Kaysen Ford was 12 years old in 2015 when he and his mother, Jennifer Sumner, sat down for a StoryCorps interview in Birmingham, Ala. The youngest of seven children, Kaysen talked to his mother about being transgender.
Kaysen Ford had just finished 5th grade in Tuscaloosa, Ala., when he started using he/him pronouns. It was around that time he began to tell friends and family that he was transgender.
"Because up until then, I did not know that the word existed," Kaysen said.
Though his extended family was slower to embrace his preferred pronouns —and some still haven't — Kaysen's immediate family was supportive.
"Because they kind of knew it was coming," Kaysen said.
Growing up, Kaysen remembered "it was misery every day" when people called him a girl or his parents called him their daughter. He said it was a relief when he attended art camp in the summer of 2014. That's when his fellow campers used his correct pronouns for the first time.
"They just called me he. And that was awesome," he said.
Kaysen told his mom he liked practicing martial arts and playing bass. His favorite subject in school was P.E. When his mom asked if there was anything else Kaysen wanted people to know about him, he said, "Well, even though I'm transgender, I'm a kid too. I have homework to deal with. I have tests to deal with."
Kaysen and Jennifer also reflect on what he then called the happiest moment in his life.
"January 16th, 2015, 8:45 p.m.," Kaysen told his mom. "You bought me boxer pants."
"You'd been telling me for quite a while that you wanted boxers," Jennifer said. "You were wearing all boy clothes. Getting boy haircuts. And that was like the final change. And you were just ecstatic."
Jennifer said she worried that Kaysen would face bullying or hatred as a transgender kid in the South. But that didn't keep her from being his biggest advocate.
"I have been extremely proud of you because you have been true to who you are," Jennifer told her son. "And you're very courageous."
"It shouldn't be scary to be who you are," Kaysen said. "I mean, maybe a little bit at first. But it's way happier this way. Trust me."
"I don't think you realize what a leader you are," Jennifer told Kaysen. "People look up to you because you are not afraid to take a different path. And we know that it's your life and you're the one that's got to live it, but we are there for you every single step of the way. ... I'm very proud to be your mom."
"I'm proud to be your son," Kaysen said.
Today, 16-year-old Kaysen works with LGBTQ youth in his community. He serves as Alabama's only intern at Point of Pride — an international network of gender-affirming support programs that empower transgender people to live more authentically — and is a facilitator at Magic City Acceptance Center, a local Birmingham drop-in center for LGBTQ youth and their allies.
Audio produced for Morning Edition by Mia Warren and Kerrie Hillman.
StoryCorps is a national nonprofit that gives people the chance to interview friends and loved ones about their lives. These conversations are archived at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, allowing participants to leave a legacy for future generations. Learn more, including how to interview someone in your life, at StoryCorps.org.
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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
It's Friday and time again for StoryCorps. Today a mother talks with one of her kids about an important life moment. Kaysen Ford is the youngest of seven children. When he was 12 years old, Kaysen sat down at StoryCorps with his mother, Jennifer Sumner, to talk about life in elementary school in Tuscaloosa, Ala.
JENNIFER SUMNER: Tell us a little bit about yourself.
KAYSEN FORD: I am a martial artist, I play the stand-up bass, I am learning how to play the guitar, and I am transgender.
SUMNER: And what level are you in martial arts?
FORD: I'm a Level 2 blue belt. That means I am halfway to black belt.
SUMNER: What is your favorite subject in school?
FORD: Or lunch.
SUMNER: What grade level were you in school when you decided to tell your friends and family that you're transgender?
FORD: It was around 5th grade when I told my friends and family I was transgender because, up until then, I did not know that the word existed. It was misery every day. I hated being called a girl. I hated being called a daughter. But most everybody - my family, friends - they were just, OK - because they kind of knew it was coming.
FORD: Over the summer, I went to art camp. And they did not know I was transgender. They just called me he, and that was awesome. I think the happiest moment in my life would probably be January 16, 2015, 8:45 p.m. You bought me boxer pants.
SUMNER: You'd been telling me for quite a while that you wanted boxers. You were wearing all boy clothes, getting boy haircuts. And that was, like, the final change. And you were just ecstatic.
FORD: That was awesome.
SUMNER: Is there anything else you would like for people to know about you?
FORD: Well, even though I'm transgender, I'm a kid, too. I have homework to deal with. I have tests to deal with.
SUMNER: I have been extremely proud of you because you have been true to who you are, and you're very courageous.
FORD: It shouldn't be scary to be who you are. I mean, maybe a little bit at first - but it's way happier this way. Trust me.
SUMNER: I don't think you realize what a leader you are. People look up to you because you are not afraid to take a different path. And we know that it's your life and you're the one that's got to live it, but we are there for you every single step of the way. And we're going to do whatever we can to lighten your load. I'm very proud to be your mom.
FORD: I'm proud to be your son.
(SOUNDBITE OF FABIAN ALMAZAN AND LINDA OH'S "PALOMA")
MARTIN: That was Kaysen Ford and Jennifer Sumner for StoryCorps. Their conversation was recorded in Birmingham, Ala., in 2015. Their interview will be archived along with hundreds of thousands of others at the Library of Congress.
(SOUNDBITE OF FABIAN ALMAZAN AND LINDA OH'S "PALOMA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.