Hastings school board chair decides to move after trans child ‘outed’ by political critics
Kelsey Waits said few knew her 8-year-old child was transgender.
HASTINGS, Minn. — It was supposed to be a secret.
Before Kelsey Waits’ youngest child entered public school, Waits went through her social media accounts, deleting photos, taking down posts and unfriending many in her small circle of acquaintances in Hastings.
“I was essentially trying to do a restart,” said Waits, who has served on the Hastings school board since 2017. “By the time I ran for school board, my social media was scrubbed from the fact I ever had a son.”
That’s because that son was living as a girl. That child, Kit, who is now 8, is transgender. Waits wanted it to be a secret to protect her child, both emotionally and physically, and she says, “to just let Kit be a kid.”
It didn’t stay a secret.
Kit was outed on social media during a contentious school board election campaign this year.
Now, the Waits family is moving out of their house and taking their story public, which has prompted an outpouring of support, but also intensified community strains that their story exposes. CNN recently featured their ordeal.
“It’s been an emotional roller coaster,” Kelsey Waits said in an interview. “Taking our story back has been better, instead of feeling like you’re on the defensive all the time, and I’m pretty floored by all the support. But still, there’s a lot of pain.”
Outed during campaign
This fall, as Waits was running for re-election — at a time when U.S. school board elections became skirmish lines for battles over mask mandates and racially informed curricula — Kit was outed.
In a closed Facebook group post on Aug. 7, someone who knew the secret spilled it. The post was made in the group “Concerned Parents of Hastings,” which at the time had some 500 members and was aligned with a slate of candidates opposing Waits and several incumbents. The opposition was emblematic of a nationwide conservative movement of parents opposed to coronavirus restrictions in schools.
“She should be locked up for child abuse,” the post read. “Her younger ‘daughter’ is actually a boy.”
It’s unclear how widely the post, which later was deleted, was viewed. But Waits said the damage was immense.
“I heard from hairdressers who said they were being told about it,” she said. “My husband was hearing about it from people at his work.”
An attorney working on behalf of the couple sent letters to the original poster and others who had commented on it, demanding they stop discussing private information about a minor. She said in at least one instance, the person flouted the letter, sharing it on Facebook. “I just knew it was never going to stop.”
The original poster could not be reached for comment.
A moderator of the group, Natasha Brown, said in a statement on Facebook she has gotten “harassing messages” since the CNN story aired. She said she and the Facebook group never condoned any harassment or bullying of the Waits family, and “I wish Kelsey and her family well,” adding, “I do not support Mrs. (Waits’) parenting choice.”
Back in August, Brown replied to the original post that outed Kit disparaging the idea that they were trans: “Yeah .. just because he wanted to wear tutu skirts because that’s what his older sister was wearing,” she wrote, adding an eye-rolling emoji.
Reach by phone last week, Brown hung up after a St. Paul Pioneer Press reporter identified himself. She didn’t return a text message or voicemail.
Trans at 4
Kit, who was known as a girl since entering school, wasn’t previously bullied there. That’s changed since the outing as students have begun to use the wrong pronoun, calling Kit a “he.” Kit was often known at school by “she” and now goes by “they.”
The decision to keep Kit’s transition secret evolved, Kelsey said.
When Kit was 4, they began insisting they were not a boy, but rather a girl.
For transgender people — people whose bodies and assigned identity at birth don’t match the gender to which they identify — this is a common age, according to Dr. Angela Kade Goepferd, medical director of the Gender Health Program at Children’s Hospitals and Clinics of Minnesota.
“Really as early as some kids are able to express themselves, they begin to correct their parents,” said Goepferd, who spoke with the Pioneer Press generally about trans children. “The hallmark of a trans child is … persistence, insistence and consistence.”
This is different from a phase, where, say, a boy wants to dress up as Elsa for Halloween or play with his mother’s makeup, Goepford said. “It’s about who someone is, not who they want to dress up like.”
This is what Waits saw from her child — an insistence that they were not male. This caught her and her husband, Chris — a Navy reservist who was deployed overseas at the time — completely off-guard. “I freaked out,” Kelsey Waits said. “But I always supported my kid. You have to parent the child who’s in front of you now.”
After researching the issue, the couple came to accept that their child was transgender.
At the time, they were homeschooling with a small group of Hastings parents — about the only folks they knew in their new hometown.
Kelsey Waits said she posted about the transition on Facebook so friends and family could understand. She then asked a leader of the homeschool group if, given this, Kit’s safety could be guaranteed. The response, she said, was no.
“That was a real wake-up call for me,” she said.
The idea that her child could be subject to violence from others was only part of it, Waits said. Research has shown that transgender people attempt suicide at much higher rates than the general population.
“If I support my child, I significantly reduce the chance of suicide,” she said.
The couple decided to scrub their social media and keep Kit’s previously assigned gender a secret.
“I freaked out. But I always supported my kid. You have to parent the child who’s in front of you now.”
— Kelsey Waits, Hastings, on parenting her now-8-year-old trans child
Decision to move
Waits is a founding member of Thrive, a Hastings-based group that seeks to focus on inclusivity, but even in that space, she didn’t reveal Kit’s story. Occasionally, when she would hear of other parents grappling with a child coming out as trans, she would reach out privately.
“I would always say, ‘We are in the closet, but I know what you’re going through,'” she said.
Still, the family felt anti-trans hostility surrounding them before this fall. At one point, the school board was debating a resolution about inclusivity. Welcoming people who are transgender was among the items. Several churches in the area signed a letter opposing that aspect, and one nearby hosted an event with the Minnesota Family Council, a conservative group that opposes policies intended to accommodate trans people.
Waits attended the event. “To see so many people who were so anti-trans, that was one of the first times that I didn’t feel safe,” she said, adding that it makes her feel uncomfortable to drive past the church, which the family often must do. She learned that some people in her neighborhood bore hostility to her.
“We decided to move before the election,” said Waits, who had previously run for the state Legislature and expects to remain active politically. “The only difference was whether we would have to find a house within the school district or not.”
Waits, a fellow incumbent and a third candidate endorsed by the Hastings teachers union were defeated by the slate of challengers, none of whom appears to have publicly used Kit’s gender as a campaign issue.
Waits said the family is moving “far enough away that we can go home and feel safe, but close enough that I can still do this work I’m committed to doing in this community.”
Waits said she decided to tell the story publicly because she believes children should be off-limits in politics, as well as a certain “mama bear” desire to protect her family. “We could run and hide, but I’m not one to let the bully win,” she said.
Reaction in the community has been deep.
Robert McDowell, the school district’s superintendent, released a one-page statement . “As I reflect on this family’s story, I am reminded of the importance of the work we do within our schools to support our students not just academically, but socially and emotionally as well,” he said.
Mayor Mary Fasbender issued a statement that reads, in part, “As a lifelong resident of Hastings, I share in the frustration and pain that the Waits family is feeling and am saddened by what is happening in our community.”
State Sen. Karla Bigham, DFL-Cottage Grove, whose district includes Hastings, said in a statement that the family’s experience “exposed a dark side of our community that we must shine a bright light on to ensure that this never happens again to any child.”
Shortly after the CNN story aired, a friend of the family organized an event to have people leave their porchlights on for the family and share the images with the hashtag #IStandWithKit. More than 800 homes took part.
Kelsey Waits says she and her family are grateful for the support, but she has mixed feelings about the outpouring.
“Is it support for Kit as a transgender person, or Kit as Kit?” she said. “Yes, they are transgender, but they are also a kid.”