Broadway Utica

The Good Mother

Abby McArthur founded the Herkimer County Pride Alliance after her child came out as non-binary

How Abby McArthur found the courage to fight for Transgender youth in a town without pity

By Ron Klopfanstein

General Nicholas Herkimer stands guard at both ends of Myers Park in the Village of Herkimer. One version of the town’s namesake lunges forward and points accusingly at anyone entering the park from the east. The statue on the other end of the park depicts the general towering over and looking down at all who enter from the west. 

On a rainy day in June, I met up with Abby McArthur under the pole, where an American flag and a black POW flag were soaked and forlorn. The group McArthur founded, the Herkimer County Progress Alliance, had raised money to purchase Progress banners which the Village of Herkimer placed on utility poles. One of those Progress flags had been hanging in Myers Park. That was before an ugly backlash that festered on social media spilled into real life and caused those Progress banners to be removed.

Progress banners (and Progress flags) are a modified version of the traditional “rainbow” Progress flags. They retain the six-stripe design with the addition of a chevron along the hoist made of black, brown, light blue, pink, and white triangles that represent racial minorities, Trans people, and those living with or who have died from AIDS. 

“I have a child who came out as Transgender three years ago,” McArthur began. “When they came out at age 12, it was a very lonely, isolating experience.”

McArthur wants her child to feel safe-even welcomed-in the village where they live. The Progress banners were a step in raising awareness and elevating her community’s understanding. McArthur hoped that they might even stimulate constructive conversation where people who were Trans or the family of Transpeople would have a chance to educate their community. That didn’t happen, so McArthur told me her story.

For safety reasons, she asked that I use a pseudonym to describe her child, whose personal pronouns are he/they. I will refer to them as Gayge, and for clarity and to remain consistent with McArthur’s use; I will use the pronoun “they/them.”

“As young as four, I knew my child was not going to be a girl forever.” McArthur recounts. “I just knew. They never looked comfortable when I dressed them in pinks, purples, and dresses. They never wanted to play with Barbie. I gave them access to everything feminine you could ever want. They had their own vanity, everything, they always kept their hair long, but they just weren’t conformable in their own skin. You can see it in their childhood pictures, in their eyes.”

One version of the town’s namesake lunges forward and points accusingly at anyone entering Myers park from the east

In many ways, the journey to acceptance was as arduous for McArthur as it was for her child. 

“I am from a socially conservative background,” McArthur explained her thinking at the time, “and my mother, whose voice is still in my head, is going ‘that’s weird,’ The first time Gayge wanted to shop in the boy’s section, I had to let a friend take them because I was so weirded out. I was like, ‘No, this is wrong. I was like, ‘Holy crap, I can’t do this.’”

She was right. She wasn’t ready to face that her 10-year-old child, raised a girl, did not fit their assigned gender role. McArthur’s friends had to take Gayge shopping. Two years later, Gayge told their mother they were bisexual. Two years later, Gayge realized they weren’t necessarily bisexual and came out as non-binary.

According to the website of the Trevor Project, an organization that works to prevent suicide among LGBTQ+ youth, nonbinary is “an umbrella term to describe people who experience their gender identity and/or expression outside of the male/female man/woman binary.” 

The first step for McArthur was understanding what “non-binary” even meant. She had to accept that as her child’s confidence and self-awareness grew, so would their ability to articulate their feelings and their insistence on being accepted for who they are. 

Gayge explained to their mother how knowing more made them better understand and accept themselves. They said, “If you had hazel eyes, but you only knew the word ‘brown,’ you would say you had brown eyes, but when you learn the word ‘hazel,’ you will adjust your language. Gayge said I learned the word that I am, which is non-binary.”

Some may wonder if a child whose biological sex was female but identified as male or non-binary might simply be a “tomboy.” Hate groups targeting supportive parents, like Abby McArthur, falsely accusing them of being “groomers” and encouraging their children to identify as members of the LGBTQ+ community despite the increasingly hateful rhetoric and violence targeting that minority group.

