OUT: helping youth find their true selves
Rockland — The following is the second in a three-part series on OUT Maine: its need for expansion; some youths', families', and allies' involvement; and training being conducted across Maine to assist communities and schools in protecting the rights and safety of all students.
Identifying as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or questioning carries real and lasting risks that are sometimes fatal.
For Aiden Campbell of South Thomaston, that was almost the case.
"The bullying and harassment at school had gotten so bad, I didn't know what other options I had," Campbell said. "I just knew that I couldn't take it anymore. I felt as though nobody cared and that nobody would miss me, so what was the point in living to be abused," he said.
His suicide attempt came at an extremely difficult time in his life — when he was a junior in high school — before he had transitioned, when he still identified as a lesbian then named Mary.
"Here you have a kid who thought his life wasn't worth living," Sue Campbell, Aiden's mom and the program director of OUT Maine, said of her son's attempted suicide.
"I told her [his mother] I felt like I should have been a boy," Aiden said, and with her help, found the resources necessary to make it happen. "I never felt like the other girls in my class, but I didn’t realize becoming a boy could be an option for me."
Aiden went through two senior years, his mom joked: one year transitioning and one year of growth.
Now a junior at the University of Southern Maine, Aiden is breaking barriers and looking at ways of assisting fellow LGBTQ young people. He was recently elected president of the Phi Mu Delta fraternity's Nu Xi Chapter, stepping into the role as only the second transgender president in the nation and the first in the state of Maine.
In addition to participating in LGBTQ organizations, Aiden has also done training at elementary, middle and high schools around Maine.
"I have done Trans 101 training, which allows people to have a better understanding of the transgender community and how acceptance and love is the key to success," he said.
"I didn't lose a daughter, I gained an amazing son," Sue said; "the benefits of his successes come from the support he received."
For those wondering about Aiden's relationship status, he and girlfriend Casey have been together for about two and a half years now.
"When I first met her, I knew I liked her, but I had this lingering thought in my mind, 'What if she won't accept me,'" he said. "I decided that if I was going to ask her out I had to tell her first ... I wanted to be fully honest, all cards on the table."
"When I told her, she was fully accepting of it and didn't even question it," he said. "She has been an amazing support to me and I don't know what I would do without her."
Support is key in anyone's life, but never so vital as for LGBTQ youth in their journey to figure out who their true self is.
Five-year-old Collin's journey started when he was told he was going to be a big sister.
When Autumn Cantillo was 3, her mother, Emily, became pregnant and she and husband Tony of Walpole were excited to share the news with their daughter.
However, Autumn did not want any part of being an older sister. She wanted to be an older brother.
"We talked for a year and bought books," Emily said, but it still was unclear what to do. As time went on and more people came in contact with Autumn, they shared their views.
It was more than the proverbial tomboy stage.
The Cantillos contacted the Trans Youth Equality Foundation in Portland when Autumn was 4, but did not take her for a consultation at that time. Then, as the conversation continued about her desire to be a boy, they contacted the center again when she turned 5 and went for a visit.
"This past summer was the most difficult," Emily said, explaining they came to the conclusion that Autumn's desire to be a boy was a reality.
"When we would try to get him to wear girl's clothes, it just didn't look right," Emily said. "He just looks more comfortable now."
"He came up with the name [Collin]," Emily said, "We're not sure where it came from."
Leading up to kindergarten, Emily said they had talked about his going in as Autumn and seeing how it went from there. However, after only about a week, he started writing "Collin" on his papers and asking his teachers and friends to call him Collin and use "he" instead of "she."
Emily had met with his teacher prior to the start of the school year to give her a heads-up on the situation.
Then the school principal contacted OUT Maine to seek advice and get his staff trained on creating a welcoming and affirming school environment for LGBTQ youth.
As the Cantillo family directly benefited from the training, they made a donation to OUT Maine as a thank-you instead of the adults buying each other Christmas presents. "Especially in light of the election results," Emily said, adding that they wanted "to donate to a local organization that supports a group that is likely to be impacted by the Trump administration."
"The reception has been way better than we expected," Emily said, adding that she attributes that to people's talking more openly about transgender issues. "The school has been fantastic, and the kids are at the age of not having any biases built in yet, so they don't really care."
To ease into the changes, the Cantillos wrote a letter that went to family and friends as needed that explained Collin's situation.
"We found it helpful if we were in a situation where we couldn't talk about it, or wanted to respect that maybe the recipient of the letter would need some time to process everything without us being right there in a conversation," Emily said.
The letter said, in part:
"Tony and I have something important we need to share with you all regarding a change in our family. Most of you who have spent time around Autumn know she's always been a ‘tom boy.’ She has always naturally gravitated towards more boy typical toys and interests. What you may not know is that that gravitation is much deeper than what she likes or doesn't like and for many years Autumn has been telling us she is a boy.
" ... it has become something we can no longer dismiss ... we have come to the realization that Autumn is transgender. We are so proud of Collin for being strong enough to share his true self with us and others at such a young age.
"We have no desire to keep this a secret ... we never want Collin to feel like this is something that must be secret so in turn is something that is wrong or embarrassing.
"We do understand this can be a confusing topic for many and there's lots to learn. As with all parents we are only trying to do what is best for our child ... he needs to be his true self. This path is his to walk, and he has led the way. I trust our beautiful son will continue to blaze his own trail and from that teach us many wonderful things."
