"Raising Zay" Telling the Story of Transgender Children

Zay Crawford. Photo by Meg Vogel, Cincinnati Enquirer

By Tom Burton

Meg Vogel was near the back of the crowd when she heard her. A crowd of about 600 had been standing in the rain in late December at Kings High School in Warren County, Ohio. A memorial service was being held for Leelah Alcorn, a transgender teen who had committed suicide a few days earlier. Vogel had been assigned to photograph the event.

“Then, I heard this young voice,” said Vogel. “Her voice was just so strong.”

The photographer couldn’t see who was speaking into the microphone because of the crowd, so she worked her way to the stage where she found 12-year-old Zay Crawford. Both her parents, her grandparents and her brother were there for her. They had known her all her life, from the time when she was a boy named Isaiah to this moment of public courage.

The Cincinnati Enquirer, where Vogel worked, reported that Zay went to the microphone to declare, “I'm trans, and I'm proud.” The crowd cheered and when she left the stage, she went straight into the arms of her father who held her for a long time.

Raising Zay from Meg Vogel on Vimeo.

This family support was in stark contrast to the story of Alcorn, who had left a suicide note on Tumblr before she stepped in front of tractor trailer truck to kill herself. The teen said she was driver to kill herself was in part because of her parents’ rejection of her desire to transition into a woman.

For Vogel, Zay and the Crawford family was the story she wanted to tell as transgender issues were becoming a larger story nationally. Their open support for Zay was obvious and Vogel felt their story could reveal a deeper understanding of this issue.

The result was “Raising Zay,” a special project published in the Enquirer and a video about 6 minutes long produced by Vogel that became the most watched video for the Enquirer’s website, was shared internationally, won in the multimedia division of World Press Photo competition and won a regional Emmy award.

Initially, Vogel and the writer on the story had been asked to turn the Crawford family’s story around in about a week for a Sunday edition story. Vogel felt the story was deeper than that and asked her editors to push back the deadline.

“This needs time. It will be good,” she said she told her editor. “Trust me.”

Zay Crawford, center,  holds hands with her mother Chasilee, left, and father Jason, right, at a Jan. 3, 2015 candlelight vigil to remember Leelah Alcorn. Photo by Meg Vogel, Cincinnati Enquirer. 

The story became a larger project when they discovered that Zay had begun treatment at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital to delay the onset of puberty. The procedure would allow her more time to live with her gender identity before deciding on how she would live her life as an adult.

In the video for “Raising Zay’, we see an active, precocious preteen girl baking cupcakes, shopping with her mother and showing off a Christmas present - her first formal dress. We also hear her parents talk about how their child preferred to wear dresses even as a toddler when she was their son who a relative had nicknamed Zay.

Something they thought was a phase eventually became a bigger thing.

The video and the online story describe the family’s challenges navigating this unexpected and, for them, uncharted course. For Zay, she never wavered in her belief that she is a girl. When they discovered the medical procedure that would allow her to stop male puberty, she felt saved.

“It felt like someone with a key just came and opened my cage and said ‘you’re free to go,’” she said in an interview in the video.

Vogel eventually got about six weeks to work on the story. She took the hour-plus drive outside of Cincinnati several days a week to become part of their everyday lives.

See the Cincinnati Enquirer's special report "Raising Zay"

For the photographer, this became a bigger story than she had expected. Vogel had interned at the Enquirer and had returned on a six-month contract assignment. The Zay story came along in her second week of that contract.

When the story published, it quickly gained attention. The video was posted on the paper’s Facebook page and quickly hit a million views. Zay’s mother was visiting relatives in New Zealand that day and her brother mentioned the video to one his coworkers. She said, “Do you mean Zay?” She had already seen the video.

For the Crawford family, the attention didn’t change their lives very much. They turned down offers for reality television projects and would talk to the Enquirer, but very few other media outlets.

For Vogel, so early in her career, the attention given this project effected her too.

“For it to get this much recognition is unbelievable,” said Vogel.

The timing was right for a story on transgender children and Vogel feels that helped project spread. When she went to accept her World Press Photo award, she felt somewhat out of place, talking with other photographers she considered to be icons.

One of them assured her, however, that she deserved to be there and she should enjoy it.

After her contract ended, Vogel spent a few months on a project out-of-country and has returned to the Enquirer as a staff photographer. She is most often asked “what are you doing next?” and she has new projects in the works. Because, as the photographer at World Press also told her, the next project is what you’re really known for.