When Kaleb Lyda heads off to UNC-Chapel Hill this week, he’ll enter college as an elite Morehead-Cain Scholar – one of 65 students awarded four years of tuition-free education for “possessing the rare combination of potential, principle, and purpose.”
But last March, he and his parents worried that it could all fall apart.
That’s when the state legislature passed House Bill 2, a controversial law that propelled North Carolina to the center of a national debate over the rights of transgender people to use the bathrooms of their gender identity.
For Kaleb, 17, the law was personal and scary.
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That’s because he started life as a girl.
She was born on Sept. 24, 1998, 11 weeks prematurely and weighing only 2 pounds, 4 ounces. Kim and Mike Lyda, now of Concord, called her Abbey.
Growing up, she was a tom boy who liked to ride dirt bikes and roll in the mud. She went to the first day of preschool wearing overalls, a T-shirt and boots. “We let him dress himself, and that’s what he wore,” said Kim Lyda, who uses male pronouns today even when referring to Kaleb’s early life.
It wasn’t until middle school that Abbey began to feel bullied and ostracized for being different. She didn’t have many friends but was close to a few girls “because we were all the weird ones. We kind of stuck together.”
At the start freshman year at Concord’s Jay M. Robinson High in the fall of 2012, Abbey caught the attention of Jenny McCarthy, a math teacher and faculty adviser for the Gay Straight Alliance.
Abbey’s short hair, jeans and T-shirts gave her an androgynous look. McCarthy, always on the lookout for kids who might need someone to talk to, invited her to join the GSA.
As they got to know one another, McCarthy learned that Abbey had also attended meetings of Time Out Youth, a Charlotte group that provides support for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender teens. Abbey confided to McCarthy that she thought she might be a lesbian or “gender neutral.”
McCarthy had never heard the latter term, but she started learning about it. She saw it as her job to do whatever she could to help students feel safe and comfortable in school.
In the meantime, Kim and Mike Lyda knew something was bothering their child. “We saw that he was hurting,” Kim Lyda said. But it was hard to know the difference between a teenager’s “normal moodiness” and a significant problem.
A few months into freshman year, when Abbey worked up the courage to talk about being a lesbian, Kim Lyda was ready. She asked: “Are you gay? Do you think you’re gay? It’s OK. I just want to know.”
The Lydas saw a therapist, sometimes as a family, sometimes separately. Finally with the therapist, Kaleb was able to talk about being transgender, the term for people whose gender identity differs from their biological gender at birth.
Kaleb had been feeling depressed and anxious for a long time. He had thought he was gay, but then realized that “still wasn’t right.” During freshman year, when he learned about people being transgender, he became aware that it “paralleled how I felt.”
But he worried that he’d be rejected by his family and friends if they knew. He knew that some transgender teens committed suicide because they couldn’t face life. “I wanted to make myself as small as possible,” he said.
Through therapy, Kaleb said he “became OK” with being transgender. “I realized I’m not a mistake. I’m not broken for being trans,” Kaleb said. “It’s not a problem that I need to fix. It’s just something that I need to grow into.”
The summer after freshman year, he finally “came out” as transgender to his parents. He left them a letter on the kitchen counter.
In the note, Kaleb said he would understand if they continued to call him Abbey. He hadn’t yet picked out a boy’s name. “I didn’t know enough about myself to know really where I wanted to go from there,” Kaleb said later. “I just wanted to give them a heads up, like ‘Hey, this is coming.’ ”
Kim Lyda said she read the letter and cried. Then, “I read it again and cried.”
She and her husband grieved over the loss of their daughter, but she said they always wanted their child to “find peace and happiness.…I don’t think there’s ever been a question for either of us that we would support Kaleb no matter what.”
Change in sophomore year
For sophomore year, the Lydas sent Kaleb to a different school, with smaller Montessori-style classes. They thought it would give him a better place to figure things out.
During that year, Kaleb chose his new name, and his family and friends began using it. But he was still called Abbey at school and church.
That got confusing at times, but Kaleb felt happier “pretty much instantly. It was like a weight off my shoulders.”
“I don’t think my parents fully understood what it meant,” Kaleb said later. “…(But) as I kept going along that path and as I kept growing into my own identity, it was pretty obvious that was what was meant to happen and that’s truly how I identified.”
Mike Lyda said he and his wife could see Kaleb becoming happier and more confident. “And that kind of gave us encouragement and let us know that we were doing the right thing.”
During the summer before his junior year, Kaleb began using his new name all the time. His parents decided he should return to Jay M. Robinson to finish high school.
Before he started back, they met with McCarthy, the Gay Straight Alliance adviser, to make plans and try to avoid any problems in the school of 1,300 students.
McCarthy arranged a meeting between Kaleb’s parents and all his teachers, so they could ask questions. She made sure they knew how to change their class rosters from Abbey to Kaleb – and to make sure any substitute teachers would get the name right too. She also arranged for Kaleb to use one of the single-stall faculty bathrooms.
