'Trans people go to dances and find joy and are whole': A mom's viral photos of her daughter send a powerful message
Rebekah Bruesehoff may only be 16 years old, but she's spent almost half her life publicly fighting for her rights as a transgender person.
It's why her supportive, activist mom Jamie took a moment this week to tweet a joyous photo of Rebekah in a green gown and holding white flowers, primped and ready to attend a high school dance — an update to one that went viral in 2017, of Rebekah at a rally holding a sign that read, cheekily, "I'm the scary transgender person the media warned you about." That image appears alongside the new one.
"There's this juxtaposition," Jamie tells Yahoo Life, referring both to the two photos and her daughter's life. "The photo from six years ago popped up in my memories, and I was struck: It feels so long ago and like it was just yesterday." When the photo came up, she says, she was at a nail salon with Rebekah, who was getting a manicure before her sophomore cotillion. Sharing both photos, Jamie explains, felt like an opportunity to show a more well-rounded view of her teen, who plays field hockey and loves musical theater.
Six years ago she was making this sign, practicing her speech, and preparing to speak out for her rights in public for the first time. ➡️ Today, she got all dressed up and went to her school’s Sophomore Cotillion. pic.twitter.com/wrOtLWnHIR
— Jamie Bruesehoff (@jamiebruesehoff) February 26, 2023
"She's spent six years fighting publicly — but she's also just a teen going to a fun dance," she says. "That's so much of what the Twitter thread was about… that trans people go to dances and find joy and are whole people, and that trans people are more than just their fights for rights and for life."
The original photo of Rebekah, then 10, holding the sign inspired by a story she had found online, was snapped just before a protest in Jersey City, N.J., over the Trump administration rescinding federal support for transgender students. The tween was asked to speak in front of the crowd of 200, which she agreed to, and then her mom posted the image to Facebook, where it "went crazy viral."
Looking back now, says Jamie, "It's certainly not what any of us had planned. But what was really powerful was to see her use her voice and say, 'I deserve a safe school.' But even more impactful for her was she heard the voices of the other people… trans kids who were not supported, trans adults… it was the first time, at 10 years old, that she realized how good she had it and how much work we had to do."
That idea, of work left to do, is especially important now, says Jaime on Twitter: "In ways, things are worse than I could have imagined 6 years ago… and yet she continues to resist with advocacy, speaking and education. She resists with her joy, she resists by growing into this beautiful young woman that so many wish she wouldn't have the chance to become."
She's referring to the unprecedented number of anti-trans and anti-gay bills popping up across the country: Just two months into 2023, LGBTQ-rights organization the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) is tracking 340 anti-LGBTQ bills introduced at state levels, 150 of which would specifically restrict the rights of transgender people, 90 of which would prevent trans youth from being able to access gender-affirming medical care; two have become law, in Utah and South Dakota.
"Things are pretty awful right now," Jaime tells Yahoo Life. "We live in New Jersey … so there's some privilege and some level of safety that comes with that — and also, you're not safe anywhere, we know that. My heart breaks for all transgender young people. Their identities are being used as a political football."
Because Rebekah is an athlete — and luckily having a “really positive experience" on her hockey team — her family "really jumped into" having public conversations supporting transgender athletes, only to see "attacks on health care getting worse by the day," she says, adding "it's become very clear" that the anti-trans fight "is not about protecting children. It never has been. It's about political power and removing transgender people from public life."
But even in New Jersey, where there are some protections in place — like state's LGBTQ-inclusive school curriculum and the Babs Siperstien Law, which allows people to change their gender identity on their birth certificate without "proof of surgery" — there's no way to fully escape the national rhetoric.
"What people don't understand is that young people are impacted by these messages … They are seeing what's happening, watching their identity be banned from public conversations in schools," she says. "People, even in states like New Jersey and New York, know what's going on. And for a young person to see their identity being debated on every front? That's exhausting."
Luckily, the mom notes of her daughter, "Rebekah is a big joy-as-resistance kind of person. She focuses on the positive, has friends, loves to laugh. It's how she, I think, sustains herself." She also recognizes her relative privilege: "She's white, she exists within the gender expectations people have for girls and she has supportive parents who have been behind her and who have resources."
Rebekah's glowing spirit, her mom says, has powerfully influenced the entire family — including her "super-supportive" brothers, ages 8 and 13, and her father, a Lutheran pastor who, Jaime says, "preaches the gospel … that calls for us to work towards justice." She adds that "he preaches the message of inclusion and of celebration of LGBTQ+ people."
But it's Jamie, who identifies as "queer" and uses "she/they" pronouns (including on her website and social media profiles), who might be most influenced by her teen's courage.
"I'm bisexual," she tells Yahoo Life. "I came out more publicly in 2018. I think there was some part of doing this work, of advocating for my daughter to show up in all her authenticity, that started to feel inauthentic for me not to share." As for her use of she/they, which is new as of about a year, Jamie adds, it's one way she is "continuing to break down those boxes of gender, and understand myself in the fullness of who I am. 'They' feels really great."
Jamie, who has written a book due out in September — Raising Kids Beyond the Binary: Celebrating God's Transgender and Gender-Diverse Children, meant to fill a gap wherein there is no guidance about raising "gender expansive kids in faith, when we know it's people of faith who are doing the most harm" — adds that coming out has been powerful.
"I think with me sharing my identity as a bisexual person and my identity not as nonbinary, but as someone who feels constrained by the gender binary, and I think watching Rebekah live her life as who she knows herself to be and the positive impact it’s had," she says, "I know that showing up as ourself changes the world."
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