The students who found a home

High School is rough for everyone. But for these trans and nonbinary students, it’s inspired them to find safety and promote joy.

The students who found a home
(Photos by Joseph Darius Jaafari. Illustration by Theo Grace Quest.)

In the past two years, Arizonans have found themselves talking a lot about what public school looks like. We’ve discussed teacher pay, how the COVID pandemic has upended learning styles, and student safety. But more than usual, we’ve also been discussing gender and sexuality on campuses and what that means for students. 

Last legislative session, Republicans in the state capitol and on school boards have focused heavily on limiting how kids can identify in school, what books they can read, and which students should be talking about themselves and their individuality. Almost all of the conversations are coming from older adults who have power over the youth, leaving student voices unheard. 

As a result, many queer students have turned inward, focusing less on what the government is doing and more on how they can make their schools accepting and safe. 

We spoke to four nonbinary and transgender students from across the state to hear what they think about everything, but also how they’ve found happiness and joy on their campuses. 

Milo Morales (they/he/she)

18 years old in Laveen, Arizona

When Milo Morales wants to show the people in their life that they care, they turn to art. 

As a kid, they taught their young cousins to draw. Recently, they crocheted a blanket in the colors of the trans flag, and gifted it to a friend. 

“I was seeing myself in it. Being able to affirm someone else’s identity, while they have helped me affirm mine in so many different ways,” Morales said. “I felt like I could pay them back just a little bit with this project.” 

Morales grew up in the Mormon Church. Their family continues to be religious, but Milo no longer practices as the church historically does not accept queer people. When Morales spoke to the church therapist about being gay, they said the church would only accept them if they closeted themselves. 

“I was having issues with my mother. We were always butting heads,” Morales said. “It wasn’t necessarily about my queer identity, but it always ended up going back to that. I forgot to wash the dishes. And you start arguing and then slowly it just goes back to something. ‘Oh, you're gay?’ What does that have to do with washing dishes?”

In school, Morales was involved in various clubs: dance club, science club, reading club, and theater. And even though they were active in various social scenes in school, being part of the school’s Gender and Sexuality Alliance (formerly known as Gay Straight Alliances), they were hesitant. 

“I was scared, like what if my mom found out I was doing GSA stuff at school? And what if she punished me,” they said. “That’s stressful.” 

But Morales learned there were protocols to help protect members who were not publicly out, such as a private photo for members who participated and needed extra protection. 

“It’s helped me grow more comfortable with the idea of accepting this part of me that I had been so resentful towards,” they said. “And so it was a great learning experience, a great journey.” 

Having a safe space at the GSA became especially crucial after Morales was nearly kicked out of their house following a conflict with one of their parents. 

“When that happened, it was kind of just like a reality check: oh, you’re not safe,” they said. “But the fact that I did have that safe space, it just might not have been at home.” 

“It’s hard, especially when you’re in an environment that isn’t too accepting towards you,” Morales said. “You just got to persevere. I remember countless nights when I would just be like ‘Oh, maybe it would be better if I’m just gone.’ But there are those safe spaces for you. They exist. You just got to find them.” 

Daniel Trujillo (he/him)

16 years old in Tucson, Arizona 

Daniel Trujillo loves being a passionate speaker for what he believes in. Sometimes that is the rights of LGBTQ+ students like himself in Arizona—he’s spoken at the state capitol and helped put together a national prom for queer youth.

Other times, his passion is Radiohead. 

“It was kind of funny because I really like pop punk bands, and finding this kind of alternative rock threw me off,” he said. But as he has done multiple times in life, he’s listened to his inner voice. “Freshman year is when I really started listening to Radiohead all the time—it’s all I listen to. I was in the top .5% of their listeners this year on Spotify.” 

Daniel Trujillo is a trans teenager who lives in Tucson. At turns he’s talkative, at others shy. He’s also become one of the most visible trans youth in Arizona through the advocacy of his parents and, increasingly, he is raising his own voice to speak on trans rights and awareness. 

It wasn’t always an easy road to walk. He said he hated wearing dresses from a young age. When kids on the playground would ask if he was a boy or a girl, he’d say boy—and then they’d continue playing tag. 

As he grew older and became more aware of a gap between the gender he identified with, and the one people saw him as, he found the word “tomboy” helpful. But he was still getting increasingly anxious around his gender identity.

His parents saw that if they wanted a happy and mentally healthy kid, affirming his gender identity was a key part of the puzzle: “In kindergarten, he would come home and cry and say that he was afraid to die,” said his mother Lizette Trujillo, who also is a volunteer for the Southern Arizona Gender Alliance and a member of the Human Rights Campaign Parents for Transgender Equality National Council. “And I was like - why would my child die? What is going on?” 

Lizette Trujillo and her husband saw no other choice but to affirm what they were hearing from Daniel: he is a boy. “You're seeing your child tell you something over and over again. And I think even though I didn't have all the answers, my husband and I, like when I told him what Daniel said, he said, ‘Okay, then we have to support him.’” 

At first, Daniel Trujillo would go to events with his parents and sit under the table, or doodle on a notepad quietly in a corner. In many photos of him where his parents spoke publicly on trans issues, he made a point to sit just out of the frame. 

Eventually, he became more confident, a change that came as his parents became more and more affirming of his gender identity. But that has come with some painful moments: the first time he spoke on the Senate floor against a bill, a politician changed Daniel to “Daniella,” a name not aligned with Daniel’s gender identity—it wasn’t even his dead name. 

“It’s still really freaky and stressful,” he said. 

