Indivisible, Part 4 | Fundamental transformations: Steamboat turns a new leaf on ideas of gender and sexuality
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — It was Wren Requist’s freshman year at Steamboat Springs High School, and something did not feel right.
High school is an awkward, transformative time for anyone, but amid the usual pubescent anxieties over body hair and forehead pimples, Requist faced a deeper, thornier dilemma: his body did not match his identity.
In almost every aspect, from the clothes he preferred to the fundamental ways he thought about his existence, Requist considered himself male. But according to his birth certificate and in the eyes of his parents, twin sister and the rest of the world, he was a brown-haired, blue-eyed girl.
Requist is transgender, and though he has since started his second year of college, received gender-affirming health care and accepted his true identity, the beginning of high school was a different story.
“I was not in a good place,” Requist said.
He was quiet, withdrawn and despondent. It was like a dark, thick storm cloud hovered over him, blocking any hope for a happy future. Sometimes, it felt like there was no future at all, just this terrible, indescribable discomfort.
Part of the problem was worrying if he really was transgender. The only stories Requist had heard about were young children coming out before puberty, knowing at a young age that the gender they were born into did not parallel their innermost self.
He struggled to find role models or anyone else in the community who could legitimize his personal experiences and ease his fears. He felt alone.
His parents could tell something was wrong, but even Requist did not know exactly how to answer their worried questions.
When he finally did come to terms with being transgender, there was the issue of telling other people. What would he say? How would they react? The thought of coming out in a small community like Steamboat presented a particularly worrisome situation.
“It’s scary, especially because I grew up in a town where everyone knows each other,” Requist said. “I couldn’t just start over. I had to be out and visible.”
Mapping the divides
Requist is one of many people who do not identify as straight or cisgender. Straight refers to being heterosexual, and cisgender describes a person whose gender matches the sex assigned at birth. Being straight and cisgender has become the cultural cookie cutter people are expected to trace.
For everyone else, the situation is like going to a clothing store that does not sell clothes in their size. It makes them feel as if they do not fit in the world, or the world is not willing to acknowledge the fit that is right for them.
The lack of acceptance has induced inequality and discrimination.
A 2018 survey conducted by One Colorado, one of the state’s largest advocacy organizations for LGBTQ rights, found that 66% of more than 2,500 respondents had experienced homophobic harassment, an 11% increase from a similar survey in 2011. More than 300 respondents reported being punched or kicked for being gay, and 75 were hurt so badly they needed medical attention.
This bigotry contributes to a higher likelihood of anxiety, depression and thoughts of suicide. The same survey found LGBTQ Coloradans are nearly three times as likely to be diagnosed with depression than the general population, and transgender people are almost seven times more likely to consider suicide.
To make matters worse, the survey found gaps in health care for the LGBTQ community, meaning people do not have equal access to the care they need to address the aforementioned trauma. Respondents described encountering discrimination or refusals in health care settings. Others avoided seeking care altogether because of concerns they would be mistreated.
But the world does not have to be this way for the LGBTQ community. Colorado, including Routt County, has made significant steps to improve the quality of life for its queer population. The same survey from One Colorado found more people have access to health insurance than in 2011, and advances in telehealth have made it easier than ever to provide resources that would not otherwise be available in such a rural area.
ABC’s of LGBTQ
Before going any further, it is important to understand some of the terms that will be used in this article. The spectrum of non-heterosexual, non-cisgender sexual orientations and gender identities will be referred to as LGBTQ . Queer is a more recent addition to the abbreviation, an umbrella term that has been reclaimed from its derogatory origins. Some still consider it pejorative, but it has become so widely accepted within the LGBTQ community as to justify its respectful use here.
Heteronormative refers to the idea that a heterosexual, cisgender identity has been the status quo for so long that society sees it as “normal” and deems anything else “abnormal,” which implies prejudice. A goal of this article is to show how diverse gender and sexuality actually are, challenging the notion that to be heterosexual and cisgender is a norm at all.
Science and society’s understanding of gender and sexuality is ever-evolving, so it is natural to be confused or make mistakes. That is why it is important to be patient, open-minded and willing to talk through these topics.
As Requist said, “We don’t start off knowing everything. I try to listen to people around me. My experience isn’t the only experience.”
