Nine-year-old helps teach educators about queer youth

Nine-year-old helps teach educators about queer youth

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When a third-grade teacher from Texas asked her mostly 8-year-old students what they wanted to be when they grow up, one of them wrote on the white board: "drag queen."

That response came from Keegan, now 9, a "gender creative" kid, in his mother's words, illustrating just one of the challenges facing educators as they accommodate the range of gender identities that students might express.

. Austin, UNITED STATES. Reuters/Amanda Voisard
Keegan plays with his older brother Noah.

Reuters has agreed not to fully identify the family and school at their request to protect them from potential harassment.

Educators who for centuries have divided students into boys and girls are now figuring out better ways to address students who are nonbinary, gender fluid and gender nonconforming, in addition to transgender kids, whose gender identity differs from the one they were assigned at birth.

. Austin, UNITED STATES. Reuters/Amanda Voisard
Keegan stands with his 3rd grade classmates at his elementary school.

By one survey nearly 3 percent of youth in Minnesota fall under these categories, identifying with neither gender, or both, or trans, or just defying a traditional male/female binary option.

Some school districts in the United States are using more gender-neutral language, addressing students by their preferred pronouns, which can be "they," "them," "theirs" for an individual, or the invented "zie," "zir," "zirs," which are used as a substitute. Some schools also allow students to easily change their preferred name or gender identity.

. Austin, UNITED STATES. Reuters/Amanda Voisard
Keegan pours glitter on his head during his 9th birthday party.

The degree of acceptance for such students can literally be a matter of life and death, experts say.

A national survey of 34,000 LGBTQ youth aged 13 to 24 released last week found 39 percent seriously considered suicide in the past 12 months, as did more than half of transgender and nonbinary youth, according to the Trevor Project, a pro-LGBTQ group focused on suicide prevention.

Another study, published in the Journal of Adolescent Health in 2018 and based on a cohort study of 129 trans and gender nonconforming youth aged 15 to 21, found that suicide attempts plummet 65 percent and depression symptoms fall 71 percent if they are allowed to use their chosen name at school, home, and work, and with friends.

The issue comes up long before adolescence as gender identity typically manifests itself in children by kindergarten.

. Austin, UNITED STATES. Reuters/Amanda Voisard
Keegan bounces on the trampoline with his brother Noah.

"What's at stake is nothing less than the future lives of these children and own health as a society," said Eliza Byard, executive director of GLSEN, a national advocacy group for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) students.

"We still live in a world where the most marginalized are not receiving the support and affirmation that they need in order to achieve academically and thrive personally. And we all will benefit when that is true," Byard said.

. Austin, UNITED STATES. Reuters/Amanda Voisard
Alex (center), drag name Alexandria Van Cartier, 26, a real-life drag queen and mentor of Keegan, says he tries to impress upon Keegan a sense of feeling comfortable in his own skin. "Part of what drag has done, for me at least... it's like, if you're not enjoying what you're seeing in the mirror, than there is something wrong. And if I'm going to have to look at myself in the mirror for three hours, I better like what I'm seeing."

Transgender rights have risen to the fore in recent years and as LGBTQ people prepare to mark the 50th anniversary since the Stonewall uprising of June 28, 1969. The protests by patrons of a New York City gay bar, who fought back against police harassment, is considered the birth of the modern LGBTQ rights movement.

Keegan is one student who has benefited from the Stonewall legacy.

. Austin, UNITED STATES. Reuters/Amanda Voisard
Keegan and Noah play video games.

He plays soccer and video games and also likes to dress as a girl, using the name Kween-Kee-Kee when in drag, his parents say. Among his mentors are a pair of real-life adult drag queens. He usually goes by the pronouns "he," "him" and "his."

Keegan has found acceptance and support at his school in a conservative, Christian suburb outside of Austin, Texas, his mother said.

. Austin, UNITED STATES. Reuters/Amanda Voisard
Keegan says he "feels more like himself" when he is wearing a dress. Though Keegan has only performed in drag as Kween-Kee-Kee twice, he has gained a following on his minikweenkeekee Instagram page, posting photos dressed in full drag and other life updates with the help of his mother.

"We expected a lot of pushback from the school and we expected some intolerance, but we've been very surprised," said Keegan's mother.

Keegan's teacher paid close attention during the lesson on financial literacy, when other students aspired to be doctors and dentists and Keegan wrote "drag queen."

. Austin, UNITED STATES. Reuters/Amanda Voisard
Keegan during a class.

"One of the students asked, 'What's that?' and Keegan kind of said 'I don't know' and moved past it," said his teacher.

"But I do see little, like, hints of him trying to make people aware that this is something that he is, something that he does."

Neither Keegan's teacher nor his principal said they received any formal training on educating gender nonconforming students and have worked with intuition and observation.

The teacher wants to let Keegan bring up the subject "at his own pace."

. Austin, UNITED STATES. Reuters/Amanda Voisard
Keegan is comforted by his father, Chris, 33. Chris said at first he was ambivalent to Keegan's gender expression, not thinking too much about it. However, in the years following, the family made a collective decision to be more aware of prescribed gender typical roles and not impose them in their home.

His parents, too, have wanted to "let Keegan be himself" and not impose any norms on him. They said they were surprised on Friday when, five years after he first started wearing dresses and a full year after they began cooperating with a photographer on this project, he said he was gay.

Minneapolis Public Schools in Minnesota offer some of the most extensive guidelines for teachers, students and parents as part of its Out4Good program supporting LGBTQ children, outlining polices developed over 20 years on names and pronouns, gendered activities and facilities, and safety and bullying, said Jason Bucklin, the Out4Good coordinator.

