Transgender athlete sets new milestone for LGBT youth in Iowa

Of all the cultural changes in Iowa since I grew up here during the 1970s and 1980s, few are more striking or more inspiring than the growing acceptance for LGBT people. When I was a teenager at Valley High School in West Des Moines, no kids were “out” in our student body or at any other Iowa high school, as far as I’ve been able to ascertain by talking to peers my age. A few of my Valley classmates came out soon after starting college, but I could never have imagined Iowa high school students openly identifying as LGBT. Now gay-straight alliances are active in at least 80 Iowa high schools. Students from much smaller communities than West Des Moines have not only come out, but become leaders in their communities, forming support groups and raising awareness of anti-LGBT discrimination that remains. Even some Iowans attending Catholic high schools have fought to create safe spaces for LGBT students.

In recent years, several transgender teens have sought not just acceptance but understanding of issues they face in high school, including at my alma mater.

Ben Christiason of Cedar Falls set another milestone by becoming Iowa’s first openly transgender high school athlete. I heard of him for the first time in June, when he was among more than a dozen graduating seniors honored at the Eychaner Foundation‘s Matthew Shepard Scholarship dinner. The American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa awarded its annual Robert Mannheimer Youth Advocacy Award to Christiason because of “his pioneering role in transgender equality.” I enclose that announcement below, along with excerpts from Courtney Crowder’s excellent profile of Christiason, which the Des Moines Register published earlier this month. Crowder’s piece on other transgender children in Iowa is a must-read as well.

The non-profit Iowa Safe Schools is hosting Iowa’s First Annual Trans Educational Conference this November, hoping to enlighten “school administrators, school board members, educators, healthcare providers, youth-serving professionals, and parents” about “the specific needs of trans and gender non-conforming students” in communities of all sizes.

UPDATE: A new national poll of millennials provides the latest evidence that LGBT equality is becoming a consensus issue for the younger generation of Americans. Added the toplines below.

ACLU of Iowa press release, August 9:

Cedar Falls Transgender Student Wins 2016 ACLU of Iowa Robert Mannheimer Youth Advocacy Award

Cedar Falls, Iowa —Ben Christiason didn’t set out to be a pioneer in transgender rights advocacy, but he’s become one.
The 18-year-old is the first openly transgender person to graduate from Cedar Falls High School. He is also the first out transgender boy in the history of Cedar Falls High School to participate in boys’ sports as a member of the cross-country team.
Ben has become an educator on transgender issues for schools, faith groups, and educators both locally and throughout his part of the state. Because of his pioneering role in transgender equality, he has been named the winner of the ACLU of Iowa’s 2016 Robert Mannheimer Youth Advocacy Award.

In ninth grade, Ben shared his story in front of both peers and congregants present for his Lutheran confirmation faith statement. More recently, he spoke to guidance counselors at his region’s area education agency, talking about his own experience and the need to educate elementary and middle school students on transgender issues. He has also shared his story with pediatric nursing students at Allen College in Waterloo and was a guest speaker at a health course at his high school.
Ben was chosen for the award because of his obvious passion and talent in reaching out to others to educate about the realities and challenges transgender individuals face. “We were impressed by how students and adults alike look to Ben for information and education who has graciously shared his story, providing both information and inspiration to other young people who are transgender,” said Veronica Fowler, ACLU of Iowa Communications Director.

Ben knew from an early age that he was a boy. Starting in his freshman year, with the love and support of family and friends, Ben came out as transgender at school. In addition to using a male name and pronouns and wearing clothes that Ben associated with being a boy, he began to present and live his life in as male. Everyone is different, and not all transgender people want or need any particular medical treatment to treat gender dysphoria. But in Ben’s case his hormone therapy and gender confirmation surgery was an important part of his process.

But going through a gender transition as a teenager in high school in front of peers has not always been easy—Ben has been the subject of hateful and offensive comments both to his face and in writing. For Ben, his personal faith as a Christian has been an important source of strength and courage.

“It’s important to show the adults in the community that I am no different than the person they knew in Sunday school,” Ben says, “I want other to know that I’m transgender, but that I’m also a Christian.”

“Ben has held his head high even when his heart was sinking because a classmate had told him he was an abomination and going to hell,” said his mother, Jennifer Christiason, who nominated him for the award. “He continued to stay active in our youth group and participated in numerous mission trips in spite of the hateful comments.”

Ben says that his experience of coming out and being able to live as a boy has quite literally been a lifesaver. When he was younger, “I felt like my life was going to be short…I felt like I wasn’t going to be old ever.” He felt at times like he didn’t have a life to look forward to, one that was worth living. Tragically, Ben’s experience is not unique. Forty-one percent of transgender people attempt suicide at some point in their lifetimes.*

“Now I no longer walk the halls with my head down. I smile at everyone I pass and keep my shoulders back. I have never been so comfortable in my body and this realization has allowed me to begin to reach my full potential,” he says.

