When you become a parent or caregiver, there is this overwhelmingly instinctual pull to protect your child at all costs. Easy to say, but what happens when your child inadvertently disrupts status quo? For transgender individuals, being their authentic selves unwittingly can shake up a community’s paradigm leading to misconceptions, preconceived notions – and in some cases – unsafe environments.
This is the very reason why four families came together in 2012 to create a safe community to foster connections, share information and support each other.
He She Ze and We has been a resource to parents and caregivers of transgender individuals throughout our region for nearly a decade, and it began at a time when there weren’t many resources to turn to.
Leaning into the ‘We’
The organization was founded to support young trans children but has expanded to serve families of trans individuals of all ages through monthly and bi-monthly focus groups (with sessions specifically for BIPOC families), new family orientation, playgroups and training sessions for community partners.
He She Ze and We programming focuses on caregiver support and education, while other organizations directly support the youth. Its model emphasizes the last pronoun of its name because it really can take a village for a nonbinary person to feel seen, safe and protected no matter where they are.
“We’re helping people look at things through a gender lens, and we’re helping them come along,” said Shannon McKay, the organization’s co-founder and president. “‘We’ is really all of us working to support the trans community, non-binary, gender-expansive individuals. When I go into the community, I try to invite people into the ‘We.’ We can help be the protective factors.”
The work that He She Ze and We does creates an awareness, expands thinking and provides a safety net of loved ones, allies and advocates who can help protect a gender-expansive individual. This work isn’t a nicety, it’s must-have, life-saving work.
“When you think about it, it’s suicide prevention work,” McKay said. “Just one supportive adult in a transgender person’s life reduces suicide by 40%. When school systems respect preferred names and pronouns for students, it reduces depressive symptoms by 72%. This is really intense work, but I love it. It’s what we do. For us, it’s about helping parents truly understand and accept their children.”
During He She Ze and We support group sessions, many familial relationships are part of the conversation – from brothers, sisters and parents to grandparents and other relatives. According to the Pew Research Center, younger generations – Millennials and Gen Z – are more likely to see the binary lines blur than previous generations, but that doesn’t always translate to acceptance.
“The thing we’ve inferred is that if a family member is resistant, it’s often their upbringing – where they live, faith, socioeconomic status, culture, race – and all those intersections really do affect one’s ability to understand, and be willing to understand and accept,” McKay said. “We get really surprised by grandparents in their 70s and 80s who can switch names and pronouns, but then it’s a sibling that may be resistant.”
Building those advocates and supporters within a trans individual’s network is that life-saving “We” component to He She Ze and We’s work.
Connecting through Conversations
Through the support sessions and trainings He She Ze and We conducts, there is a lot of education and awareness happening – not just within a group but within every individual present. Conversations may revolve around navigating bias that are both conscious and unconscious, which could lead to grief and loss of a time before someone’s coming out.
“There’s a lot of loss that can come with this work, friends and family relationships, but with all the things we can have in common, we love this person and sometimes that’s the only thing we have in common,” McKay Said. “But if we can start there, we can try and get them to a place of ‘I love my child, but…’ to a place of ‘I love my child, and…’ That shows they’re willing to do what is necessary to do this hard work.”
As an organization, He She Ze We supports community advocacy efforts to help elevate conversations about gender into the policy level. Advocates will show up to school board meetings to spread awareness through personal stories helping to humanize the kids at the other end of these policies and to help break down misconceptions of what it means to be nonbinary or transgender.
“I hear from a lot of trans and nonbinary individuals that they are the same person – they haven’t changed, but everyone else thinks they’ve changed, they’re just evolving into themselves,” McKay explained. “Transition can be misleading, because it’s more of an evolution, and it takes time. A lot of people out there think it’s all about surgery and it’s all medical. But it’s really having people see them as they see themselves.”
Celebrating Milestones and Looking Ahead
While the pandemic hampered activities across the nonprofit community, He She Ze and We used the time to file the paperwork to make it an official 501(c)(3) organization.
“We did this during the pandemic, becoming a 501(c)(3) – it’s amazing what we’ve accomplished,” McKay said. “But there is still so much work to do. We want people to know they can come to us if they need resources or someone to listen if they’re struggling with the news that their kid is transgender or nonbinary. We can help them figure out the next steps.”
The group also will be celebrating its 10th anniversary in April 2022. He She Ze and We is going through a strategic planning process and hoping to expand its board in the future. Its goal is to continue to expand its reach and provide more training in community spaces.
“We want to make sure we’re doing this right and what we’re doing we’re doing well,” McKay said. “We’re focusing on the families and really empowering them so they know how to support their loved one and how to help them get what they need no matter where they are. It takes a lot of courage to be who they are. We’re not looking for tolerance. We’re looking for acceptance.”