Kathy Caron tried to get her young daughter to do “girly” things.
Kasey Caron preferred wearing camo to camisoles. She wanted short hair, not long, flowing locks. And she didn’t play with dolls; she had action figures.
“Her sister played Barbies and there is only a year and a half between them,” Kathy Caron recalled at the family’s home in the Belmont section of Johnstown. “I tried like hell to get her to play with her sister. So I bought her Basic Training Barbie. I thought she’d play with it. The first thing she did was pop the head off of it. Took the gun, took the dog tags off of it and played with the gun and the dog tags.”
That was one of the first clear indicators that Kasey wasn’t like other little girls.
‘Not meant to be a girl’
Kasey, now a 17-year-old Richland High School student who dresses as a boy and wants to be referred to as one, said that he never felt comfortable as a girl. And there had always been confusion from others about exactly what Kasey, who preferred to hang out with boys and play video games, was.
Gender identity was already a problem in kindergarten. That’s when Kasey’s female classmates at Richland Elementary School got upset when they saw what looked like a boy in the girls’ restroom.
“When I was in elementary school, I used to get asked all the time, ‘Are you a boy or a girl?’ ” Kasey recalled, with more amusement in his voice than pain. “I got asked that all the time.”
At an early age, Kasey was diagnosed with polycystic ovary syndrome, a condition that causes a hormonal imbalance. The syndrome, which causes the ovaries to make more androgens – sometimes called male hormones – than normal, is quite common, with estimates that as many as one in 15 women suffers from it. The number of people who identify themselves as transgender is much lower – a 2011 report by the Williams Institute of the UCLA School of Law showed 700,000 transgender individuals – or about 0.3 percent of the population – in the U.S., although precise numbers are hard to obtain.
That means that while the syndrome could be a contributing factor to transgender issues, it isn’t an overriding one, according to clinical psychologist Michael Hendricks of Washington, D.C.
“Nobody knows what causes somebody to be transgender,” said Hendricks, who specializes in transgender issues. “While hormones may have some influence, we don’t know exactly what causes somebody to be transgender, just like we don’t know what causes somebody to not be transgender.”
Kasey comes from a diverse background. His mother has a same-sex partner in Cindy Theys and his godmother is transgender.
“When I first met Kasey 10 years ago, I thought she was a boy,” Theys said. “She had an androgenous name. She was short, stocky. She looked like a little boy.”
Kasey didn’t realize that he could physically change his body until later in his young life.
“I always knew I was not meant to be a girl,” he said. “At some point, I came into contact with the Internet and TV and it became possible that I could actually do that. I’m not going to sit here trapped in my own body. I’m going to do something about it.”
In order to try to regulate the polycystic ovary syndrome, doctors put Kasey on birth control at age 9. Eventually, Kasey began to question the treatment.
“Why am I doing this?” he said. “I would have to stay on estrogen therapy the rest of my life or go through with this transition (to become a male) and finish the process my body has already started.”
Finding his voice
Kasey said that he was bullied throughout middle school and lacked self-confidence. Rather than speak with others at social gatherings, he would sit quietly in the corner, trying to not be noticed.
Things got worse when Kasey disclosed an attraction to girls.
“The summer before eighth grade is when I came out as lesbian,” Kasey said. “I told a few of my friends and it spread like wildfire. At first, it was really negative. I was bullied a lot. I went through depression terribly.”
Kasey did find an outlet in marching band. Originally a trumpeter, he played so quietly that he could barely be heard, but he did make some friends in the musical group.
He also found a girlfriend and decided to tell his mother about his desire to change his sex. But Kasey was so shy that he let his girlfriend do most of the talking for him.
His moms – both of them – made sure he understood the consequences of the choice, but tried to be receptive to it.
“We didn’t discourage it,” Kathy Caron said. “We’ve always been open to understanding it. We were in situations our whole lives where we weren’t allowed to be who we were. We weren’t going to do that to our children. Unfortunately, the times were different for us. It’s not that time anymore.”
Gradually, Kasey grew more and more confident about his decision and revealed his desire to be a man to more and more people. But not everyone. When he first started dating Katie, who is from another Cambria County school, nine months ago, she knew that Kasey was more masculine than other girls, but not that he was transgender.
“He told me from the beginning that he dresses and acts like a guy, but it was probably like two months before he told me that he wanted to be a guy,” said Katie, who went to her high school prom with Kasey in the spring. “It was startling, but I didn’t really mind. The only thing I really minded was how afraid he was to tell me. I guess he was really scared.”
Katie, who asked that her last name not be used because her extended family does not know about her lifestyle, said that Kasey’s self-confidence has blossomed since that first timid conversation about his gender identity.
“The whole thing with him telling me, he was really scared,” she said. “Now he’s putting it all over Facebook. He’s becoming very proud of who he is. It’s giving him a lot more confidence.”
While Kasey once was afraid to toot his own horn loud enough to be heard in the marching band, he’s now front and center as the drum major for the Rams.
“I didn’t think I’d ever be anything more than the quiet little trumpet player in the corner,” he said. “Now, I’m not the best player, but I play loud enough for people to hear me.”
Plenty of people have heard Kasey, and not just through his drumsticks. His message of tolerance and acceptance has led to changes at Richland.
