Ash and M.K. Kelly in a Lansing bookstore

LANSING — Twins MK and Ash Kelly, both wearing wire-rimmed glasses and hoodies in navy blue, are wandering on Michigan Avenue in Lansing, jamming their hands into jeans pockets. Someone in a coffee shop recognizes them and waves enthusiastically through the window as they pass by.

MK and Ash, 20, are of some renown in Lansing, and not only because they do music and drawing. Lots of people are getting to know them from a video on Popsugar about their GoFundMe campaign to help pay for their gender reassignment surgeries, which are not covered by their health insurance. MK works in a tattoo shop and Ash is unemployed.

Sexually assigned as girls at birth, Ash came out as “non-binary” in 2014 and MK in 2015. Non-binary describes any gender identity which doesn’t fit strictly into categories of male or female.

“Sexuality is such a weird thing to figure out,” Ash said. “I mean, this is who I am, but it was still very confusing.”

As early as age 2, growing up in Lansing, they said multiple times to their parents that they wanted to be boys and were so unhappy when they were forced to be in girly dresses.

“We had different names every day, just to pretend, ‘Today my name is Nick and I’m your son,’” MK said.

The twins said they didn’t understand the concept of “transgender” until high school, when they researched female-to-male transitions on their own for a year. Learning about transgender identity was a revelation — it literally explained how they felt.

High school biology classes teach that sex chromosomes determine a baby’s sex: XX means a girl, XY means a boy. But that doesn’t tell the whole story. For some people like Ash and MK, gender assignment launches an enduring self-exploration as they wrestle with an external identity they don’t feel inside.

As several states and the federal government debate policies such as restroom accommodations that affect transgender adolescents, a 2016 survey by the Williams Institute, a public policy research institute at the University of California Law School, found that young adults, aged 18-24, are more likely than older adults to identify as transgender.

About 3 percent of the nation’s transgender population lives in Michigan, according to a 2015 report of the U.S. transgender survey conducted by National Center for Transgender Equality, with 27,715 respondents from all 50 states.

Amid increasing awareness of the transgender population, President Barack Obama issued federal guidelines in 2015 directing schools to allow students to use restrooms and locker rooms matching their gender identities.

But shortly after taking office, President Donald Trump rescinded that directive, increasing uncertainty for transgender individuals.

“I feel a big part of that whole thing is a lack of education,” said Brianna Carelli, 26, a transgender woman studying electronics and office automation at the Michigan Career and Technical Institute in Plainwell. “The reason that people who support limiting access to the bathrooms for transgender people has to do with sexual assault, or fear of getting sexually assaulted by someone identified as a trans woman.”

According to the Sexual Assault Prevention and Awareness Center at the University of Michigan, there is no evidence suggesting that LGBT individuals are more likely to commit sex crimes than heterosexuals or cisgendered individuals (people who identify with their birth gender). In fact, sex offenders are disproportionately likely to be heterosexual cisgendered men.

The aftermath of this misconception can hurt people.

“I think the bathroom bill will cause lots of awful harm. It’s hard enough to be trans, and I have been a transgender person all my life,” said Rachel Crandall, the executive director for Transgender Michigan, a statewide transgender advocacy organization.

It is traumatizing that they are not able to use the bathroom corresponding to their gender identity,” Crandall said. “I actually think Trump’s ban will cause more transgender people to commit suicide, and we cannot afford to lose any more lives.”

The Williams Institute in California indicated that 41 percent of trans or gender-nonconforming people surveyed have attempted suicide, eight times higher than the general population.

Having met with LGBT groups recently, Agustin Arbulu, the executive director for the Michigan Department of Civil Rights, said the groups are assessing their best course of action, given the current political dynamics in both the federal and state governments.

“They are resigned to the status quo. They are not pushing,” Arbulu said.

“Given the nature of the Legislature right now, I think they could sit back and wait,” he said, adding that a primary focus for groups now is “the protection of individuals.”

Without legislative action, the Department of Civil Rights developed model guidelines in 2014 that local communities can use to enforce gender identity and sexual orientation protections.

“So if a city wants to do that on its own, we give them a model to develop,” said Vicki Levengood, the communications director for the department. “We have seen quite an expansion in the individual communities in Michigan adopting those ordinances.”

Crandall said Transgender Michigan is dedicated to educating people on the issue. The group has worked with school faculty, police officers in Detroit, churches, and some companies, like Grand Rapids furniture manufacturer Herman Miller.

“Lots of people have never met one of us, the trans sounds so strange to them,” Crandall said. “However, when you actually meet one, you realize how much all of us are alike.”

MK said the earlier people act on their gender identity, the better it can be — particularly with family support. The twins said their father, a former priest, has supported them from a very young age.

Ash and MK are passionate about sharing their experience with others.

“The fact that I was born this way makes me want to help other people and help kids,” Ash said. “I want to talk about it. I want everyone to be educated on it, because I wish I would have known who I was when I was a kid.”

— CHAO YAN, Capital News Service