For now, the transition for Collin means a more boyish haircut and gender- appropriate clothing. He and his family receive emotional and physical support from Maine Medical Center's Gender Clinic in Portland.
"Reading up on it is what helped me," Emily said, "and reaching out to organizations like OUT and the Gender Clinic. It's nice to know you aren't the only person going through this."
Emily said prior to identifying as Collin, Autumn had problems with anger. "We've definitely seen a change for the better," she said. "He's happier now, and that helps us feel like we are doing the right thing."
She admitted thinking maybe they, as parents, had done something wrong, but Emily said she knows in her heart they didn't. She said she tells herself "It doesn't matter, he's the same person."
Although sometimes it is difficult, especially when Facebook memories show up ... Emily said that tends to bring about a sort of feeling of loss. "You know, there she [Autumn] is in a pretty pink outfit."
Emily said she is very excited to have the opportunity to share her family's story. "I want people to be aware of this ... kids are born this way," she said, "and the suicide stats are huge."
"I don't want him to feel ashamed of who he is," Emily said of her son.
And now Collin is the proud big brother to sister Nora.
Of course, transgender people are only one portion of the LGBTQ community.
Despite a parent's fear that gender identity issues may cause hardship and eliminate happiness, "the reality is that not supporting a child in his or her gender exploration can be significantly more harmful," according to an article by Nancy Schatz Alton for "ParentMap” on gender identity.
Take Joel, for example. He is a freshman on Vinalhaven. The young trans man said the worst experience he had to face was dealing with his family.
"They were really homophobic and made me feel horrible about wanting to be me," he said. "And this continues to happen, no matter how hard I try to make peace with them."
Joel said it has gotten to the point where he cannot function without depression medication because of the lack of support at home.
"It feels like I'm unwanted here," he said. Joel has contemplated suicide many times. "I just felt like it was the only way to be me and because I was scared of not being accepted," he said. He praises the LGBTQ community for helping him be open-minded. "I'm so thankful for that," he said.
Another LGBTQ youth feels the same as Joel. "My worst experience is just watching my family discriminate [against] the LGBTQ youth when I myself am part of it, and it's just so scary and heartbreaking to me knowing I can't be myself around them."
However, through involvement with OUT Maine, the youth said, "It warms my heart knowing there is a safe place out there, and I feel like I can start being myself truthfully."
Several LGBTQ youth involved with OUT Maine responded to some questions posed to them. Some of their responses included the following:
Youth 1 — lives with a fairly religious family. "It was painful to hear him [my father] tell me years ago that being gay was a bad thing and that it is marked as a 'sin' in the Bible. It is because of him that I am not fully 'out'."
Youth 2 from Belfast Area High School — worries about the hatred that the recent presidential campaign has brought out. "For the last eight years, we've begun the work of inclusivity, and I fear that is at risk because of the hatred and promises that these two men [President-elect Donald Trump and Vice President-elect Mike Pence] have made."
Youth 3 — feels privileged that their mother is accepting and school was tolerant. "However, my father is Mormon, so I've sat through a few too many of the anti-homosexuality speeches. I know in time that he will come to accept me for who I am, I'm just not looking forward to the time in between then and when I come out."
Members of the Gay-Straight-Trans Alliance at Wiscasset High School expressed concerns about Pence's support for conversion therapy. "There is a fear of the unknown."
Conversion therapy is a set of practices intended to change a person's sexuality or gender identity to fit heterosexual standards and expectations – and it is usually religiously motivated, according to a report from November 2016 in The Huffington Post entitled, “A Survivor of Gay Conversion Therapy Shares His Chilling Story.”
"Therapy practices can include methods such as talk therapy, electroshock therapy, treating LGBTQ identity as an addiction issue like drugs or alcohol,” the article states.
The survivor, who spoke anonymously, explained “they deconstruct us as a person” with a “goal to get us to hate ourselves for being LGBTQ,” then they “rebuilt us in their image.”
“They were able to turn us against ourselves,” he said. “This is what drew so many people to suicide. We were no longer people at the end of the program.”
For local LGBTQ youth, OUT has been influential in helping them connect with other people and make friends with students from other schools. "OUT has helped our group by coming to meetings and training our staff. This staff training seems to have made it easier for teachers to talk about LGBTQ issues in class," members of the Wiscasset GSTA group said.
One member said their best experience as an LGBTQ youth has been "enjoying the improved school culture due to our [the GSTA's] work."
Advocating for LGBTQ youth is an ongoing challenge as OUT Maine seeks to reach across the spectrum.
When Sue Campbell said in Part 1 of this series "It's so much more than bathrooms," she was referring to the case of Nicole Maines, a Maine transgender female who was awarded $75,000 in a school restroom lawsuit in 2014. It was "the first in the country to challenge a transgender student's access to the bathroom of the gender with which the child identified," according to a report by the Bangor Daily News in December 2014.
In the article, Maines said, “They can look at what happened in Maine and see … our state leaders validated that everyone gets to be whom they need to be. ... There’s still work to be done and stories that need to be told. … I think [advocacy] will always be a part of my life.”
Courier Publications reporter Beth A. Birmingham can be reached at 594-4401 ext. 125 or via email at email@example.com.