Living without gender, working to survive to adulthood
Posted April 17
WISCONSIN RAPIDS, Wis. — Sam Baum isn't a man or a woman. Sometimes Sam feels like one or the other; sometimes in between.
The shades of blue coloring Baum's spiked hair match the gender-neutral T-shirt, shorts and black thick-rimmed glasses Baum wears. The attire and Baum's voice and mannerisms defy gender, which is Baum's goal.
"Why does it matter if I'm male or female? That's not who I am. I am Sam," said Baum, 21. Even the use of pronouns "he" or "she" frustrates Baum because they result in a gender label. Baum prefers "they" or "their." While they may sound cumbersome or weird to some, Baum doesn't mind. They're Sam.
Since Baum was about 6 or 7 years old, Baum has struggled with the notion of gender. Related to that struggle, also, have been Baum's mental health challenges, which at times have included suicidal thought and attempts.
Although Baum was called a girl at birth, Baum identified more with boys. Baum felt as though they were born into the wrong body. Eventually, Baum realized that their self-identity didn't fit either gender.
"I am a demi-boy, a freak, a queer," Baum said. These self-descriptors are jarring, yet Baum smiles as they're said, having made peace with them. Baum doesn't intend to shock or joke about self-identity. Rather Baum describes the experience of feeling a fluid sense of gender identity, often even feeling genderless. "I'm not the norm, I'm not normal — I'm abnormal."
Baum is not alone in feeling without a fixed gender, but the numbers are difficult to estimate since the U.S. Census Bureau and other official record-keeping sources do not ask about gender identity. But a 2016 report estimates there are 1.4 million adult Americans who identify as transgender. Of that number, about 19,150 live in Wisconsin. The report was completed by the Williams Institute, part of the UCLA Law School, based on the CDC's Behavioral Ricks Factor Surveillance System.
There is a nascent movement to redefine what gender is or can be. Those who seek to broaden gender definitions beyond a simple binary now speak of a plethora of categories for gender identity, including genderqueer or GQ, a catch-all for those whose gender identity isn't easily categorized, and cisgender or cis for someone who exclusively identifies as their sex assigned at birth. The idea is that gender identities are not necessarily indicative of gender expression, sexual orientation or physical anatomy.
Of course, some people fight against the notion of expanding gender identities. For young people like Baum, that can exacerbate mental health struggles. An investigation into Wisconsin's youth suicide rate by the USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin (http://mnhne.ws/2ocwHuj ) found the state's rate is nearly a third higher than the national rate. USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin's Kids in Crisis series launched last year to examine suicide among youth and potential solutions. The series continues in 2017 to further examine the problem — and seek solutions in communities across the state.
About the same time as those first gender identity questions arose, Baum began peppering their mother, Jade Rising, with gender questions. Rising said Sam also has been diagnosed with an assortment of mental health conditions in the years since, including schizophrenia.
"I'm a trained mental health professional, so I've worked with some kids facing a lot of challenges." said Rising, who was a mental health case manager before Sam was born. "It felt like everything was just stacked against Sam."
Growing up often is tough for children, she said. Adding gender identity questions and mental health concerns often makes challenges feel insurmountable for youth.
"Every child wants to fit in, have friends. When you're only 7 years old and you hear voices telling you to do something and those voice aren't real, it's difficult for the child, for the parents," Rising said. She said Baum also developed autism and other cognitive disabilities that further complicated Baum's already fragile mental health.
When Baum entered adolescence, they contemplated suicide and at times attempted it.
Among the LGBTQ+ community, youth are at a higher risk of suicide. The issues faced by gay youth, or in Baum's case, people whose relationship to their gender isn't society's norm, can contribute to mental health problems. Baum doesn't fit into the typical gender roles of male or female, or with the identities associated with the LGBT community. As categories of sexuality are increasing the LGBT tag often includes Q, which can mean queer or questioning, and the "+'' symbol also can be attached which is a catch-all to include people who are non-binary gender — they identify as neither exclusively man nor woman.
In a world where children and teenagers seek to fit in with friends yet express individuality through attire, sports, music and other means, classmates taunted, jeered or shunned Baum. The rejection was crushing and the pain caused Baum to question self-worth.
"Sam's journey has been a life and death struggle," Rising said. Her greatest fear every day is that her child will attempt suicide. Rising shares a duplex with Baum so that they each have their own apartment. It's her way to give her child space yet be close to support Baum in a crisis.
People who don't fit in with cultural norms often find the world around them is harsh and unforgiving, said Barb Bigalke, founder and director of the Center for Suicide Awareness in Kaukauna.
