Photo by: The Student Insurgent
Image Description: A photograph of a group of queer youth and young adults rallying.
By: Mad Resistance
Last spring, Madness Network News met with a group of high school students to talk about their experiences of being queer, trans and nonbinary at Grants Pass High School. We talked about transphobia, the barriers they’ve experienced accessing mental health care, and the importance of talking to youth about gender and sexuality. We also talked a lot about the life affirming process of discovering who you are, and making friends with other queer youth.
Located in Southwestern Oregon, Grants Pass has a population of 40,000, making it the largest city in rural Josephine County. After colonization Josephine County was known for its extractive industries of mining and timber. More recently, it’s been a mixture of marijuana grows, river rafting, far-right militias, wildflowers and underfunded public resources. The area has also has a long history of progressive organizing – in the 1980s, a Radical Faerie Sanctuary was established in Wolf Creek. In the 1990s, 1,500 people marched in Grants Pass to oppose the presence of local Neo-Nazis.
In 2021, middle school and high school students in Grants Pass began organizing for trans rights in their schools. This included staging a massive, rowdy walkout at Grants Pass High School – you can learn more about the walkout and its origins here and here.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length. Thanks to Deenie, a student leader with the I Affirm Coalition, for setting up this conversation.
There’s an attack on queer and trans rights all around the country right now, and students in Grants Pass have been organizing to fight back against that. Can you tell us about your experiences here?
Theo (he/him): In middle school [at Fleming Middle School], I was banned from all of the bathrooms. If I wanted to go to the bathroom for any reason I had to go to the nurse’s office, and I was also banned from attending PE classes. I wasn’t allowed to do PE because because they didn’t want me in the locker rooms.
Bread (them/they): [Last year] I was talking to my friend, and I said something along the lines of “yeah, now I’m gay.” This kid behind me goes “just pick a gender already” — because I was out to that class as nonbinary. The teacher there defended me with a lot of the things he said, [but] he moved already.
John (he/him): Personally, I went through a lot of struggles with finding accessible care for hormone therapy… Luckily, I found a suitable place but [the lack of trans health care here,] it’s really discouraging – along with I wouldn’t say direct transphobia from teachers, but a lot of ignorance around deadnaming.
I had a teacher who made a seating chart and displayed it to the class. There were several trans kids in there, and me specifically I have my name changed in attendance so my legal name is listed as my middle, and she took that and displayed that as my first name along with several other students. [She] outed everyone’s deadname. She said she did it on accident but it’s still one of those things where you shouldn’t have been doing it in the first place.
Sam (they/them and ze/zir): Which class was that, because I had a teacher that did that also.
John: It was acting.
Sam: That’s the same teacher who did that to me…
John: [Another substitute teacher] called my home, talked to my grandmother for some reason, and then started misgendering me in class. We have pretty supportive staff and a lot of supportive teachers… but it doesn’t really matter because a lot of the time they won’t do anything about transphobia or homophobia. I’ve had pictures of me taken [while] walking out of the bathroom, and I could tell people like my counselor about it and nothing is done. It’s a facade a lot of the time, which is really disheartening.
I know you all are fighting to change a lot – what does change look like to you?
Nicko (they/them): Give us the same respect as “normal” people. We’re not odd, we’re not like aliens from outer space… we’re human beings and when an environment that should be safe for us is made unsafe by people who are – I don’t want to say ignorant but not open-minded – it has a big effect on us as we get older. Like in school, not being able to trust that our environment is safe at all. Just treat us like “normal” people. We are normal people. Ignorant people are the ones who are making us un-normal.
John: A lot of teachers do treat openly queer kids or specifically trans and nonbinary students as this oddity. It reminds me of looking at a butterfly in a glass jar. It’s so strange because at that same time they’ll be so unwilling to make any accommodations – which I don’t think using someone’s preferred name and pronouns is an accommodation, it’s just acknowledging them as a human being.
Sam: In my first period class, we do this circle up where everyone shares their name and how they’re feeling today. I always share my name and pronouns, and the teacher just doesn’t care – [the teacher] uses “she,” uses my deadname, she doesn’t care.
Deenie (she/they): We don’t have a very valid reporting process for teachers especially, and so if you get deadnamed in class, if you get misgendered, there aren’t resources for students to go to that are easily accessible… If we’re talking about issues and we’re talking about solutions, having those resources more easily accessible would be incredibly beneficial.
Sam: The same thing happened to me as John where the teacher put my deadname on the board for people to see and always “forgot” what my pronouns were. I would correct her every single day, and she’d be like “oh right, yeah that.” She would correct herself but then she forgot [again] later in the day.
John: That’s so ridiculous because [that teacher] admits like “I’m an ally, I’ve been an activist for people.” It doesn’t matter – you are not being an ally. I hate it when people self-proclaim that they’re allies because they’re just not a lot of the time.
