Weekend event provides fun, safe space for transgender youths
Groton — Children, families and volunteers sat Saturday morning at tables doing arts and crafts projects with painted rocks, picture frames and paper lanterns.
Down the hall, children and their parents picked out items from donated clothes, shoes and accessories in a swap room.
In another room, parents gathered for a workshop on mindful loving-kindness and communication.
They were all participating in activities at the annual Family Fun Weekend for transgender people, their families and supporters held at the Baymont Inn & Suites Groton/Mystic. The event featured an array of activities, including games, a talent show, karaoke, movies and seminars and panels on topics from advocacy for children at school to information for new families.
Panelists included Robin McHaelen, the founder and executive director of True Colors, a nonprofit that focuses on the "needs of sexual and gender minority youth"; Jodie Patterson, author of "The Bold World: A Memoir of Family and Transformation;" Vanessa Ford, an educator and author and board member for the National Center for Transgender Equality; and Tony Ferraiolo, transgender youth advocate, inspirational speaker, life coach and author, as well as other advocates and therapists.
"It's a safe space for all of us to just be who we are and share stories and experiences and learn from one another," said Christy Hegarty of Durham, N.H.
Hegarty said her experience having a transgender daughter and becoming part of the community was like having a gift come to her. On the wall at the event was Hegarty's painting of a heart in transgender colors coming out of a box, a piece she had created for an art project to bring awareness to transgender advocacy.
Tracey Devlin Armaos, a supporter of the LGBTQ+ community, and her friends started the weekend in 2015. Sixty-eight people attended the first weekend, which they planned in a month. The event has now grown to about 200 people, with families coming from as far away as Canada and Florida.
Many volunteers and organizations assisted by fundraising, helping out at the event and donating items. Those included OutCT, which held a fundraiser; Transkids Purple Rainbow Foundation, co-founded by Jazz's parents, Greg and Jeanette Jennings, from the TLC channel's "I Am Jazz," and another family, which donated supplies; and Terri Cook, the author of "Allies & Angels: A Memoir of Our Family's Transition," who coordinated workshops.
Charley Lindo, 15, said she comes every year to see the kids, and it makes her so happy to see everyone coming together at an event where they're free to be themselves.
"It’s so great that our community comes together this weekend, and we can all just not have to worry about anyone being hated, or anything like that, so it’s just a good weekend for the whole community," she said.
Her mother, Sherri Fontaine of Pawcatuck, pointed out that the event is there for parents, just as much as kids.
"We all have a really good relationship, and it's just great to see everyone just be able to be who they are and talk freely and openly and without any judgment," she said of the parents.
Colton Sargent, 22, a preschool teacher, said that when he transitioned while a student at Mitchell College, the college and the people around him were beyond supportive and key to his success. He now wants to show that same support to others by volunteering at the Family Fun Weekend. He shared his story with a family at breakfast and helped children with their arts and crafts projects.
The event is all about providing a support network, he said.
"The feeling that you’re not alone, I think, is the biggest thing," Sargent said. "The feeling that whether you’re a mom, a dad, an aunt, an uncle, a grandparent, someone who’s transitioning, someone who’s gender-nonconforming, you know there’s someone here that you can relate to. There’s someone that can look at you and say, 'Me too, I went through that' or 'I'm going through that.'"
Mimi Lemay, an author and member of the Human Rights Campaign's Parents for Transgender Equality Council who lives in Massachusetts, said that her second child, whose sex assigned at birth was female, at age 2 and a half started to say that he was a boy. He became more insistent about it, at the same time as his mood shifted and he began to show signs of anxiety and unhappiness. It was 2012 and 2013, when there wasn't a lot out there to help parents navigate and understand what being transgender is, she said, so it was a process for the family to learn.
"It was a journey for our whole family, but we transitioned our son Jacob at the age of 4, which was almost five years ago, and we found a wonderful community of parents who came from all walks of life and backgrounds, but what united them was that they all loved their children and they were all dealing with a complicated but joyful situation, because our kids, I think, are some of the most empathic and really deep people that I've ever met," she said.
Lemay said having a community where people can share similar experiences and challenges is life-giving, especially at a time when transgender rights have become politicized.
"Here, we all have one common bond, which is we care about our kids, and we want them to have the same opportunities as everybody else's, and so being able to feel like we’re in a safe, friendly environment and to see our kids meet each other and form friendships is invaluable," she said.