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Coming Out as Transgender to Two Million Teens -- With a Text

The nonprofit DoSomething sends helpful text messages to teens. This one was personal.

More than two million teens have signed up with to receive text messages suggesting ways to do social good. Once or twice a month, they get a note from someone named “Alysha” with tips like a new way to recycle clothes or how to convince friends not to text and drive.

On Thursday, they got a different kind of text from Alysha. Alysha, the text said, was now going by the name Freddie and was coming out as transgender. Instantly. To two million people. Via a text message.

“I’ve texted for DoSomething for 3yrs as Alysha, but I’ve been struggling,” read the text message. “Im Trans. Im Freddie! Kind of a big deal.”

Teens were encouraged to reply “A” to ask questions, reply “B” to offer support, or “C” to just move on.

In some ways it was a departure for DoSomething. In another way, the New York-based nonprofit was doing what it has always done: Educating teens to be more sensitive to the world around them — just in a more immediate and personal way.

And, as Freddie said, it is kind of a big deal.

His texts come as significant attention is finally being given to transgender people and issues. Caitlyn Jenner is on the cover of Vanity Fair and sitting down with Diane Sawyer on ABC’s “20/20,” while transgender actors are making their way onto mainstream television and soap operas. Just this week, a Girl Scout troop in Washington state raised several hundred thousand dollars online after rejecting a donor who wanted to give $100,000 on the condition it not be used to help transgender girls.

“It does feel like a point in time where people are talking about transgender stuff,” said Freddie Bologno, the person behind the coming-out text.

For Bologno, the text was also highly personal. The day before sending it, Freddie alternated between excitement for the opportunity and concern about what people might say in response. Bologno ran through every possible negative response in hopes of preparing for a blowback.

“I’m really happy, and scared shitless,” Bologno said.

Bologno, 27, came out as a lesbian six or seven years ago, but for the past several years had been working to come to terms with a gender identity that didn’t fit neatly into male or female.

In May, Bologno, sent an email to co-workers sharing a new name and transgender identity. (Bologno identifies as outside of binary gender categories and prefers people to use the plural pronouns “they” or “them,” as opposed to “he” or “she.”)

Bologno’s co-workers at DoSomething were accepting of Freddie, but the question remained of what to do with “Alysha” — the voice behind the advice texts. Bologno and colleagues at DoSomething considered just saying that Alysha had gone and Freddie was taking her place, but that didn’t feel right.

“Part of being a real person is being authentic,” Bologno said. In the end, DoSomething opted to seize upon it as a teachable moment.

Bologno said that while transgender people and issues are being put in the spotlight, much of the attention is on celebrities like Jenner, or “Orange Is the New Black” star Laverne Cox. While they are valuable role models, Bologno said that their experience as wealthy celebrities isn’t the norm for transgender people. The reality for the average transgender person includes challenges with housing, jobs and a continued risk of violence, especially for transgender women of color. By coming out publicly to so many, Bologno sees an opportunity to provide a different kind of example from that offered by other transgender people in the media.

To that point, Cox’s OITNB co-star Selenis Levya recently penned an op-ed piece about her transgender sister who struggles to find employment.

“Adding more visibility and narratives can only help,” Bologno said.

This announcement also speaks to the power of texting as a means of communication. In addition to the social campaigns Bologno sends out, DoSomething has also helped launch Crisis Text Line, something of a call-in hotline for the millennial set that has handled more than seven million texts since its inception, and handles more than 20,000 messages per day.

Bologno said one of the big opportunities is the fact that Thursday’s text is, for many teens, their first introduction to a peer who is transgender. At the same time, given the sheer reach, Bologno’s text is also reaching a number of people who themselves are working through their gender identities.

“Those are my favorite ones that I have been seeing,” Bologno said. “It’s so important for trans people to know there are other trans people out there — ‘Hey, this person I have been texting with for three years is just like me.'”

Coming out by text also has its advantages, Bologno said.

“Coming out to someone face-to-face means you actually see what their first reaction is,” Bologno said. “They don’t have that five seconds to process. I kind of like that — not actually having to see that facial expression.”

Beyond the text, DoSomething arranged a social campaign to accompany Bologno’s coming out, encouraging supporters to post a song dedication on Twitter with the “Ready4Freddie” hashtag. By mid-morning, Twitter was overflowing with dozens of positive responses, including a message from the band Tegan and Sara.

Bologno admitted being a bit blown away by that.

“Tegan and Sara tweeted me. Holy shit!” Bologno said. “Sixteen-year-old me is dying inside of me, like in a good way.”

In addition to the positive texts and tweets, Bologno also got texts from fellow transgender people who felt validated by seeing Freddie’s story.

“I’m trans too,” read one text. “Thank you for coming out. I’m tired of my trans sisters being slaughtered.”

By early afternoon staffers at the DoSomething office were eating cupcakes, reading the responses and listening on a Sonos speaker to a Spotify playlist of all the songs dedicated to Freddie.

“I love everything about this campaign and Freddie,” said DoSomething CEO Nancy Lublin said, although she admitted the grammar nerd in her has a little trouble using plural pronouns for one person.

And Freddie’s text is still going out. Although it began sending at 10:45 am ET, it will likely take until early evening before all two million have received it. For now, the positive responses keep flowing in via text and on Twitter.

While definitely pleased, Bologno said that they and DoSomething are also eager to get back to the work they have been doing all along. Next week, Freddie will send another text, this time to promote a campaign to pick up cigarette butts littering streets and sidewalks.

For more on DoSomething and their efforts, here is Lublin talking about the organization’s efforts at the Dive Into Mobile conference in 2013.

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