When we talk about mental health, often there’s this idea that “I am depressed” or “I have anxiety,” as if those are experiences that live inside of us as individuals. But what I hear you talking about is these external events, like adults can’t be bothered to give you basic respect, and that also can affect people’s wellbeing. What’s it like to navigate your own emotional wellbeing in the midst of this?
Sam: I can’t fix mental health by myself, I’ve asked for help many times. Last semester I finally got a therapist at Options [a local mental health provider]. She was supposed to be coming to school and talking to me like once or twice a week but I have never seen her… She even sent my mom a letter – well, it was supposed to be to me but my mom read it. [The therapist] was asking if I still wanted to do the therapy sessions, and I was like, “Yeah well, you haven’t come to my school to see me yet.”
Then I got yelled at by my mom for not telling her that I got therapy. She’s like, “Oh my god, it’s some teacher wanting to have sex with you.” Like what the hell, where did that come from? But anyway [the therapist] is ignoring me it seems. I tried contacting her because I need to talk to her but she doesn’t like me.
[At this point in the interview, Sam and Bread leave to catch a bus.]
Theo: If you want, I could talk about the experience that I mentioned?
Theo: There’s this [school group] called Academic Masters. Basically, you go and you answer questions – it’s like a quiz game with other teams from other schools, and they have like an entrance exam to see if you know enough stuff to actually be an asset to your team… I took [the test], and I didn’t know anything on it. The questions were all ridiculous, obscure things about literature and stuff. I was completely out of my depth… I was really overwhelmed, I was really upset because I felt like I should have been better prepared, like it was my fault that I didn’t know anything on that test.
After I finished it, I was really in a state. I sat there for quite a while and no one really – I just sat there waiting. [Eventually] a guidance counselor noticed me, and was like “What are you doing here, are you OK?” She had me go and sit in her office for a while – but she took me there, dropped me off, and then immediately left. She had some scented humidifier and music playing, it was really overstimulating. Eventually she came back, and she took me off to [another] guidance counselor.
When I’m in that kind of mental space, I can’t talk. I go, is nonverbal the word? I couldn’t explain what was wrong, and I was having a lot of anger towards myself. The guidance counselor… basically he acted as though this wasn’t a mental illness issue. Like this was just like me having a bad day, and my issue could be solved by giving me a pep talk and pat on the shoulder. [It was] condescending – it felt like I wasn’t being taken seriously, and he didn’t really know what how do to address me and give me what I needed.
John: I went to my [guidance] counselor one time to drop out of a class because I’m neurodivergent and the teacher was being lowkey ableist. [The guidance counselor] didn’t see anything wrong with it, which is ridiculous. In regard to being a trans person, I’ve had very little support from anyone in Grants Pass or in Oregon in general.
I’ve found it really hard to find a counseling center who isn’t Christian. There’s nothing against Christianity, like obviously there’s very accepting churches, but I don’t think a lot of people feel comfortable going to a church associated [counseling center]. That was really disheartening. I feel like it should be [promoted] more – mental health counseling for queer people, because a lot of us need it, especially in Grants Pass where a lot of bad stuff happens to us here.
Right, so part of why you need to access to mental health treatment is just because of how hard it is to be growing up here.
Nicko: I was just thinking like… with regard to counseling and how hard and difficult it is to get counseling as a queer person, it’s been an issue for years.
Theo: In general in this area, there isn’t a lot of diversity or presence of health specialists – be it for physical health or mental health. Both my older sibling and I have a lot of health issues, and so many times we’ve needed to see a certain specialist and they are only available in Portland. [Editor’s note: Portland is a four-hour drive away from Grants Pass.]
There are very few psychiatrists who are specifically for children and teens. The psychiatrist that I saw who got me diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder and who got me my anxiety medication prescription… he was in the process of retiring and he only took me because he had already treated my sibling a few years prior. That’s all we had, that’s all we could have gotten.
Gay Liberation Front’s Demonstration at Bellevue Hospital, 1970.
Image description: a group of gay liberation activists occupying the wall in front of Bellevue Hospital. The protesters are holding signs that read statements like “Gay Power to Gay People.”
Photo by: Richard C. Wandel
Madness Network News was created in the 1970s by people who were fighting to get out of mental institutions – this is back when once you were hospitalized, you might spend years or even decades there. LGBTQ+ communities have also fought against certain forms “therapy” being forced on them, like so-called conversion therapy. But it’s interesting because you’re talking about wanting therapy, and the issue being a lack of access. Are you seeing forms of harm within the mental health system itself or is it mostly being denied access that is the issue?
