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Ashton Lee: Manteca High school transgender junior is finally who he is
Ashton Lee was among those who fought for student transgender rights. ABOVE PHOTO: Ashton shares a moment with his parents, Don and Cathy Lee. - photo by HIME ROMERO/The Bulletin

The couch is much too small for Cathy, Don and Ashton Lee to sit on at once, but they gladly squeeze into its purple arms, cradling their youngest son.

“This is how it always is,” laughs Cathy Lee. “This is how we watch TV, this is how we eat and hang out.”

Don leans in and kisses Ashton on the temple, a show of affection that makes the 16-year-old junior squirm and twist in his seat.

Ewww, Dad.

Down the hall, Ashton’s bedroom is clean but cluttered, displaying the eccentric interests of a teenager.

Jeans and a cowboy hat spring from a box placed high on a shelf. While he waits for his laptop to fire up, Ashton, who was born female but presents male, thumbs through a stack of fantasy character cards. There’s a random Grand Theft Auto poster taped to the closet, and his JROTC uniform is strewn about the bed.

Oh yeah, the bed. The frame is busted, so the mattress and box spring lie on the floor. The sheets have been pulled off the corners.

Outside, the spa is also busted. “That will be like $500,” Cathy quips yet again.

The Lees might have their aches and pains -- life’s little nuances and nits -- but ever since Ashton Lee entered the family dynamic a year ago, life has been, well...


Ashton Lee is a transgender boy, one of a “handful” in the Manteca Unified School District, said Superintendent Jason Messer. Born Kimberly Marie Lee, Ashton revealed his gender identity to his parents last year and would go on to garner national headlines for his role in the transgender equality law AB1266, the School Success and Opportunity Act.

The oustpoken teen has emerged from the shadows of fear and confusion a champion of civil rights, embraced by the love and support of his parents.

“He’s taking a stand for what he believes in,” Don Lee said. “We’ve always been like that. We tend to stand up for those who don’t have a voice. Ashton is standing up and we support him 100 percent.

“I hope over time they see that everyone has a right to be happy. To be successful. Ashton took a big, bold step in school, saying this is who I am and this is what I believe.”

Takes fight to Sacramento

Ashton’s steps didn’t stop at school, where he’s now allowed to use the boys restroom and locker room, and permitted to take part in gender-specific sports and activities.

He took the fight to the Capitol, hand-delivering the signatures of thousands of supporters to Governor Jerry Brown’s office in August. The bill was signed into law on Aug. 12. Ashton also spoke in front of the Senate Education Committee, solidifying his role as a leader in this fight for equal opportunity and accessibility.

“I like to think I’m a pretty strong person, that I have a voice that is heard well,” he said. “When I came out to friends and family, I knew I wasn’t going to be a person that would just go with it. I was going to be a person that was going to make a change. It was what I needed to do.”

For years, Ashton lacked that same conviction and decisiveness.

For years, he lived with a burning secret: He was not Kimberly Marie Lee, the name given to him at birth.

Ashton says he first realized he was a boy in the sixth grade. Though Cathy dressed him in pink and twisted his hair in pigtails, it all felt like a costume.

He idolized his older brother, Donald Lee, a strapping former football player, and followed him onto every ball field and court. Looking back on Ashton’s childhood and adolescence, Cathy says she now recalls people assuming a young Kimberly Marie was a boy because of his masculine build.

“In some ways, I was angry,” said Cathy, a family and marriage therapist. “I had to give up on my dreams for (Kimberly) and re-develop what it all looked like. ... I had raised a girl for all those years and I had only a couple years to raise a son.”

Feared judgement

Ashton’s struggle was real – and sadly, solitary. So afraid of judgement and scorn, he internalized his feelings and emotions; he did his best to suppress just who he really was.

“It was really rough. It’s never easy figuring anything out by yourself, especially being that young with something that complex,” Ashton said. “It was truly something that I kept to myself; something I thought about every night. I held it within me.