He organizes the Day of Silence effort each year at Richland. The program has students across the nation declining to speak to call attention to the bullying and harassment that lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students face.
He also got the school handbook section on bullying revised. Initially, the handbook outlined things for which students could not be bullied, such as race, religion, etc., but it did not cover sexual orientation or gender issues. Since then, Kasey said, it has been revised.
“It’s very vague now, and that’s fine,” he said.
Richland has made a big commitment to stamping out bullying over the past few years.
Marissa Lydic, a freshman who met Kasey two years ago through marching band, said that the older student has helped her overcome bullying.
“They couldn’t accept me because I was different. She’s helped me stand up for what I believe in,” Marissa said. “She’s there if anyone’s bothering me. She’s there to make sure I’m doing OK and that it gets fixed the proper way.”
Marissa, like many others, struggles with pronouns when it comes to Kasey. Those who have known him for years – especially his family members – often refer to him as “she” or “her,” and Kasey understands that.
“I get that it’s going to be just as much of a transition for everyone else as it is for me,” he said. “I don’t get offended when people refer to me as a she.”
While Hendricks said that there likely have been people with gender issues for years, it’s only recently become more acceptable to talk about it. That means that schools and workplaces often are looking for solutions to problems that they had not previously faced. Issues like which locker room Kasey should use prior to gym class.
Rather than put him in with the girls or the boys, Richland agreed to let him use the room where officials change before sporting events. That solved the locker room problem and the school also allowed him to use the restroom facilties in the room instead of choosing a public, shared restroom. But that was a less-than-ideal solution, as he had to go to the office to get a key to the room, walk to the locker room, use the facilities, walk back to the office and then return to class, which often was on the other side of the building. That meant that going to the restroom in the four minutes students have between classes was impossible. And leaving class also wasn’t a good option.
“My teachers started to get a little suspicious as to why I was gone for 10 minutes,” Kasey said.
This year, he’s relented.
“I use the girls’ restroom, just because I’d probably get in trouble if I used the guys’ restroom,” he said. “I’ve been going to Richland my whole life, so if I go to the girls’ restroom, nobody will get offended. I understand it’s not in my best interest as far as giving off the right vibe, but it’s a little bit more convenient.”
Another issue arose on the second day of school this year. Kasey was asked if he wanted to appear on the ballot for homecoming king or queen. He chose the male ballot and, thinking that he had finally realized his dream of being recognized as male, Kasey posted on Facebook asking anyone who supported him to vote for him.
“He was so excited,” his girlfriend said. “Not only just because people were accepting him, but he knew he had a good chance of being king, because of all the support he was getting. He was so happy.”
The joy only lasted a few days. The day the voting was to be held, Kasey was told that he couldn’t be on the male ballot because he was listed as a female on his driver’s license. Even though the school had recognized his desire to be treated as a boy, administrators said, state law prohibited them from putting him on the ballot for boys.
The last-minute change didn’t prevent Kasey from getting the number of votes needed to be on the court, even though he was listed as a girl.
School administrators were unsure what to do with him, as it would be awkward for both Kasey and his escort to be accompanied by a male student. School administrators said that he could attend – but on the girls’ side.
Despite having the support of his classmates, he wouldn’t be able to get the recognition he so desperately wanted.
Kasey was crushed.
“He cried a lot,” Katie said. “He was really upset. It was like they gave him what he really wanted to be and then they backtracked on it. “
Kasey and his family decided to appeal the decision to the school board. They have taken his story to the media and drawn support from around the world. Kasey has been asked to be a guest speaker at Clarion University and Indiana University of Pennsylvania. The American Civil Liberties Union has pledged its support, and Kasey is expected to have a strong backing at Monday night’s school board meeting, where Kasey’s allies are being encouraged to wear blue.
Determined to help
Kasey has not yet started hormone treatments to begin the transition process, but he plans to begin as soon as his therapy requirements have been met. He is an honor student and is looking forward to college. In addition to his girlfriend, he has added a number of friends – both male and female – and seems quite well-adjusted. He’s become a bit of a mini-celebrity, even before the story surrounding homecoming surfaced.
“He always hid in the background,” said MacKenzie, his 16-year-old sister. “Now, everybody knows Kasey, not just people in her class. People all over town know who Kasey is. He uses that as an empowering experience. He has really opened people’s eyes and helped to educate people.”
Stephanie Theys, Kasey’s 23-year-old stepsister, is amazed at what Kasey has become.
“I generally hope that someday I have a kid that is as awesome as he is,” she said.
Kasey hopes that he can pave the way for other transgender students that follow him.
“I’m not going to be the only one,” he said. “People are becoming more comfortable, society is becoming more comfortable with it. It’s going to be a more acceptable thing. If they don’t deal with it now, five or 10 years from now, someone else is going to come along and they’re going to need to deal with it. They have to deal with it eventually.”
And Kasey hopes to continue helping people deal with it after his transformation, both from female to male and from high school to college and, eventually, professional.
“I was thinking about going to college to be a therapist or somebody that’s going to help somebody like me,” Kasey said.
“That or art or music therapy, because I’m a huge nerd about art and music. Honestly, what I want to do with my life is strictly based on helping people. I haven’t figured out the exact details yet.”
Eric Knopsnyder is the editor of The Tribune-Democrat. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/eric_knopsnyder.