Becoming Zay: growing up trans
- Published: May 12, 2016
It was an ordinary Thursday. The last Thursday in April, grey, a little chilly. The lobby of the Greene County Courthouse in Xenia was quiet. And then, single file through the security doorway, a crowd of two dozen surged in.
Grandmothers, grandfather, aunt, uncle, parents, friends, supporters. Swirling around a girl on the cusp of something big. She consented to pictures, hugs. She looked calm. One foot fidgeted ever so slightly in its taupe high heel. Dressed in filmy peach, she radiated joy.
Twelve thirty. Time to squeeze into Probate Court, Judge Thomas O’Diam presiding.
“You are Isaiah Russell Crawford at this point in time, correct?”
A whispered “yes.”
The judge recited a new name.
“This is what you wish to do?”
“Yes.” Strong and clear this time.
No questions, no objections.
“I grant it.”
And just like that, it was over. The same girl sat, with her parents, at the courtroom table. Now she bore the name of Zay. Zay Irene Crawford. Irene after her Oklahoma grandmother, Eleanor Irene Van Buskirk. Zay after … Zay, the person she knew she was.
“This is going to sound cheesy, but when he said my name, there was this wave that came over me — this wave of happiness looking up to the future,” Zay said later that afternoon. Her eyes, magnified by glasses, were both serious and shining.
‘Always been my Zay’
Zay was a nickname at first, bestowed at a young age. But it stuck, Zay said on Saturday, two days after her legal name change. And it fit her better than Isaiah, her birth name.
At six, Zay recalled, a kid on the playground asked her if she was a boy or a girl. Her reply?
“I’m half girl, half boy, half Native American.” (She is Creek, Chippewa and Cherokee on her mother’s side.)
Zay’s mother, Chasilee Crawford, said the family had talked about changing Zay’s name for a long time. Zay had experimented with girls’ names like Amber and Candy, but came back around to Zay. Chasilee was pleased.
“She’s always been my Zay,” Chasilee said on Saturday.
The family has lived in Yellow Springs since 2010, but has ties that go deeper. Zay’s father, Jason Crawford, attended the Antioch School as a child; his mother, Kit Crawford, was a longtime teacher there, retiring nine years ago. Even before moving to the village, Zay and her brother, Jeffrey, had attended the Antioch School.
In an article published in the Cincinnati Enquirer last year, Jason, a pilot, and Chasilee, a nurse, said they chose to live in Yellow Springs because its “progressive vibe” felt comfortable. Zay was about seven when the family moved here. She already had a strong sense of herself as a girl — a sense that didn’t match the biological sex of her birth. She begged to wear girls’ clothes, gravitated to girls’ play, to girls as playmates. The family, Chasilee said on Saturday, sought a safe place to let Zay be Zay.
Yellow Springs has been that place, Chasilee said. “She’s been allowed to be herself to grow and flourish as a young female.” Zay joined the Girl Scouts here — at their invitation. Over the past couple of years, she’s walked in the lead of the Yellow Springs Pride parade.
Zay is now 13. Changing her name is one step of a journey she’s been on since birth. Like all young teens, she’s exploring who she is, said her grandmother Kit.
“I’ve watched her work through all the normal things. How she’s treating friends, how they’re treating her,” Kit said.
She added, “At this age, you want to walk naturally into who you are. Zay’s doing that, while also being transgender. This is her job, her work. She’s just brilliant at it.”
As Kit’s observations suggest, Zay’s story is both novel and universal. “People are always becoming,” Kit said. That “becoming” can take people to radical places. For Zay, it takes her from male to female — though as a transgender girl, female is where she believes she has always actually been.
“I’ve been teaching my family who I am,” Zay reflected on Saturday. They’ve been growing and changing with her, she said, and that “is what allows me to push through, to keep going, to never give up.”
Court hearing over, the first burst of emotions over, the scramble for pictures over, it was time for a party. Family, friends and supporters decamped to Xenia’s Shawnee Park. Walking away from the courthouse, Zay’s father, Jason, put his arm around Kit.
“The Crawfords are breaking down here,” Kit said, wiping her eyes. Jason squeezed her, just as he’d squeezed Zay minutes before in front of the judge.
At the Shawnee Park pavilion, Chasilee and the grandmothers, Kit and Eleanor, were setting up the picnic tables. Trays piled with pulled pork, fried chicken, coleslaw, potato salad, pasta salad, fruit, chips. Two huge dispensers of nonalcoholic sangria.
“Any time Chas has the excuse to throw a party …” Jason said.
Out came three cakes, each bearing a single letter. Z, A, Y. Chasilee, the grandmothers and other helpers decorated them with sprays of cut flowers. Behind the cakes, a banner was hung. “Zay Irene Crawford,” it read, with a smiling photo of Zay next to the name. In front of the banner, the real Zay was also smiling, but she couldn’t stand still. The heels and dress were gone, replaced by bare feet, a t-shirt and a black skirt.