“In hindsight, I wish I would have come out to (my parents) earlier. They were really accepting.”

Cathy and Don commend their son for the strength he showed during those years, avoiding the pitfalls and tragedies the befall so many transgender people.

A 2010 study by the National Center for Transgender Equality and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force showed that 41 percent of transgender people in the United States had attempted suicide. Researchers attributed that rate to depression and stigma.

What’s more, the Children’s Hospital of Boston determined that children and adolescents with “mis-matched” bodies experience high rates of psychiatric complications, which may escalate without support or medical attention.

Ashton found his release in Tae Kwon Do. There is something liberating about the physicality, discipline and order of the sport, he said. Ashton has competed in sparring and forms competitions in the past and recently achieved black belt.

He also loves to write poetry and read – a gift, he says, bestowed upon him by Cathy. “I go through paper really fast,” he said.

To that point, Ashton has turned a corner of his bedroom into a virtual Writer’s Workshop. A Dell laptop sits atop the desk at the ready and his shelves are filled with books, mostly fictional tales.

Ashton is re-reading the Harry Potter series and recently picked up Graceling, the first in a three-book series that focuses on a human species characterized by their mismatched eyes and special, sometimes magical, skills.

Graceling’s protagonist, Katsa, is famous for the special skill of survival.

“My earliest memories are of my mom and dad reading to me at night,” he said. “It’s nice sometimes to escape into this other beautiful world.”

In many ways, Ashton has been blessed with that same resiliency.

He’s managed to survive and thrive in a world that is often openly homo- and transphobic.

Earlier this month, opponents of AB1266 – a coalition of conservative groups called Privacy for all Students – secured enough signatures to enact an initiative that would repeal the law. If the 620,000 signatures are confirmed, the initiative would appear on the November 2014 ballot.

The Lees have filed a complaint with the California Attorney General’s Office against one of the law’s chief opponents, the Capitol Resource Institute.

“Some people are just advocates. They see something wrong, they see bullying or a sense of unfairness or inequality, and they say ‘No’ or ‘Don’t,’ “ Cathy said. “I’m one of those people. I would never tolerate anything less than my son being treated with respect. If they don’t, they’ll have to face me.”

According to Equality California, an LBGT advocacy group, the Lees claim the Capitol Resource Institute is operating illegally, touting a tax exemption to solicit funding and support when, in fact, its tax-exempt status was revoked by the Internal Revenue Service months ago.

“I’m kind of worried. My school has enacted (the bill) early. I’m worried that I’ll have to go back to pretending I’m somebody that I’m not,” Ashton said. “If it does get repealed, it will affect me everyday ... literally, every day I’m at school.”

Focusing on future

Instead, Ashton focuses on that which he can control.

His future.

His education.

His hobbies.

His voice.

Ashton is president of Manteca High’s Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) club and a member of the greater GSA Network of California, a statewide youth advocacy group. He’ll help plan the  organization’s academy in April and attend its Activist Camp next summer.

The GSA Network of California helped vault Ashton into the political arena, providing him with a platform and the confidence to be open and honest.

“I had just come out and I was struggling at school, struggling with what that meant and how I wanted to present myself,” he said. “When I went to GAYLA, I was given information on how to be myself at school and feel comfortable.”

Empowered, Ashton has explored all interests. He tinkered with the idea of playing football for the Valley Oak League champion Buffaloes, but chose JROTC instead.

The first-year member took part in Friday’s football festivities. Ashton stood at attention with his fellow cadets, saluting the American flag before the start of Manteca’s first-round playoff game.

He says he may pursue a career in family therapy, like his mother, or follow in his father’s footsteps by joining the Army. Either way, a college diploma and service are part of his big-picture plans.

“He’s not a throwaway person,” Cathy said, leaning forward on the purple couch. “He has a lot of contributions to make to this family and to this world.”

A mother’s love. A father’s kiss. A future so bright.

Yes, the Lees might have their worries and concerns, but ever since Ashton entered the family dynamic a year ago, life has been perfect.