from the Human Rights Campaign to talk about how we as parents and advocates can help LGBTQ+ youth thrive. Unfortunately, these young people and particularly transgender youth are experiencing hostile education environments, sometimes imposed by law. Today, we're going to explore some of the challenges transgender youth are facing around the country and how we can help.

Kisha: Yes, Helen, this is an important issue because our LGBTQ+ youth and families need our support. According to a recent Trevor Project survey nearly half of LGBTQ+ youth considered attempting suicide in the last year. That's just devastating, and 73 percent reported experiencing anxiety, and another 58 percent reported experiencing depression.

Helen: Those statistics paint a pretty grim picture, Kisha. That being said, I am eager to hear how we can take action to reverse some of these trends and really help all of our children thrive. Thankfully, we have a passionate duo. So it's a two for one here on Notes From the Backpack today.

Kisha: We love it.

Helen:to speak with us on the topic. Harleigh Walker is 16 years old and a junior at Auburn High School in Alabama. She's on her school's debate team and is president of the school's GSA.

She advocates for LGBTQ+ and trans rights, and this past summer had the opportunity to speak in front of the house equality and Democratic caucuses. Previously, she spoke to the Senate Judiciary Committee becoming the youngest person to ever testify in front of that committee, and she's not alone.

We also have Jeff Walker here with us, father to Harleigh and a son who's in the Alabama National Guard. Jeff is the vice president of his local PFLAG chapter and a national advocate for LGBTQ+ rights featured in several news outlets. Welcome to the both of you.

Harleigh Walker: Hi. Thank you for having us.

Helen: Thank you so much. So Harleigh, we want to start off with you. Can you kick us off by telling us a little bit about yourself and how you got involved in this advocacy?

Harleigh Walker: Yeah, so me and my dad are both from Alabama. I've lived here my whole life. So I happen to be transgender. I came out a couple of years ago. And it took me a while to kind of figure out who I was and like really put a label on it. But once I did everything just kind of clicked for me. So I've been living as myself for about six years now. And it has truly been the best thing for me to happen. So, it's been pretty up and down. A couple of years ago we saw an uptick in anti transgender legislation, specifically in our state of Alabama, and this was horrifying for me.

Coming from a traditionally conservative state where I've already dealt with struggles of bullying. Coming out as a whole is a very stressful process for a lot of people. So this new legislation was really the kickoff to my advocacy and really is what got me started, but I have found so many positive things, positive people and positive experiences along the way that I'm really grateful for. And so, yeah, that's how I got started doing what I've been doing.

Helen: Awesome. Thank you. Well, we can't wait to hear more about some of what that advocacy is looking like. Jeff, so proud Dad, tell us about your advocacy journey. How did you get involved and what do you see as sort of your role in supporting Harleigh?

Jeff Walker: Well, I always tell people that Harley is the star of the show. I'm just the supporting cast. So there's that, but you know, it's really funny how we got started. Through PFLAG, we joined a PFLAG event actually during the pandemic. So it was all virtual, and the regional director had been on as a guest in our local PFLAG event, and just said, ‘Hey, we've got an opportunity for a family. We're looking for someone in an area where these laws are creeping up.’ So, we fit that bill to do an interview with a news agency. And that's really all we knew. And so I talked to Harleigh about it and I said, ‘Hey, you know, maybe we should try this.’

The news agency wound up being the BBC and we wound up doing this interview and afterwards. It just really clicked that we have, Harleigh and I, kind of together have this voice that we could go out and try to educate people on what this really looks like. What is being a transgender youth? What does being the dad of a transgender kid in the South really look like?

And from there, it has taken root and grown flowers and fruit. We've traveled a bunch to our state capital several times, to Washington D.C. a few times to do advocacy. And I continue to do it locally, and Harleigh does a lot in her school as well.

Helen: Thank you.

Kisha: Harleigh, some of our listeners may not be aware, what are some of the key issues transgender kids and teens are facing in schools right now?

Harleigh Walker: Yeah, so in a lot of states around the country, we have seen several bills passed on censorship of talking about LGBTQ people in schools and specifically with the transgender community, there's been legislation targeting what bathrooms we can use, and that's one of the main issues, as far as laws are concerned. In a couple of states, especially in the south where we're from, there have been bans on transgender people using the bathrooms that they identify with which is really hurtful, for these trans people going into the bathroom that they do not identify with, that they do not feel safe with and it's really just a huge inconvenience for everybody.

