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'We’re just surviving:' Transgender youth, nonbinary school counselor share experience in Oregon amid rising anti-trans attacks

A record 34 states introduced anti-transgender bills in 2021, and national studies show the impact falls heavily on youth, at significantly higher risk of suicide.

OREGON, USA — As anti-LGBTQ+ efforts and rules ramp up across the country and in Oregon, local transgender youth are sharing their experiences.

"Very difficult process," 16-year-old Emelia said about coming out. "My dad still doesn't really understand it."

Emelia came out around age 12.

Others came out even sooner, such as 13-year-old Emma, who told her parents at age 5.

"I am a girl, I am your daughter, I am not a boy," Emma said. 

Thirteen-year-old George did the same at age 9.

"I always kinda knew, my parents always kinda knew," he said. 

These youth knew who they are without anyone teaching them about gender identity.

A study published this year in the journal Pediatrics followed kids, ages 3-12, who socially transitioned. Over a five-year period, only 7.3% retransitioned. 

Despite knowing their identities, it's a difficult road to walk.

Time reported that 2021 was the deadliest year on record for transgender people in the U.S.

RELATED: Why KGW's 'Should Be Alive' podcast explores Nikki Kuhnhausen's murder

George explained many trans and nonbinary youth experience disproportionate bullying and discrimination in the community and at school.

"Writing my name on the walls of the gender-neutral bathroom calling me slurs," he described of some peers. 

Many transgender people, including these underage youth, also face invasive and inappropriate questions.

"Are you going to have surgery?" Emma recited. "Do you have a penis?" 

"I'm just like, 'I'm not going to answer that because that’s none of your business,'" George said. 

On top of the social scrutiny, politics weigh heavily on the trans population.

RELATED: 'Take nothing for granted': Oregon faces uncertain future of LGBTQ+ protections

The Human Rights campaign reported that a record 34 states introduced anti-transgender bills in 2021, with more added to that list in the first few weeks of 2022.

Texas enacted a law criminalizing some gender-affirming health care, despite opposition from medical experts. 

RELATED: Oregonians feel impact of anti-transgender push in Texas, other states

"The impact is huge," said Beth Russell, a school counselor of 17 years now based in Oregon. "We've seen a huge increase in students coming in to talk about gender and gender identity."

Russell made the tough choice to come out as nonbinary at work. 

"Sometimes it's exhausting, sometimes it's incredibly rewarding," Russell said.

Russell helps all students, but through lived experience, also offers unique visibility and support to transgender and nonbinary youth and their families.

"Parents don't want their kids' lives to be harder," Russell said. 

There is no pushed agenda or identity, simply support for trans and nonbinary youth, who are at significantly higher risk of depression and suicide.

A national survey from the Trevor Project showed about 94% of LGBTQ+ youth reported recent politics negatively impacted their mental health. Half of trans and nonbinary youth seriously considered suicide.

"A lot of times, we're just surviving,” Russell said. "We have to stop making this about politics and rules and start making it about connection...It's not our job to discuss the validity of their identity. It's our job to love them."

Youth like George, Emma and Emelia are watching these debates play out about their identities and rights.

"The fact that we don't even get a say in that is entirely unfair," Emelia said. 

"It's not right," Emma agreed. 

George offered encouragement to other youth who are struggling.

"There's always going to be one person who’s there for you," he said. "You can’t face the giant monster called 'gender identity' alone without a companion." 

Russell said as an educator, the work is about doing good and leading by example.

"I'm not trying to change what other people believe. I’m just asking to be treated with respect for who I am," Russell said. "I hope to continue to offer that message of hope and positivity."

Through the challenges and misunderstandings, they all hold this one thing close: 

"The pleasure of knowing who I am," Emelia said.  

RELATED: Group honors queer heroes, rewriting Oregon and Washington history with truth

The TransActive Gender Project at Lewis & Clark College recently announced it will offer a training certificate program to help the transgender and nonbinary population.

"Specifically focused on helping professionals that work with children and youth, [providing] them with the tools and the information and the history to better serve the needs of these youth," said Jenn Burleton of TransActive. "First in the nation. We think it’s going to be a game changer."

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