How One Woman Became an 'Accidental Advocate' for Transgender Rights
When an organization for LGBTQ teens featured DeShanna Neal in its viral video, she became a major voice in a national debate.
DeShanna Neal//Photo by Carlos Alejandro
DeShanna Neal felt ill that early May morning, but no matter. She needed to get to Dover to speak before the Senate’s Health, Children & Social Services Committee. So her husband, Chris, took off from his job as a deli manager at BJ’s to stay with their four children, who they homeschool: Trinity, 13; Lucien, 12; Hyperion, 6; and Thane, 2. DeShanna kept a dentist’s appointment to have a temporary crown put in, downed some ginger ale to calm her upset stomach, then made the hour drive to the state capital.
On the Senate’s agenda that day: SB 65, a bill seeking to ban so-called “conversion therapy,” a variety of treatments practitioners say can change a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity. Several professional medical organizations—including the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Medical Association—oppose the practice, saying it’s based on a false assumption: LGBTQ individuals have a mental abnormality. The only documented outcomes of conversion therapy, they say, have been guilt, anxiety and self-harm.
Neal, along with representatives from the Delaware Psychological Association and the state’s medical and psychiatric societies, went to the state capital to speak in support of the legislation. Neal was there for her teenage daughter.
Trinity Neal, 13, is transgender. In the terminology preferred by the LGBTQ community, Trinity was classified as male at birth based on anatomy, but had the internal sense of being female. Her true self emerged a few years later, when the 3-year-old announced, “I am a girl.”
Her parents have been fighting for her ever since, taking on school officials who were uncomfortable with Trinity’s feminine clothing, with family members who accused them of feeding the child’s mental illness, with acquaintances who questioned their parenting. Last year, the Neals successfully battled state Medicaid so Trinity’s puberty blockers were covered. In February, they helped Trinity apply for and receive a new birth certificate that lists her chosen name and true gender: female.
DeShanna Neal says they did what any parents would do, and they did it because they love their child. That’s the same message she took to Dover, urging parents to accept their children as they are instead of trying to change them.
“Unconditional love and support saved my child’s life,” Neal told the committee. “The day my daughter’s therapist asked us to choose between a happy little girl and a dead little boy, we knew what had to be done. We chose her. We chose love.”
A week after the hearing, the Senate passed SB 65 by a vote of 12-3. Four lawmakers chose not to vote. Two were absent.
As June began, Neal was planning another trip to the state capital, this time to address the House committee that would consider its version of the conversion therapy ban. Again, her husband would need to take off from work to stay with the kids. DeShanna had another medical appointment that morning and would miss Thane’s usual physical therapy treatment, but, again, it had to be done.
“It is vital that I show up and speak for the safety and well-being of my daughter and other youth in the LGBTQ community,” Neal says.
Or as she explained to Hyperion when he asked why she had to leave him that day, “I’m going to Dover to make people not be butts.”
A few things to know about DeShanna Neal. She’s 35, a lifelong resident of Wilmington who grew up in the Market Square neighborhood and graduated from Concord High School. She met her husband while both were students at West Chester University. She’s also a nationally known transgender rights champion.
She never sought the limelight, never thought she’d be an activist, and yet now she’s being asked to speak in Washington, D.C., one weekend and Philadelphia the next, giving interviews to national publications and television programs, while talking with an agent who feels the Neal family’s story is worthy of a book.
“I always tell people I’m an accidental advocate,” she says. “I wasn’t expecting to become a voice for anyone.”
Cathy Renna, a New York-based LGBTQ rights leader, says the Neals “are what journalists would call ‘real people.’ They’re not activists with a capital A. People see a supportive, large, intact family where one child happens to be transgender.”
Chris Neal says his wife shoulders most of the family burden.
“She’s the vocal one, putting herself out there. I’m here to be the shoulder she leans on,” says Neal, 35. “She’s strong. She wouldn’t say it herself, but she’s one of the strongest people I’ve ever met.”
She’s also really funny, and that combination of humor and strength has served her well.
When DeShanna mimics Sen. Ted Cruz saying that not having bathroom laws like the one North Carolina originally passed is akin to opening the stall doors to predators, she gives the Texas Republican a nasal, whining voice and makes rodent-like hand gestures.
“He’s like a hamster, ‘Oooooooh. Look at me! Look at me! Trump didn’t ask me to be in his Cabinet.’”
When she talks about general Republican opposition to equality issues, she shakes her arms in the air and yells, “No! No! We hate it! We hate it!” The voice is hard to pin down. (“That was my GOP [voice],” she says. “It’s like Kermit the Frog.”)
Advocates of all types need moments of levity, says Sarah McBride, the national press secretary for the Human Rights Campaign.
“You have to remind yourself and others of the joy in life because so often the hate can get you down,” says McBride, who addressed the Democratic National Convention in 2016, making her the first transperson to speak at a major party convention. “DeShanna takes what she does very seriously, but she doesn’t take herself too seriously. It’s a refreshing approach, but also a necessary one.”
Humor is important because there are some days—like that day in May—when things just aren’t funny. A few days earlier, The News Journal had published a comprehensive two-day, front-page series (part one, part two) about Trinity and the Neal family. The reaction was mixed.
“Death threats,” DeShanna says simply, shaking her head.
She’d also gone online and read the hundreds of comments posted after the first article.