The goal of this entire series is to facilitate such conversations. Talking begets action, and action begets change.
Preaching and policing the gender binary
Historically, society has thought of gender and sexuality as binaries. A person is either male or female. Categories of male and female are mutually exclusive. Males are attracted to females and vice versa.
Religion, particularly Judeo-Christian ideologies, informed this view. It’s interesting to note that many Indigenous communities have much more progressive beliefs about the fluidity of gender.
Politics also brings its iron fist into the ring, policing sexuality with discriminatory laws and regulations.
Colorado was once known as the “hate state” due to prejudiced laws in the 1990s. The most notorious of them, known as Amendment 2, essentially legalized discrimination against LGBTQ residents. The state faced widespread condemnation for the amendment, with companies and organizations boycotting events they had planned in Colorado.
The boycotts cost the city of Denver more than $26 million, according to one estimate. Routt County also felt the cold shoulder. In 1993, the Sheraton Steamboat Resort, the largest hotel in the area at the time, received notice that Times-Mirror Cable TV from Los Angeles canceled a convention it planned to hold at the hotel. It was one of several cancellations in direct retaliation of Amendment 2.
In an article published in the Steamboat Pilot at the time, Patty Oxford, the Sheraton’s director of sales, said of the boycotts, “It hurts us, and we’re real uncomfortable with the situation. We don’t like to be thought of as rednecks. We like to think this is a progressive area.”
By 1996, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled Amendment 2 unconstitutional, and Colorado has shown improvements for LGBTQ equality in the legal and political realms. Jared Polis was elected as the nation’s first openly gay governor in 2018. The state legislature has passed anti-discrimination laws that guarantee equal access to public accommodations, housing and employment.
Even the ostensibly objective realm of science is not safe from subjective prejudice. The historically male-dominated field of medicine has co-opted diagnoses into justification for oppression. Take, for example, drapetomania, the now infamous 19th-century “disorder” of slaves who had “a tendency to run away from their owner due to an inborn propensity for wanderlust.”
Non-heteronormative ideas of gender and sexuality have been similarly pathologized as a means of maintaining an illusory vision of the human condition that fails to appreciate its actual variety.
Until 1973, homosexuality was a psychological disorder listed under the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, or DSM, which is essentially the diagnostic bible for mental health professionals. Conversion therapy was, and continues to be, an attempt to change a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity or expression, but the results have proved traumatic and ineffective.
To date, 20 states, including Colorado, have laws restricting conversion therapy, particularly for children, citing studies that show its use can lead to depression, anxiety, drug use, homelessness and suicide. Many leading health care organizations, from the American Medical Association to American Academy of Pediatrics, have denounced the practice.
In a resolution over the decision to remove homosexuality from the DSM, the American Psychiatric Association said, “We will no longer insist on a label of sickness for individuals who insist that they are well and demonstrate no generalized impairment in social effectiveness.” Trustees of the association, the largest psychiatric organization in the world, also said they support “civil rights legislation at local, state and federal levels that would insure homosexual citizens the same protections now guaranteed to others.”
This was big news — so big it ran on the front page of The New York Times on Dec. 16, 1973.
Jack Drescher, a distinguished fellow of the American Psychiatric Association known for his work on sexual orientation and gender identity, said delisting homosexuality from the DSM led to a fundamental shift in how the scientific world approached the LGBTQ community. Instead of asking “what causes homosexuality?” and “how can we treat it?”, they began focusing instead on the health and mental health needs of LGBTQ patient population.
Breaking the binary
Since then, science has affirmed what people in the queer community implicitly understand — gender and sexuality are not binaries.
“I don’t think there is something like a male or female brain, but it’s more a continuum,” said Baudewijntje Kreukels, a neuroscientist at Amsterdam University Medical Center who works with the European Network for the Investigation of Gender Incongruence.
One of his studies included scanning the brains of 21 transgender boys (born female) who had recently started testosterone treatments. The images showed their brains actually looked more like those of cisgender boys. To Kreukels, this is evidence that a transgender person’s mentality literally does not align with the gender in which he or she is born.
Steamboat Springs therapist Whitney Bakarich brings a similar mindset to her mental health practice, which focuses on middle and high school students.