Joining the men’s cross-country team “has been one of the greatest challenges of my life. Physically, I am weaker than some of my teammates, but mentally I am just as tough and I compete my hardest, not to prove something to the world, but instead to myself.”

This fall, Ben will be a freshman at St. Olaf College in Minnesota. He wants to become a lawyer “to become a voice not just for transgender people but LGBT minorities and other minorities as well.”

He says that today, he is eager to get started on his career helping others, and hopes to marry and raise children—part of a long, rewarding, and happy life.

The Robert Mannheimer Award is a $500 cash prize given to a young Iowan aged 14 to 19 who has demonstrated a passion and advocacy for civil liberties. It is named as a memorial to Des Moines attorney and civil liberties advocate Robert Mannheimer.
For more information on the Robert Mannheimer award, go to:

The Robert Mannheimer Youth Advocacy Award

* Source: National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and National Center for Transgender Equality, *****

From Courtney Crowder’s August 4 feature for the Des Moines Register, “Iowa’s first transgender high school athlete found his truth on the track.” Do click through to read the whole article.

In Iowa, the 2007 Civil Rights Act has been praised by advocates for including protections for gender identity, or the gender with which a person identifies. But it exempts athletic programs from the discrimination prohibitions listed in the education section, said Kristin H. Johnson, executive director of the Iowa Civil Rights Commission, the state agency charged with investigating discrimination claims.

“Discriminatory practices shall include but not be limited to the following practices,” the code reads, “exclusion of a person or persons from any … program or activity except athletic programs.” […]

Being active is important to the Christiason family. In addition to skiing, backpacking and snow-showing, his parents always ran. So when Christiason had the opportunity to join cross country, it was a natural fit.

Until it wasn’t.

Christiason joined his middle school’s co-ed team and loved the physical aspect of running every day with the same group of people. More importantly, he found a needed calm, a chunk of time to escape the thoughts, questions and feelings he had about his gender. […]

But in his freshman year, when the team was divided on gender lines, something changed. He felt like a boy on a women’s team, he said, and that calm he loved was suddenly gone. […]

That path to approval became even easier when Troy Becker, a Cedar Falls High School administrator and coach, asked Christiason to join the boys’ cross country team. […]

When his dad agreed, Christiason hadn’t been on testosterone for long and felt like a “12-year-old boy running,” but he joined anyway — and it immediately felt right.

UPDATE: From a USA Today report on August 15 by Susan Page and Fernanda Crescente:

A new USA TODAY/Rock the Vote survey of those 18 to 35 years old shows a 62%-32% divide on the issue, and the intensity of opinion is on one side: 34% strongly agree they should be able to use the bathroom of the gender they identify with; just 17% strongly disagree. […]

Opinion among older Americans is much more closely split. In April, a Reuters/Ipsos poll found by a narrow 43%-41%, the public overall says transgender individuals should use the public bathroom of the gender they were born. Those over 60 felt that way by 2-1.

But on this as other social issues, the rising generation tends to hold liberal or libertarian views. In the USA TODAY poll, 53% describe themselves as liberal on social issues; just 26% say they are conservative. That’s in contrast to other concerns. On foreign policy, the divide is much closer, 37% liberal to 32% conservative. On economic issues, 42% say they are liberal, 34% conservative. […]

Meanwhile, younger Americans overwhelmingly agree that discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is a big problem in the United States. Just one in four say discrimination against the LGBTQ community (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer) isn’t a big problem; more than seven in 10 say it is.

Clinton supporters by more than 5-1, 83%-16%, say discrimination is a big problem. A smaller majority of Trump supporters agree, 53%-45%.

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  • Veronica Fowler

    So glad to see this amazing young man getting the attention he deserves. He talks about how other young people openly talking about being transgender helped him figure out his gender identity and made him feel less alone. It’s wonderful to see him doing the same and paying it forward.

  • Thank you for coming forward and sharing your story.

    Thank you for going public about being a trans athlete. I never could go to the media. I played soccer at Iowa City High School openly in March 2015. It was honestly more meaningful to see you did it instead of me. My whole school/class/teammates/people from other schools in the area supported me, but I was discouraged from talking to media for my safety. I don’t know what you went through after coming out with your story, but I applaud you. You inspire me as a strong person. You did it and I appreciate you. Thank you for being an inspiration to young trans men and women, when I was too scared to do it. I played soccer on the women’s team my senior year and finally got the justice I deserved. And again thank you! I glad you got your own justice with joining the men’s cross country team in your high school. We both made history, but you spoke out and gave trans athletes the strong voice needed.