“The response was pretty rough,” she says. “You prepare yourself for the negativity. You know it’s going to be there. There’s no way around it. But sometimes it still hurts. ‘This is child abuse. The mother just wanted a girl. The father should be jailed.’”
DeShanna Neal helps her daughter, Trinity, with her hair. Neal has been fighting for Trinity, who is transgender, since Trinity was a 3-year-old.//Photo by Carlos Alejandro
While she speaks, DeShanna uses a crochet needle to weave long purple coils of artificial hair through her daughter’s tresses, an hours-long process. Trinity, playing a video game she’d made herself, looks up when her mother speaks.
“I don’t like it when they say that,” Trinity says. She is on the autism spectrum, but early childhood intervention means she’s highly functioning. Still, her voice can sound flat, unemotional, which makes her inner strength and confidence in her own identity seem more remarkable.
DeShanna continues to crochet. “Someone called me a filthy black pig,” she says. “That was my favorite. I was like, ‘I actually do have a black pig downstairs. How do they know?’”
(They do. The animal’s name is Peter Porker—that’s a “Spider-Man” reference—and he’s a 6-month-old, 15-pound eating machine.)
“I was looking for a glimmer of hope, just one,” DeShanna says. “I know there’s always hope because I see [Trinity]. She made me a mom and she trusted in me and in my husband to tell us who she was. I feel she knew we would love her regardless, and we do, and she’s here and she’s happy and healthy, and there are so many people who don’t see that. My daughter is pretty much one of the most loving and gentle people I know. I mean, she has a spider for a pet.”
(She does. He’s a tarantula and his name is Jake from State Farm.)
After The News Journal series ran, DeShanna learned that some extended family members were angry and considered her and her family an embarrassment. She called her mother and asked, “Did I make a mistake? Am I making any difference?”
“We need to always have moments of doubt,” DeShanna says, “because then you work even harder to push through.”
DeShanna and Chris Neal were confused when their eldest son told them he was a she. They consulted a psychiatrist and asked child-care professionals for advice. A decade ago, there wasn’t much information or research available on transgender children.
“We didn’t even know that could be a thing,” DeShanna says.
“Do more boy things” and punish feminine behaviors, they were told. DeShanna, who worked at a movie theater and a bank before her second child was born, needed to get a job outside the home to give her son some distance. Chris was advised to act “more masculine.”
The boy who would later be known as Trinity grew more depressed and withdrawn. DeShanna and Chris found a therapist who specialized in gender issues who would eventually ask the question that changed all of their lives, “Do you want a happy little girl or a dead little boy?”
DeShanna wanted to protect Trinity. She’d been teased as a child—for being too tiny, for crying easily, for being unable to relate to her peers. She didn’t want her daughter to suffer that way, so when the local kindergarten said Trinity could not wear a girl’s uniform, could not use the girls’ bathroom and would have to be listed on the roster by her birth name, Xavier, DeShanna began homeschooling.
The battle was mostly private until 2015, when Trinity hit puberty. Her doctor prescribed drugs that would prevent the release of testosterone and sexual development. The family’s Medicaid provider refused to pay for them.
The Neals appealed. Trinity’s struggle drew the attention of local advocates and politicians, including then-Gov. Jack Markell. In spring 2016, Trinity Neal was the first transgender teen in the state whose puberty blockers were paid for by Medicaid.
DeShanna Neal recalls the moment her private story became public. Just after the family’s Medicaid victory, the Trans United Fund was putting together a video featuring mothers and their transgender children. It wanted to show families of different races. Someone connected the organization with the Neals, who agreed to be interviewed and filmed.
Then the video was posted online. It got more than 1 million views in the first 24 hours, DeShanna says.
“My friend called and said, ‘Time.’ I said, ‘I don’t know. It’s about 7.’ She said, ‘No, Trinity’s picture is on Time.com.’”
And DeShanna Neal emerged as a transgender rights advocate.
“DeShanna is speaking up not just for her daughter, but for all kids who need a champion,” says Lisa Goodman, president of Equality Delaware, an advocacy group for LGBTQ residents. “She never loses sight of that mission.”
Trinity is a child of few words. In January, she and DeShanna went to Philadelphia for the Creating Change Conference, an annual event organized by the nonprofit National LGBTQ Task Force. DeShanna spoke during the welcome reception.
“She had people in tears talking about how much she loves her daughter. And my favorite part? Trinity was playing a video game the whole time,” Renna says. “It’s so hard to be just a kid when you’re in a position like that. DeShanna works so hard to make sure the kids can just be kids.”
DeShanna longs for the day when Trinity won’t need her to fight, she says, “when the only issue about bathrooms is whether someone washes their hands or not.” But she knows she’ll worry even after Trinity is successfully launched into the world. A study published in the most recent edition of Transgender Health concludes that transgender adults are 22 times more likely to attempt suicide than a member of the general public.
The president of the Human Rights Campaign, the country’s largest LGBTQ civil rights organization, calls transgender violence “epidemic” and an “urgent crisis.” Last year, advocates believe 22 transgender people died violently. So far in 2017, about a dozen transgender people have been killed.
When the Trans United Fund video featuring Trinity was first posted online, there were a few negative comments but most were positive, DeShanna says. When the organization reposted it in January, there was a definite shift.
“It was hate, just hate,” she says. “I tell the kids, ‘Gosh, it must be exhausting to be that hateful.’ I mean, I’m pretty tired in general, but being that hateful? You might as well stay in bed all day. It doesn’t make sense to me.”