Finding therapists and doctors who understand and can assuage the unique challenges of being queer can be difficult, especially in rural areas like Routt County, where there is a general lack of mental health care regardless of one’s gender or sexual identity.
Bakarich takes a holistic approach to therapy, which requires staying well versed in the most recent literature on everything from conflicts with parents to questions about sexuality.
“Any kind of issue a kid brings, I have to become an expert in that,” she said.
Several of her young patients are questioning their sexual and gender identities. As Bakarich said, it’s common and normal for children to explore their sexuality. She strives to help make the journey easier.
Not feeling accepted outside the therapy session is a major obstacle to gaining progress during it. Bakarich compares the barrier to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, which posits that a person has to meet their basic needs — nourishment and safety — before progressing to more abstract, existential ones.
“I can’t have this wonderful conversation with a kid questioning their gender identity if they are not safe,” Bakarich said. “For any kid I’m working with, I want to create space to address those kind of questions.”
That is part of the reason she started getting involved with an LGBTQ group at Steamboat Springs High School. Participation is anonymous and limited to queer students. The idea is to offer a safe space for the group to have indepth conversations but also to make the school a more welcoming place for them.
For instance, during the 2017-18 school year, the group petitioned the administration to add gender-neutral bathrooms at the high school. A continued effort is to add more LGBTQ-inclusive education within health classes, Bakarich said.
To illustrate the spectrum of identities, the Trans Student Educational Resources created the Gender Unicorn. The diagram includes gender, sex assigned at birth and sexuality, depicting them as a sliding scale rather than binaries. One fills it out according to where one identifies along the scale.
For instance, when expressing gender identity, a person might identify entirely as a man and place himself all the way on the male side of the spectrum. But that same person might have a more feminine way of expressing himself, such as wearing makeup or effeminate clothing.
When it comes to attraction, either emotional or physical, some people might only prefer one gender. Others could be interested in multiple genders.
The point is that none of this is as cut and dry as society wants to believe. There can be room for exploration without shame, as long as it’s consensual. (For more on this, the Emmy-winning TV show, “Schitt’s Creek,” does a great job of analogizing the spectrum of attraction with wine preferences in the 10th episode of season one.)
All of these personal expressions correlate to a gender and sexual identity. Some examples include: genderqueer, gender-neutral, demi-males, cisgender, homosexual, pansexual and asexual. To understand their meanings, a quick Google search or a review of Latin prefixes should suffice.
There are so many gender and sexual identities that trying to list all of them is like cataloguing every item sold on Amazon. The point of this new way of understanding gender and sexuality is to offer more freedom to appreciate the complex variety of the human experience.
A lifelong journey
To Requist, life has been a gradual becoming, like a caterpillar that begins as a clumsy vessel of the beautiful body it was born to inhabit. He describes it as a journey, a long one, rife with uncertainty and frustration, but also suffuse with the excitement of discovering his true self.
Requist’s experience is becoming increasingly common as science and society shed more light on how gender and sexuality actually manifest.
“I don’t think anyone perfectly adheres to the gender roles they are supposed to — which is OK,” Requist said. “I think that’s a good thing.”
More and more people offer their appropriate gender pronouns — male, female or nonbinary — as a form of introduction along with their name. Younger people, in particular, hope the practice becomes commonplace, a way of understanding and respecting one’s gender identity.
A 2016 survey from GLAAD, an international LGBTQ media advocacy organization, found 20% of Millennial-aged respondents identified as something other than strictly cisgender and straight, compared to 7% of Baby Boomers. It’s hard to determine if this represents a growing number of people identifying as LGBTQ, or if the world has simply become more accepting and, therefore, allowed more people to be open about their identities.
As the LGBTQ community gains broader visibility, so too does the idea that gender and sexuality are much more fluid than the world previously thought. Television shows like Amazon’s “Transparent” and a proliferation of popular queer artists, from new voices like Lil Nas X and Arlo Parks to long-established icons finally expressing their queer identities, have helped to normalize what for centuries was abnormal.
When Requist came out as transgender the summer after his freshman year of high school, it elicited both relief and further confusion. With the truth in the open, he had to decide what he wanted to do about it. For the next three years, Requist stuck to being socially transgender — that is, he went by masculine pronouns, wore mostly men’s clothing and changed his name to Wren. He continued to compete in high school sports as a female, as required by state rules, but said his coaches were accepting of his identity.
