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Going 360: Kansas City transgender community celebrates pride amid fear, threats

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Posted at 5:00 AM, Jun 02, 2022
and last updated 2022-06-02 20:30:39-04

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — It’s the start of a new month in our community, as June is Pride Month.

Recently, the communities that celebrate pride say they’re living in a climate of hate and intolerance.

In this KSHB 41 360 story, we hear from multiple perspectives including:

  • A local board of education debating the issue publicly
  • That school district's community
  • A local mental health professional 
  • The Kansas City Center for Inclusion

Pride is a special time for Emily Ferrarini, who works at the Center for Inclusion.

"It’s so empowering to participate in pride events and to express pride in who I am," they said.

Those who celebrate pride fly a flag representing the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex, asexual, and gender nonconforming communities, or LGBTQIA+ for short.

The flag flies throughout Kansas City and at the Center for Inclusion, where Riley Long works too. He says the flag is a powerful symbol.

"I think pride is just about bringing together the community and not being afraid to be yourself, and not having to apologize for who you are either, and feeling comfortable in a space together," Long said.

Even as they feel proud, they also feel threatened.

"It’s hard to express to someone who hasn’t experienced it before, just how terrible it feels to know there are people out there, half the people you encounter in the grocery store, or at school, or in your life, or more who think that you’re weird, or you’re a freak, or you are in some way a danger," Ferrarini said. "It’s really disheartening."

The LGBTQIA+ community says that disheartening environment stems from what they say are words and actions that threaten their identity, particularly the transgender community.

Earlier this year, Jim McMullen, a Blue Valley Board of Education member, published since-deleted tweets referring to President Joe Biden’s support of the transgender community as “embracing child abuse."

McMullen also added his intent to “speak out about the poison that is gender ideology."

Those tweets led to a petition calling for McMullen’s censure and removal.

This spring, Blue Valley called for a special board meeting to address McMullen’s position as the board's Vice President.

Supporters showed up by the dozens, at one point yelling in board chambers, "Hey Jim, I know you can’t talk to us but we want to let you know that we support you."

McMullen spoke too, standing by his comments and referencing a play about a witch hunt.

"It appears to be a modern enactment of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible," he said. "I believe so called gender affirming care and gender ideology harm kids. An ideology that denies biologically determined sex is designed to confuse kids and invites kids to hate their God-given bodies."

Kaety Bowers, another board member, supported McMullen at the podium that day.

"If you censure Jim for an opinion, you will fracture this community deeper than it is already," Bowers said that day.

Other board members expressed concerns with his social media posts at this special meeting, including Tom Mitchell.

"All means all for all 23,000 of our kids, no matter the makeup," Mitchell said.

McMullen lost his title as Vice President of the board, in a 5-2 vote.

All but one of his supporters declined KSHB 41's request to conduct an interview on camera.

This supporter said, "it’s his remarks, and the reaction in there is obviously we all have an opinion to say and do what we want."

A few weeks later, Kaety Bowers was named the next board vice president, when more McMullen supporters expressed their displeasure.

"Five board members stripped the VP of his title and are trying to get him recalled because he personally doesn’t conform to their views," they said.

Wendy Connelly said McMullen’s words aren’t just a viewpoint, or an opinion.

"Your words are not okay, they’re harmful," Connelly said. "They’re harmful to the kids in this district, to the people that you as a leader are supposed to protect and support and represent."

She was in attendance at both recent board meetings to show her support for her son Leo, who identifies as transgender, and is a student at Blue Valley Southwest.

"I had a lot of stress and anxiety, (so) they set me up with a psychiatrist and a therapist," Leo Connelly said. "I got to talking to them, and I realized after I came out as trans, a lot of the anxiety and stress went away. It was a major factor for me knowing that my parents accepted me and my school friends accepted me, it was a big step in my mental health."

Amber Reynolds, who identifies as queer and specializes in working with the LGBTQIA+ community, is a counselor at Resolve KC.

She says recent political speech and political actions have adversely impacted the mental health of those in LGBTQIA+ communities.

"When we are having language that is villainize people in the LGBTQ population and is deeming them as unfit, or is using these really scary words like child abuse for parents who are doing the things they need to do to take care of their kids and keep their kids safe? It's really, really scary," Reynolds said. "And the implications have a huge impact on the population."

The Trevor Project’s most recent survey shows 45% of LGBTQIA+ youth seriously considered suicide in the past year, with higher rates for transgender youth.

Fifty-nine percent of trans men considered suicide and 48% of trans women considered ending their life.

"You cannot go back on a kid who has died. Once the kid makes that choice, there is no walking back from someone who we have lost. We can't get them back," Reynolds said. "We know that being affirming reduces that chance, so that's what we do."

As another Pride Month unfolds in 2022, Ferrarini says they feel affirmed by their present, not their past.

"I was raised in a culture in a way that taught me to be ashamed of who I was and taught me that there was something wrong with me or that it was abnormal," Ferrarini said. "It’s just so empowering to be surrounded by people who are saying, 'We’re like you or we accept you for who you are, and we’re proud of you and proud of ourselves.'"

Long is asking for community-wide compassion and acceptance of his transgender identity, and all others who celebrate and hope to feel pride.

"You can’t understand my experience as a cisgender person and I don’t expect you to try, but just open your heart and see we’re just like everyone else," Long said.

As part of KSHB 41 News' commitment to providing context and depth in our reporting, we've excited to share our latest project, which we're calling 360. This project takes stories and topics that our communities are talking about and explores different perspectives on the issue. You can be a part of the process by e-mailing your ideas and thoughts to us at 360@kshb.com.