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In West Virginia, LGBTQ advocates see a shift toward support

BY   March 26, 2017 at 4:01 PM EDT
Caroline Dunham,

Caroline Denham, 19, came out as transgender during her last week in high school. She lives in Charleston with her family. Photo by Corinne Segal

CROSS LANES, W.Va. — Between the Kanawha River and the rugged mountains of West Virginia, a group of transgender teenagers and their parents are gathered in a small room at a local library to compare notes.

It’s the second meeting of a support group founded by local resident Mary Nichols in a growing effort to navigate new territory: raising a transgender child in a state where resources for them are scant.

While these types of meetings are novel in small cities and towns like those that dot West Virginia, they are becoming more and more common. A recent Reuters analysis showed that since the Supreme Court legalized marriage equality in 2015, about 50 cities and towns have passed LGBTQ nondiscrimination measures. The majority of them were in counties that voted for President Donald Trump, and all of them in states that predominantly did.

For years, party lines dictated where lawmakers stood on LGBTQ issues — but now, those lines are starting to blur. And West Virginia, which overwhelmingly voted for Trump last November, is an important example of that shift, LGBTQ advocates in the state say.

Of the 10 cities and towns in the state that have passed LGBTQ nondiscrimination measures, six did so after the Supreme Court decision to legalize marriage equality in 2015. A recent study by researchers at the Williams Institute also projected that it has the highest percentage of trans 13- to 17-year-olds of any state in the country.

Noah Zoller, 15, is a sophomore in high school. Photo by Corinne Segal

Noah Zoller, 15, pictured here in his family’s kitchen, is a sophomore in high school. Photo by Corinne Segal

Noah Zoller, a 15-year-old in the support group, is one of them. “All of the people that I’m close to are pretty much accepting,” he said. “Everyone calls me what I want to be called. They respect me.” He added that he had been bullied at school, but that the administration has been supportive of him and helped put a stop to it.

“The climate has changed,” Andrew Schneider, executive director of Fairness West Virginia, said. “Society itself is changing. I think West Virginia is stepping forward.”

The pivotal moment, Schneider said, came last year, with the rejection of the West Virginia Religious Freedom Protection Act, a Republican-led bill that that would have created a judicial process for people who believed their religious freedoms were being violated by government laws, such as a church that does not want to recognize a partnership against their beliefs.

Advocates for the LGBTQ community said the bill was a veiled attempt to legalize discrimination against them.

Rainbow flags hang outside the nightclub Atmosphere Ultra Lounge in Charleston, West Virginia, on

Rainbow flags hang outside the nightclub Atmosphere Ultra Lounge in Charleston, West Virginia, on March 21, 2017. Photo by Corinne Segal

When the bill was amended to ensure it could not be used to violate nondiscrimination laws, it lost support among some of its original proponents and was voted down 27-7 in the state Senate.

“There was sort of a sense of exhaustion after that,” Schneider said. “Most legislators decided this wasn’t something they wanted to see come up again.”

The defeat opened a door for supporters of LGBTQ to be more vocal. And for the first time, bipartisan support for LGBTQ rights in West Virginia started to gain momentum.

After that, a bill that would bar discrimination against LGBTQ people in housing, employment and public accommodations gained so many sponsors in the state House that they had to file three identical bills last month. Civil rights advocates had tried for years to gain bipartisan support, and now 12 Republicans constituted one-third of the sponsorship.

Republican Delegate Ron Walters co-sponsored HB 2529, one of the nondiscrimination bills. As a landlord with tenants in 24 apartments, it made sense to him, he said. “All I really care about as far as my tenants: Do they keep the place clean? Do they pay the rent on time? Anything else has no personal effect on me,” he said.

Following the exhaustive debate last year, LGBTQ people have gained recent support in West Virginia, falling in line with its common mindset of “live and let live,” he said. “Everything has its time,” he said. “Sometimes it takes awhile to ripen. And it’s a time that’s come, particularly in that area.”

Moreover, shutting out LGBTQ people in West Virginia could come with economic repercussions at a time when the state cannot afford to lose business, said Kelly Kimble, a former member of the Fairness West Virginia Board of Directors.

In North Carolina, after the controversial state bill HB2 prohibited transgender people from using the bathroom that matched their gender, outcry from members of the LGBTQ community and others cost the state millions of dollars in business.

With West Virginia’s coal industry in a decline, business leaders are increasingly cautious, Kimble said.

“The last thing we need to do is pass a law that will cause [West Virginia] to lose more business,” she said.

Shaunte Polk, director of the LGBTQ

Shaunte Polk, director of the LGBTQ+ Office at Marshall University, says she was shocked at the outpouring of donations for Trans Closet, a project to provide transgender students with gender-affirming clothing. Photo by Corinne Segal

‘This is who I am’

LGBTQ advocates in West Virginia say that the community still faces prejudice, but that they see an uptick in transgender people who are living openly. With it, a grassroots effort is working to increase resources for them.

For Shaunte Polk, this change is apparent in the piles of clothes covering most surfaces of her office at Marshall University’s LGBTQ Office in Huntington, West Virginia. “We have shoes over there, someone donated fingernail polish and bracelets, and purses, and wallets … We had a real Michael Kors in here,” she says, picking through the piles.

It’s the kickoff set of donations for the LGBTQ+ Trans Closet, a free store for trans students to pick out gender-affirming clothes in a nonjudgmental environment, Polk said.

