LOUISVILLE, Ky. — On a spring night nearly three years ago, then-15-year-old Maddie Dalton sat squinting at her phone — her fingers typing, deleting and rewriting.
She was crafting a Facebook post that would change her life and identity. The stakes were high, but even then, she didn’t realize how high.
“If you don’t know already, my name is Maddie,” she typed. “And I’m a girl.”
She took a deep breath and hit send.
“I knew once I did that, there was no going back,” she said.
It’s been nearly three years since Maddie became the first student at Louisville’s Atherton High to come out as a transgender woman. Her subsequent push for a policy allowing her to use the women’s bathroom and locker room sparked a fiery public controversy in 2014 that made national headlines, even as her parents kept her largely anonymous.
The issue since has become a flash point in the battle over transgender rights. In the spring, the U.S. Supreme Court will take up a similar school case from Virginia.
And Wednesday, North Carolina lawmakers were considering whether to repeal a controversial measure forcing transgender people to use bathrooms in government buildings corresponding to the sex on their birth certificates, a law that has sparked boycotts and protests.
But such debates often obscure the everyday struggles of transgender teens such as Maddie, whose fights to redefine themselves play out beyond the public eye and well beyond school bathrooms.
In some ways, transgender awareness is on the rise. More schools are accommodating such students, if often more quietly, advocates say.
The military this year allowed transgender soldiers to serve openly. Figures like Caitlyn Jenner and the first transgender girl on the cover of National Geographic this month have raised unprecedented visibility,
But transgender people still face disproportionately high rates of psychological distress, suicide, bullying and violence, a recent survey found. Many teens still aren’t accepted by parents and peers. Families face sometimes agonizing decisions over the use of hormones and surgical transitions for youths. Discrimination is all too common.
Today, Maddie is a confident senior preparing for college, often sporting a choker, makeup and a nose ring. She has found her way to a new identity.
But for her and her family, it was no easy journey.
Growing up, coming out
When Cassie Kasey’s phone rang several years ago, it was her ex-husband, with whom she shared joint custody of their only child.
They often talked about school and logistics. This time he had a question.
“Did you buy makeup” for their eighth-grader?
“No,” she answered.
Maddie — who doesn’t like to use the “dead name” she had as a boy — grew up in Louisville with liberal-minded parents. Kasey worked in the physical plant at a local university.
As a little child, Maddie liked to play with dolls that she kept in a basement room. As she grew older, Kasey thought her child might be gay.
Now, Kasey and Maddie’s father didn’t love the makeup experimentation but decided “either it’s a phase and it’ll go away, or it’s not and we’ll roll with it.”
While some transgender people know as small children that they don’t identify with their sex at birth, Maddie said something didn’t feel right in middle school. It got to the core of her identity.
She had depression and anxiety, even suicidal thoughts.
She began poring over the Internet where she read about gender dysphoria, a person’s psychological identity that is opposite of the sex at birth. She found sites about transgender people, which number 1.3 million in the U.S. and 17,700 in Kentucky, according to the Williams Institute, a UCLA think tank.
What she read seemed to fit exactly how she felt. But it was daunting.
She read about the expensive hormone treatments, facial feminization and genital reconstruction surgeries that some transgender people choose to undergo.
She told a girlfriend that she didn’t feel "100% male,” but even after realizing she was transgender, “it took me a year to really come to terms with that,” she said. She finally came out her freshman year to fellow students at Atherton's Gender Sexuality Alliance but knew she had to tell her parents.
One weekend, she called her mother. She was nervous.
“Mom, can I talk to you?” she asked. Her mother sat on her bed.
Maddie told her she was transgender and wanted them to start using a new name she had chosen, Madison Olivia. Maddie’s parents were accepting, but Kasey wondered how real or permanent it was.
Maybe being transgender was a teenage phase.
“OK, OK, that’s fine,” Kasey said, hugging her shaking body. "I love you." But she added at the end of their talk, “I’m not going to be OK with you taking hormones or doing anything physical.”
And at that point, Kasey recalled, “she lost it.”
Maddie wanted to start taking puberty-blocking drugs to halt male changes such as facial hair, and then she wanted to take estrogen. But Kasey worried that some of those drugs would affect fertility if Maddie changed her mind.
On the other hand, saying no could consign her to years of suffering.
“That’s tough for a parent to say yes to when you’re not 100% confident this is something that’s going to stick,” Kasey said. “She was asking me and her dad to make lasting medical decisions based on what she felt, decisions that would affect her future.”
It took months, but after speaking to psychologists, Kasey and her family eventually agreed despite the high costs of the medications.
“We opted to take the chance on her knowing herself,” Kasey said. “But that was scary.”
A community debate, a mother’s secret
Not long after, in spring 2014, Kasey got a call from Atherton's then-principal, Tom Aberli.
Maddie had requested to use the women’s restroom and locker rooms, and he needed to schedule a meeting, he told her.
Aberli had taken time to research the issue. Some school districts allowed it.
He eventually would ask the school’s decision-making council to pass a policy allowing such use.
Kasey knew right away it might not be popular.
“That’s when it got real.” She warned him: “You’re putting your job on the line.”
Atherton’s council began considering a gender nondiscrimination policy centered on whether transgender students could use the bathroom of their gender identity. It was the first school to publicly debate such a policy in the district, and it drew an immediate backlash.
The council had packed hearings, heard impassioned speeches and saw TV cameras. Supporters said it was discriminatory to require transgender students to use unisex bathrooms or deprive them of using facilities of their gender identity.
