A teenager in a YouTube video waits for the off-screen interviewer, Casey Ellson, to start asking questions.
The topic is family members or friends who have died by suicide.
“So, who in your life has?” asks Casey, a Heritage High School student.
The heart-wrenching video is part of a series Casey, 16, produced about teen suicide. The project earned Casey the highest honor in the Girl Scouts — the Gold Award.
Even though Casey is a boy.
‘Girl on the outside’
Casey joined Girl Scouts at age 5. The Ellsons weren’t sure if Girl Scouts would halt Casey’s career in the organization as he later began medical treatments to change his body to match his gender identity.
With help from his mother, Theresa Ellson, Casey raced to finish Project S.I.V. (Suicide Informational Videos). He sought to raise awareness of teen suicide, which experts say is especially prevalent among transgender youth.
Although the group doesn’t track Scouts’ gender identities, a spokeswoman said Casey isn’t the first transgender participant in the Girl Scouts of Oregon and Southwest Washington, the local chapter of the 108-year-old national organization. About 1,000 youth participate in Clark County.
Only 6 percent of Girl Scouts each year earn the Gold Award, and it typically takes four years. Casey completed it in six months, between March and September 2019.
“Casey decided to do it in a short amount of time because he is transitioning,” Theresa Ellson, 51, said on a sunny weekday afternoon at Otto Brown Park in the Orchards neighborhood, not far from their home. “We weren’t sure how Girl Scouts were going to handle anything because it’s a new area, and we understand that.”
Growing awareness of the transgender experience has challenged gender-specific organizations such as Girl Scouts.
“We really help Girl Scouts as individuals,” said Sarah Shipe, director of communications at Girl Scouts of Oregon and Southwest Washington. “Just like in any other situation, we take all of those case by case and find out what they need. We are a girl-serving organization. And we don’t ask people to identify when they become members.”
Casey’s troop leader, Brandy Clarno, said communication from the organization has shifted. She said she called the Girl Scouts office when Casey started transitioning. The reply: Once participants start medical treatment — taking the male hormone testosterone, for example — the organization no longer viewed them as being eligible for Girl Scouts.
“That’s what I was told a couple years back,” Clarno said. “So we were like, ‘OK, Casey’s not doing that (yet), so we’re good. We’ll get Casey done with the Gold Award.’ ”
Whatever Clarno remembers being told, Shipe said the Girl Scouts organization doesn’t ask participants about hormone treatment or other medical procedures.
“That level of specificity isn’t really part of our process,” she said. “I think it’s more about that child’s identity and how they and their family and their school community recognize them. We don’t have a policy about hormone therapy. We don’t ask people that as a condition. It’s private medical information.”
Theresa said she doesn’t recall the organization asking about hormones.
“They talked with us and Casey explained about feeling like a boy while being a girl on the outside,” Theresa said. “We talked with them many times over the last year to figure out what we could do and how Casey could continue to be part of the Girl Scouts.”
The organization gave Casey permission to join any troop that would have him. Clarno — the director of the camp that Casey attended for 12 years — welcomed Casey into her troop.
‘I like Girl Scouts better’
At Camp Segonku near Lacamas Lake, Casey’s nickname is Bouncy.
“It’s been mine since the beginning, because I can be crazy. Tigger was taken. What does Tigger do? Bounce!” Casey said with a laugh.
But Camp Segonku was canceled this summer, and Girl Scout troops haven’t had any in-person meetings. Like many teens during the pandemic, Casey has been hunkering down at home, making art, writing poetry and sleeping a lot.
“I imagine when the quarantine is over, and I can hug all of my friends,” he said. “I’m a very big hugger. I’m touchy-feely and like hugs and contact.”
Casey wears colorful bracelets and rings with peace signs. He calls them his armor because they give him confidence. He wears his hair slightly longer on top with the sides shaved, courtesy of his brother, Andrew Ellson, 18, who has given him haircuts at home.
Andrew recently earned his Eagle Scout award, the highest award in Boy Scouts. Their dad also was in Boy Scouts growing up.
Scouting is so fundamental to the Ellson family that Theresa first learned about Casey’s shifting identity at a Girl Scout meeting during a discussion of acceptance.
“I brought up at the time that I was gender fluid,” Casey said.
The family considered whether Casey should just join Boy Scouts (which is unaffiliated with Girl Scouts of the United States of America). If that had been an option when Casey first joined scouting, “Casey would have been in Cub Scouts, period,” Theresa said.
