Community in Action
Growing Advocacy: My conversation with Karen Kendra Holmes
By Ryann Brooks
Toy cars, train sets, roughhousing.
That’s how I imagined it would be raising boys, and, for about 12 years, that’s kind of how it was. I had two children six years apart. My house was a disaster of Hot Wheels, Thomas the Tank Engine and Paw Patrol.
Then, in July 2020, on or around their birthday (we disagree on the exact date, though I insist it was the birthday) my oldest child, my first baby, after years of suffering anxiety and depression said a few words to me in the car that reshaped everything I thought I knew about our future.
“Mama, I’m a girl.”
In the weeks that followed, we would begin using new pronouns. She chose a new name. My husband and I tried (and failed) multiple times to be the best advocates and support for our child at the beginning.
In February, I found myself thrust into full-blown advocacy work for the LGBTQ community where I live in Kansas. I went to the statehouse to testify against harmful anti-trans legislation. I’ve written op-eds. I’ve made phone calls. I even got protested by an infamous hate group here in Kansas.
But as a cis woman, I knew I had much to learn in order to be the best advocate for my child and others in the trans community.
That’s how I met Karen Kendra Holmes, a trans woman and fierce advocate for the trans community. Karen began her transition just about 11 years ago on October 1, 2010, after struggling with her identity for more than 40 years. Her “second birth” as she puts it occurred on April 8, 2016, when she fully transitioned.
She spent more than five years with the Maryland Defense Force, a volunteer, state military agency assisting the Army National Guard, Air National Guard and Emergency Management Agency in Maryland. She earned the rank of Staff Sergeant before she retired in 2017 and earned a number of awards and commendations during her service, including Soldier of the Year.
Karen was still serving in the military when the Pentagon announced intentions of allowing transgender soldiers to openly serve and came out. When former President Trump announced his trans military ban via Twitter in 2017, she openly advocated against it.
I asked Karen if she would be willing to talk with me about trans advocacy and how to be a better advocate overall, and she graciously agreed.
Ryann Brooks: I read through your journey on your website, and it seems like you had an idea about who you were, at least some idea of who you were, even if you couldn’t, I guess, verbalize it or put the pieces together, 100% for a long time.
Karen Kendra Holmes: That’s why my tag line is ‘40 years & wandering no more.’ I finally figured this crap out after 40 years.
RB: It feels like you started realizing you felt differently around the same age that my daughter has, so I’m excited to have this conversation with you. I feel like I’ll get a lot of insight as a mother. Obviously, as a cisgender woman, I won’t ever truly understand her experience. I’m not gonna live that experience, and the best that I can do is just be there and support her as best as I can.
KK: This is a big start for you to do that, so I would just say, listen to your child and you may have questions that you want to ask her, too. She’s gonna need to have somebody close to her age to talk to because she might feel like you won’t understand or you can’t figure that out for her. Give each other time.
For my mom, it took a little bit of time for her to get the right pronouns and to remember my new name because she’s 83 now. She would always use that, ‘I’m 80,’ or ‘I’m 75.’ I’m like, ‘You, give it a break. You need to start realizing that when you use the wrong pronouns or bring up my wrong name if we’re out shopping somewhere and there’s a male or female who may not like trans people, you’re putting my life in jeopardy.’
Karen said the last thing she wanted was for someone to feel “duped” by finding out she is transgender. Overall, she feels her mother has good intentions, even though it took her time to come around.
I told Karen that, when my daughter came out, I dove headfirst into every resource I could find. Ashley hasn’t started dating yet and, frankly, I hadn’t started thinking about that stuff yet. But Karen got me thinking about things I hadn’t considered before: the issues my daughter will face when she does start dating. Sure, I’ve faced things as a cisgender woman when I was dating and still have to make certain choices based on my gender.
Things like, can I go for a run alone at this time of night? Or should I just stay home and suffer on the treadmill?
It’s another layer of awareness.
RB: I do have to worry about walking by myself down the street at night, but it’s another layer … you have a different experience than I do.
