SIOUX FALLS, SD — An analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data shows nearly two out of three people who identify as LGBTQ+ have recently experienced some degree of depression.
In some states, the rate is even more severe.
“I struggled my whole life not feeling complete," said Jack Fonder, who lives in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, "not feeling like I was living the life I was supposed to lead. I’m from South Dakota, born and raised here my whole life. I didn’t know that being transgender was a thing.”
Fonder is 39 years old. Assigned at birth as female, he transitioned two years ago and now identifies as a man.
“It’s a struggle because the Midwest has this atmosphere of community and [the idea that] everybody belongs and everyone loves each other," Fonder said, "but that’s not the same thing that we feel.”
A recent Census survey asked Americans if they had experienced symptoms of depression within the last two weeks. LGBTQ+ Americans were far more likely. In nearly half of the states, at least two-thirds reported depressive symptoms within the last two weeks. At the top— South Dakota, where seven of eight LGBTQ+ residents reported symptoms.
“You’re not just going to walk down the street or log into Facebook or any social media and be like, ‘Oh, there’s a trans person, there’s a gay person, there’s a nonbinary person,'" Fonder said. "That’s not something you’re just going to see unless you’re actively trying to find it.”
There are verbal and physical attacks. There are bills in the state legislature that many trans individuals believe target them. And there is a larger feeling of isolation in a region where isolation is often considered a virtue.
"You are instantly taught that you are the outlier and you need to hide yourself," said Ke Johnson, a transgender student and advocate for the community.
In a place so spread out, silence is too often the response, and alliance is difficult to find. But in Sioux Falls, South Dakota’s largest city, a book co-op downtown displays pride flags and signs. A nearby church houses a group called the Transformation Project, which provides clothes and resources to trans individuals across South Dakota and beyond.
“Five years ago, my son came out as transgender," said Susan Williams, who runs the effort. “I was told that my child had gender dysphoria. My reaction was, ‘What is that? And how do we get rid of it? How do we fix it?’"
Williams said she educated herself and embraced her child. Others often don't.
"We still have people here who are thrown out of their houses when they come out to their parents," Williams said. "We have people who come to us and are homeless, asking for help because they don’t have anyone to support them.”
Johnson added, “It’s just a simple thing: giving trans kids clothes that reaffirm their gender. But it’s huge in the eyes of trans kids. We don’t get that most of the time.”
It’s challenging to find community when you struggle for acceptance. That challenge extends to the Transformation Project, simply by where it sits.
“There are transgender individuals who will not come to a support group at a church," Williams said, "because of the pain they have gone through in their lives related to how people at the church have treated them – not this church, but other churches.”
It’s why Fonder no longer goes to church services, but he’ll walk into First Congregational Church in Sioux Falls because it houses the Transformation Project. At this church, he feels welcome— in a place where too often he doesn’t.
"If I could move, I would," Fonder said. "Everybody wants to belong. Everybody wants to feel that they belong somewhere and that they’re welcome somewhere.”