Election 2024

Rep. DeShanna Neal made headlines fighting for their daughter’s health care. Now they’re a lawmaker.

Delaware State Rep. DeShanna Neal
Delaware State Rep. DeShanna Neal Photo: DeShanna Neal for District 13

Activist, author, and Delaware state Rep. DeShanna Neal (D) first came to public attention when they battled Medicaid over coverage of their daughter’s gender-affirming care, becoming front-page news across the First State. Life hasn’t been the same since.

With their newfound celebrity, the 41-year-old mother of four helped create Delaware’s first pediatric gender clinic, started the state’s first-ever Drag Queen Story Hour, founded New Castle County’s LGBTQ Youth Pride Day with their daughter Trinity, and founded the nonprofit Intersections of Pride Foundation, which works to bridge the gaps faced by the LGBTQ+ community.

In 2022, they were elected Delaware’s first nonbinary state lawmaker.

Along with their activist bona fides, Neal has an infectious sense of humor, which was on full display as they spoke from their home in Wilmington. I started by asking how old Trinity is now.

Rep. DeShanna Neal: She’s actually with me. Trin, how old are you?

Trinity Neal: I’m 20!

Neal: She’s 20. She’ll be 21 in October.

LGBTQ Nation: Your career in activism and politics basically started when Trinity, who was assigned male at birth, declared when she was three years old, “I am a girl.” What was your reaction?

Neal: My first initial thought was, huh? What does that mean? Okay. What? No, you’re a boy, that’s how this works, right? I didn’t understand what I was hearing. I did not know what was going on. And it was actually not just coming from her, but the preschool she was in. They were sending me letters, like, “Can you work with your child on this?” And I was kind of like, I have no idea why this is happening. But I will try? (laughing) At home, my child can play with what they want to play with. So I don’t know what this is.

And searching online really was terrible, because we were still dial-up anyway. So that took forever. And there really was nothing that matched what I was looking for. The words transgender and transsexual kept popping up, but there’s nothing for children. So I found a resource site called Laura’s Playground, and I was like, my toddler is saying this and I want to support my child, my child is getting really depressed now and no longer speaking and not participating in class, isolating. What is going on?

It was actually one of the trans adults on there that told me, “You do know we were children once?” (laughing) I was like, “Sure, you probably didn’t just hatch out of an egg as an adult trans person.” And so they helped me understand. They couldn’t come out because it really wasn’t acceptable for them.

So they helped me find a therapist in Delaware, the one therapist in Delaware for these issues. She had never worked with a child before, but she took us on.

You went into battle with Medicaid over covering Trinity’s gender-affirming care. Tell us about that.

Trinity was the first trans minor for pretty much every doctor that we ever encountered. The chief endocrinologist at what is now the Nemours [Children’s Health’s] gender pediatric clinic, he was a little skeptical about helping us. But he went to a conference where the keynote speaker was Dr. Norman Spack from Boston Children’s Hospital, who honestly is probably the father of pediatric gender-affirming care in America, and it changed his whole view on trans kids.

So everything was being covered until it came time for puberty blockers, and Trinity was entering puberty. I was on Medicaid, because I had to quit my job for Trinity’s safety, and it put me into poverty. And when they denied her, I was kinda like, “Well, hmm. We’re not going to do that.” And Trinity’s doctor knew that I was a fighter. He’s like, you know, you’re probably the one parent they probably shouldn’t have denied. And so I did, I fought them.

And you won.

And Trinity became Delaware’s first minor to get Medicaid to approve the medical aspect of gender-affirming care.

Around that time, the News Journal in Delaware did a two-part feature on Trinity, which literally made your family front page news.

When the News Journal articles happened — I didn’t know, one, that it was going to be a two-parter. And two, I didn’t know it was going to be front page. Seeing yourself, seeing your child front page news, it’s different. It was beautifully written, but I wasn’t prepared for a lot of it. I don’t know if anyone’s ever really prepared for going viral or really being out there. We didn’t care about that part. But we knew that our story would change the map for Delaware and gender-affirming care and how trans people and trans children and their families were viewed in the state. And that was really the whole purpose of the fight with Medicaid. I just didn’t want another family to have to go through the fight I went through.

But not all the reaction was positive.

Oh, gosh, no. No, no. It was a lot of, like, “This parent should be in jail.” I needed at one point to be “under the jail,” in the basement, I guess. There were a lot of claims of child abuse. One that still sticks with me was, “If I could find this mom, I would put her in the car and she would she die.” And I was reading it over and over, and I’m laughing harder and harder, because I’m like, “Am I just like sitting in the car? Or am I crashing? What kind of car is it?” I need more detail here!

But I just took it as, I know my child is happy. And you don’t know my child. And I just hope that if that day comes where your child comes to you like this, you won’t be this. You’ll realize, “Well, what can I do to make sure you’re okay?” And when that day comes, you can remember there was a person you once didn’t like, who made sure your child got the care that they needed.

At the same time you were making headlines, you were also facing a major financial crisis. That prompted a friend to start a GoFundMe campaign. What was that time like for you and your family and how did you get through it?

Well, being in poverty is hard. I mean, we know that. At this point, I have four children, and then I started becoming sick, and I was also going through a divorce. There was a lot of things happening at once — I ended up being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis much later. But I really didn’t want my friend to do it (laughing). I’m like, I’ll figure it out! But, you know, my friend said, “You’ve helped so many, let us help you.” It was a hard pill for me to swallow. I come from a very prideful family. We don’t really like to ask for anything.

You authored a children’s book with Trinity, My Rainbow, and it’s been banned in several states, which you’ve said is badge of honor. When did you first hear it was being challenged and who wanted it banned?