Now called the Scouts BSA, the previously boys-only organization began offering programs for girls last year. That was after Casey began identifying as a boy toward the end of his sixth-grade year. Casey isn’t interested in switching scouting groups.
“Casey has been in the Girl Scouts for so long, and it’s been such a great support for Casey, it’s hard to discount that,” Theresa said. “Casey knows the Girl Scouts. Casey loves the Girl Scouts.”
Casey added, “Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts are different, and I like Girl Scouts better.”
Girl Scouts has no plans to extend membership to boys. According to the organization, girls need a safe space to succeed because women face challenges in life that men do not.
Trans kids at risk
Transgender youth need a safe space too, said Mackenzie Dunham, a counselor specializing in helping transgender youth. In 2012, Dunham opened Wild Heart Society on Officers Row in Vancouver, where she sees about 70 transgender youth.
“I grew up in this community, and I know firsthand the experiences of LGBTQ kids in schools. The suicide rate is so high for trans kids,” Dunham said.
In Washington, suicide is the second-leading cause of death for teens age 15 to 19 years old, according to data cited by the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction. The rates are even worse for transgender youth. According to a study published by the American Academy of Pediatrics, more than half of transgender girls have attempted suicide and nearly 30 percent of transgender boys have tried.
“It’s kind of a crisis with youth right now. The rates of anxiety and depression and suicidal ideation is high with teens and high with teens in Clark County,” said Olivia Melin, a Heritage High School counselor who worked with Casey as he undertook his Gold Award project. Melin said Heritage hopes to incorporate Casey’s work into the high school’s health and medical science curriculum.
School and parent support for transgender children is crucial, Dunham said. If a parent offers acceptance and support, suicide rates drop dramatically.
Casey considered suicide at one point in time, although he couldn’t pinpoint the source of those thoughts. He said he had difficulty in middle school when people, including teachers, needed to be reminded to call him by his new name.
He said his experience at Heritage High School has been mostly great, but he sees a need for open conversation about the tough topic of suicide. Several of his friends have attempted or considered it, he said.
“If you’re in a room and you’re talking about a world issue — for example, global warming — you get a whole bunch of opinions and chatter about it. And then you bring up suicide and — nothing,” Casey said. “Why isn’t it talked about?”
Combatting suicide requires young people’s involvement, he said.
“As teenagers, when an adult talks to us and tells us something, it kind of goes in one ear and out the other,” Casey said. “Sometimes it sticks. Sometimes it doesn’t. But when it’s a peer talking to you, it’s like, ‘Oh my god, someone my age, and they’re talking about a real issue.’ It sticks a little bit better.”
‘I am a boy’
Transgender people are still fighting for acceptance in the United States and beyond. Some have been victims of violence or even killed. Nikki Kuhnhausen of Vancouver, a 17-year-old transgender girl, was slain last year. A Vancouver man was charged with second-degree murder and malicious harassment in her death.
Many are bullied in school. They are still fighting for equality as the Trump administration works to implement policies to limit their rights. Nonetheless, Dunham hopes things are improving.
“There seems to be a lot more dialogue around it,” she said, adding that gender is a “social construct.”
“It’s very much something that your brain identifies, as opposed to your genitals,” she said.
Casey laughed at the idea that anyone thinks it’s a decision.
“That I’m a boy isn’t a decision. Because I am,” Casey said.
His mother is still getting used to referring to Casey by his pronouns, especially when she talks about the past.
“Honestly, as a mom, when he first told me, I was like, ‘Oh it’s a phase. We’ll just go with it,’ ” Theresa said. “What do you do? I don’t know anything about it. I’ve learned a lot over time. I’m still working on it.”
For now, Casey stores what he calls his “girly” things — such as old photos of him with long hair –in a box under his bed.
“I think once I start more representing as male, I’ll start becoming more comfortable with myself,” he said.
Casey said he experiences gender dysphoria — that is, distress over the mismatch between how he feels inside and looks outside — when he wears his Girl Scouts jacket decorated with dozens of patches from his service over the past decade. Nonetheless, he said he plans to serve in Girl Scouts until he’s “old and wrinkly.”
“I think the reason why it took me so long to realize I was just a boy was because I loved Girl Scouts, and I knew if I was not a girl, I couldn’t be in Girl Scouts, and Girl Scouts has been so big in my life that I was scared to lose it. But I knew if I wasn’t who I really was, I would be unhappy,” Casey said. “I am a boy. I love Girl Scouts so much, but this is who I am.”