Recorded on June 5th, 2021 as part of the WMRA StoryCorps in the Valley and Central Virginia partnership, we’re sharing a conversation between Christine Jones in McGaheysville, who is the Virginia chapter leader of the non-profit organization, Free Mom Hugs and Ashley Saunders in Broadway, who founded a Facebook group for Parents & Allies of LGBTQ Students in Rockingham County.
They discussed their advocacy work and how they support, affirm, and advocate for LGBTQ children now. Ashley Saunders begins the conversation.
ASHLEY: When my son came out as gay in 7th grade, he was starting to really struggle with manic episodes. And we would drive all night, and we would have to get late night milkshakes, and he would just sob. And he'd always really struggled with his mental health even as a child, small child. And I was just like I don't know what to do. And he'd been given a diagnosis of bipolar disorder. And I did it quietly, out of respect for my son, who has given me permission to tell this story. Because I didn't want people to look at my son and see someone with bipolar disorder or mental health problems. And there's this huge stigma, especially with children, who struggle with their mental health.
CHRISTINE: Oh yes.
ASHLEY: And towards the end of his sophomore year, he sat us down and he said,”I’ve told my therapist this, and I have told my guidance counselor this, and I'm Trans. I am a boy.” And my response wasn't just like, yeah celebratory. I sobbed. And I yelled. And I was like, “Are you sure? Are you sure?” Because I was so afraid.
ASHLEY: I had seen what society was doing to Trans people. And I was looking at my already very fragile child, and all I thought was, “What do I do when the world chews you up.” And I didn't sleep.
CHRISTINE: I bet, yeah.
ASHLEY: And I didn’t… and I just dealt with it alone. Because I was so used to, “This is what we're doing as a family and I'm not talking about it.” And the pandemic happened. And George Floyd was murdered. And our very small town had a Black Lives Matter rally, and my kids helped organize it, and we went. I looked around and I said, “I can't be quiet about this. I can't be quiet about my son. I can't be quiet about the oppression that is happening in my community when I know we are better than that.” And I said, “What do I do? I'm not the only one here.” And I started that Facebook group. And my goal was 40 people. I needed 40 people to say, “My child is LGBTQ” or “I support people who are LGBTQ” or “I'm a parent who is LGBTQ.” I needed us to see each other. We have around 110 members and we started really saying, “This is not okay.” We live in these communities. We know LGBTQ children. We know Trans children. My son is not the only Trans child at his school. And I know that there are others terrified to come out because they don't want to be the one who has a giant bullseye on their back. And it isn't necessarily the kids, it is the adults.
CHRISTINE: Yes, yes. And I know for a fact… because I know lots of people in that parents and allies group, I know for a fact that many of them, in fact I would be comfortable saying at least half if not the majority, are people of faith. And they still find a way, you know, to be allies and believe that this is not this is not an issue of religion, this is not an issue of some social epidemic that's new. Which is not new by the way. But this is this is a human rights issue. And you don't have to agree with every single thing, you know, to believe that someone has the right to exist in safety and in dignity.
CHRISTINE: So thank you so much for sharing your story Ashley. I love you so much and I love doing this work with you.
ASHLEY: I’m so thankful we have found each other through advocacy, but also I'm just thankful you're in my village. And I look forward to many many years of seeing the progress in this place that we both love because it's happening. And people can try to trample it down but you know we have many many years of growing a thick skin. So even if they make me, you know, fall to the ground… I've popped up many times, I'll pop up again until every kid in rural Virginia knows they are loved and worthy of love. Thank you for letting me come on and tell this story today.
CHRISTINE: Thank you.