I asked her about this, using myself as an example.

“What is the difference between a kid who wants to live as another gender or as no gender [non-binary] and, say, someone like me when was in Junior High in the 80s, a gay kid who liked General Hospital? If I were growing up nowadays, would I have mistakenly thought I was Transgender rather than just a gay kid who watches a soap as an escape from relentless bullying?”

McArthur has an earthy “realness” that helps her get her point across simply and without judgment. She asked me if I ever believed that I was female. I didn’t. People know what gender they are, she emphasized. It may not correlate with their biological sex, but people know they are what they are.

 “There is a difference between tucking your hair beneath your baseball came and throwing on a hooded sweatshirt and wanting to cut off your chest because you are horrified to have breasts,” McArthur explained. “No one is forcing these kids. No one had to tell Gayge who they were. If someone said to me, do you want Gayge to be Trans? I would be like, ‘f**k no!’”

McArthur’s eyes welled up, and she stopped momentarily and caught her breath. 

“I thought, ‘Oh my God,’ is this my new life?!” She remembers. “Is this really happening? I thought people would call Gayge ‘weird,’ I thought they would be ostracized. I thought of all the bullying…”

It was a long, painful journey from being a frightened mother overcoming her own fear and discomfort to the Abby McArthur of today, a brave and earnest leader in the fight for equality and acceptance in a rural, heavily conservative Herkimer County.

“I waited for three years for someone to do something,” McArthur says. “But, it wasn’t until I saw so many other kids in Herkimer County having issues similar to Gayge and attempting suicide that I said, ‘this is not right.’”

On Gayge’s birthday, a Herkimer County teen went missing and was later found dead. What news coverage did not report, according to McArthur, is that the death was from suicide and the teen has been Transgender. According to the New York State Department of Health website, suicide rates in Herkimer County consistently exceed those for other counties, excluding New York City. A few weeks earlier, I saw firsthand the courage of McArthur and others from her organization, Herkimer County Progress Alliance, as they fought to save the Progress banners their organization had purchased and the village had erected.

At the Herkimer Village Board meeting a man in the back harassed supporters of the Progress banners and accusing them of being “groomers.”

The night the village council met, the smoke was so thick it was nearly impossible to see the banners about to be removed. The council meeting room was packed with supporters primarily filling the seats and an angry cluster of middle-aged men and women in hooded sweatshirts and ball caps glowering at the proceedings from the back of the room. One man in a black was allowed to articulate deadly conspiracy theories invented by extremist groups by heckling and accusing speakers of being “groomers.” Police stood next to him.

“They should have taken him out. That just goes to show this town is not…” McArthur whispered to me. I nodded my head. Without finishing the sentence, I understood.

She then stood up and tried to plead with the rabble by putting the situation into the starkest possible context. 

“None of us are groomers, none of us!” she emphasized with a voice that shook at first. None of us have been arrested. None of us have done anything but try to help everybody. We are hosting another suicide talk trying to save people’s lives in this county. All we want to do is save people’s lives in this county-save children’s lives. That’s all we want to do is save people’s lives.”

In addition to the hostile rabble in the back of the room, the board heard from a few other townsfolk who expressed animosity towards the Progress banners. Their arguments ran from ludicrous  (one woman insisted the town put up flags for her heterosexual son who died of leukemia) to strained beyond credulity (an older man and his adult son griped that the Progress banners would draw attention away from those reminding people about POWS).

“All we want to do is save people’s lives in this county-save children’s lives.” Abby McArthur said at the Herkimer Village council meeting

During the meeting, I tried to reassure McArthur that even though there would be setbacks and these times of increased social hate, civil rights progress is a “long game.” I recalled the quote from Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. about the arc of the moral universe being long but bending toward justice.

Then, Mayor Dana Sherry called for a vote to eliminate the Progress banners save for two. One would be tucked away inside the town hall, and another (at least on paper) would be tacked aside a sign next to a bridge on the way into town. Each council member Max Virendranath Dhaniram, Dominick Scalise, Mark Ainsworth, and Maria Fiorentino, approved the measure.