John: I feel like here specifically, it is more a lack of access. There’s definitely harm being done by certain people like teachers, but here… we aren’t a big city but we’re not a little town anymore. There should be more access to those kinds of things. Just general health care for queer youth, including mental health care. It all is in Portland, and it all is for people who have the ability to get it – which only really includes people who have the money. We have way too many people who are too poor to afford that, or like people who aren’t eligible for insurance [coverage]. It’s a really difficult topic because like I feel like a lot of our lack of access is due to discrimination.
Nicko: We need something that won’t damage or hurt us. With how complex the human mind is… not having the resources could damage us in a way that a lot of people don’t realize. If you were to ask me about gender dysphoria or anxiety or anything like that… I didn’t even know about a lot of that stuff until my seventh or eighth grade year. Even then I barely even knew what a whole lot of it was until the beginning of my high school experience when I was like a freshman and sophomore. And it was like, “Oh, I am experiencing gender dysphoria.”… I was like, “That’s what that is, I have a name to what I have been feeling for years.”
John: A lot of people don’t realize their trans or at least [they] aren’t out to themselves… They don’t have the education, mostly because in this area, the way they were raised. Personally, I have been experiencing gender dysphoria for years and years. In middle school, I refused to go by my legal name.
I feel like it’s better for people to realize or start questioning their gender, if they need to, earlier in life because it saves people a lot of self-harm. I know that my transition would’ve been a lot easier if someone would’ve just told me, “Hey, it’s OK.”
Being able to talk about gender at younger age is really important, but there’s this fear that we can’t talk to kids about gender.
John: Yeah, what’s weird to me about that is, we do talk to kids about gender. We talk to them about binary [gender]. “If you’re this, you’re this.” I don’t see how there’s no harm in that, but there’s harm in talking about being trans? Because even if your kid suddenly is like, “I want to go by these pronouns” or “I want to be a girl now,” what’s the harm in that?
There’s no harm teaching [kids] about gender and different gender presentations because even if they want to go on hormone blockers, that’s completely reversible.
Theo: Personally, I spent a lot of my life having, like, I wouldn’t say I ever felt “dysphoria” but I wasn’t happy. I felt disconnected and uncomfortable, and I never had a name for it.
I didn’t have anyone who could explain to me that I didn’t have to live like this. It took me so long to realize [that] and then to consciously understand and accept it because there was no discussion around it. There was nothing, I had nothing. It wasn’t because of any act of effort through my parents or anything to cut me off from that, it just didn’t exist.
John: I’m not going to say I was lucky to be on the internet at a young age because I was very unlucky about that [everyone laughs]… But the first time I said I was trans, I was seven years old, maybe younger. I knew that label but then the shame around that – not only in online spaces but also in general the conversation around it is so hush-hush. Even if you’re not directly saying, “I don’t want my kid to be trans,” not talking about it or talking about it like some taboo sends a message. I clammed up after that.
I got my haircut short when I was ten, let it grow out, and then became like a butch lesbian. [After that,] I came out. It’s made my transition so much harder because if [I] just had the support to say “I’m trans” at a young age, [that] would have been way better. I know it’s the same for a lot of trans youth – it’s a lot harder probably for nonbinary people but like specifically in the case of binary transness… I have a lot of regret around it but none of it is really my fault.
Theo: Children are exposed to [cisgender] things from very, very young. That is normalized, and that becomes what they expect. [But] a lot of people think that a conversation about “mature” stuff [related to gender and queerness] should start happening [when people are] a lot older.
If you’ll forgive me for bringing this up, I started menstruating in fourth grade. That conversation started when I was in elementary school. That’s not something you can just wait until they’re in high school to talk about. I was a child… but it needed to be acknowledged and I needed to be educated about it.
John: I think it’s ridiculous how people will swear up and down that it is not acceptable for children to be exposed to gay people or trans people at a young age because it will “make” them think… that’s just absolutely homophobic.
Theo: That’s not how that works.
John: Yeah, that’s not how that works. To demonize your kid for thinking that they’re trans, you’re just homophobic.
Theo: You’re just alienating them and making them feel scared.
John: [Cisgender parents] look at their young children interacting with children of a different gender, and [say], “Ah, they’re dating!” You are the person introducing these “mature” subjects. In my opinion, it’s a lot more dangerous to sexualize your children at a young age instead of just teach[ing] them that they have autonomy to be a human being – that’s all that accepting queer people really comes down to, just let people be a person.
You do not need to control every single aspect of someone who you really have no control over. Like even if it’s your kid, you have the right to parent your child but also the second that they’re out of your body, they’re a different person.
Nicko: All like Disney and Pixar movies… it’s always [about] the straight cis couple: “Oh, they end up knowing each other, they fall in love.” It usually always ends with a kiss, them getting married like Cinderella, Aladdin – there’s so many Disney movies that literally end with a boy and a girl kissing. But then if someone just mentions [a queer] couple, all of a sudden it’s a very bad thing. It’s [too] “mature” and “sexualized.” But it’s perfectly normal for [cis relationships] to be brought up in almost every single kid’s childhood.
