LGBTQ2+ Youth Conference has Powerful Message

June 06, 2018

A story of growth and triumph

Emily Fishbaugh was born a boy, but knew something was wrong as early as age three. Emily said that she always knew she was a girl, even though she had a boy's body. She was confused and angry, to say the least. For years, her family had no idea what was going on either.

“I would much rather have a live daughter than a dead son," Linda Fishbaugh stressed, as Emily, 16, sits by her side, smiling. This is not her first interview, or first time on camera. We are in one of several buildings at the University of Connecticut, Storrs, housing the 25th Annual True Colors Conference, an event designed to offer support and a safe environment for LGBTQ2+ youth. TD Bank has been a Presenting Sponsor of the conference since 2013.  

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This is the family’s fourth year at the True Colors Conference, the largest such gathering for LGBTQ2+ youths in the U.S. More than 3,000 young adults, middle and high school students, have descended on the Jorgensen Center for the Performing Arts auditorium on the UConn campus. It's opening day of the two-day event and it's a frigid, northeast-mid-March Friday. Students are on spring break. The wind chill does little to dampen spirits; instead, the wind lifts pride-colored capes and flags and whips them back and forth with gusto as the crowds gather by the literal busload outside.

For the Fishbaughs, New Hampshire residents, the conference has become a second home. Linda, mother of three biological boys, confessed, “We didn’t know what we were doing." Emily showed no interest in boy's toys as a toddler, instead gravitating towards Barbies, dolls, hair and makeup much more than towards cars and trucks. She wore towels on her head to simulate longer hair. The family’s journey led to an eventual recognition that Emily was transgender, and conferences such as True Colors, where Emily feels so much love, joy, acceptance and belonging.

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Now, a proudly out young woman, Emily doesn’t hold back sharing her story. Later today, she'll speak on a conference panel to a room of dozens of youths and young adults, many of whom are older than her, yet some not as fortunate in their journeys. Some are on multiple medications, have more than one therapist and struggle with constant depression. Suicide rates for those in the transgender community are amongst the highest in all demographics in the country. Emily’s story, first publicly featured in an article when she was in 7th grade, helped save someone’s life.  Having tried to commit suicide before hearing about Emily’s experiences, the individual wrote Emily a thank-you letter.

Emily describes her mission like this: “I want to be able to help people and let them know they can be who they are." She's now a transgender advocate not only at True Colors Conference but everywhere she goes. Along with her mother, she has changed the minds, and votes, of many local political leaders in their home state of New Hampshire.

Children from the Shadows.

True Colors was never intended to be an annual event. Founder Robin McHaelen organized the first event as a one-off for her Master’s field work project. The 90 some youths who helped put together the first conference, named “Children from the Shadows,” felt inspired and empowered so much so that they insisted the event return. Now, 25 years later, True Colors is still running, stronger than ever.

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“These youths are not the leaders of tomorrow,” McHaelen explaied. “They are the leaders of right now.” True Colors is not only a safe haven for these young members of the community, but also a place with tremendous positive energy and inspiration. Many attendees actually come out at the conference. Others build a network of friends and, more importantly, of support that they may not be fortunate enough to have at home or in their school.

TD Bank's contributions helped bring more than 1,000 middle school and high school students to the UConn campus, bus-full after bus-full. Over 20 TD employees contributed to the conference, either sharing their own stories being out at work, or volunteering at the expo center.