Then the music started up. “And girls they want to have fun / Oh girls just want to have fun …”
People hummed and tapped their feet, and a certain girl twirled.
‘What’s in a name?’
The party gathered steam. People milled, talked, laughed. Among the celebrants were several members of Ohio’s trans community and trans allies. Michael Curtner had met Zay earlier in April at a transgender panel discussion at Shiloh Church in Dayton (Zay had been the keynote speaker). On Thursday, Curtner took off work and drove with partner Dave Broering from Sidney, Ohio, to celebrate with Zay.
“It’s absolutely astounding to see a 13-year-old who knows what she wants,” Curtner said. And the support from Zay’s parents and grandparents was “inspiring.”
“She seems so free,” said Curtner, elegant in a dress and hat, stockings and heels. (“I don’t wear this to work,” Curtner said. “I wear sweatpants; I clean houses.”)
Joe Stacy from Middletown had heard Zay speak at Shiloh and “didn’t plan to do anything else today” but support Zay in her name change.
“She’s a brave little girl,” said Stacy. “I hope nothing deters her from her journey to happiness.” At 64, Stacy was determined to “dress in the way that makes me happy,” despite negative reactions that caused Stacy to leave a previous church. On Thursday, that meant heels and lipstick and flowing white hair.
Shiloh Church’s associate pastor, Jay McMillen, had driven in from Dayton. He had helped organize the transgender discussion that featured Zay. “We seek to be an open and affirming congregation,” he said. “It was important for me to come today.”
Other supporters were Kristine Hofstra of Yellow Springs, a family friend and a member of Rubi Girls, a Dayton-based drag troupe. Jonathan McNeal and Mark Brewer of Rubi Girls also came out to support Zay because, as Brewer said, “It’s just inspiring to know someone local and at that age who’s brave enough to go through the process of becoming who she is.”
Over a plate of pulled pork, Jason beamed. “It’s a good day. Zay is officially Zay now.” While she’d long been Zay to family and friends, her birth name cropped up at school and at doctor’s appointments (“if we haven’t gotten to the receptionist yet,” Jason said); it appeared on report cards and anything official coming through the mail.
“Any time that Isaiah pops up … it drags her back a little bit from where she needs to go,” Jason said.
On Saturday, Chasilee said she didn’t quite realize how big a deal the legal name change was until it happened. After the party, the family went straight to Zay’s school, McKinney Middle, and changed her records.
“School was her main motivator,” Chasilee said.
Zay nodded emphatically. “My birth name there on the top right corner … it’s just this little reminder saying, ‘You’re different.’”
But at Thursday’s party, the crowd was celebrating her newly legal name. Around 2:30 p.m., Reverend Aaron Saari, pastor of Yellow Springs’ First Presbyterian Church, gathered everyone together in a circle for a naming ceremony. Zay and her parents stood in the middle. Zay’s face was serious, watchful. She glanced up several times at her father, and he glanced back.
“William Shakespeare famously queried, ‘What’s in a name?’” Rev. Saari began. “The ancients believed a lot.”
He continued, “Zay — in ways that most of us cannot imagine at her age — understands central aspects of herself, an understanding that transcends years on earth. She has a deep, intrinsic knowledge of who she is, and she has spent her life explaining that to others.”
And then this ceremony, too, was done. Zay was Zay.
“I’ve been waiting for this moment for so long,” she said.
Afterwards, she flitted to the water’s edge, just beyond the pavilion. Alone for the first time that afternoon, she threw bits of bread to the mallard ducks. They received the bread eagerly.
The only thing missing from the afternoon was her older brother, Jeffrey, 17. He was hiking the Appalachian trail with his girlfriend, Molly Brown. The couple called during the party, and Zay grabbed the phone, crying.
“Her brother is extraordinary, too,” observed Kit. “He’s her number one supporter; he corrects people’s pronouns. She loves him dearly and he her.”
Meanwhile, Zay’s uncle, Elijah Nasr, stood in. “I treat her like a little sister. For me, she’s just who she’s always been, Zay.”
‘I am here’
Over a year ago, Zay’s family made the difficult decision to go public with their story. Meg Vogel, a photojournalist with the Cincinnati Enquirer, met Zay and her parents at a vigil for Leelah Alcorn, a transgender teen from Warren County who committed suicide in late 2014. According to a national survey published in 2011, 41 percent of transgender people have attempted suicide. Trans activists say societal and family rejections play a large role. Zay spoke at the event, thanking her family for accepting her.