. Austin, UNITED STATES. Reuters/Amanda Voisard
Under the mentorship of the drag queens, Keegan's drag life has blossomed. "At the end of the day, that's really what all of this is about, right? (It) is just creating positive change for a kid who maybe didn't know that there was an option to do so," said Robby, 25, a drag queen.

Some 2.7% of Minnesota high school students identify as transgender or gender nonconforming, according to a 2017 University of Minnesota study.

A gender-inclusive curriculum can prevent the kind of bullying that typically begins in grade school and can evolve into homophobia by middle school and sexual harassment or dating violence by high school, Bucklin said.

. Austin, UNITED STATES. Reuters/Amanda Voisard
Keegan and his brother Noah accompanied by their family, look on after arriving at the Austin International Drag Festival 2018.

"It isn't just about the transgender students," Bucklin said. "It is about bringing everybody into the classroom and having the ability to feel successful."

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Slideshow

Keegan reads before going to sleep in his room painted in his favorite colour purple.
. Austin, UNITED STATES. Reuters/Amanda Voisard

Keegan reads before going to sleep in his room painted in his favorite colour purple.

Keegan and his mother Megan chat outside his drag closet where he keeps most of his costumes out of direct view.
. Austin, UNITED STATES. Reuters/Amanda Voisard

Keegan and his mother Megan chat outside his drag closet where he keeps most of his costumes out of direct view.

Keegan wrestles around with his friend Bishop during his 9th birthday party. Keegan says he has shared his gender creative choices with several friends but has only told a select few about his drag performances.
. Austin, UNITED STATES. Reuters/Amanda Voisard

Keegan wrestles around with his friend Bishop during his 9th birthday party. Keegan says he has shared his gender creative choices with several friends but has only told a select few about his drag performances.

Keegan plays at the playground at school. Keegan says he has been bullied in the classroom and ridiculed by friends for having a closet of makeup, wigs and costumes. Fuelled by the support of his family, Keegan has moved past his fears of exposing his gender nonconforming lifestyle to his peers, wearing his sparkly shoes to school.
. Austin, UNITED STATES. Reuters/Amanda Voisard

Keegan plays at the playground at school. Keegan says he has been bullied in the classroom and ridiculed by friends for having a closet of makeup, wigs and costumes. Fuelled by the support of his family, Keegan has moved past his fears of exposing his gender nonconforming lifestyle to his peers, wearing his sparkly shoes to school.

Keegan's parents have made the choice to raise their children to self-identify, while consciously not imposing gender norms on their day-to-day activities.
. Austin, UNITED STATES. Reuters/Amanda Voisard

Keegan's parents have made the choice to raise their children to self-identify, while consciously not imposing gender norms on their day-to-day activities.

Since the age of 4, Keegan had been prone to dressing in traditional female clothing, asking to wear dresses to pre-school. At the same time, his family also said he continues to exhibit strong stereotypical male behaviour, such as rough play with his brother.
. Austin, UNITED STATES. Reuters/Amanda Voisard

Since the age of 4, Keegan had been prone to dressing in traditional female clothing, asking to wear dresses to pre-school. At the same time, his family also said he continues to exhibit strong stereotypical male behaviour, such as rough play with his brother.

Keegan, his brother and parents take a trip with his drag queen mentors, Robby and Alex to Jo-Ann Fabrics and Crafts to buy fabric to be used for a new costume Robby would make as a gift to Keegan for his 9th birthday.
. Austin, UNITED STATES. Reuters/Amanda Voisard

Keegan, his brother and parents take a trip with his drag queen mentors, Robby and Alex to Jo-Ann Fabrics and Crafts to buy fabric to be used for a new costume Robby would make as a gift to Keegan for his 9th birthday.

Robby embraces Keegan following a rehearsal for Keegan's upcoming inaugural drag performance.
. Austin, UNITED STATES. Reuters/Amanda Voisard

Robby embraces Keegan following a rehearsal for Keegan's upcoming inaugural drag performance.

Feeling Keegan in need of aid that she could not provide, his mother, Megan sought the help of the drag community to guide him. She contacted a married couple named Robby and Alex, who perform drag professionally, to help educate Keegan on performing and act as mentors.
. Austin, UNITED STATES. Reuters/Amanda Voisard

Feeling Keegan in need of aid that she could not provide, his mother, Megan sought the help of the drag community to guide him. She contacted a married couple named Robby and Alex, who perform drag professionally, to help educate Keegan on performing and act as mentors.

Keegan relaxes after a drag class.
. Austin, UNITED STATES. Reuters/Amanda Voisard

Keegan relaxes after a drag class.

Keegan and his mother sit side-stage prior to Keegan's debut drag performance during the Austin International Drag Festival 2018.
. Austin, UNITED STATES. Reuters/Amanda Voisard

Keegan and his mother sit side-stage prior to Keegan's debut drag performance during the Austin International Drag Festival 2018.

Keegan, accompanied by his family, glances at another performer during the Austin International Drag Festival 2018.
. Austin, UNITED STATES. Reuters/Amanda Voisard

Keegan, accompanied by his family, glances at another performer during the Austin International Drag Festival 2018.

Robby performs during the International Drag Festival 2018.
. Austin, UNITED STATES. Reuters/Amanda Voisard

Robby performs during the International Drag Festival 2018.

Robby prepares to take the stage during the International Drag Festival 2018.
. Austin, UNITED STATES. Reuters/Amanda Voisard

Robby prepares to take the stage during the International Drag Festival 2018.