It makes every situation more uncomfortable, and the bathroom is just meant to be like a little thing you can do in the middle of the day to, just use the bathroom, get out and go back to class. It's become this huge politicized issue that really isn't necessary. And this uptick in anti-Trans and anti-LGBTQ legislation has also led to a rise in misinformation spreading about the trans community in news and kids specifically from hearing from their parents has really caused a huge uptick in bullying and harassment of trans individuals and LGBTQ individuals in schools.

So I've dealt with bullying personally, throughout from middle school all the way up until now in high school and you know in the beginning especially right as you're transitioning that is one of the hardest things to deal with. My experience, I transitioned in between fourth and fifth grade and around the time of sixth grade there was a huge uptick in bullying people dead naming me calling me slurs, a whole bunch of really despicable things happening, and it almost got physical so it actually forced me to drop out of public school and go into online before COVID, and so it really wasn't something a lot of people had done. So this uptick in legislation has made that whole situation worse, and it's just making trans people more unsafe and making the school environment hostile.

Kisha: It's just terrible, Harleigh. You have your family however, amongst your peers I'm sure sometimes you feel isolated because of that. What is your outlet? How do you deal with the impact of all of that? Just on a day to day basis.

Harleigh Walker: Yeah. So I find that to deal with bullying or any kind of hate against trans people and anybody as a whole, finding a sense of community in a safe space is very, very important and people to talk to that have had the same experience as you. I know at my high school, I, as mentioned earlier, I'm the president of my high school's GSA, so that is something that is really beneficial for LGBTQ students, to have a safe space to just hang out with people like them, discuss hardships they might be feeling, and just overall, give them a sense of relief and a sense of, “wow, I have people that have gone through the same experiences as me who know what it's like to go through the things I'm going through” and just have fun and make new friends. I think it’s really important and it's one of the best outlets for students in their schools and that's why I became President because I'm just so passionate about having these safe spaces and letting these LGBTQ people know that they are accepted and they are loved and they shouldn't feel like they aren't accepted and loved in their school system.

Kisha: That's great.

Helen: Oh, thank you. I'm thinking a lot about our listeners who are probably feeling very inspired. It's such a thing to have found your purpose, it sounds like, so clearly. And a lot of our listeners are advocates, themselves, asking questions about what's going on and how do I help? And it is easy in the news cycle to get stuck in the all that's wrong. Jeff, I'd love to turn to you for this question of what's going right? Are there some places, some best practices, some tactical things that our listeners could pull something from as they're on their advocacy journey around this work?

Jeff Walker: Yeah, there are bright spots. I think one of the biggest bright spots for us is when, when we see support from our community. You know, a lot of times I'll have someone reach out, via instant message or something just telling me, ‘hey, you know, we see you and we're here in your corner.’ But even in the school system, there are pockets of educators that regardless of the laws, they still are there and they're still supporting kids like Harleigh and the other kids in the GSA and they're making those safe spaces.

It's got to be tough for these educators because they have to walk this tightrope of supporting these kids and not going to jail or losing their job. And we've seen that across the country, but every time someone reaches out or every time I hear about a teacher or an educator that's supporting these kids, you see that, hey, they're still there and they still love these kids.

Helen: And how do you take this? Like, what is that best practice or policy So it's not, just all this heavy stuff in the hands, right Busy educators in the classroom. Harleigh, what are some of the school policies that you and others in the community are asking for?

Harleigh Walker: Yeah. So because of the rise in censorship for the LGBTQ community in the schools. Specifically, in my school system, we've been advocating just to be more well known and more out there for the school to know that we have a GSA and we have a safe space and rallying support of teachers, other students, just to let people know that we do exist. A lot of schools are dealing with legal troubles with that because it's illegal in a lot of states to talk about certain things to have a GSA.

So being able to spread information on what GSA's actually are and how important they are is really the most important thing. So these people can just be educated because we need to combat the misinformation with actual real facts that are helping these people because we deserve to be educated equal, safe, and loved in our school system just as much as anyone else.