After the meeting, McArthur explained why she was so particularly disappointed by the village board. For one thing, the Herkimer Progress Alliance paid for all the banners; for another, they were erected with Mayor Sherry’s and the board’s permission. Permission both entities disclaimed once threats began and grotesque slanders began appearing on social media from people who oppose the acceptance and inclusion of  LGBTQ people.  The rhetoric descended from regressively offensive (referring to an LGBTQ “lifestyle” or calling Transgender individuals “hermaphrodites”) to deeply disturbing. Some in Herkimer even responded to the banners by threatening to “rape [LGBTQ people] straight.”

“This shows how much further this community has to go,” McArthur said sadly.

“It would have shown people that we are everywhere,” added James White from Ilion. “That there are so many of us here. It’s not just like we live in big cities. We are your co-workers and people you know without even realizing it. When you do things that hurt us, you are directly affecting your local community.”

After the council decided Progress banners would be removed, they discussed hiring a grant writer to promote the village. Several people noted the irony in hiring someone to promote business after voting to convey that LGBTQ people and those who care about them are not welcome.

“As someone who doesn’t live in Herkimer, what impression does this give you of the town?” I asked Ace Morreal, who lives in Utica but attended the meeting to show support for LGBTQ people. 

“It’s good to see how many people came out to support us,” Morreal said. “There definitely is support within the town, but it is disheartening to see the hate and the words being used. Especially incorrectly. It is very apparent that the hate is coming from a misunderstood place.”

The Herkimer Village Council and mayor. From left to right: Max Virendranath Dhaniram, Maria Fiorentino, Mayor Dana Sherry, Dominick Scalise, and Mark Ainsworth unanimously voted to remove all but two of the Progress banners

I spoke to Dr. Ronni Tichenor, a professor of Sociology at SUNY Polytechnic Institute in Utica who specializes in, among other things, “the links between adverse childhood experiences and health/wellbeing.” I wondered why Transgender people are currently the scapegoat extremist conservative groups use to roll back civil rights and other social progress.

“The folks that are in opposition are reacting to greater visibility,” Dr. Tichenor explained. “Trans people have always been with us. There have always been people who did not live as the sex assigned at birth.”

According to Dr. Tichenor, what has changed is that our culture has now begun to “make space for them” even though there has always been a great diversity in what society has considered male and female. “Part of opening up this social space for people to move away from the binaries. Some people exist outside of them. Social change is inevitable in society. It is usually slow, but what has been remarkable for Transgender youth is this wave of really brave parents listening to their children.”

I told her about Abby McArthur and all she has done for her child and other Trans people and asked her what she thought.

‘It is really these trailblazing parents who are driving this social change. Sometimes parents feel like they have to move to a new town or school district. But they really shouldn’t.”

“How can someone be so sure they are the wrong gender when they are still growing up?” I asked. 

She replied that the people like the man in the black sweatshirt who accuse others, like McArthur, of being groomers have it backward. The vast majority of Transgender people are raised in “straight” households. I was unable to find any evidence of a multi-generational Trans family online. I searched Google Scholar for responses to the query, “Do Trans people raise their children to be Trans?” 

Rebecca L. Stotzer, Jody L. Herman, and Amira Hasenbush published a study of existing peer-reviewed research for the Williams Institute, a research center on sexual orientation and gender identity law and public policy that is part of the University of California, Los Angeles School of Law. Their survey accumulated and analyzed the results of 51 different peer-reviewed studies  Stotzer, Herman, and Hasenbush found that “Studies on the outcomes for children with transgender parents have found no evidence that having a transgender parent affects a child’s gender identity or sexual orientation development.”

This is a point that Dr. Tichenor emphasized when I asked her if overly earnest adults, well-meaning or not well-meaning, or perhaps an inclusive culture could make young people Transgender-or even coerce them to be Transgender. 

