On a recent afternoon in June, four boys, none older than ten, tumble out of the front door of a home in west St. Louis County, their playgroup already in motion.
Three of the boys are trans. All four are friends, bonds they've maintained during the past year of pandemic Zoom calls after first meeting as classmates and teammates in St. Louis-area youth leagues.
Equipped with pogo sticks and basketballs, the boys run toward the backyard, passing through a group of adults sitting beneath the shade of a patio. One boy is briefly detained when his father notices, and objects, to his son's lack of shoes.
"He's never felt anything but pride in being trans," the father says moments later, watching his son dash around the corner to rejoin his friends. "The school threw a party in his classroom on the year anniversary of him transitioning. The first graders in his class who knew him by a different name — it was nothing to them. It was drama free."
"I really mean it," he adds. "The only bullies in our kid's life are in the state legislature."
Not every trans kid is raised in such a family, surrounded by supportive friends, relatives and teachers. But for Missouri parents of trans kids, conflict with the legislature is part of the package: For years, conservative lawmakers have repeatedly advanced anti-trans proposals that target trans children directly: In 2021, they included an attempt that would restrict trans student athletes to playing on teams that matched the gender assigned at birth. Another bill, even more far-reaching, sought to expose parents to criminal charges of child abuse if they gave their trans kids doctor-prescribed hormones and puberty-delaying treatments.
Those bills failed to become laws in 2021, but that may only buy families of trans children more time. On this day, while the kids play in the backyard, their parents are already worrying about next year's legislative session.
"It's this idea that my kid doesn't know who he is, or what he feels," says the mother of one of the trans boys. "They're basically telling me that my kid is not human."
It's more than an idea. For some trans families, fighting the Missouri legislature has become a regular part of their lives. Three of those families opened up to the Riverfront Times for this story, describing both their pride in watching their children flourish — and a duty to defend them in hostile territory.
On March 10, Daniel Bogard, a rabbi in St. Louis' Central Reform Synagogue, arrived in the state capitol, one of more than a dozen speakers registered to speak in opposition to House Bill 33. The bill moved to ban doctors from administering "any medical or surgical treatment for the purpose of gender reassignment" before the age of eighteen.
This was a near repeat of 2020, when similar bills drew doctors and advocates from across the state to oppose them at committee hearings. Also in opposition were multiple families of trans children and teens who were themselves undergoing, and benefiting from, the hormone treatments lawmakers wanted to ban.
Bogard had been among those families. This year, the rabbi woke before sunrise and, leaving his young trans child at home with his wife, made the two-hour drive to Jefferson City to face the House Committee on Children and Families.
Bogard had arrived early for the 8 a.m. hearing, but there were so many speakers he was pushed to an afternoon overflow session. When he finally rose to address the committee, the rabbi described what it was like to lie awake at night thinking of suicide rates and how puberty would force his child "to feel every day like your body is betraying you."
It wasn't the first time Bogard had driven to the state capitol to testify against legislation. He had watched as multiple young trans people struggled through tears during their testimonies, breaking down in sobs under questioning from lawmakers.
Bogard also wasn't the only father to bare his feelings for legislative committees in March. Days earlier, during a hearing on a bill seeking to restrict trans athletes, Brandon Boulware, a Kansas City-area attorney, told lawmakers how he had had first rejected his daughter's transition and forced her to wear boy's clothes and play on a boys sports team — until the moment he realized that his child was miserable and deteriorating before his eyes, and that his attempt to correct her life "was teaching her to deny who she is."
A clip of Boulware's testimony was shared by the American Civil Liberties Union and soon went viral, racking up millions of views and drawing coverage in national outlets.
The video was inspiring; Bogard doesn't dispute that. But he points out that, for trans families, these moments come at the cost of unveiling yourself, and your deepest hurts, before a committee of strangers — including lawmakers who view you as a child abuser.
"These stories of my child's journey through gender — these are personal, private, intimate, vulnerable things that we're being forced to share," Bogard tells the RFT in a recent interview. He notes that when he first testified against an anti-trans bill in 2020, his child had just come out.
"The very first people we told, literally the very first outside of family, were the people in that hearing room in Jefferson City."
One year later, Bogard concluded his March 10 testimony begging the committee members to vote against the bill banning trans medical care. Citing the high suicide rates of trans teens, he explained that puberty blockers are "life-preserving."
"Let these kids put off these hard, life-altering decisions until they are older, so I beg you," he continued. "I don't know how else to say it, I beg you — please don't make my child and their health care a topic for debate in the state."
But there is no debate — at least, there shouldn't be. Among those testifying against the bill were two doctors from St. Louis Children's Hospital. They pointed out that hormone treatments for trans children are carefully conducted over a span of years and, importantly, that puberty blockers are reversible. That was in contrast to claims by the bill's sponsor, Republican Representative Suzie Pollock, that hormone treatments "permanently and prematurely medicalizes children for a condition that overwhelmingly resolves or desists by adulthood."
Pollock had appeared in the hearing only briefly, at the beginning of the 8 a.m. session, just long enough to deliver a twenty-minute presentation before leaving for other appointments, never to return.