After turning 18 and finishing high school, Requist started hormone therapy to begin chemically changing his body into a male’s. Currently, the closest transgender health center is the UCHealth Anschutz Campus in Aurora. Fortunately, Requist’s family was supportive, and he had transportation and insurance to cover part of the cost after doctor referrals.
Now a sophomore at the University of Arizona, Requist has joined a queer-focused fraternity and surrounded himself with people who can relate to his experiences. He looks back fondly at his childhood in Steamboat and understands that feeling isolated as a transgender person was almost inevitable in such a small town.
“Being in college, I have found more community because there are more people,” he explained.
The UCHealth Anschutz Campus has since developed the Integrated Transgender Program, which has allowed more patients to access services than ever before, according to program coordinator Keily Fisher. In the last year, it has accepted more than 100 new patients, including people from out of state like Wyoming and Kansas.
“We are growing so fast. There is such a high demand for services,” Fisher said, adding that one of the primary challenges is trying to accommodate new patients without making them wait months for an initial appointment.
In some ways, the COVID-19 pandemic has helped the program through improvements in telehealth. Patients have the option to consult with doctors or update their prescriptions virtually rather than making the four-hour drive from Steamboat to Aurora.
Though this has helped bridge the gap for LGBTQ health care for local residents, other divides remain.
Too tight-knit to fit
Growing up in a small, tucked-away community, like Steamboat, presents its own unique challenges for queer youth.
Skier Gus Kenworthy has become an international icon and role model for the LGBTQ community. After he shared a kiss on live television with his boyfriend at the time, actor Matt Wilkas, LGBTQ-focused news site Outsports referred to it as “the gay sports moment of 2018.”
But growing up in Telluride, where the only gay person he knew was his uncle, left him with no role models of his own.
It took Kenworthy years of self-discovery and talking with other queer people to understand more about his sexuality and himself. Now, being gay feels like just another aspect of his natural identity along with his curly hair and blue eyes.
“I realized that ‘gay’ is just part of someone. It doesn’t define anything else about them,” Kenworthy told Business Insider.
Steamboat Springs High School teacher Chris Ruff doesn’t enjoy the same level of stardom as Kenworthy, but he understands the struggle of coming to terms with his sexuality in such a small town. Ruff grew up in Steamboat, and he didn’t come out as bisexual until after he graduated high school and left for college in Denver.
Concealing his identity was not due solely to a lack of role models. He worried about losing friends or getting bullied at hockey practice. The world was a more dangerous place for queer people back then.
“In the early 2000s, it was not OK to be gay — at all,” Ruff said.
A few years before his graduation in 2005, Matthew Shepard, a 21-year-old gay student at the University of Wyoming, was brutally tortured and left to die outside of Laramie. While the horrific incident spurred legislative action combatting hate crime and human rights campaigns, including the Matthew Shepard Foundation, it also served as a reminder of just how violent bigotry could become. He was just one of countless victims of queer prejudice — sons and daughters who did not make news headlines but meant the world to someone.
When Ruff returned to Steamboat to teach, he wanted to make the high school a more welcoming place for LGBTQ students. In 2015, he helped to start the school’s first Gay-Straight Alliance, which remains the only such group at any high school in Northwest Colorado. Teens from Moffat County make the hour drive to attend meetings.
The group has anywhere from 15 to 30 regular members who meet to discuss ways to make the school safer for LGBTQ students, organize activist events or just chat. It is more open-door and visible than the group Whitney Bakarich works with. The high school has come a long way since Ruff was a student, but the Alliance has faced discrimination.
For the first four years since its inception, students ripped down the group’s posters at the school. Some of the members are only open about their sexuality within the confines of the group. Outside of meetings, they continue to hide their true identities from the family, friends and neighbors who might not accept them.
“This valley is still fairly homophonic,” Ruff said.
For the last two years, it seems the school has warmed up to the presence of the Gay-Straight Alliance. Posters don’t get destroyed. Some straight teens attend meetings to show their support. Queer members seem more confident than ever before.