“Everything on the is culture is actually groomed to be straight and binary,” she pointed out. “We live in a heterosexist culture. There must be something really strong in them that they are sure about who they are inside to come out against all these cultural headwinds they face. Even little kids recognize how hard it is.”

Our culture is so deeply invested in the binaries of male and female that they consider it to be “fundamental to human life,” according to Dr. Tichenor. Therefore, it is unsurprising that there would be pushback in reaction.” 

Judith Lorber is a professor emerita of Sociology and Women’s Studies at the City University of New York (CUNY) Graduate Center and Brooklyn College. She has been studying the social construction of gender differences since the 1970s. Dr. Tichenor cited her work in our interview.

“Gender,” she said, “is a fundamental organizing principle of social life. It makes us uncomfortable when we don’t know someone’s gender. We map social expectations based on that [gender], not on biology [sex], and we focus on what we think are the differences rather than the similarities. There is more diversity within one gender than we think. Emotions aren’t gender-based. We have all of these rigid ideas, the separation, the binary.”

I asked her to articulate the difference between gender and sex.

“Biological sex is about physiology, genetics, hormones,” the physical stuff. Gender, on the other hand, is much more complicated and imprecise. 

“We map out all these cultural expectations about how each sex will behave,” she explained. “People expect girls to babysit and take care of siblings. We tell boys, ‘Men don’t cry,’ but they can put their fists through a wall. Most of what we think of how we move through the world is gender.”

“Why is it about refusing to abide by those expectations that some consider dangerously transgressive?” I asked. “What is it about Transgender or non-binary people that triggers a negative, even hostile, reaction in some people?”

Supporters of the Progress Banners showed support at the June 6, 2023 meeting of the Herkimer Village Council

“The backlash is predictable and normal from a societal perspective,” she explained. “Societies are generally conservative. There is always a force that doesn’t want people to change. Some people find it terrifying, and [it can be]  threatening to people without awareness of these issues. [But, that] doesn’t excuse their behavior.”

Surveying the cultural landscape, Dr. Tichenor ominously noted that the attacks on Transgender rights were the start of what extremists hoped would be a sweeping and fundamental undoing of civil rights progress in the 20th and 21st centuries. 

“Conservatives politicians and political groups have come out and said they’re not just after Transrights; they are after same-sex marriage, interracial marriage, abortion rights, and birth control. It’s a whole collage of beliefs about men and women. It is a very reactionary strand out there. If the backlash gets four or two years in the next Presidential cycle, they can do a lot of damage.”

She described the tactic as a “bait and switch” made possible by the steady stream of disinformation from right-wing media. 

“A big swath of the country,” she said, “has come to faulty conclusions because they have been fed false information. They know exactly what they are doing. They want an uneducated population because it will be easy to control. The media dubbed it ‘culture wars’ this refers to whatever the conservative elements in society ‘gin up.’”

I asked her about the situation faced by Abby McArthur’s child Gayge and other Transgender youth. I wondered how people could support them, particularly in the face of the anti-Trans sentiment in the zeitgeist. She reminded me of the importance of visibility and openness.

“It is a fundamental human right to be who you are,” Dr. Tichenor insisted. “We don’t have to like everybody or choose to spend lots and lots of time with everybody. But we do need to treat people with respect and dignity. If you’re a kid, you need books about multi-racial, economically diverse families with two moms or two dads. They need to see openly LGBT people be their teachers; if kids don’t see that, it doesn’t seem possible for them.”

She recalled the iconic 2009 photo of a little Black boy touching President Barack Obama’s hair after asking if their hair was the same. Kids simply need to see that people like them exist, she said. 

In early July, I accompanied Abby McArthur to a meeting with a Transgender young man who the Herkimer Pride Alliance would eventually furnish with a binder. 

WebMD defines a binder as a piece of compression clothing that flattens your chest. People under 18 are advised not to wear them for more than 8 hours daily; however, they have no permanent physical effect. Puberty blockers, another treatment that has entered the national conversation, also have no permanent results.

