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He She Ze We serves families with transgender loved ones through support, education and advocacy

Shannon McKay is wearing red-rimmed glassed and smiling in front of her bookshelf that has colorful flags that symbolize her support for the trans community.
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Executive director Shannon McKay: “Our mission is empowering families on the journey of gender identity through three things, that is support, education, and advocacy.”

During these turbulent times for LGBTQ+ youth, He She Ze and We provides a safe haven by serving families with trans and nonbinary loved ones of all ages.

This interview transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

Shannon McKay [speaking to Client 1 on a Zoom call]: I’m Shannon McKay. I use she/her pronouns, executive director and also the co-founder of He She Ze and We. I have my own trans kid, that’s why I do this work. This is an opportunity for you to share what’s going on with you all.

We are a 501(c)3 nonprofit that serves families that have trans and nonbinary loved ones of all ages. I have been doing work in the community for 11 years now. Our mission of He She Ze and We is empowering families on the journey of gender identity through three things, that is support, education, and advocacy.

McKay [speaking to Client 2 on Zoom]: What you are already doing is you are listening to your child, believing them and also your story is a very common thread through the families I work with through He She Ze and We.

Family support is the No. 1 protective factor for trans youth. Sadly, only 1 in 3 trans or nonbinary youth report that their family is supportive and affirming of their gender identity. That wrecks me. That's why we do this work, because we can do better than that.

The Trevor Project in 2021, reported 42% of LGBTQ youth considered attempting suicide last year. And out of that number 50% Were trans or nonbinary. With parent’s support, even just one supportive adult in a youth’s life can reduce that number by 50%.

When a young person tells us who they are, we need to believe them. It's their truth. It is very hard for kids to come out to their parents or to a trusted adult, or to a friend. And the best thing that we can do is say, "I believe you. I trust that you know yourself, and I'm here for you."

It is very difficult to be trans and no one enters into this lightly. I think what folks are seeing on Tik Tok and in social media is representation, we need to realize that representation is so important for people to see others that are like them, so that then they can learn to accept themselves and realize that they're OK.

Trans people have always existed. trans youth have always existed. And with all of the anti-trans legislation all across the country, I feel that my job is getting harder. I'm holding these families together, trying to make them whole.

Parents and families have been shown to be the greatest protective factor of LGBTQ youth, specifically trans and nonbinary youth. And as a matter of fact, just using a child’s or a person's name and pronouns reduces depression symptoms, by 71%. We can do that. It's not that hard.

McKay [speaking to Client 3 on Zoom]: But you’ll see the February calendar, save that because it has a link to register for every single meeting. And we do that to protect the privacy and safety of all of our families. It’s worked so far, no issues at all.

I am most concerned about the safety of our families and of our children, of all ages, trans and nonbinary folks because the messaging that It's happening everywhere is an attack on trans and nonbinary people. And it is taking a toll.

In Virginia, things are getting worse. Heating up. There's there were so many bills coming across the General Assembly this year that are attacking trans youth, such as a forced outing bill and a ban on athletes in sports.

The bathroom issue is one that keeps coming up. So, they're trying to tell trans and nonbinary students which bathrooms to use, and rather than allowing them to use the one that matches their gender identity.

McKay [talking at a Diversity Richmond event]: How are you? Have you heard about He She Ze and We? You can use the QR code and join us as an ally and that way you can get information from our newsletter. That way you’ll get all the information about the dance party and future events, too.

Trans joy is something that is not talked about enough. I think that people focus on the negative side. When you see parents that are supportive, siblings supportive, the extended families being supportive and accepting, it can be absolutely joyful. Is it still ups and downs that are regular and normal in child development and growth and family situations? Yes, 100%. But there is so much joy in our community.

Parents learn to advocate for their kids in many ways. They may advocate in schools, when the time comes when they're ready to tell the school what their name is, and their pronouns, and what their kids need.

And young children will let us know, with clothing choice toy choice, things like that, that that are maybe to the extreme of, of one side of the gender spectrum to the other. But then there's a whole bunch of kids who just feel like, you know what, I'm not any of this. So, it's our society that's got to make room for these kids. There's nothing wrong with our kids, especially nonbinary folks, too, to make sure we include them. It is our society that needs to change to be warm, welcoming and make space for them.

Nonbinary is a gender identity. And it just means that you are either masculine and feminine feeling, or neither masculine or feminine. Neither male or female, or you feel a little bit of both or none. OK, so it just really is all encompassing of everyone that doesn't feel just male — or just female — internally.

So, gender identity, it's really important for understanding this, too, is the internal sense of who we are. It's how we express ourselves. It's how people see us. It's how we know ourselves on the inside. That's your gender identity.

And then the other important thing is that sexual orientation, that is the LGB part of LGBTQ. So that's lesbian, gay and bisexual. And that is really who you love, who you're attracted to, not who you are. Gender identity is who you are.

So, a lot of people in trainings or even just our families, or any event I go to, they want to know, "What can we do to be an ally?" And the first thing I'm going to tell you is to use someone's name and pronouns. That is so important. If I leave my glass behind, someone says, "Oh, they left their glass, when are they going to come back and get it because they don't know who the person is." So, we do this all the time. It's not that hard. And it is the most respectful thing to do. And if you remember, it reduces depression symptoms by 71%, and suicidality by 36%.

So, you're actually saving lives by just using someone's name and pronouns. And putting them in your signature for your email is something that we recommend that corporations do, and anybody, any ally can do, including them on your name tag, when you go to an event just signals to people that you get it.

Our work is actually lifesaving, in that it is anti-violence work, and it is anti-suicide work. And outsiders might not really think that that's true or that the situation is so severe, but it really, really is. We need more support for our families, we need youth to be supported, we need trans and nonbinary adults to be accepted, and just be treated with dignity and have the same rights as everyone else.

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