“The journey of the GSA has been a group of students who felt like they couldn’t express themselves at all to having this wonderful space where students feel comfortable expressing their individuality and queerness,” Ruff said. “People can just come and be themselves.”
The last few years have been a journey for Ruff, too. Initially, he was not willing to use his actual name for this story. He feared retaliation from parents and judgment from his colleagues. Putting himself in the newspaper like this was another layer of his coming out process.
What helped to make Ruff more comfortable was the Supreme Court decision this summer that protects gay, lesbian and transgender employees from discrimination, making it illegal to fire someone simply for being homosexual or transgender.
“I had a day where it dawned on me: I can be out at work now without fear of reprisal,” Ruff said of the ruling. “That’s a big win for our community.”
B Torres, an interpreter and community liaison for the Steamboat Springs School District, works with the more closed-door LGBTQ group with Bakarich. For years, she has made it a point of not only being openly gay but actively advocating for herself and other queer people.
As she put it, “I spent way too much of my life in the closet and suffering because of it.”
She hopes her courage encourages others, particularly students, to do the same.
“In Steamboat, it’s much harder for kids to have role models who are not only out but out and proud,” Torres said.
A place to call home
It is important to note that the voices included in this article are in many ways success stories. They have accepted their identities and surrounded themselves with accepting friends and loved ones.
Not included are the many who continue to struggle on this journey. In a tight-knit, idyllic vacation destination like Steamboat, it can be easy to say this is a welcoming place and leave it at that. But even a cursory look at the city shows the lack of a visible LGBTQ community. While some businesses have donned rainbow flags and stickers or posted signs displaying themselves as “hate-free zones,” there are few actual queer-focused events or groups outside of the high school.
In years past, the only major Pride event has been a one-night celebration at Butcherknife Brewing Co.
It is one of the biggest barriers Ruff sees to improving the lives of queer residents. Part of this is just the reality of small-town living. But Ruff, Torres and others hope that as the LGBTQ community gains more visibility, Steamboat will become a more vibrant place, with events like queer happy hours or LGBTQ-focused social media groups that meet for coffee or to ski together.
There is evidence of a burgeoning community outside of the high school’s queer groups.
Colorado Mountain College, which has a campus in Steamboat Springs, also has made steps toward LGBTQ inclusivity.
The college has a mix of gender-inclusive and gender-specific bathrooms across all of its campuses, according to Richard Gonzales, the college’s senior inclusivity officer. CMC currently is working with a consultant on more ways to make its campuses more diverse, equitable and inclusive, he added.
On a national scale, more work remains to bridge the gaps afflicting the LGBTQ community, from equal access to health care to protections under the law. As the general election approaches, One Colorado is ramping up its advocacy efforts to ensure voters are informed about the candidates and their policies.
As Requist knows, the legal system has played an instrumental role in securing equal protections and quality of life for the LGBTQ community.
A few days after he came out in the summer of 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court, in another momentous decision, made same-sex marriage a nationwide right guaranteed under the 14th Amendment. The legislation served as a beacon of hope with widespread benefits. According to research from Johns Hopkins University, there was a 14% drop in suicide attempts linked to the passage of same-sex marriage laws.
It also became symbolic of the wave of acceptance Requist received from his family and friends.
“I have been really lucky to have the support I’ve had. It made a huge difference,” he said.
He remembers a trip to Europe he took the summer after his freshman year. It was just a few days after Requist came out to his father. The two visited a clothing store at a midsize town in Northern Spain, a town he has since forgotten the name of. The store had a women’s side and a men’s side. His sister and mother went one way, and he and his father went the other.
Requist remembers vividly what happened next. He was trying on a tie in the dressing room when his father stood behind him and taught him how to fasten it. Neither said anything. They didn’t need to.
Suddenly, it felt like the ceiling burst open, and every cloud in the sky dispersed to let a pure, warm beam of light shine on Requist. He could see a future where he was happy and loved for being the person he is, the person he always was, the person he was still becoming.
He cried. His father cried. They were both still in the dressing room. When the tears dried, his father looked at his son and smiled. Neither said anything. They didn’t need to.
It remains one of the most positive moments in the wake of Requist’s coming out journey.
“That’s when I knew it was going to be OK.”
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