KK: And that’s something you have to teach your daughter. I know I have to worry about that now and I didn’t before. About four years ago, I was leaving one of my favorite clubs, heading to my car, and of course, the parking lot is dark, and I hear this guy yelling from behind me. He was a pretty good distance away. I kind of ignored him, but he was talking to me and I started pulling out my keys, put a finger on the button for the alarm to go off on the car. As a woman, you have to be aware and ready to protect yourself, that’s something that’s gonna be very important for her to know. It is gonna be totally different. I can’t do half the things I used to do.
Karen speaks then of Tony, her identity before transition. The person who would stop for broken down vehicles and didn’t have to worry about random men yelling at him at clubs in dark parking lots.
She talks about the shifts in gender dynamics at family functions. Tony used to hang out with the male cousins and uncles. Karen tends to hang out more with the girls.
Most of the family has accepted Karen, but some have not. Her mom has come to enjoy events Karen speaks at, parties, political shindigs.
In the 11 years since Karen came out, the landscape for LGBTQ individuals has changed in some ways. Twenty-nine states still had constitutional provisions prohibiting the union of gay couples. It would be another five years before Obergefell v. Hodges would appear before the Supreme Court, affirming that all states must issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples and validate same-sex marriages.
But trans rights have remained a matter of concern. Visibility of openly transgender people in the media has helped bring awareness and understanding of the community. But, harmful legislation — bathroom bills, anti-trans sports bills — has been forced through state governments under the banner of “protecting children.” The result of those bills simply puts targets on the backs of trans people.
And health care is still not guaranteed.
RB: Obviously, you were an adult when you transitioned and it’s a different yet not different experience at the same time because it’s still this major transition. I’m sure that your mom felt the same fears that I feel as the parent of a 12-year-old.
What kind of resources would you suggest a parent of a trans child, or an adult who has recently come out, look at to learn more and educate themselves in a way that doesn’t put the responsibility on their child?
KK: We know that the suicide rate in the trans community is 41% — that’s high. For you, because you love your child so much, isn’t it better to accept her the way she is than for her to commit suicide? You brought this child into your life, into this world, and you love her unconditionally, so you try to work with her as best as possible so she doesn’t do anything to hurt herself. Even for an older trans person I always say, all we want to do is be happy, just like every straight person does, but because of the way society treats the trans community — we lose our spouse, we lose our children, our family, our home, our job. And then we end up committing suicide and it’s not right.
Forty-one percent. I blink. I feel my pulse quicken and my breath hitch.
I looked up the statistics after our interview. According to The Trevor Project, 40% of transgender adults reported attempting suicide at one time. Of that number, 92% of those individuals reported that their attempts were made before the age of 25.
I think about the first time my daughter told me she wanted to die. She was 9 and hadn’t said anything to us about having feelings of gender dysphoria yet. She’s since told me that it’s something she had been struggling with for a long time.
I want Ashley to be happy. I want her to live a full life. I want her to follow her dreams. I want her to reach for the stars. I want her to succeed.
I cannot let her be a statistic.
But Karen reminds me that it’s not about me. I know this, but it’s important to hear it. It’s not about me. It’s never been about me. It’s always been about my daughter and we have been mindful of doing everything on her terms. Still, Karen says I do have to draw a line at times and not be afraid to do that because she is so young.
I tell Karen that I want to use my platform as a writer to be a more vocal advocate, but I want to be sure I am doing good work and not being unintentionally harmful.
RB: My whole thing is, I’m not trying to be a voice. I’m not trying to talk over trans voices; I’m trying to be a support for trans voices who aren’t being heard right now or aren’t able to speak anymore because of the high suicide rate. Am I going about that the right way?
KK: I’ve told a lot of doctors, nurses, parents, I tell them, ‘I thank you for being advocates for us, but in conferences, in other meetings, you need a trans person there because this is our life, we’re living it 24/7. You’ve only studied it, so there’s a big difference.’