The family has also taken concrete steps to ensure Daniel Trujillo’s safety and comfort, among them driving him to a school with open enrollment a little farther from their home. 

Last spring, he was one of the organizers of the Trans Youth Prom in Washington, D.C., which was an effort to bring attention both to the difficulty and joy of being a trans youth in America. 

Some of the attendees have been texting each other since they met at the event, says Daniel. “It’s a lot of community building and being there for each other.” 

These days, Daniel says he is less upset by passing comments about his gender or appearance or any other things that teenagers may get teased about. “As I’ve gotten older I feel like, I don’t know, this sounds corny, but I’ve grown a thicker skin,” he said. “People have said comments in passing but I could really care less about them.”

Ash Snyder-Olfers (he/him)

15 years old in Laveen, Arizona

When Ash Snyder-Olfers is feeling discouraged, there are two touchpoints in queer history that help him get his resolve back: thinking about the Stonewall riots and Wanda Sykes.

For Snyder-Olfers, it all goes back to history. The Stonewall riots of 1969 were a series of protests in New York City following police raids on a gay bar in Greenwich Village, and have long been a touch point for queer people who want to push back against unequal treatment in a range of areas. Wanda Sykes, a comedian and television personality, early in her career openly called out people who used “gay” as a slur, and later came out as gay herself. 

Snyder-Olfers is a 15-year-old high school student in Laveen. And many of the challenges he has faced as a trans man—both in self-acceptance and in a homophobic society—feel connected to the history he’s continually tried to learn via YouTube videos. 

But that hasn’t always helped. His middle school years felt stark, and experienced regular name calling and threats of violence at his charter school. He was successful, however, in starting a GSA, despite pushback from the administration. Still, the school environment didn’t feel safe. 

When he moved to a new and supportive elementary district, it was a relief: “Just being able to relax and focus on school, not having to basically hold up the world… it was just very nice,” he said. 

He joined another GSA in high school, and for the first time he felt welcome.  

“I never had a safe space away from home,” he said. “And I knew that 90% of kids don’t have a safe space at home. I wanted to make sure that these kids knew that ever they need whether it's self harm, or suicidal ideation, or I just got kicked out by my parents, I got outed for being gay. Yeah, that they know that they're not alone, and that they can always go to school and have someone help them.”

And when he became president, it felt like another step toward building the world he and his friends needed. Since being elected, he has helped make space for members who are not yet out to their parents, thrown parties, and helped arrange conversations about mental health with school counselors. 

Snyder-Olfers speaks openly, and often with a wry humor about the difficult things he carries. He’s no stranger to depression or suicidal ideation, and he isn’t afraid to talk about it. “I try to be open about my experiences with self harm,” says Snyder-Olfers. “Everyone seems super surprised. It’s like, you can seem 100% fine, but you are not…. I try to be 100% open so that kids will be like, ‘oh, I’m feeling that way too.’” 

He also has advice for parents of trans kids: “Listen to your kid. I know for a fact, this is not something that they just decided this morning over waffles.” 

Dawn Shim (they/she)

18 years old in Chandler, Arizona 

Dawn Shim first stepped into activism like many other people do, by getting angry. 

It was April 2022, and the Arizona legislature was in the midst of efforts to pass a wave of legislation that would impact the experience of LGTBQ+ students in school, including prohibiting transgender girls from school athletic teams designated for girls.

When they first learned about the bill from a story in The Arizona Republic, they were confused. Then indignant. And finally, furious. 

Needing somewhere to put their emotions, they typed a letter on their laptop, posted it to Instagram, and went to bed for the night. 

“I am a high school student … interested in politics, but I’ve never paid much attention to state issues,” Dawn said in the letter shared on social media. They wrote about the despair of learning about the adult legislators writing the bills, and the dire mental health impacts on their peers.  “Honestly, I think that this bizarre trend is just a very badly created facade to hide discrimination in Arizona schools.”

By the time Dawn woke up the next day, they had a flood of messages from classmates saying they were mad too. And they posed an uncertain question: now what?

A few in-person meetings with equally concerned classmates led to a Discord server, an online forum, that turned into a student group called Support Equality AZ Schools. It would span multiple schools in the sprawling suburban district of Chandler Unified School District, and include students from several other nearby districts and charter networks. 

“Young people can't vote, we can't really do anything to change the system, except going to politicians and demanding something to happen or standing outside their door and demanding something to happen,” Dawn said. “And we need to demand it at a large level. And that's what we tried to do.”

Since the spring of 2022, the group has staged school walkouts, held protests that target state legislators (in one stunt they laid out body bags in front of the state capitol representing trans people’s deaths) and pushed both the Chandler school district and city council to consider non-discrimination ordinances. 

Still, organizing felt heavy. It was driven by anger and tragedy and LGBTQ+ issues, they said, but also included the reality that the student body as a whole is not safe, especially with the prevalence of school shootings: “Because of the grief our generation has grown up around, a lot of students, every time we go into a lockdown it’s like: are we going to be shot up and killed?”

To shift away from that very real fear, says Dawn, takes some active work. They hope to see the group they helped found, and their work, shift into a less reactive place. 

Support Equality AZ Schools has been renamed to the Student Solidarity Collective. They care about LGBTQ+ issues, but about any issue of school speech on campus, and about the increasing demand for school policing from school officials that they say unnecessarily target minority students.

“We want to make our work into something that is more optimistic,” says Dawn. “Minority student rights, the ability of students to speak on campus, campus security, even what schools are allocated more resources. There’s so much tied up in it.” 

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