Helen: And tell us what GSA stands for.

Harleigh Walker: It stands for Gender Sexuality Alliance.

Kisha: I'm just thinking about how Harleigh, you're out there doing all of this advocating for your community and other transgender youth, Jeff, how can parents be advocates for transgender youth and their families?

Jeff Walker: I think this is another question I get a lot. How can I help? What can I do? And, you know, I think everybody's personality is different. I don't think everybody can do this right. Not everybody can go and speak and or feels comfortable doing it. But even a little email to your school administration, to the school board members, attending school board meetings, just being active.One of the things I hear a lot both at a state and federal level and local is ‘we don't hear anybody that supports this,’ or ‘we don't hear anybody that's against these laws,’ right? So don't be afraid to speak up. If there's a policy that state, federal, local, that is trying to be enacted that's going to restrict the rights of the LGBTQ community, speak out against it. And whether that's an email, whether it's a phone call, whether you go in person, let your voice be heard. That is absolutely the number one thing I can recommend to people to do.

Helen: Yeah. Such a powerful message, because it does take us speaking up for folks to know what's right and wrong. Harleigh, I want to come back to you.

When you do some of this education, right, in connection with policymakers and other advocates. What do you most want people to know about your transgender journey and transgender youth in general? So like, what, what do you want all of us who could be allies, right, want to be allies to know about what it's like to walk in your shoes.

Harleigh Walker: Yeah, definitely. I think this is a really important question. I try and tell people, you hear a lot of, you know, demonizing of trans people in the media, you hear a lot of people telling their own stories, and you don't actually hear a lot of trans people themselves telling their stories. So for trans people to be able to tell their own stories and say that we're just like anybody else, we just happen to be transgender. We're just like your kids, we're just like your friends, your neighbors, we just happen to be trans, and that shouldn't define us or make us any differently treated than anybody else.

So, just letting people know that we are humans behind this huge political topic and treat us as such, because, hearing all the hate, or hearing even from sides of supporting trans people, just misinformation because they don't have access or haven't heard trans people's real experiences or don't know actually what's going on, and so for trans people to be able to spread their own stories and say that we are just like you is the most important.

Helen: Yeah, absolutely. Yeah, absolutely.

Kisha: What have you learned, Jeff and Harleigh, in your advocacy journey? What, what has surprised you and what do you think, as you're out there using your voice, where are there areas that people aren't hearing yet?

Jeff Walker: Har, you want to go first?

Harleigh Walker: Sure. So I've been, we've been advocating for around three years now. And, it started off very small with a couple of interviews locally or from our home, but it's really become this huge thing where we're going to our state capital. We're going to the United States capital, Washington, D. C. to advocate for trans people and to share our story as a family and my story as a trans person and just meeting all the people along the way has been the most rewarding and most, I wouldn't say surprising, but just the most like rewarding and something you wouldn't expect from this, you would expect it to be a hard fight all the time, you know, constantly defending yourself, but there's really amazing people you meet along the way.

In May, I recently attended the Trans Prom in Washington, D. C. And which was it's organized by four trans students from across the country to bring trans people together and just have a fun get together and get to know each other. And I've met so many cool friends at that prom and I still talk to them all to this day and we've become really, really close. And I've met people going to certain events that are my age that have dealt with the same things as me. And so, making new friends has been the most rewarding and best thing that has come out of this experience for me.

Jeff Walker: Yeah, I think I echo that too, is as we've traveled around and as we've met people, the sense of family in this group that you have, these different events that we've been able to go to, the parents and how behind the scenes we're all kind of talking to each other or lifting each other up, right? ‘Hey, you're in Texas and I see what's going on there and I'm just thinking about you’ or ‘you're in Florida and I see what's going on there. I'm thinking about you’ and we'll get the same back to us.

‘Hey, you guys are in Alabama and I saw what just happened and I just know I'm here for you if you need someone’ and I think the thing to me that I just love and it's something that I'm getting chills thinking about it. But when I see all of these kids together and to me, sometimes they don't get the gravity of what they're doing, but you get groups of these kids together, like the Trans Prom or like some of the other events that we've been to. We were there for Pride at the White House this summer and the smoke from the Canadian fires delayed the plans. And so you had families that were stuck in Washington with nothing to do. So one of the families opened up their home nearby and a lot of us went over for like a cookout. I mean, just a good old, as American as it can be, burgers and hot dogs cookout, and the kids were never around the adults, right? They were just like all the other kids and just having a good time. And when I see that, when I see the groups of kids together and they're just being kids, it just it makes my heart happy.

