Kids in Crisis: Wisconsin trans youth benefit from affirming spaces
Joey Bliss always did his best to smile for class pictures, tugging at the cloying blouse or dress he felt was required of him, doing his best to hide his discomfort.
In retrospect, his mother, Ann Bliss, saw in her child a strained sadness when looking at those pictures, a sadness that contrasts sharply with his more confident junior and senior photos.
“I never really felt comfortable in girls’ clothing. It’s nice to basically live in my cargo shorts and whatever T-shirt or sweatshirt,” Joey Bliss, 17, said. “It’s hard because I know some people will still perceive me how I’m not.”
What Joey Bliss is: a senior at West De Pere High School, a consummate bookworm and, for the last two years, one of the few publicly out transgender people at his high school. He’s part of West De Pere’s Gender and Sexuality Alliance, a student-run organization that unites LGBTQ+ youth and youth allies.
Through his GSA teacher, Joey’s been connected to two important spaces: a monthly “Drop-In Night” at a local arcade organized by the Bay Area Trans Youth Alliance and Pride Camp at University of Wisconsin-Green Bay.
Programs like these can help LGBTQ+ youth traverse the slippery path ahead, whether that means learning LGBTQ+ history, seeing LGBTQ+ adults thriving in their dream jobs, or making friends, which can be especially hard to navigate.
“Some of my friends are also transgender, so it’s nice to have friends in the same community,” Joey Bliss said. “But people grow apart, and it can be hard to figure some of this difficult stuff out alone. Not everyone’s going to understand our struggles.”
What do affirming spaces mean?
Molly Herrmann, an education consultant at the Department of Public Instruction, said affirming spaces serve as a necessary balm to the youth mental health crisis. Data from the state Youth Risk Behavior Survey are clear: LGBTQ+ youth are more depressed, anxious and suicidal.
Schools that provide safe, affirming spaces through GSAs and similar clubs are changing climates and attitudes for LGBTQ+ youth, said Abigail Swetz, communications director for the Department of Public Instruction. Swetz, a former middle school teacher and GSA adviser, said GSAs can connect LGBTQ+ youth to new opportunities, like youth support groups and performance spaces. But they also benefit the entire community.
According to the 2021 GLSEN National School Climate Survey, which measures the experiences of LGBTQ+ students in school, schools with GSAs were less likely to hear homophobic or transphobic remarks at school and more likely to report school personnel intervened when such remarks were uttered.
“(A GSA) is essentially a sign to the entire student body that LGBTQ+ kids and allies … all belong at school,” Swetz said. “Maybe I’m a queer-identifying kid, I’m still in the closet and I never walk through that door to GSA. But I know that that door exists.”
Gender-affirming in-school clubs such as GSAs, according to Academy of American Pediatrics, are associated with fewer reports of negative remarks surrounding sexual orientation or gender expression, increased feelings of safety and a sense of belonging, and lower levels of victimization.
“Affirmation has to do with safety. And safety is something that every single kid needs,” said Swetz. “When we talk about affirming spaces, we’re really talking about being inclusive and seeing our kids for their full selves.”
Gender-affirming spaces give trans youth community, sense of hope
The weekend the Napalese Lounge & Grille unveiled its new mural in August 2021, a concerned parent approached Martha M., one of the Napalese planners of the event, and expressed a need for there to be local supports in place for transgender youth.
Martha wasted no time. She started having conversations with a local arcade and they agreed that, once a month, transgender, nonbinary and gender diverse youth in grades seven to 12 could use one of the private party rooms. There, they could introduce themselves, their chosen names and pronouns, and get to know people like themselves.
And of course, they could do what kids do best: eat pizza and play video games.
Joey Bliss has taken advantage of this time to have fun, and he knows it’s a place that fosters painful discussions. Many of the kids share the unique distinction of being deadnamed — the act of calling a transgender person by the name they were given at birth that no longer aligns with their gender identity. Joey legally changed his named in 2022, but that didn’t stop his classmates from yelling his deadname across classrooms.
“We focus on the fact that we are a meet-and-greet drop-in. We’re not a counseling center. We’re not a therapy group. We’re not an educational program,” said Martha, who serves as president of the Bay Area Council on Gender Diversity and chair of the Bay Area Trans Youth Alliance. “We’re just providing a safe place so that kids can be affirmed as who they really are.”
These small efforts can grow into larger understandings. Parents of transgender youth are able to gather at the arcade and form dialogues and connections over cheeseburgers or a beer about being the parent of a transgender child. In many ways, it’s also an affirming space for them.
Mindy Frank, a steering committee member of the Bay Area Trans Youth Alliance, facilitates the TransParent Support Group, which is under the umbrella of NEW Pride. She said the drop-in experience allows parents to connect and potentially join the support group, where they can share and express themselves.
“When children are suffering, the parents are suffering,” Frank said. “Parents and caregivers need a place to exhale and be with each other for support.”
The success of the drop-ins inspired the Bay Area Trans Youth Alliance to continue its efforts, with joy and celebration in mind. In 2022, the Green Bay area held its first LGBTQ+ prom at the Tarlton Theater, where LGBTQ+ students and allies could boogie in style.
It even led the Green Bay Packers to host trans youths at a holiday party last year. When a Green Bay police detective approached Pat Cavanaugh, events sales and service manager for the Packers, about potentially hosting the kids, he was quick to make arrangements with Martha.
Bay Area Trans Youth Alliance took its kids to the Titletown District where they could drink hot cocoa, eat cookies and go ice skating and tubing. Cavanaugh, a former school principal, remembers the smiles on the kids’ faces best. It’s part of the fabric of the Packers organization to make everyone in the community feel welcome and included, Cavanaugh said.
“It’s one thing to provide a space, but four walls are four walls. It’s how people feel when they’re in that space — and the welcoming atmosphere that they’re hopefully able to experience — so that when they leave, they feel it’s not about those four walls or that space. It’s about how they felt,” Cavanaugh said.
Having a space for LGBTQ+ kids to smile and explore activities is crucial, said Nicole Kurth, the Pride Center coordinator at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, who runs Pride Camp. The event is open to middle and high school students each summer and fall. Since 2011, Pride Camp has been a place for kids to meet local LGBTQ+ adults, grow their knowledge of LGBTQ+ history and learn resilience when they leave camp.
Kurth knows the importance of what Pride Camp can do. When she was in high school, she didn’t know any other LGBTQ+ kids, nor did she have any LGBTQ+ models in her life.
“I knew there was famous people like Freddie Mercury and Elton John and Melissa Etheridge. But I didn’t have a tangible human being in front of me that I could actually talk to,” Kurth said. “And I know that if I had had somebody like that, I would have been so happy to have met them, because then it would have made me feel a lot less alone at that age.”
People from the LGBTQ+ community join campers and do presentations on topics like the history of banned books, the power of space photography, and what it means to be Two-Spirit — an Indigenous identity that embodies both feminine and masculine spirits.
Campers learn that affirming spaces exist in Green Bay, which can sometimes motivate them to stay in the community, instead of moving away to a community perceived as more welcoming. In fact, young people travel hours sometimes to participate in Green Bay’s Pride Camp.
It’s also a place where kids can learn resilience, so that when they leave camp, they can have the confidence to continue being themselves.
“That can really have a profound impact on somebody’s life,” Kurth said. “Our whole thing at camp is to be the person who you wish you had when you were younger.”