My parents know half of who I am now. I’m not all the way open with them – one foot out the closet – [but] they know my sexuality. I’m pansexual, and they end up complaining about how… I’m not their little kid that they can control anymore. I have a younger sibling, she came as bisexual, and [my parents think], “It must be because of your older sibling, oh my God.” A cousin came out, and they tried to have me straighten them out, like literally straight them out.
Image Description: a group of queer young adults demonstrating one young adult is wearing the pride flag as a cape. They are holding signs that read statements like “LGBT Students Matter.”
Photo by: OwlBoy
Between fears of talking to youth about gender and then the lack of access to mental health care, you have very few spaces to talk about these subjects – at least with adults. How are navigating this? Is it talking to each other, going on the internet, or just sort of quietly flailing in your rooms?
John: At first, it was definitely online because the online sphere of queerness was the only thing I had growing up… It’s really hard if you’re young and you know something about me is not the societal norm, it’s hard not to just flock to the internet.
I feel like because of the community we have within school and like specifically the [Pride] Club, it makes it easier to just see queer people in real life… It’s getting better in schools, where people feel at least comfortable creating their own groups.
Theo: I’d say it’s really all of the above that you mentioned. We do flail in our rooms, we do go on the internet, and we do find our own little herds, our own little flocks in real life of queer people – or just people who don’t feel like they fit in with what they’re supposed to be.
Nicko: With queer people in general, if they have access to internet they will eventually find out, “Oh wait, a guy can like another guy? There’s people that can identify as not a boy or a girl?” So you end up looking more into it, and you end up finding out that you’re not part of the societal norm… We end up just coming together and making our own version of what normal should be.
Theo: At least in my experience, somehow we tend to find each other before we even realize that we’re different. My friends who I’ve known since before any of us knew anything, we’ve all over time realized that we’re queer in some way or another. We find ourselves creating our own groups before we realize that we’re creating our own groups.
We’ve made it through most of the questions, but we had a question about suicide that we haven’t discussed yet. We hear a lot of adults talking about LGBTQ+ youth being at higher risk for suicide – is there anything you want to say about people are navigating talking about that topic?
John: Not to get real personal, but none of my attempts have been related to queerness. But it definitely does not help growing up in an environment where you’re always like, “I’m unsure, I’m unsure” – because no one is willing to tell you it’s just OK. No one is even willing to tell you it’s OK to be unsure – so much sprouts from that, self-hatred which a lot of times leads people to suicide.
I know of plenty of people, they ended their lives because it’s just so lonely, especially with COVID [lockdowns]. During that time, it was so lonely for so many people in the queer community – and in general. In the queer community, there is already this sense like, “I’m this way, and nothing is going to change that.” I could pretend but it wouldn’t feel good to me, so I can either feel suicidal and pretend – or I can feel suicidal and be true to myself. A lot of the time both of them ending up hurting.
Theo: Yeah, I would agree. I’ve never attempted to kill myself but it has… none of my thoughts on that topic relate to being queer, so I don’t know how relevant it would be.
Nicko: With me, it was a very strong in middle school and it’s faded over time. I was very close [to suicide], and at the I time wasn’t sure why. I would just go about my regular routine, nothing was out of the ordinary. No major life changing events happened around that time that could have caused it. But then me now, just figuring out my gender and actually who I am – looking back on middle school, I wasn’t feeling like myself. I mean that in like, I wasn’t my true self.
Trying to figure out who I am – which I thought it was just [my] sexuality, I said that I was asexual and aromantic and stuff like that. I knew there was something. At the time, I thought there was something wrong with me regarding my gender because I didn’t feel like a girl. I thought I could talk about it with my parents… They would just tell me a bunch of things that also didn’t apply either – “I’m just a tomboy” or “maybe you’re just a little weird.”
Not being happy with who I was… and me not getting the resources to realize there is actually something majorly wrong, those [suicidal] feelings just intensified over time. But then I finally put a name – I actually knew that I was me. I like to go by Nicko, and I go by they/them pronouns. I found someone I like. I’ve been with her for like two years now, and it’s just way better. Except every once in a while because parents suck if they aren’t as accepting – but being knowledgeable and figuring out who I am has made me feel way better.
Theo: I would say that the ever-present, looming “you can always just do that” – it’s by no means left, but it’s somehow, it’s not looming quite as much now that I’m happier.
Talking about difficulties and loneliness that folks can feel being nonbinary and trans in Grants Pass – part of what I’m hearing is how life affirming it is to be accepted and supported for who you are. How important it is to have community, have somebody you can date, feel good in your own body – and how you are creating that amongst yourselves. The teacher’s aren’t doing it, the mental health counselors aren’t doing it, so you’re coming together to create that. Thanks so much for making time to discuss these topics with us.