By the time Sam Wagner begins his junior year in high school, most of his family, his close friends and classmates will know he is transgender. He was assigned female at birth, but for the past year and a half, Sam has gotten a clearer understanding of his gender identity.
He let his parents gradually know, initially chatting with them about being gender fluid (interchanging between the two) or gender neutral (not identifying with either).
In December, as his mom, Jen, and father, Karl, hung out in their living room, Sam finally told them he is a boy. The depression and emotional instability his parents had noticed suddenly made sense.
"I didn't know what to expect. You think you know people, but you don't really know until something like this comes up," Sam says. "I wanted to be comfortable, get the words right, before I told anyone."
Jen and Karl say they both expected a worse scenario, so hearing the words "I'm a boy," was soothing compared to what they had built up in their minds.
A former co-worker put Wagner in touch with Amy D'Arpino, who'd been involved with a support group for parents of transgender children and teens for years.
Sam and his parents' first meeting with the Southern Arizona Gender Alliance's TransParents group was the best path—a picnic with other parents, and kids and youth who immediately clicked with Sam.
It was a relief for him to meet others in person, because prior to the group, he met all of his trans friends on the Internet.
Since the TransParents meeting, the Wagners are a solid presence. It has given them the strength to include other family members and friends in Sam's transition. Jen says Sam's little sister, Julia, has been the quickest to come around.
"One of the things that really stuck out in my mind last year was the suicide of a transgender girl (in Ohio), because her parents wouldn't accept who she was. In the group, there are no families like that," Jen says. "We are there because we are completely supportive of our kids and want the best for them."
The TransParents group meeting, created in 2008 by mom Sage Croft, was held in her living room, and since then, they've rotate from home to home. With every year that passes, the group outgrows its current space. There is a huge demand for support, and not enough resources to go around. People from as far as Prescott and Springerville travel to Tucson to attend the monthly gatherings. It is one of many SAGA programs that fueled the need to keep the organization alive after it departed from Wingspan, which closed its physical doors and moved all programs to the Southern Arizona AIDS Foundation in the summer of 2014.
SAGA officially became a nonprofit in November. It's the only organization of its kind in the entire state.
"All trans people experience that feeling of being alone, of not being validated or respected for who we are. So when you can be in a place where you can be validated, where people tell you, 'We love you for who you are,' it is amazing what happens to trans people," says Abby Jensen of SAGA. "The TransParents group helps youth realize that they are safe, that it is OK to tell your parents, to go to school as themselves, to work as themselves."
SAGA is developing a support group that will focus primarily on trans youth. The nonprofit already has one in place for children under the age of 12 and their families—Camp Born This Way—that hosts a four-day-and-three-night camp. SAGA organizers say they know there is an even bigger demand among transgender teens like Sam for an inclusive space to connect.
For many, that weekly or monthly gathering is the only time they can be themselves, free of repercussions. To parents, it's the assurance that they have comrades with different levels of experience, whom they can turn to ask questions.
"For me, one of the best things is to see families go from quiet to opening up," Karl says. He and Jen remember their first meeting vividly. In the past couple of months, their progress amazes them. "When people tell me, 'You are a great dad,' I feel like I shouldn't be getting any praise. I am just doing what I am supposed to do—love my kids for who they are."
As Sam prepares to go back to school as his true self, he remembers the kind souls who lent a hand while he sorted out the situation with his family. He remembers a trans friend on the East Coast who sent him a binder for his chest, one he still wears today. "It was so small, but it meant the world," he says.
Now, Sam has become that much-needed fresh air to other trans youth around the country.
"It is awful for them, and it's hard to understand, because my parents have always been there for me," he says. "I tell them, when they get older, they don't have to be in this bubble anymore, pretending to be someone they are not. I try to help with as much as I can."