And sometimes, if it feels appropriate, say, ‘You need help? You wanna go to the bathroom? I’ll go with you. If people are coming down on you because you’re trans I’ll stand up for you.’ Let them know that they have an advocate, somebody that’s gonna be supportive of them.
Karen achieved three promotions in the military. She’s still accepted for who she is, they respect what she does.
KK: I feel like I am spearheading that, hopefully. I’m still trying to say, Hey, why don’t you come with our group? I’m looking for more females — I’m the only female that’s with our military group — and if a trans person wants to come, I’ve broken that barrier so they should be accepted coming in now.
RB: What’s something that you, as a trans-individual, really would like the cisgender community to know as we stand up and work to support the trans community, and those of us who love people in the trans community, or are raising people in the trans community?
KK: I’m just a big pebble that’s been tossed out at that body of water, and the ripple effect is me telling my story to you and other people who don’t understand this, but knowing now who we are, you can tell the next person and that person will tell the next person. I know that my ripple effect is only going to go so far, but then eventually other trans people will hear.
Karen admits she never expected to be telling her story so widely or doing speaking engagements or TED Talks. She realized that she needed to share her experiences in order to help other trans people. She’s helped people go through changing their names on their driver’s licenses, on their social security cards and passports.
She had her gender marker changed at her hospital of choice when a supervisor could not figure out how to update her records, and finally, they created a new patient file and merged her health records into the new file.
KK: This is what we need, people to step up and keep helping fix a messed up system. If they do that, then things are getting a lot better for us. We can be our true selves. When I was in the military, it totally affected how I was doing my job because I was worried ‘what if somebody finds out?’ If I don’t have to worry about that, then I can be my true self and bring the good without having to worry about losing my job.
If we can be relaxed, then one day we won’t have to explain ourselves, we’re just that person, and that’s what I want to see change. And like I said, we love advocates, we love people who support us and wanna be there for us, but if you’re at a conference or meeting or something, you gotta have us at the table because we’re living it 24/7, 365 days a year.
We talk about Karen’s experiences transitioning while serving in the military, how she’s building platforms for trans women through her advocacy work. Through her service in the military.
Karen asks me more about Ashley, how she’s doing at school, how her friends have handled her transition so far. We’ve been lucky so far, I tell her. Ashley’s friends overwhelmingly supported her right off the bat without a second thought.
Kids are better than adults, I muse, but Karen reminds me that it won’t always be “peaches and cream.”
We agree to keep in touch, with Karen offering an ear for questions or a late night shoulder to cry on.
She reminds me that I’ll make mistakes along the way and that it’s OK. It’s a learning process. I guess the important thing is that I am willing to learn from my mistakes.
I left my conversation with Karen feeling empowered and slightly overwhelmed, armed with more information but also with more questions. But then my daughter came bounding into the kitchen, excited about something she saw on the internet, a bright smile on her face. I remember how little I saw that smile before she came out last summer. Years of anxiety and depression stole the joy from her face and we could never figure out why.
Karen suggested wearing something with the trans flag or trans flag colors as a subtle signal to people that I’m a safe person. After the kids went to bed, I ordered myself a bracelet from an LGBTQ seller on Etsy and it arrived about a week later. I’ve been wearing it every day. The seller included a trans flag pin with my purchase which I happily placed on my purse.
I show my daughter the bracelet the day it arrives and watch her pretty blue eyes, the same blue as mine, light up. I know it means the world to her that I support her. That I’m not ashamed to show my support for her to the world.
Just a couple of weeks later, we are out together. Someone misgenders her. My daughter looks up.
“I prefer she/her pronouns,” she says firmly. Decisively.
I smile, locking eyes with a bewildered good old boy who smartly decides not to argue.
Like mother like daughter.
Ryann Brooks (she/her) is an award-winning journalist and editor for a small town Kansas newspaper. Ryann actively uses her position at her day job to advocate for the LGBTQ community through op-eds and editorials and is fond of telling detractors that she’s done her research. When she isn’t working, she enjoys taking adventures with her two children and her husband, running and reading a good book. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter.