JENN BURLETON still remembers the moment it clicked—the moment she knew what needed to be done.
She'd heard about a transgender child in Florida who—with support from her family—had transitioned to a girl and was attending kindergarten.
She remembered the attacks from conservative media—and how few advocacy organizations had really stood up to keep the girl's family from feeling so alone. She also remembered her own painful experiences after coming out. And, so, she got to work.
That was seven years ago. Today Burleton is running TransActive—a Portland-based nonprofit organization that seeks to make the world a more accepting place for not only transgender and gender-nonconforming youth, but also their families.
Over the past few years, it's helped as many as 1,000 kids and families across the US—and even a few in Europe—with educational outreach, counseling, and advocacy services.
"You won't find another organization like it in the country," says Carol Blenning, a family doctor at OHSU's Richmond Clinic who has worked with TransActive.
Burleton, speaking from her office in an East Portland basement, says the work has been difficult.
The climate for transgender individuals hasn't improved much since she came out, at age 12, way back in 1966.
She also says traditional gay-rights groups have shied away from working with youth—amid concerns they'd help fuel the myth that LGBTQ advocates actively seek to "recruit" children.
The school year—which started last month—is TransActive's busiest time. It's when transgender youth tend to face the most harassment. A 2011 survey by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and the National Center for Transgender Equality found that more than half of transgender respondents reported being bullied in school, with 15 percent leaving school because of it.
And even with more attention on bullying and suicide lately. Burleton says schools still aren't having the right conversations.
"If we don't affirm the gender identity of kids early, we will never resolve bullying and suicide," says Burleton, who notes there is a virtual consensus among medical organizations that gender nonconformity is a condition, not a disorder.
But she says teachers also aren't telling elementary students that it's okay if kids don't conform to gender stereotypes. Teachers and school administrators, she says, often don't make the distinction between sexual orientation and gender identity. As a result, they worry that discussing gender issues with elementary students will be sexually oriented—which means much-needed conversations don't happen.
TransActive says it's trying to change that, at least locally.
Burleton says she's worked with Portland Public Schools (PPS) on policies meant to protect transgender students—even doing outreach aimed at educating staffers and students. (PPS didn't return messages seeking comment for this story.)
Burleton says she'll also call districts around the country that aren't addressing bullying and helpfully cite federal or state polices that require those districts to take action.
TransActive started offering counseling in 2010, with 165 new families coming in this year alone for services, says Sheryl Rindel, the organization's program manager for client services.
Jill (not her real name), who lives out of state, remembers feeling overwhelmed when her seven-year-old began identifying as a boy. Unsure of how to deal with custody issues, or doctors, or questions from other parents and school administrators, she called TransActive.
"As a parent there are so many things to think about," she says, "and it's so helpful that someone will make those few phone calls and advocate on your behalf. Because it's daunting."
As public opinion comes around on other matters of sexual politics, like same-sex marriage—and as conservatives start looking for new targets—Burleton figures TransActive's advocacy work will become even more vital.
"If we continue to think that the only human-rights issue of our times is around marriage equality and sexual orientation," she says, "we will continue to live in an environment that oppresses our children who don't conform to gender stereotypes because we're having the wrong conversations."
For more information about TransActive,
go to transactiveonline.org.
Department of Corrections: Because of an editing error, a previous version of this story transposed the years when TransActive began counseling and the year that the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and the National Center for Transgender Equality released their schools survey. The Mercury regrets the mistakes.