Some people didn’t understand the project at first, she said. “I had to tell them, like when you have students who are … maybe not as comfortable going out and shopping and getting those types of clothing, it can be a fear, a fear of being judged, especially if you are a new trans student coming out,” she said. “And so for us to eliminate that fear, they have their own special place where they can come try things on.”

They advertised the project on campus — and soon, they were flooded with donations, both from the school and surrounding community. Even as a local radio host denounced the project and the office received several complaints, people continued to donate. “I never thought this would go as well as it did,” Polk said.

trans closet

Donations are piling up at the LGBTQ+ Office at Marshall University in Huntington, West Virginia, which is conducting its first-ever donation drive for the LGBTQ+ Trans Closet. Photo by Corinne Segal

Growing up in Beckley, West Virginia, a two-hour drive from Marshall University, Polk said she knew gay kids at school whose families kicked them out. Today, she wants to keep that from happening, in part by leading conversations on diversity at Marshall’s LGBTQ+ Office and the Center for African American Students, where she is program director.

As part of her job, she conducts “safe space” trainings for people on campus, where she tells people, “I’m not here to change your mind. I just want you to be open and understanding of what is around you.”

Samuel Leizear, field education director at the West Virginia University School of Social Work, also conducts trainings on transgender issues for businesses and organizations that request them. When he began offering them about a decade ago, he received two to three requests per year. Now, he receives that number every week, he said.

“I’ve seen just in the last 10 years what appears to be a huge change in people feeling more comfortable saying, ‘Okay, this is who I am,’” he said.

Trans students focus on health care and bathroom access

While the push for LGBTQ rights plays out on the state level, many transgender students say they still lack resources like health care and worry about access to bathrooms.

At the support group, five teenagers — some of them transgender, others friends or siblings — are sitting at a table with parents and older friends of the families. As the meeting starts, they are talking and laughing, grabbing markers at the center of the table to fill out nametags with their names and pronouns. They fall quiet as Nichols starts the meeting with an update on her search for therapists — specifically, where to find one that won’t “tell our kids they’re going to hell,” she says.

It’s not looking good, she tells the group. Most therapists she’s talked to either have little experience working with young trans people or they practice conversion therapy, a practice that aims to change an individual’s sexuality or gender identity that has which has been condemned by the World Psychiatric Association.

When it comes to finding a therapist who’s the right fit, “I think I might have better luck buying a unicorn,” she says.

She describes two therapists that she found through referrals and online outreach and says she’s talked to several others that seem promising but have never worked with trans kids. Ultimately, she says that members of the group may need to travel to Pittsburgh, a three-and-a-half-hour drive, or Cincinnati, a three-hour drive. (“Road trip!” one of the teenagers shouts.)

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Other trans teenagers in the state have had problems obtaining gender-affirming health care. Caroline Denham, 19, came out as a trans woman during her last week of high school. She lives with her family in Charleston, the largest city in the state, but said the closest clinic that she found to help her medically transition was Planned Parenthood in Asheville, North Carolina, a five-hour drive that she made every three months.

“That was the one place where I didn’t hit a roadblock, where everyone [wasn’t] confused about the process of getting hormones,” she said.

Sam said he often sees trans people leaving the state to receive care, he said. “I have a list of trans-affirming and knowledgeable providers in the state. It’s a very short list,” he said. (The 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey found that one-third of respondents who saw doctors had “at least one negative experience related to being transgender,” including harassment and denial of treatment.)

Thurmond, West Virginia, population five, is the smallest town in the United States to pass an LGBT nondiscrimination measure. Thurmond was once a booming coal town, but following the decline of coal, the town lost hundreds of residents. Photo by Corinne Segal

Thurmond, West Virginia, population five, is the smallest town in the United States to pass an LGBTQ nondiscrimination measure. Thurmond was once a booming coal town, but following the decline of coal, the town lost hundreds of residents. The town’s five residents voted unanimously in February 2015 to bar LGBTQ discrimination in housing, employment and public accommodations. Photo by Corinne Segal

Other concerns center on the public accommodations debate, which has remained at the forefront of national conversation on transgender issues.

West Virginia was among a group of states to sue the Obama administration in May 2016, claiming that the Department of Education was “unlawful” in recommending that trans students be able to use the bathroom of their choice. That guidance was revoked by President Donald Trump’s administration in February. And in August 2016, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, a federal court whose rulings cover West Virginia, ruled in favor of transgender student Gavin Grimm who sued his Virginia high school for access to the men’s bathroom.

The Supreme Court considered hearing the case, but earlier this month, referred the suit back to the Fourth Circuit, where it awaits further review.

Jess Davis, 16, came out as transgender two years ago. When she tried to use the girl’s bathroom at school, another student screamed at her, she said. The next day, she saw a note on a bathroom stall that read: “You’re not a girl, get out of my bathroom.”

Politicians and other public figures around the country have said they oppose the notion that trans students should use the bathroom that matches their gender. Meanwhile, “I wake up every day to go to school terrified,” Davis said.

This Saturday, the deadline passed to move West Virginia’s LGBTQ nondiscrimination bills out of committee, which stops it from moving to the House for a vote. (A spokesperson for West Virginia House Speaker Tim Armstead said the legislator did not support the bills.)

Democratic Delegate Mike Pushkin, who sponsored one of the bills, said Sunday that he still believes the bills represent progress and that their support from some House Republicans “shows that it’s not a partisan issue.”

He plans to help introduce the same bill next year. “As long as I’m here, it’s something I’m going to fight for because it’s right,” he said. “If nondiscrimination laws gain traction here, they can gain traction everywhere.”

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