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A young girl faces down Westboro church over transgender-friendly house

As new research reveals the ability of face-to-face conversations to reduce prejudice against transgender people, a trans girl is seeking to bring the conversation to the front door of one of the world's most outspokenly anti-transgender churches.

Courtesy of Debi Jackson
Avery Jackson, age 8, of Topeka, Kan., stands in front of the Planting Peace Equality House across the street from the Westboro Baptist Church.

A new study finds that face-to-face conversations about transgender issues tends to reduce prejudice, and an 8-year-old transgender girl in Kansas may have found the perfect conversation piece.

Avery Jackson has become the face of a campaign to buy a house right across the street from the Wesboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kan., and paint it light blue, pink, and white the colors of the transgender flag. The effort has some questioning the wisdom of allowing a child to step up to the front lines of a turbulent culture war, while others say that Avery is one brave girl, with inspiringly supportive parents, to be willing to add to a conversation that aims to further understanding and acceptance. 

A recent study, published Thursday in the journal Science, found that a "10-minute conversation with voters in South Florida reduced prejudice against transgender people and increased support for transgender rights for at least 3 months."

The study's authors, David Broockman, of the Stanford Business School in California and Joshua Kalla of the political science department at the University of California, Berkeley, evaluated the results of door-to-door canvassers from the Los Angeles LGBT Center and SAVE, South Florida's largest and longest-serving LGBT organization. The survey included dozens of political, social, and cultural questions, only some of which were related to transgender prejudice.

"Their results show that the carefully-scripted discussions led by both transgender and non-transgender canvassers led to the observed changes, even when study participants watch political attack ads," writes Princeton psychologist Elizabeth Paluck in a commentary accompanying the study. 

The conversation surrounding the transgender house in Topeka, however, is anything but scripted.

It began last year after Avery visited Planting Peace's Equality House, which is usually painted in the rainbow flag colors of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) flag, when it was temporarily sporting the pastel shades of the transgender flag.

"The purpose of Planting Peace's Equality House is to counter the actions of hate groups like the Westboro Baptist Church with love and compassion, and serve as a symbol to the LGBT community that they are not alone, that they have support from so many people," writes Aaron Jackson (no relation to Avery) president of Planting Peace in a statement to The Christian Science Monitor. "We've painted the house the colors of the transgender flag each year to honor the transgender community, and specifically, those who have taken their lives because of violence and bullying."

Mr. Jackson adds, "I was deeply touched when Avery visited us and said it brought her joy and gave her confidence. She inspired us to partner with her to create a symbol of support for the transgender community by expanding the Equality House and permanently painting our neighboring house the colors of the transgender flag."

The houses happen to be directly across from the Westboro Baptist church. Many have rallied in support of the cause, donating more than $7,000 toward purchasing the additional house, but Avery has received her share of negative comments as well when the fundraising campaign video was posted on Facebook.

Avery’s mother, Debi Jackson responds in a Facebook chat interview that the best thing any parent of an LGBTQ child can do, for starters, is "Never read the comments!" posted by others.

Asked if she is worried about her child being harmed by the Westboro Baptist churchgoers, Ms. Jackson replied, "No, not at all. They aren't a violent bunch. They are talkers who like to sue people to fund their protests. We have been to the Equality House a few times and have seen WBC members outside getting mail and things like that. They don't engage at all."

She adds, "We talk through all of the issues [with Avery] and she chooses how and when she wants to participate. I do plenty on my own. She doesn't have to. We don't force her to. She wants to. And anyone who knows her can tell you that she's quite defiant and determined. If she doesn't want to do something, she won't."

Diego Sanchez, director of policy for the LGBT rights organization PFLAG, who is transgender, says in a phone interview, "Every parent, including parents of trans kids, including my own parents when I was a child, have to follow the child's comfort and lead."

"The first consideration for any parent, for any family, is to consider the safety of their child first," Mr. Sanchez says. "They have to make sure that their child feels honored and respected, but also safe. And that balance is something that every parent has to determine for their own family."

David Palmiter, a professor of psychology and the director of psychological services at Marywood University in Scranton, Penn., says in a phone interview that as long as parents understand the stresses their child is facing and has gauged their child as being able to handle it they are on the right path.

He says that the results of the study point up the value of engaging people in nonviolent ways.

"Sometimes people wrap the hatefulness in religious perspectives and would say, while throwing a brick that's wrapped in religious silk, 'that's my right to do that,' " he says. "So anything that can be done, not to be hateful back, but to educate folks, is important."

Mark Barnett, a professor of psychology at Kansas State University adds in a phone interview, "Most psychologists would argue that it's much healthier than her trying to keep this a secret out of shame or fear. It’s ... a lot healthier to let people know who you are and take a stand."

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