“Zay’s voice just stood out to me,” said Vogel, who has since become close with the family. Vogel and her mother were part of Zay’s circle of supporters last Thursday, and Vogel hopes to continue to chronicle Zay’s life as she moves through her teen years. Vogel’s short film about Zay and her family, “Raising Zay,” recently won second place in its category at the World Press Photo contest in Amsterdam.
“There are so many negative stories about trans people not being loved and accepted. Zay and her family tell a different story,” Vogel said, explaining her impetus to make the film.
Chasilee said on Saturday that shedding a different light on trans people and their families was a big motivator for allowing Vogel and another Cincinnati Enquirer journalist to tell the family’s story.
“There are so many stories of parents not accepting their children. We wanted to show a family who had.”
Zay said her mom was scared at first of going public. “She didn’t want to do it.” (“She won’t even let me have Facebook,” Zay exclaimed. “I’m a little overprotective,” Chasilee conceded.) But Zay felt it was important, and the family ultimately agreed.
Eleanor, Zay’s grandmother from Oklahoma, said Zay is a natural leader. “Zay’s always made herself known,” she chuckled. But on this particular issue, “it’s been really scary,” Eleanor said. “Is she going to be strong enough to create a movement? … I think she will. She has a lot of courage, more courage than I’ve ever seen.”
From a quiet spot at the fringe of Thursday’s party, Eleanor added, “There’s got to be a change in society, and I think it’s going to start with her.”
Jason said Zay talks a lot about making a difference for transgender people and others who feel stigmatized by society. “I didn’t get it until we had our experiences — now I see how powerful sharing your story and standing up can be. It’s a generous and moving thing to do.”
Zay’s grandfather, Jeff Crawford, emeritus professor of philosophy at Central State University, reflected on the same theme. He recalled the history of 38 Dakota men hung in Minnesota in 1862. They went to the gallows singing, he said. One interpretation of their song is “I am here.”
“That’s what Zay and others are saying,” Jeff said. As difficult as becoming visible can be, “it takes too much pain to stay hidden,” he added.
Zay’s aunt, Linda Holloway, looked around the pavilion at people talking and laughing together. With tears in her eyes, she said, “I’m really struggling with anyone who could not see the beauty that this is.”
Grandmother Kit responded, “We can all get stuck in how we think the world works, and then we realize that we’ve boxed things up too tightly.” Gender is as “broad and varied as people,” she said.
On Saturday, Zay had a message for Yellow Springs. “To all people who don’t accept or don’t know what transgender means — I understand you can get scared of what you don’t know,” she said. “But you have to accept people’s differences and just let go.”
In the fall of 2014, the family made a momentous decision: to pursue puberty blockers for Zay. Cincinnati Children’s Hospital operates a transgender health clinic, one of over 40 such clinics around the country. Zay and her family sought care there. New in this country, though more established in Holland, puberty blockers suppress some of the outer manifestations of puberty, allowing transgender youth to forestall changes that trans experts say bring psychological trauma.
Puberty blockers are reversible within a window. By age 14 or so, transgender youth who wish to continue the process of transition can begin taking estrogen or testosterone therapy. Known as gender-affirming hormones in the trans health field, these spur the development of secondary sex characteristics such as breast growth (in the case of estrogen) and a deepened voice and more prominent Adam’s apple (testosterone).
On Friday, the day after her legal name change, Zay’s family took another major step. Under the care of her doctors at Cincinnati Children’s, Zay began estrogen therapy. The next day, she bubbled over with details, pointing to the estrogen patch on the upper part of her right thigh.
“She was so excited, so happy,” Chasilee said. “This is who she is.”
But Zay’s journey is not always smooth. She started middle school this year, at McKinney Middle.
“I was terrified,” she said. “I knew that the social area would get sketchy.” She paused. “And it did.”
“Middle school is hard to navigate anyway,” Chasilee observed. “It’s harder for her given where she’s at.” The family has worked with the school to develop “tools and words and strategies” to help Zay deal with bullying — which can take the form of taunts using her birth name — and “down days.”
McKinney guidance counselor Lynne Wooten-Mitchell has been “phenomenal,” Chasilee said. When bullying is an issue, “Ms. Wooten-Mitchell helps Zay empower herself to talk to kids, to say, ‘This is why it’s not okay.’”
Beyond school, Yellow Springs at large has provided love and acceptance, said Zay. “I have so many friends from birth who know my entire story. So many people have been really loving.”
Toward the end of Saturday’s interview, the talk turned to self-knowledge and dreams. Eleanor said dreams are important tools for reflecting on life and even seeing into the future. Zay chimed in.
“What I see in the future I can’t put my finger on,” Zay said.
Amidst all the careful decisions her family was making, decisions that would shape her life in profound ways, there was still a lot to learn. A lot to simply live.
That, too, is a part of becoming Zay.