Kasandra Reddington knew she wasn’t like other people ever since she was a little boy.
“I always knew I was different,” said Reddington, a 21-year-old student at Montana State University Billings.
Born in Indiana as Devon Sutton, Reddington was attracted at an early age to her mom’s nail polish, dolls and other things usually associated with little girls. She nevertheless did things associated with boys, even after her family moved north of Shepherd when she was about 10 years old.
“I’m not going to say I wasn’t a problem child,” she said, “but I don’t think I was that bad a kid.”
She grew up with two brothers and a sister—they were mutually mean to each other, she says—and she was home schooled through high school. Eventually, she even became an Eagle Scout.
But when she began exploring the internet at about age 16, she began to sort out the conflicting urges within her. Eventually, she discovered the identity that sounded like her: She was a transwoman—someone born with male sexual organs who identifies as a female.
“It sounded like it to a perfect T,” she said.
An estimated 0.6 percent of the U.S. population is made up of transgender people, mostly, like Reddington, people born as males who identify as females. Reddington says there is some evidence that transgender people have brains that work differently from other people’s. For her, the gradual shift to identifying fully as a woman was inevitable.
“It was a life-or-death matter for me,” she said. “It was transition or just give up.”
But it has been a long, slow transformation from a young man to a young woman. While there have been obstacles along the way, Reddington has never doubted that she is taking the right course.
The obstacles began in her strict Catholic family, which found it hard to accept the woman who used to be their son. She endured symptoms of gender dysphoria, which is stress associated with discomfort about gender assigned at birth. There were a couple of early suicide attempts and days of uncertainty—not about her sexuality but about how bravely to confront the world with it.
“I’ve always felt like a woman,” she said. “There were days I just felt more comfortable expressing that.”
Now her name and sex have been legally changed, and she has a boyfriend who is transgender from female to male. Some days you might see her on campus dressed demurely in jeans and a work shirt. On another day, it might be a mini-skirt and stockings, and, on yet another, a tank top with long black boots.
She pays $40 a month for hormone therapy. Since transgenderism is still considered a mental disorder, despite accumulating evidence to the contrary, insurance pays for much of the cost. A sex-change operation is still in her plans.
She has abandoned Catholicism, and her family is slowly adjusting to having a son who has become a daughter. Family members still use the masculine pronoun to refer to her and aren’t too happy about her having a boyfriend.
“I’m just living my life and being who I am,” she said, “and that’s good enough for me at this point.”
MSU Billings students seem to take all in stride. “A lot of people realize I’m not just doing it to be different,” she said.
Early on, most students just figured she was a gay male, she said. Now she gets some weird questions, she said, but added, “I’ve never really had any negative issues at MSUB.”
Still, she says, making the change hasn’t been easy.
“I don’t know anyone who would choose to be trans,” she said.
She tutors students at the Academic Support Center, and one semester, Reddington was editor of the Retort, the student newspaper. In some issues, she published columns both as Devon Sutton and as Kasandra Reddington. Finally, she wrote a column explaining that both bylines denoted the same person.
Accepting her identity may be harder for some faculty members. When she still appeared as Devon on class rosters, an instructor asked what gender pronoun she preferred.
I prefer “she,” she said, adding that she had been called so many things it didn’t really matter.
She expects to graduate in May with a degree in psychology, then hopes to go for a doctorate in behavioral neuroscience, eventually attaining a position in research and teaching. She would like for that to be in Montana, where she feels at home “not by blood, but by heart.”
Rights for gays, lesbians, bisexual and transgender people remain a hot topic around the country, including in the Montana Legislature, which held a hearing on Feb. 15 on a bill barring discrimination based on sexual identity. Eighteen people spoke against the bill, which is sponsored by Rep. Kelly McCarthy, D-Billings, and 27 people spoke in favor of it, according to an article by the Lee State Bureau.
Some Montana cities have passed similar legislation, but the Billings City Council rejected a nondiscrimination ordinance in 2014. Since the election of Donald Trump as president in November, concerns about discrimination have heightened.
Just since Jan. 1, according to the American Civil Liberties Union, five states have introduced anti-transgender “bathroom bills.” On Feb. 10, Trump’s Department of Justice withdrew a request that a Texas court stop blocking federal guidance allowing transgender students to use the restroom of the gender they identify with.
“I think it’ll be very tough,” Reddington said of the Trump administration, adding, “but I’m personally not worried.”
Other Montanans concerned about discrimination are holding a day of “advocacy and community building” in Helena on Monday, Feb. 19. The day includes meeting with elected officials at the Capitol, followed by a session at Plymouth Congregational Church.
The event is hosted by ACLU of Montana, Montana Women Vote, Forward Montana Foundation, Pride Foundation, Montana Human Rights Network, Human Rights Campaigns, Planned Parenthood Advocates of Montana and the Montana Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence.
Reddington believes in trying to change minds about gender issues one person at a time, pointing out that some legal moves, such as restricting bathroom access to birth gender, deal with issues that don’t really exist. There is no evidence, for example, that transgender people are likely to make unwelcome advances in restrooms.
“If it wasn’t a problem before, you just made it a problem,” she said of such legislative efforts.
Reddington said that she knows at least 10 other transgender people in the Billings area. In Missoula, the Gender Expansion Project is the successor to an organization founded in 2008 in Belgrade to help fund the Billings Transgender Day of Remembrance. The Rural Transgender Wellness Project in Bozeman focuses in particular on suicide, which is common both in Montana and among transgender people.
Reddington emphasizes that the goal of such groups isn’t to infringe on the rights of other Montanans.
“We’re not trying to hurt anyone,” she said. “We’re trying not to get hurt.”
For her, just finally getting to live life the way she wants is a huge relief.
“We’re just as human as everybody else,” she said, “and we deserve the same respect as anybody else.”