Before her exit, she had defended her bill by claiming, without evidence, that the parents of trans children seeking hormone treatments are being "threatened," as the kids are "being told that if this is what they want, they need to tell [their parents] they're going to commit suicide."
At another point in her presentation, Pollock argued that "children have developing brains" and "don't grasp long-term consequences." Under questioning by committee members, she insisted that she had filed the bill not out of an intent to discriminate, but "out of love."
"I guarantee you," she said, "if this bill passes there will be children who will become adults and will thank me."
The bill didn't pass.
After an hour of playtime in the yard, the boys are called back to their parents. "Conor," who is ten, had traveled with his mother in 2020 to testify against that year's anti-trans bills. His best friend, "Aiden," who is not trans, had been invited to come along. (At the request of the parents, all names of children have been changed for this story.)
Before the trip to Jefferson City, Aiden and Conor had been friends for several years. They had already been teammates on a coed sports team in a private league. Aiden says he remembers worrying that the law would separate them in the future.
"I did not want him to be on the girl's baseball team," he explains now. "I wanted him to be on my baseball team. I wanted to be with my friend."
Aiden says he wants to show me something, and disappears inside the house. When he returns, he's carrying a framed sheet of paper containing the handwritten notes for his testimony against the anti-trans-athlete bills in 2020: He had covered the page's borders with wiry illustrations of basketballs and footballs. In a child's block letters, he had written that the bills were "NON FAIR" and that "a team means working together with everyone on the team."
From another chair, "Chase," who is eight, interjects to mention that his classmates often debate whether boys are stronger than girls. This sparks an immediate group discussion between the four friends.
"It's not true," Chase explains confidently. "Some people think boys are stronger than girls, but sometimes actually the girl is stronger than the boy. But girls are not stronger than boys. Strongness isn't with gender — just because boys are built different than girls, that doesn't affect the strongness."
Conor, the oldest of the group, has been playing with a Rubik's Cube throughout most of the group interview. He perks up.
"Even if it was true that boys are stronger than girls," he offers, "if you wanted to be on a sports team, you're going to practice anyway. If you're practicing hard enough, you can be stronger than them."
Chase agrees. "I'm one of the strongest kids in my class, and I was a girl before. So, it doesn't matter if you were a girl or a boy."
The boys' discussion moves to a particular teacher who (according to the grade school rumor mill) had insisted that boys are given harder games and challenges because they are "built tougher" than girls. Conor interjects with a relevant detail: He remembers hearing the same teacher describe how she herself had joined a men's sports team "because she wanted something harder."
"I found that cool and amazing," Conor says. "It was like, yes, this was the boys team and they play rougher because they were built bigger and tougher, but she could still play on the team. If you feel like you're good enough to play at the next level, you should be able to."
Over the course of the discussion, the boys aren't prompted by their parents. Their words are their words. They analyze and reflect on the issues of gender as they know it. When asked about their transitions, the three trans boys chatter back and forth, comparing experiences of choosing their names, telling their parents about "liking boy things" and coming out to their friends. They then spend several more minutes refining all the ways that boys and girls aren't automatically tougher than each other.
On the other side of the patio, "Taylor," also eight, explains to his father that the argument was so common amongst his class that it made him want to come out "later" to his parents.
"If I could have earlier, I would," he says, haltingly at first. "But for some reason, some people believe that boys are stronger than girls. I didn't want them to think I was changing because I wanted to pretend to be stronger. So, I told them later."
Eventually, the boys grow restless and are allowed to return to the backyard to play. Taylor's father notes that his son often discusses his transition in more specific terms, particularly about growing a beard and body hair. The other parents chime in with similar stories: Chase is asking whether getting married will mean he is a gay trans man. Conor, who is the closest to reaching puberty, "is suddenly very concerned with his breasts, which he calls 'these things,'" his mother says.
What they don't talk about, unless prompted by their parents, is the Missouri legislature.
"We have a lot of conversations," Chase's father says, turning to the other parents. "It's the balance we've talked about, and I'm sure you all have this, too. How much do we keep him in this welcoming, accepting bubble? How much do we pop that for him, and let him understand what the rest of the world is like?"
Taylor, according to his dad, doesn't seem old enough yet to imagine what a "medical ban" could mean for him in a few years' time.
"We've told him that if the medical bill passes, we'll move out of Missouri," Taylor's father says. "We'll figure it out, and he will never have to go through an unwanted puberty."
But for now, Taylor is focused on other things. He's obsessed with the St. Louis Cardinals. The eight-year-old's "ultimate dream" is to play for a local high school varsity baseball team. In the family's home days later, Taylor shows off his collection of baseball gear, modeling his batter's helmet, bat and glove for photos.
As a boy, Taylor has already played in two separate youth sports leagues without issue. Now, his father says his son is starting to ask about attempts to ban trans athletes — and what that would mean for his place on the team.
"He's not worried about the bills that much," Taylor's father says. "I think it's the idea of not getting to play baseball that for him is really hard."