This Life with Gracie: How a school assignment became a campaign to help transgender youths

5:00 a.m. Tuesday, Oct. 24, 2017 Living
Contributed
Bennett Stone with his “Love Notes” display at his school in Roswell. Bennett’s idea to write notes of encouragement to transgender students inspired the nonprofit Georgia Equality to launch a campaign encouraging others to write notes. CONTRIBUTED

Bennett Stone is just 10 years old, but he’s heard enough about the plight of transgender youths to know life for them is more than a little difficult.

And so when his fifth-grade teacher handed him a list of possible topics to explore for a class project last spring, the choice was clear: gender diversity.

His research revealed even more about life as a transgender person and society’s reluctance to accept them for who they are, but what he really found shocking was this: 41 percent of transgender individuals try to kill themselves at some point in their lives, compared to 4.6 percent of the general public.

I hope you didn’t miss those numbers — 41 percent compared to less than 5 percent of the general public.

If a 10-year-old can sense that there is something terribly wrong about that, shouldn’t the rest of us? Shouldn’t we do everything in our power to change it?

The good news in all of this is Bennett didn’t just do a research project. Once he had the facts, he had to do something with them.

“I thought about creating a website, but it took longer than expected and we ran out of time,” he said. “That’s when I came up with the idea of writing love notes to kids who are transgender.”

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Letters of encouragement to transgender people poured in after Bennett Stone of Marietta asked his classmates and teachers to pen the notes last spring. Bennett, 10, got the idea after learning 41 percent of transgender individuals try to kill themselves at some point in their lives. CONTRIBUTED

Bennett’s classmates and teachers obliged, penning close to 100 love notes. “Be who you are.” “Always believe in a world where hope outshines fear.” “Do not worry. You are not alone.”

It could’ve all ended there, but Bennett, who lives in Marietta and attends school in Roswell, decided he wanted to give the notes to someone who could put them in the hands of the people who needed them the most. He made some phone calls and found a nonprofit that was interested in what he’d done.

When Bennett and his mom, Angela Stone, delivered the notes to Georgia Equality, folks there were blown away. With the notes and with Bennett.

Trust me, it would be really hard not to be impressed with Bennett. He’s smart. He’s engaging. And I hear he can dance.

Jeff Graham, Georgia Equality’s executive director, said that after hearing his enthusiasm for supporting transgender kids, the agency wanted to help grow the project and recently launched an online campaign — www.georgiaunites.org/bennettsproject — to encourage all of us to keep the letter writing going.

“Our goal is to generate letters from kids and families all across the state — letting other transgender youth know that they are loved and supported,” Graham said.

As they read the stack of cards and letters from Bennett’s classmates, Graham said that several in his office were moved to tears.

They know, perhaps, better than anyone that people who identify as transgender endure near-constant verbal and physical attacks. And even as schools across the country have worked to strengthen policies to protect and accommodate trans students, Graham said that those attacks have become much harsher over the past several months.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Ten-year-old Bennett Stone (center), with James Sheffield and Emily Halden Brown at Georgia Equality office, where he dropped off “Love Notes” from his school. CONTRIBUTED

“This has been especially hard for young people to take,” he said. “Therefore, this sort of peer-to-peer support seemed like an ideal project to highlight and amplify right now.”

In addition to the online campaign, Graham said he plans to ask policymakers and elected officials to get involved, too.

“We expect some who oppose treating LGBTQ people fairly and equally under the law to introduce discriminatory bills again this year — and we believe that launching this project now, before the legislative session, can really help demonstrate to lawmakers that there is broad and deep support for transgender people all across this state,” he said. “Georgians won’t just stand by while lawmakers attempt to advance discriminatory bills.”

When he began working on the school assignment last spring, Bennett said he never anticipated it would become a statewide initiative.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
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But within weeks of deciding to continue the project on his own and contacting Georgia Equality, he was doing telephone conference calls with staff and working on putting together a video about the campaign.

“I totally thought I was going to just give them the notes,” he said. “When they said they wanted to take it further, I was surprised. I think it was cool they were able to upload the notes and capture what my original idea was.”

As you might imagine, Angela Stone, Bennett’s mother, is beyond proud of her son and happy his school fosters these kinds of conversation.

“I’m still trying to wrap my brain around what’s happening as far as the attention being thrown his way,” she said.

But Stone said this isn’t really about her son.

“It’s really about making everybody feel safe and secure,” she said.

Ditto, Bennett said.

“I really just think that transgender kids/youth need to feel more welcome.”

Of course, he’s right.

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