By doing this, McCarthy said she hoped to keep him safe and ready to learn. “Even if you don’t understand, you can still honor someone where they are. You can be supportive and you can love them.”
McCarthy said she placed responsibility on teachers to call Kaleb by his new name, without hesitation. “I said, ‘If you can get it right, the students will follow suit,’ ” she said.
And that’s what happened. “Four periods a day, the teachers were calling him by the correct name and the correct pronouns,” McCarthy said. “Kaleb just flew under the radar.”
Kaleb never tried to hide his transition, but he didn’t make a big deal about it, either.
Kids who had known him since preschool just started calling him Kaleb and watching out for him.
“They wouldn’t allow another person to do me harm,” Kaleb said. “…If someone called me the wrong name – and it may have even been accidental – someone would just jump in and go, ‘Nope, that’s Kaleb,’ and (the other person) would be like, ‘Oh, yeah, sorry,’ and keep talking.”
After awhile, Kaleb began using the men’s restrooms during class when there weren’t other students around. No one seemed to notice.
During that junior year, Kaleb legally changed his name and began getting weekly testosterone injections to make the transition to male.
At the end of the school year the student newspaper ran a story that described his change to Kaleb. It was reported matter-of-factly. The headline: “Transitions: Lyda navigates world as transgender teen.”
Senior year brought good news. In January Kaleb, fifth in his high school class, was accepted into UNC-Chapel Hill. And on March 15, he learned he’d won a prestigious Morehead-Cain scholarship, covering all his college expenses for four years.
In his Morehead application, Kaleb wrote about being transgender. He acknowledged his fear of abandonment when he “came out” to a friend. By “living authentically despite fear and uncertainty,” he said he tried to lead by example. “I haven’t led because I’m trans or in spite of being trans.…I lead because I see a need and I want to fill it.”
Kaleb had eight days to enjoy the news. Then, during what should have been the feel-good spring of his senior year, came HB2.
The law nullified a Charlotte ordinance that extended legal protections for gay, lesbian and transgender individuals. It also requires people in public schools and other government buildings to use the restrooms corresponding to the gender on their birth certificates.
After struggling for years with questions about gender identity, Kaleb had finally become comfortable as a boy, happier than he’d ever been. His parents, who had struggled too as they helped him find his way, appreciated that teachers and administrators at Jay M. Robinson provided “quiet support.”
HB2 could jeopardize all that.
“I was concerned it was going to put the administration in a very awkward place,” Kim Lyda said. “If it gave somebody the guts to say ‘Why is Kaleb going into the men’s room,’ they were going to be in the position of not being able to provide the support.”
The Lydas also feared the law could affect his plan to live in a men’s dorm at Chapel Hill, because it’s a state-supported school.
Kaleb’s birth certificate still listed him as female.
As a lawyer who’d read every word of the new law, Kim Lyda knew that detail could lead to trouble. But she didn’t wait for someone to complain.
On April 13, three weeks after Gov. Pat McCrory signed HB2 into law, she and Kaleb drove to Raleigh. After providing an affidavit from one of Kaleb’s doctors, they got his birth certificate changed to “male.”
With that, no one could stop him from living in the dorm.
‘Almost a non-issue here’
In the weeks after passage of HB2, administrators and teachers at Jay M. Robinson made no change in their support for Kaleb.
“We just knew what we were doing was working, so why change it?” said McCarthy, the teacher who most helped to ease the transition. “It’s not like we met and decided we’re not listening to this. There was no discussion about it.”
As a precaution after passage of HB2, Kaleb went back to using the staff restroom – until he got his birth certificate changed.
Principal Gregory Hall said Kaleb’s transition was “almost a non-issue here at the school.”
Hall gave part of the credit for that to Kaleb, who is “such a wonderful young man” who was “willing to teach and share his experience.” Even before passage of HB2, as part of sensitivity training, Kaleb was invited to speak to Cabarrus County school principals about being transgender.
“There was tremendous value in that,” Hall said. “Just meeting someone who could say, ‘This is me. I’m a person. This has been my experience.’ ”
Always a boy
With support from his family, his doctors and his school, Kaleb has thrived.
“He exudes confidence,” said McCarthy. “It’s hard for me to even talk about Abbey. It’s a different person.”
Dr. Rhett Brown, the Charlotte doctor who prescribed Kaleb’s hormone treatments, said the girl he met in 2014 was withdrawn, unwilling to make eye contact and “afraid of anybody noticing her.”
Today, Brown said, Kaleb “has blossomed into a wonderful young man who won a Morehead scholarship and is going to Chapel Hill on a full ride. How wonderful is this? It’s just an amazing story. This would not have happened with the child that I first met.”
Kaleb’s parents still marvel at the change.
“I saw the light come back in his eyes,” Kim Lyda said. To leave Jay M. Robinson High after freshman year as Abbey and return for junior year as Kaleb was, she said, “one of the most courageous acts I’ve ever seen anyone do.”
As for Kaleb, he has no doubt he was always a boy.
“I was male the whole time,” he said. “I just didn’t know how to say it.”