One persistent myth that the Trans community has had to deal with is the notion that patients who have not yet reached the age of majority are receiving “genital mutilation surgery.” The website for the Center for Gender Surgery Program at Boston’s Children’s Hospital states explicitly, “All genital surgeries are only performed on patients age 18 and older.” An investigation by the news service Reuters found that 776 mastectomies were performed on patients ages 13 to 17 in the years between 2019 and 2021. Current research shows that greater acceptance of Trans youth and their use of puberty blockers would reduce the number of patients eventually seeking gender reassignment surgeries. 

According to an article published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), “Pubertal blockade…buys time for a child or adolescent, pausing puberty and allowing for the exploration of gender identity. Initiated early in puberty, [puberty blockers] delays the development of irreversible pubertal changes and, in some cases, eliminates the need for subsequent surgery. [Hormonal] therapy is reversible; discontinuation leads to prompt resumption of the [hormonal]  axis.”

Bubs is 17 and a Transgender male. He lives in Little Falls. His pronouns are “he/they.” He decided to share his story with readers of this publication because he wants people to understand what it is like to be a Transgender youth.

“I don’t like looking at myself in the mirror and seeing a female,” Bubs explained, “I want to see a guy, a dude. I have felt like this for over a year.”

“So until you were 16, you felt like a female?” I asked.

“I was questioning,” Bubs replied. “I was gender fluid.” 

“What is it that made you feel like you were not the gender that you were assigned at birth?” I wondered.

“ I kept looking at myself and thinking I needed to look more masculine,” Bubs emphasized. “I tried a short haircut… I just really liked being called he or they. This is who I want to be. This is who I am. I look into the future, and I think of myself as a guy, a dude.”

Attending a Pride event in Little Falls gave him the confidence to seek out a binder and the courage to come out to their mother, which he read from his phone. 

“Hey Mom,” the text said. “I am doing this over the phone because I really don’t know how to phrase this in person. Maybe you noticed my comments implying that I am Trans. I am happy being called a boy, and my new name will be something to do with Bubs. I have an appointment to try binders. I am hoping you will accept me, but if not, that’s okay.”

Thankfully his mother replied. “Okay, I understand. I absolutely understand.”

He hadn’t come out at school yet, though he said he would hang a Trans flag in his window that night so everyone would know. 

“I am concerned about safety,” he acknowledged. “That 1% of the school that are really hateful.”

He has already experienced harassment. People have shouted at him from cars as they drove by. 

“Are there other Transgender people at the school?” I asked. 

“We’re all very closeted,” he said. 

That is what kept him from coming out until now. 

“The worrying that somebody will come at me in a car. The worrying of actually getting injured because people know where I live. It has happened to others at school. They could come after me next.”

For a Transgender male, developing breasts is as unwelcome and horrifying as it would be for any cisgender male. 

“What is it like to feel like you’re in the wrong body?” I asked.

“It’s like you look down at your chest and feel so bad,” Bubs said.  “You know something is wrong. I was like, ‘I hate this.’”

“Is it different than looking down and being like, ‘Oh, I look a little fat today?’” Abby McArthur asked.

Bubs stopped for a second and thought about it. 

“The main difference is looking around and being like, ‘I want to look like that guy, I want to look like that guy.’” he said. “ I study conservation at BOCES, and it is a very male-dominated field. I am kind of jealous, like I want to be them. It is hard to see it around you.”

“Did anything or anyone influence you or persuade you to be Trans?” I asked. 

Bubs said that no one and nothing did. A gradual awakening began with using a male avatar on a virtual reality social media site (similar to the more familiar Discord) called Rec Room. The male avatar empowered him to shape a male persona online gradually. That is when his online name “Bubbles” was shortened to “Bubs.”

 “It was very important,” Bubs says of the social media site. “It let me be who I want to be. I was a female at the beginning but became more and more masculine over time.” 

Bubs, who had been transitioning online, was taken aback when other Rec Room users (the platform allows live audio conversations) asked if he was Trans because his voice sounded female while his avatar was becoming increasingly male. 