Parents who opposed it hired an lawyer from the Christian-based Alliance Defending Freedom who argued allowing a transgender student to choose a bathroom was an invasion of privacy and presented a danger to female students.
“Girls at this school expect to go to the bathroom and feel safe,” one female student said at a hearing.
Maddie watched news coverage from home, filled with stress and anxiety. The school didn’t release her name, but once a TV reporter ran after her car in hopes of getting her to talk.
“I was pretty much kept out of it," she said. "They didn’t want me in the spotlight.”
At school, fellow students largely supported Maddie, and some said they thought she was brave. Many didn’t see what the big deal was.
Only once did she exchange words with an opposing student, she said.
Aberli had told Maddie that "he would be on my side and continue fighting for me," she said.
Kasey had taken a job as a maintenance supervisor for a new employer, and no one knew her child at the center of the debate. One day she overheard employees watching TV news about the debate on a lunch break and heard them saying, “They’re sick. Can you believe it?’”
Kasey felt guilty for not saying anything, but she was worried about making waves at a job she needed to pay for Maddie’s medicines.
“It was horrible," she said. "A couple times I just had to leave and go cry.”
Lessons and changes
On a recent morning, Maddie thumped down the stairs of her family’s Louisville home, carrying a pair of red Chuck Taylor sneakers, a hairbrush and a backpack full of textbooks.
The kitchen clock showed 6 a.m. ET as she stuffed leftover pizza into a sack lunch, brushed her hair and reassured her mother, who sipped coffee in a robe, that she would finish her college scholarship essays. Maddie gave her mother a hug and bolted through the door onto a school bus bound for Atherton, where she is finishing her senior year amid a regained sense of normality.
After Atherton approved the policy, upheld twice in district appeals, it also helped spark an expanded district discrimination policy meant to protect students regardless of gender identity even though facility usage remains a school decision. District officials say they don't keep track of what schools are doing, but advocates say at least some have quietly accommodated such students.
At Atherton, the principal put up curtains in girls’ locker room changing stalls for privacy. Soon few gave it a second thought, Maddie said.
But the receding controversy didn't immediately quiet things in Maddie's life.
“There was a pretty big adjustment period for us. We were all trying to find our way,” Kasey said. “Trying to be a mother to this person I’ve always known as my son, but who is now my daughter, but doesn’t want me to help her do things that a mom normally helps her daughter do, like helping pick our clothes or do her hair … I didn’t know where I fit.”
Then came visits to endocrinologists. Maddie's body was evolving.
Although not all transgender women do, Maddie bought women's clothes and learned to put on makeup. At a mall, she tried on a dress, smiling as she snapped a photo in the mirror.
“At first I was so concerned with people finding out. 'What if someone sees me at the mall with Maddie?' " Kasey said. "There was just a point where I had enough support that put me over the edge of caring. I don’t care who doesn’t support it. I know I’m on the right side of this.”
As time passed, the issue seemed to fall away amid the daily flow of studying, school buses, and in Maddie's free time, playing video games, reading science fiction and hanging out with friends.
“It has faded into the background,” Kasey said. “Now it’s, have you ordered your cap and gown? What did you get in Japanese class? What are you doing Friday night?”
Maddie's stepfather, Dennie Kasey, a Post Office mechanic and Army veteran, said his views on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender issues have evolved over the years, and he's even put rainbow tape on his toolbox at work.
“How can you not be accepting of your family?” he said.
Maddie's school now has a handful of transgender students who have come out, some thanks to Maddie’s example. Yet they say Atherton’s accepting atmosphere isn’t typical of what most transgender students experience.
Harassment persists, varying widely by school. Maddie said violence against trans women, particularly women of color, is too common.
“I have friends who will tell me horror stories,” said Andrew Johnson, 16, a sophomore transgender male who said he was “bullied a lot” in middle school before coming out with support from Maddie at Atherton.
Harper Jean Tobin, a 1999 Atherton graduate who is now director of policy at the National Center for Transgender Equality, said in her day “being a trans woman at the time was unthinkable” and that she waited to come out as transgender. Today, “there’s still a tremendous amount of harassment” but the trend is moving in a positive direction.
Back home, Maddie’s new identity has pushed away some people but also made the family closer.
“Our relationship is so much richer. She’s one of my best friends. When I need a confidant, or just need to kick ideas off someone I respect, who knows me, I go to Maddie. That would never have happened before.” her mother said. "I'm really proud of her."
Maddie plans to attend the University of Louisville. She plans to major in gender studies and dreams of someday working as a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union and fighting for transgender rights, a battle that is still on.
In May, the Obama administration cited the federal Title IX law and directed schools to allow students to use bathrooms of their gender identity, saying they could lose federal money if they didn’t. A group of states, including Kentucky, sued to block it, calling it government overreach.
Several conservative Kentucky state lawmakers say they don’t plan to make another push this year for a measure similar to North Carolina’s bill, which failed in last year’s General Assembly. Republican Gov. Matt Bevin also has signaled it's not a priority for him.
Maddie said she hopes to see "a Supreme Court ruling or federal ruling where all schools have to grant transgender students the ability to use whatever space they identify with. But that’s only one small thing. There’s still a ton of violence against transgender people” and ongoing issues such as depression, suicide and access to health care.
Attitudes might change if people would simply "get to know a (transgender) person ... and see that we’re not horrible," she said. "Just see that we’re people, too.”