If you know the name Kit Waits, it is probably because the third-grader from Hastings has become a symbol for transgender children after a CNN feature last month turned this community upside down.
But you probably don't know anything else about Kit Waits — apart from Kit being publicly outed by a local Facebook group that helped oust Kit's mother, Kelsey Waits, from the school board in favor of more conservative candidates.
So, this is Kit Waits:
Kit is 8 years old. Kit is an ace at building LEGOs, including the 6,020-piece LEGO replica of Hogwarts Castle, which took more than a month. Kit has read all 15 books in the "Wings of Fire" children's fantasy series several times. Kit loves family trips to Disney World, where the best rollercoasters are Slinky Dog Dash and the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train. Kit collects things, like keychains and Tonka trucks and stuffed animals — especially stuffed animals. Kit has more than 100 stuffed animals. Do Beanie Babies count? If so, then more than 200.
Kit has shoulder-length brown hair and lively brown eyes and a hoop earring in both ears. Kit falls asleep to the sounds of George the Gerbil running on his hamster wheel. Kit is a bit loud, but that's OK, because Kit gushes energy and positivity, and Kit's teacher notices an emptiness when Kit's not in class.
Kit also does not hide anger.
"Some people are stupid jerks," Kit said recently, sitting on their father's shoulders on one of the family's last nights in their dream house, which they built in Hastings in 2013.
"Kit, tell it like it is, baby," Chris Waits said.
Hastings is a river town on the southeastern outskirts of the Twin Cities metro, a heavily Catholic town of 22,000 where life seems idyllic. A charming downtown strip boasts a brewery, restaurants and Minnesota's second-oldest city hall. Its high school has one of Minnesota's top marching bands, with seven state championships the past 11 years. It strikes that optimal suburban balance of close-enough-but-far-enough: 20 miles to downtown St. Paul, but bracketed by water and farmland.
If there's one complaint city council members can hear, it's that Hastings can be a bit unwelcoming to outsiders. Local leaders have fretted over whether Hastings' declining kindergarten enrollment and weak growth compared to nearby suburbs like Woodbury and Lakeville are a consequence of that unwelcoming feeling.
"There's a saying that if you don't have three generations from here in the grave, then you're not really from Hastings," said City Council Member Tina Folch, a lifelong resident.
Lisa Leifeld, also a lifelong resident on council, has always felt safe here. She was a 35-year-old mother of two when she came out as gay. Only once did she feel judged for that, when someone took down Leifeld's political sign from his yard when he learned Leifeld was gay. That jarred her.
The past couple weeks jarred her even more.
"There's not more of them, they're just louder than us," Leifeld said. "What the rest of us have been doing is quietly taking the high road. We need to be louder in our support and louder in our acceptance, our love."
Said Mayor Mary Fasbender: "We can say this is not who our community is, but at this point, it is who we are, with the hate, the bullying that has come out. (But) Hastings will rise to be that community where all persons will receive fair treatment and full access."
In a place that's 94% white, some leaders have tried to combat Hastings' lack of diversity. The school district recently received a large grant for diversity, equity and inclusion. A few years ago, the city and the school district released a joint resolution expressing commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion, including for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer people.
After that, eight local pastors signed a letter against the "promotion of transgenderism," writing, "We are not willing to sacrifice our children on an altar of social experimentation and political correctness." One church hosted a speaker who spoke against transgender issues. A local community group, Thrive in Hastings, countered by hosting a transgender lawyer for a Transgender 101 community class.
Some local leaders see these tensions as not unique to Hastings.
"You can see this unraveling of civil discourse," Folch said. "We're all wondering, 'Geez, are we next?' It doesn't matter your leaning, if you're a Democrat or Republican. We're all thinking, 'Are we putting our family in harm's way for running in a local election?' "
Kelsey was school board president as mask mandates became a heated topic. She was part of a compromise: Masks would be mandated only when the district's infection rate reached a certain threshold.
But the school board election turned nasty and personal. A Facebook group, Concerned Parents of Hastings, outed Kit several times and made threats against the family. "She should be locked up for child abuse," wrote one commenter. "Her younger 'daughter' is actually a boy." Kelsey lost.
Kelsey said Kit being transgender was a closely held secret. It was clear to her that Kit's situation is different from Kelsey being a tomboy who grew up not conforming to societal views of femininity. Kit identifies as gender nonbinary, meaning they identify neither as a boy or a girl.
"I don't know where it leads, but our job is to support the child in front of us," Kelsey explained.
At home, Kit uses they/them pronouns. At school, though teachers and administrators know they're trans, Kit is just another girl. Kit believed insisting on they/them pronouns at school would have drawn unwanted attention. (Hastings schools, Kelsey emphasized, have been great for Kit and other transgender students.)
But now the secret is out. Telling the family's story became a way to turn something bad into something good.
"I want people to understand not just how bad the bullying is but how dangerous the silence of allies is, even of friends, of people who are disgusted by this," Kelsey said. "We're sharing our story so others don't have to."
It has been a rough several months for the Waits family. Their perfect home turned into a place they no longer consider safe. There had been uncomfortable moments before: a mom at a kids' playgroup who said she couldn't guarantee Kit's safety, the event at the church against transgender issues. But all that was a subtle prelude to the outing on Facebook, which led them to leave Hastings.
"Is Kit safe at the bus stop without me there?" Kelsey wondered. "Is someone going to say something, going to be a bully? I would like to hope no one would bully a child and is just being a keyboard warrior, but, the fact is, I have no idea. I never would have thought it would have come to what it already has."
The family will stay in the Twin Cities metro. They are weighing a lawsuit related to the now-shuttered Facebook group. Chris still works at the nuclear power plant in Red Wing — the M.I.T. nuclear engineering graduate was an officer on nuclear submarines in the U.S. Navy — and Kelsey is finishing her Ph.D. at the University of Minnesota's Hubert H. Humphrey School of Public Affairs. Kelsey recently formed a nonprofit, TransParent Alliance, to support parents of transgender children.
They do believe good things have come from this painful time, starting with last weekend's rally supporting Kit.
"I realized a whole lot of my best friends are really nice," Kit said. "They know. They're OK with it. And they're really supportive. One of my friends was even at the rally! One of my friends was at the rally and she said hi. She looked through the crowd for me."
Kit's parents said Kit doesn't like talking about this stuff; this was the first time Kit spoke with a reporter.
"Kit just wants to be a kid," Chris said. "You heard what Kit said? A friend came to the rally for Kit and went up to Kit and said hi. It was not, 'I'm so proud of you.' Or, 'You're so cool for doing this.' Or, 'You're supporting people everywhere.' It was just…"
"H-I!" Kit interjected from up on their father's shoulders.
"Your friends, they love you for you," Kit's mom said.
"Because that's all you are," Chris said. "You are a kid named Kit. Right?"