OUTstanding Virginians 2016


Shannon McKay

Advocate for Transgender Kids and their Families

Shannon McKay Photo #4Many OUTstanding Virginian award winners are people who saw a need in the community that was not being addressed and took action. Shannon McKay, a Richmond mom, is one of them. Shannon co-founded a support group called He, She, Ze and We (HSZW) in April 2012 because she could find no existing organization that catered to the families of young transgender kids.

“Richmond has a great resource for LGBT youth,” she says, referring to ROSMY, another of this year’s award winners. However, ROSMY does not serve children under 11. Shannon and several parents she had begun networking with had younger children who self-identified differently from the gender assigned them at birth. Shannon’s child’s female self-expression began at age three through her toy, activity, and clothing choices, and Shannon says “by the time she was five, she was able to tell us she was a girl.”  According to Shannon, at the time, “She thought she was the only person like herself.”

Shannon researched the subject and attended national conferences to educate herself and make connections with other families with young transgender children.  She realized a community of families going through the same experience could help relieve the children’s isolation while helping the parents face their anxieties and express their love in the most supportive ways. “The basic assumption is that we can all learn from each other through personal connections where we see the similarities in each other’s stories,” Shannon says.

At the first meeting, five parents were in the room; these became the founding families.  Soon, however, interest in the group grew when an article was published online.  People started contacting Shannon via email from all over Virginia, asking for direction, guidance, resources, and support.

It wasn’t just parents of young kids who reached out. Shannon received inquiries from parents of trans teens and young adults, from young trans people themselves, from children of parents who were transitioning, and from non-binary people who did not have a firm gender identification. “Even though the group started as a safe space for caregivers of young children, I couldn’t say no to anyone that was reaching out for help,” says Shannon. She quickly realized that she needed to expand the group to include all ages and find a way to “take care of the whole family.”

She shaped the informal group into a network that communicates by email and called it He, She, Ze and We (“ze” being one of many proposed solutions to the problem of gendered pronouns at the time). After receiving an inquiry via [email protected], Shannon sets up a time to talk personally to individuals on the phone. “It is those initial connections that are so important,” she says. “You can feel the relief in their voices, as parents realize they are not alone and that this is real.”

Today, over 100 families participate online or in person, with the ages of the youth currently ranging from 5 to 26. Shannon facilitates meetings twice a month in Richmond, with usually a dozen caregivers coming from surrounding counties and up to two hours away.  Several times a year, HSZW organizes outings, where the families informally network in a casual, fun setting.

At the meetings, discussions are frank and can be difficult. “Parents come with lots of emotions and issues,” Shannon says.  Sometimes religious convictions create barriers; sometimes a spouse is not supportive; sometimes parents are wary that local support groups might be some kind of a cult; and sometimes they are confused by flawed research that suggests their children’s behavior is an illness needing a cure or “just a phase”. Fear is a common denominator, and, considering the social disapproval and sometimes violence directed against trans people, Shannon says the fear is not unfounded. “No one would wish such hardships on their children,” she says, “yet education is the key to moving forward towards understanding and eventually acceptance without debilitating fear.”

The education process that parents must go through is challenging in part because the children expose the emotional and attitudinal baggage of the parents. “For once, our kids are forcing us to question and re-define our values,” says Shannon. Almost invariably, she says, parents new to the group will say, “I love my kid, but…” She counsels them to learn more and take “baby steps” toward accepting their children as they are, and all the while to be gentle on themselves. “As parents, we do the best we can with what we know at the time,” she tells them.

“For parents who return to the meetings, a beautiful thing happens,” says Shannon: “by the third or fourth meeting, the change in their comfort level is visible and they often start supporting other parents.” Two key factors in this transformation are that everyone shares only what they want to and speaks only from personal experience, which helps create a safe space. Furthermore, the facilitated confidential group conversations are only part of a broader array of services that Shannon encourages the parents to seek out along with their children, embracing therapists and endocrinologists as appropriate.

She shares resources, such as helpful articles and videos through online support groups and the He, She, Ze, and We Facebook page. She also invites guest speakers and local professionals working with the community to share their personal experiences and expertise at the meetings.  Shannon is always striving to meet the needs of the group, which includes newcomers alongside parents with more experience and a greater comfort level. “This is their group and I want it to be what works for them,” she says.

Shannon is pleased with the response the families get from most counselors: “They reinforce what I tell parents—that there is no harm in affirming children as who they say they are; the harm is in refusing to do it.” It comes down to one simple principle, she says: believe your child.

The personal, it is often said, is the political, and Shannon uses her experience and organizational skills to promote transgender equality in public policy. She works with Equality Virginia to lobby in the General Assembly and serves on expert panels. She helped Equality Virginia organize its programming for the first transgender conference held in Richmond in 2014.  As a Virginia Pride board member, she created RVA Youth Pride two years ago, to expand Pridefest to be inclusive of families and youth of all ages.  It was with the young people of Rosmy and HSZW in mind that Shannon looked for activities and entertainment that would be interactive and engaging for all ages, even the parents.  The turnout and feedback for RVA Youth Pride was overwhelmingly positive.  Shannon is actively planning for 2016.

Shannon devotes much time and thought to questions of language. “The language around gender identity is evolving and it is hard to keep up,” she admits.  She is a strong advocate of using the plural pronoun they even when describing a singular person. Most of all, when it comes to choosing words for transgender persons, the best policy is to use the words that they themselves prefer. Shannon guides parents to try to use their child’s preferred name and pronouns. “It is the most affirming thing a parent can do,” she says.  And, in the case of people that are gender fluid or non-binary, Shannon’s advice is simple, respectful, and easy to follow: “Just ask, ‘how would you like me to refer to you?’”

The transgender community is hugely receptive to Shannon and HSZW. “It seems they sometimes put me on a pedestal,” she says. Many say, “I wish I had a mom like you.” Their admiration is enthusiastically returned. Shannon feels a deep respect and appreciation for the trans community. “They are the bravest people on the planet.” Most of all, she is proud of the parents who make the journey towards understanding and affirming their children’s gender identity. “We come together with one commonality: we all love our kids.”

She feels honored that these families are willing to share their lives with her. Having gone through uncertainty herself gives her the empathy and optimism to inspire parents just starting the journey. “The whole family transitions–nobody goes into it saying, ‘Yay! I love this,’” Shannon says; “it’s usually a struggle, but together, we can struggle gracefully.”


Celebrate our victories this year and honor the 2016 OUTstanding Virginians by joining us at this year’s Commonwealth Dinner!