It was an email from a reporter, who was like, “How do you feel knowing your book got banned?” I was like, “What?”

Of course, Florida. Florida banned it. I believe somewhere in West Virginia. A Columbus, Ohio library. St. Marie Parish in Louisiana has tried to ban it twice now. I’m sure they’re gonna come back and try again, and maybe third time’s the charm? Who knows.

What’s the content that got it banned?

You know, rainbows. That means you’re gay. Our potbelly pig is in the book, but he wears a wig at one point. A pig in a wig, gay. Also, those really scary themes for children such as your parents listening to your feelings and your parents loving you unconditionally. Those are all very scary.

You are the first nonbinary official elected in Delaware. While it’s a reliably blue state, there are plenty of conservative residents and plenty of Republicans in the General Assembly. So how would you describe being nonbinary to one of your conservative colleagues?

I have had to do that. Every now and then, I do get a they/them from some of my Republican colleagues, but they do know they can still use she/her with me. I have explained it as, I know I look very femme-presenting, but never call me a lady. But also don’t call me a man. I’m just me, you know, and that’s okay, too. Sometimes we just don’t feel like either. And sometimes we feel like both. I’m like, it’s kind of like the Almond Joy candy bar. We all know the jingle. Sometimes you feel like a nut and sometimes you don’t, but we still eat ’em! (laughing)

What is LGBTQ+ representation like in the Delaware legislature?

In the last four years, the Delaware General Assembly went from zero LGBTQ+ representation to five, making us the most LGBTQ+ representative in the country based on our size.

You’re a member of the Health and Human Development Committee in the Delaware House. What effect do you think the far-right’s effort to erase LGBTQ+ identity from schools and public life is having on the long-term mental health of LGBTQ youth?

Delaware is better than most places, but we could always be even better than we are. I wear a bunch of hats, but I am a therapist, as well, for at-risk youth here in Newcastle County, and I can say our schools definitely get it. Two school districts have actual policy in place, but the other schools, there are really a lot of GSAs, there are enough organizations here that really ensure that our youth have the support and their families have the support in place. I also helped initiate policy in our largest school district establishing anti-discrimination measures for trans and nonbinary youth.

From a legislative standpoint, it helps that our Majority Whip is the first queer person to sit in that position. And I think there are three of us in the House that all sit on  Health. That helps. And we have people who are angry about it, but that’s my favorite thing.

Angry about what?

Just angry. Angry over nothing.

Do you think a two-year stint doing compulsory national service in the military or teaching or some other form of public service would benefit young Americans and the country?

No. I really push my kids not to go into military activities. My father was a Vietnam vet and he’d say no. Community service will always top military service, but I would be concerned just because of the mental toll it takes and right now our kids and our young adults are not okay mentally. We are seeing a rise in suicide. We are seeing a rise in substance abuse, opioid overdoses. They are not okay. And until we can combat the mental health crisis that we are seeing happen, especially our youth who had to be isolated during COVID during some of the most important developmental times of their social lives and cognitive lives, then sticking them into something that is very intense at times before they’re even mentally ready, we’d have people coming back with even worse mental health concerns.

What’s the one thing you think the world should do to address the climate crisis?

Give a damn.

Delaware State Sen. Sarah McBride, who I interviewed for this series last year and is now the highest ranking trans elected official in the country, says you take what you do very seriously, but you don’t take yourself too seriously. How important is it to have a sense of humor when the going gets tough?

(Laughing) It’s a trauma response! I’ll be talking to my therapist after this. Thank you, Greg.

It is how I’ve always kind of handled everything. I’m the youngest in my family. I was definitely a very different child, so I was often bullied and made fun of, and so I had to find myself in my own humor.

When I am faced with adversity, with someone in my face like, “You’re a terrible parent!” or “You’re trying to kidnap kids!” they cannot rile me up. They don’t get that reaction that they are so desperately seeking, and they make themselves look silly. And I’m already silly, so they really don’t know what to do with me.

Describe a perfect day with you and your kids.

A perfect day is just us kind of doing our thing. My two older ones, Trinity and Lucien, are home from college. Trinity wants to be a video game programmer or designer, so they are currently working on a video game. I might be reading a Boy’s Love manga — that’s right, I read my sexy books (laughing). Later, we have a tradition where my oldest son goes on to Amazon Prime and finds the worst-rated horror movie possible, and we watch that or a Korean or Chinese action drama. My nine-year-old is into the same ones I am. So we’ll sit back eating dinner, watching one of those.

I have some “Would you rather” questions for you.

Ooo! Okay.

Who would you rather wait in line with for an all-gender bathroom? Texas Sen. Ted Cruz or Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis?

Oh my goodness. I’m waiting with Ron DeSantis, because have you seen his heels?

Would you rather go hunting with former Vice President Dick Cheney or board your dog with South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem?

Oh my God. Ha! I love my dog, so Dick Cheney. Other dude didn’t die, and I would get time off of work.

What would be more dangerous? Sitting next to Rep. Lauren Boebert at a performance of Beetlejuice or riding a bike behind President Joe Biden?

(Laughing) I don’t want Beetlejuice ruined for me! So I will get on that bike behind Biden. And I will be there to help him.

What’s the best thing about serving the constituents of Delaware’s District 13?

They are so diverse. They are working-class. Hard working. My district is what community has always been for me. And I am always grateful that they gave me a chance. And they really did, because I only won by 24 votes! The fact that they gave someone completely new a chance to represent them, I will forever be grateful for that. And I’ll work hard to do continue to do it.

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