Kisha: Allowing them to be kids.

Jeff Walker: It's just the adults were just staying out of the way to right over being adults while the kids were doing whatever.

Helen: Yeah, it's sort of like what you're sharing. Harleigh. It's like, right, community is a universal human need and it's in community that we can all thrive.

Jeff, what advice do you have for other parents who, their children might be transitioning, they may feel called to this. Like, what are some places to first get involved? What advice do you have for parents on how they can support their young people and all young people?

Jeff Walker: You know, as you mentioned at the very beginning, I'm very active in our local PFLAG, but also our national PFLAG. Get on the PFLAG website and see if there's a group near you. I'll say for us, that changed our lives. When Harleigh first came out and was first transitioning, she felt very alone. And we as a family felt very alone. And I'm in technology, I started Googling stuff. What can I, what, where there's got to be some kind of support.

And I came across that PFLAG organization and reached out and, after that first meeting, it was like, Oh, my gosh, we're not alone in our local community. Here are people that not only are here to help us, but we can help them. So I definitely recommend that, if you have one near you, and they're also have some virtual groups too, or hybrid groups, if meeting in person isn't your thing And reach out to other parents like myself or others anytime you need help.

I've never turned away a parent who's had a question about their kid or about what's going on or how they can help or what they should do. So, reach out to others of us because this is a great community and a family, like I mentioned, and everybody's willing to help each other.

Helen: Right. Thanks.

Kisha: That is awesome. Jeff and Harleigh. I'm just so grateful to have you on this podcast today. I really appreciate Harleigh, your willingness to share your experiences, to shed a light on these issues. Thank you also for being an advocate in your community and on Capitol Hill. It's amazing. So thank you for sharing. Out of everything you discussed today, what's one thing that you want families to walk away from today's episode?

Harleigh Walker: Yeah. I think the biggest thing that I always try to let people know about and tell families is that you're not alone in these experiences. And like we've said today, there are so many resources that you can take on, your kid can take on. And so finding that sense of belonging and knowing that you're not alone is the biggest, most important thing. And that was the first thing that I did, like my dad said, in that PFLAG meeting, and that kind of sparked my trans joy. And that really was the first thing that led me to want to advocate more, be more happy with myself. And having that community and knowing that you're not alone is the biggest thing.

Kisha: Absolutely.

Helen: Jeff, anything you want to add? Last words for our listeners?

Jeff Walker: Absolutely. I think one of the things, you know, the LGBTQ community gets painted a lot as just this miserable place and in a lot of the media. And I really want people to know that there is happiness, there is joy. These kids, they get painted as though they're just miserable in their lives, but they're not. So many of these kids are just like every other kid in your neighborhood. They are happy. They are thriving, and all they want is just to be loved and feel that sense of community. So, open your heart and your doors and your arms to them. Because there is, like Harleigh mentioned that trans joy. I see that so many times when they all get together, they're just a bunch of kids having a good time.

Kisha: Oh, that's great.

Helen: It's wonderful. Before we close any social media handles or other places folks can go if they want to connect up with either of you.

Harleigh Walker: You can follow me on Instagram. My username is Harleigh A Walker. Harleigh is spelled kind of funny. It's H A R L E I G H. And you can reach out to me if you have any questions and I'll be active on there. That's how you can reach out to me.

Jeff Walker: And I actually have my own podcast. It's called Southern Pride Parenting. So I interview parents, educators, other people. So if you look up Southern Pride Parenting, it's my own little podcast, and then I'm on all the normal old people's social media, like Facebook and some of these others, right. So you can find me there, as well.

Helen: Well, thank you both so much.

Jeff Walker: Hey, thank you for having us.

Harleigh Walker: Thank you for having us.

Helen: And to our listeners tuning in, thank you for joining us. For more resources related to today's episode, check out notesfromthebackpack.Com. Thanks for tuning in and join us next time.

Kisha: See you next time.