He said that he wasn’t but that the questions explained a lot about feelings he had never given a name to. 

“How do you think your life will be different once you hang our Transgender flag and once this story comes out?” I asked. 

“ I am hoping people will finally recognize that there is a Trans person at their school,” Bubs said simply. “When you meet Transpeople, Just try to be more respectful to them because they don’t get much respect, especially with everything that’s going on.”

Ashley Lesniak outside her home which she decoreted for Pride Month

Ashley Lesniak is friends with Abby McArthur. In response to the village council removing the banners, she and many others in Herkimer County decorated her front porch with rainbow colors and Pride and Progress banners. I stopped by her house and asked her why it was necessary to show support for the LGBTQ community-especially the Trans community.

“It’s a fight for acceptance,” Lesniak explained. “Even if [someone’s]  not like everyone else. You don’t have to come out, hate them, and push your political views on them. If you don’t want to go to an event they’re having, don’t go; if you don’t like the flags they are putting up, don’t look at them.”

I asked her what message the village council’s decision sent to the community-particularly to young people. 

“It was devastating,” she said emphatically.  “It showed unity, then for all of the kids to see them down, it told them, ‘yes, everyone hates you. You’re not accepted anymore.’ They made it worse.”

Still, she believes that change is possible in Herkimer.  

“This could be a great community,” she said. “If we just put our differences aside and came together.  

Advocates say that it is essential that people support Trans youth. An article by Heather Boerner in Scientific American reported that data from studies of more than 30,000 Transgender and gender-diverse youth found that “gender-affirming care is associated with better mental health outcomes-and that lack of access to such care is associated with higher rates of suicidality, depression, and self-harming behavior.” 

I wondered how Abby McArthur had made the long journey from being unable to even take their questioning child to the boy’s apparel section at Target to a fighter for acceptance and equality.

The last questions I asked her were, “How did you change? Why did you change?”

“The fact that I realized my kid was gonna die if I didn’t change my mindset is why I changed,” McArthur said. “The fact that I realized my kid was going to kill himself.”

McArthur paused momentarily, took a deep breath, wiped her eyes, and continued.

“You watch them have panic attacks because they can’t take showers with the lights on because of their chest.”

McArthur stopped again, took a breath, and said, “I have not hugged my child in over three years. They won’t let me because they are so horrified by their chest.”

She stressed again the importance of acceptance.

“You realize at some point that you are about to lose your kid.”


If you or someone you know is experiencing a mental health, suicide or substance use crisis, or emotional distress, reach out 24/7 to the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline (formerly known as the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline) by dialing or texting 988 or using chat services at to connect to a trained crisis counselor. You can also get crisis text support via the Crisis Text Line by texting NAMI to 741741.


Follow Ron Klopfanstein at,, and Like him at


Works Cited

Boerner, Heather. “What the Science on Gender-Affirming Care for Transgender Kids Really Shows.” Scientific American, 12 May 2022,

“Center for Gender Surgery.” Center for Gender Surgery Program | Boston Children’s Hospital, Accessed 30 July 2023.

“Chest Binding: The Types, the Risks, and More.” WebMD, Accessed 30 July 2023.

Guss, Carly, and Catherine Gordon. “Pubertal Blockade and Subsequent Gender-Affirming Therapy.” Jama Network, Accessed 30 July 2023.

Respaut, Robin, and Chad Terhune. “Number of Transgender Children Seeking Treatment Surges in U.S.” Reuters, 6 Oct. 2022,

Stotzer, Rebecca L, et al. “Transgender Parenting.” Williams Institute, 12 Oct. 2021,

Tanner, Lindsey. “What Medical Treatments Do Transgender Youth Get?” PBS, 22 Apr. 2022,

“Understanding Gender Identities.” The Trevor Project, 22 Apr. 2023,


Ron Klopfanstein
Ron Klopfanstein
Multimedia journalist, news and features editor, and creative content producer for the Utica Phoenix digital platform and 95.5 FM The Heat broadcast and streaming radio.

Most Popular