When children or adults are questioning their gender, the struggles are enormous and they face a greater suicide risk, particularly if they lack support from family or friends, Bigalke said.
"If someone told you that who you are is not acceptable, pretty soon you start to believe that, thinking there is something wrong with me and you have these negative feelings and questioning yourself and pretty soon you start thinking, I'm not worthy," Bigalke said. "But you are worthy. Every single person has a purpose and worth."
Support networks and mental health services often are sparse in rural parts of the state and in 2014, Bigalke founded HOPELINE, a state-wide text-based emotional support service. She said the percentage identifying with the LGBTQ+ community is difficult to ascertain since it's not a question asked by HOPELINE volunteers. Of the people texting who mention gender or sexual preferences, 37 percent identify with the LGBTQ+ community, she said.
Since its founding, HOPELINE has helped thousands of teenagers and adults. The volunteers are trained, it's free and operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
"I know we are making a difference," Bigalke said. During HOPELINE's first eight months in operation, it handled more than 15,000 texts and the numbers continue to increase every month.
Bigalke said the texting numbers spiked during the recent presidential election cycle and have since leveled off.
"We saw the words 'LGBTQ' and 'fear' in many of the texts. A lot of these are kids who can't even vote, but they understand and worry," she said.
Texting is popular among the at-risk population and HOPELINE fills a need for support anonymously with confidentiality.
Numerous studies show that youth and young adults among the LGBTQ+ community face a greater risk of attempting suicide. A state-wide survey in 2013 of Wisconsin high school students showed almost 30 percent of the LGBT students reported attempting suicide one or more times in the past 12 months, as compared to 4 percent of non-LGBT students. Also, about 14 percent of the LGBT students reported making a suicide attempt that resulted in medical care, as compared to 2 percent of non-LGBT students. The 2013 Youth Risk Behavior Survey was compiled by the state Department of Public Instruction.
The numbers aren't surprising said Bobbie Joy Amann who is transgender and facilitates a support group in Stevens Point.
"It's a difficult world where many people feel they can't talk about who they are because we fear rejection," said Amann, 57. She didn't understand her gender until into her 30s and later began to transition physically to a woman.
Ever since childhood, Amann said she had two lives: the roles she played for her family and friends as a male and her self-identify as female.
"Submerging who you are takes a toll and it eventually comes out," Amann said. "I got married thinking this will all go away, but it didn't."
Amann's world crashed when she was 31 and she was hospitalized. "When you are rejected because of who you are, that shame, that feeling you are a terrible person is overwhelming," she said.
"When you can't admit who you really are because you feel so much shame, and believe you are a terrible person, that builds in your head," she said.
Although acceptance of LGBTQ+ is growing among communities, cultural change is slow, Amann said.
"More people are open about their sexuality and gay rights have advanced, but there is still a long way to go," she said.
The controversy over transgender bathrooms is one of the examples, Amann said. In February, President Donald Trump reversed protections that allowed transgender students in public schools to use bathrooms that correspond with their gender identity. Among the states, North Carolina had approved a law barring transgender people from using bathrooms associated with their gender identity, which it is in the process of repealing.
The political clamor over bathrooms is distressing and puzzling, Baum said.
"Why does anyone care which bathroom I use?" Baum said.
It's frustrating that, in general, people have difficulties accepting someone who does not fit the traditional male and female roles, Baum said.
Since finishing high school, suicide has been far from Baum's thoughts, Baum said. Baum smiled when adding, "It got better," alluding to the "It Gets Better Project" targeting LGBT youth who face harassment.
A career path is elusive, but Baum's ultimate goal is to help others who are coping to understand gender identity. Initially, Baum thought about a music career but decided being an advocate for the LGBTQ+ community would be a better path.
"There's a lot of people who can sing, but there is no one like me. I don't care if everyone knows I am a freak," Baum said. The story, photos and video Baum completed with USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin for the Kids in Crisis series was Baum's first time publicly talking about gender and sexuality.
Baum often reaches out to others who share similar difficulties through social media sites on their smartphone. At low points, Baum said they text the HOPELINE and the support is valuable.
"I know I'm not alone," Baum said."There are people just like me all over and sometimes they help me and other times, I help them."
A fire pit in the back of their duplex is a gathering place for Baum's friends which includes other young adults in the LGBTQ+ community. Their get-togethers in Baum's backyard affirm their friendships and that no one is alone.
"I have a fire in my belly," Baum said. "I'm like a kitty-cat. I'm sweet and gentle but I'm also going to stick in my claws and hang on. I can do this."