‘Who we are, not what we are’: These trans and nonbinary teens hope their books will enlighten the world during Pride

They are four poised and purposeful young people navigating school, family, friendships and the peaks and valleys of teenage life.

They are athletes, acrobats, musicians, performers, student government leaders and advocates.

And now – just in time for Pride – they are published authors, hoping their words will educate the world on what it means to be transgender and nonbinary.

In a year that has seen salvos of hostile anti-LGBTQ legislation from statehouses, much of it aimed at younger generations, transgender and nonbinary teens are continuing to flourish and inspire.   

For Rebekah Bruesehoff, 14, Hunter Chinn-Raicht, 15, Ashton Mota, 16, and Gia Parr, 17, authors of three new groundbreaking books, it is all about starting conversations. The books, which ship this month, “provide positive ways to replace misconceptions with real experiences with trans and non-binary kids, focusing on who we are, not what we are,” Hunter said.

The teen authors are members of the GenderCool Project, a youth-led group that works to replace misinformed opinions with positive and real experiences of young people who are transgender and nonbinary. GenderCool teamed up with the company A Kids Book About – whose books tackle complex topics such as racism, anxiety, body image and cancer – to create a collection to cast light on the underrepresented.

“Young voices have unlimited power to help direct the future of this country and the way in which we understand each other as Americans,” GenderCool co-founder Jen Grosshandler said.

Each book tells the story of the young author’s transgender or nonbinary life, she said. “And threaded through those stories you get delicious, snackable information that helps you understand who they are and what they hope for their future. It helps you learn without you having any idea you are in a teachable moment.”

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GenderCool Champions at Out & Equal Workplace Summit in 2019. (Photo: GenderCool)

Kids Book About books emphasize color, layout and type to help kids and parents apply the stories to their lives rather than dwelling on the book’s characters.

“The audience is everyone,” GenderCool co-founder Gearah Goldstein said. This series of books enables “comfortable conversations” about topics some people aren’t comfortable with. “Kids are ready to have these conversations that many times adults don’t know how to approach.”

‘Record-setting year’ for anti-LGBTQ bills

There have been 337 anti-LGBTQ bills introduced in 2121 legislative sessions across the nation, including 75 bills that would block transgender youths’ participation in sports and 40 bills that would deny youths gender-affirming medical care, according to the Equality Federation and the Movement Advancement Project (MAP), which track state laws. 

“This has been a record-setting year in terms of the number of bills targeting trans youth as part of a larger, coordinated attack” by conservatives and right-wing elements, MAP senior policy researcher Logan Casey said.

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The effort to appeal to hardliners leaves lawmakers out of sync with the public, said Naomi Goldberg, deputy director for MAP. “We know the vast majority of Americans support non-discrimination laws,” she said. “In many ways these bills are drawing on fear and misinformation – rather than where people have their hearts.”

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President Joe Biden came into office vowing a commitment to LGBTQ rights. He has repealed the trans military ban, extended anti-bias protections in housing and health care, brought LGBTQ people into his administration in high-level positions and urged passage of the federal Equality Act.

But bills have proliferated at the state level by lawmakers intent on scoring political points and spreading false claims, Casey said. “So much of what we are seeing is total lack of understanding about trans children.”

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While the books are not a direct response to the blitz of hostile bills, their message couldn’t be more timely, Goldstein said.

“The reality is that trans and nonbinary have been around since the beginning of people,” she said. “But only now do we feel safer as a community to share our experiences.”

‘Wow, look at all you can do’

Gia is a cross-country and field hockey standout and student government leader who has lobbied Congress.

Gia Parr (Photo: Photo provided by GenderCool)

Writing A Kids Book About Being Transgender was a defining moment. “I wanted to be able to educate people,” she said. “In the media, there is a lot out there. But this book reaches a new demographic. Kids are looking for resources but don’t have the right places to look … or the right words.”  

Gia, who came out as transgender at 11, recalls her earlier years. She was nervous about returning to her co-ed middle school’s cross-country team after she transitioned. But she was embraced fully, even being named captain.

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Yet a lack of resources left a lasting impression, and she hopes her book fills a gap sorely needed. 

“For people who have trans kids already, I hope it teaches them the future will be OK. For trans people all over it’s not easy. My experience hasn’t been easy; I still struggle,” she said. But the book’s message is “wow, look at all you can do.”

‘Not everyone fits into the pink and blue binary’

Hunter – an aerialist, dance team member and a devoted animal lover who volunteers at a local shelter and has fostered over 60 kittens – lives by a dictum that “words matter.”  

Hunter Chinn-Raicht (Photo: Photo provided by GenderCool)

 “When a major dictionary named they/them as their word of the year, I felt seen,” says the author of a Kids Book About Being Non-Binary.   “I wanted to start conversations between kids and their families surrounding this new language.”

Hunter hopes the book will teach young people key words that describe them and ease the topic of gender identity and expression into family conversations.

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Young people should be allowed breathing room to exploring gender issues, Hunter said. Their message is simple but powerful: “I want kids to know that they are perfect as they are, and they should listen to their heart and not bullies. Not everyone fits into the pink and blue binary. I am gray, white and all the colors in between.”

‘Important to show it’s not hard to be inclusive’

Rebekah runs track, plays field hockey and performs in musicals. In 2018, she testified before the New Jersey State Legislature in support of a bill that would require schools to include accomplishments of LGBTQ people and people with disabilities in curriculums.

Ashton’s young life is centered around advocacy and leadership roles in school and the community, and he is intent on representing the voices of Black, Latino and LGBTQ youths.

Ashton Mota (Photo: Photo provided by GenderCool)

The duo, who both identify as transgender, collaborated on A Kids Book About Being Inclusive – and they share a passion about spreading an uplifting message.

Both authors say even the word “inclusive” can be daunting. “Inclusion can be scary at times, but it’s important to show it’s not hard to be inclusive,” Ashton said. The book has a universal message for adults and teens, he said: “Stand up for what you think is right; treat everyone with dignity and respect; don’t be afraid to take a step forward; use your voice.”

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For Rebekah, the biggest lesson she hopes to impart is that even small gestures, such as smiling at someone, can be game changers.  “Teaching kids to be inclusive in small way sets them up to be inclusive in bigger ways,” she said.

Rebekah Bruesehoff (Photo: Photo provided by GenderCool)

Rebekah is a strong believer in the power of diverse representation in books and media, and she is hosting a book drive to donate publications to schools, libraries and other organizations.

“It’s really important that kids get to see themselves – see characters and authors just like me,” she said, adding it’s equally crucial for non-LGBTQ kids “to learn about people who aren’t like them.”

Ashton wants to show trans and nonbinary people they are not alone and that the world is bubbling with opportunities. The collaboration with Rebekah “represents allyship. Two trans young people are co-authors of this book. This within itself is representative of the trans community.”

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