“As horrible as this is about to sound, one of the best things that ever happened to me was when I was 17 and my stepmom kicked me out.”

-Eli Edens

Eli Edens, a junior at WKU, holds the secretary position in WKU's Transgender Non-Binary Student Group. "I've been a member of the organization since my freshman year," Edens said. "I've been to almost every meeting since then. Last year, I was elected secretary, so there's a lot of stuff to do, and I like it."

WKU junior Eli Edens grew up in the small city of Caneyville, home to 612 people and acres of fields. Edens experiences growing up in a rural area and on a farm are full of cozy farm tales and small-town wisdom. Through those rosy-cheeked memories, however, Edens’ hometown’s ideologies loomed heavily in the background of their mind.

Personal identity was a black and white topic with no room for curiosity, setting Edens up for years of difficult self-reflection and denial about their true identity.

At first, Edens said farm life wasn’t so bad.

“I liked growing up on a farm,” Edens said. “We owned chickens and rabbits and had cows out in the cow fields. Whenever I grew a little older and I couldn’t sleep at night, I would sneak out of my window, and I’d walk into the cow fields and spend time there.”

But as Edens was growing into adolescence, the constant juggling act of trying to come to terms with their identity within the LGBTQ community, while living in a small-town community that held conflicting beliefs about same-sex marriage and gender identity, became overwhelming.

“I like to joke that where I grew up, there were more churches than people,” Edens said. “There was a lot of stereotyping in my community, and I can remember up until I was 16 swearing up and down in my head that I was straight.”

Even as they would try to convince themself of that, Edens always felt like something about them was different. Due to their own familial conflicts and the fear of being judged by their hometown, Edens never felt that they could even attempt to figure out their true identity. This made growing up a challenge.

“I remember one time I was either 7 or 8, and I told my mom, ‘I’m not a boy or a girl,’” Edens said. “That should’ve set everybody off, but that just wasn’t really a thing that was known about. At that time, I didn’t even know there were terms for that.”

Edens said that where they grew up, anyone who identified themselves as part of the LGBTQ community was looked down upon and severely judged. If you were not a frequent church attendee, you were the talk of the town.

However, Edens wasn’t the only person who felt like they didn’t belong in Caneyville.

WKU sophomore Ashley Lang met the shy and quiet Edens in fourth grade. Lang and Edens were in the same class, and since Edens was new to the school, Lang introduced herself to try and make them feel more comfortable and help settle those new kid jitters.

“They actually didn’t talk to me at first after I said ‘Hi’,” Lang said. “They would just follow me around, not saying a word for like three months. But I just talked to them all the time and pretended they responded until one day I was talking about my cat, and that was the first time they responded because they love cats, too. From that point on we’ve been best friends.”

That was a little over 11 years ago.

Lang came out as bisexual in middle school, which was difficult for people in her town to accept. Lang said she decided that she didn’t need her town’s acceptance – it was her and Edens against the world.

“Once we got into middle school, we both hit puberty like a brick wall,” Lang said. “In seventh grade, I noticed Eli wearing really baggy clothes and being uncomfortable in the bathroom. They didn’t like being in there by themselves but would still go in with me, so we had more time to chat because we didn’t have many classes together. So, whenever I had to go to the bathroom, they would stand outside the stall door and we made it a joke that they were my bathroom bodyguard.”

Lang and Edens felt the huge difference between themselves and the rest of Caneyville. They had each other and found comfort and safety in their friendship; however, they said they felt like they were stuck in a town that didn’t even attempt to understand them.

“As horrible as this is about to sound, one of the best things that ever happened to me was when I was 17 and my stepmom kicked me out.” Edens said.

Edens made the move from Caneyville to Elizabethtown to live with their mom, where there were a lot of new people. This is where they finally felt like they could attempt to start figuring things out about themself.

Life was rapidly changing for Edens, but Elizabethtown offered a welcome reprieve.

“I liked being able to live with my mom, I missed her,” Edens said. “I also have been able to see three of my younger siblings, that’s been great. Overall, the move was a pretty nice experience for me.”

This shift was drastic for Edens. They were now feeling like they had the freedom for self-discovery, but this freedom was daunting.

After meeting a couple of transgender people in their senior year of high school, Edens said they were intrigued by the identity.

“I am the oldest of nine kids, so there’s a lot of us,” Edens said. “I was pushing my mom a lot at the time during my senior year of high school, asking her, ‘How would you feel if one of your 80 million children was trans?’ She was, at first, very homophobic and transphobic. But I gradually wore her down.”

At this point, Edens said they were finally coming into their own. They just had one aspect of themself that needed to be figured out: their name.

When discussing their process of figuring out what name they wanted for themself, Edens said that you make your name what it is by the things you do, say, and accomplish. They felt this was a big step for them and coming up with their name was not something they took lightly.

Eli Edens expresses their identity through bracelets they have made.

“There was a lot that went into figuring out my name,” Edens said. “I started by asking my mom, ‘How would you feel if one of your kids changed their name?’ and she responded with, ‘Well, I don’t know.’”

Edens continued to push for a more definitive answer, and their mom eventually budged a little, but said she would not call Edens by their new name.

“That set me back for a while,” Edens said. “But it also made me think of what I would do, I tried thinking of a compromise. Something still sort of the name she gave me but also not the name she gave me.”

Edens wanted to pay homage to the name they were given and not discredit the value and meaning behind it. Their mom had their name picked out since she was 16, and it was a combination of two of her best friends’ names.

But Edens also wanted to have a name that was theirs: a name they could make their own, a name their mother would call them.

“Even though she hasn’t been the most accepting, I still care about her and I want her to accept me,” Edens said. “She freaked out at first but then I explained to her how I came up with my name and that I thought of her throughout the entire process. She was a lot more accepting and thought it was very sweet.”

Edens continued to make progress in life and decided to go to WKU alongside their longtime friend Lang.

During Edens’ freshman year at WKU, they became aware of the Transgender Non-Binary Group on campus. This group piqued Edens’ interest right away, and they have been a member ever since; in fact, they are now, proudly, the secretary of the group.

“I’ve made a lot of friends here on campus, especially through the Trans/Non-Binary club,” Edens said. “It’s a very safe and welcoming club. Everyone is accepting. It’s advertised more as peer support, which it is, we are here to talk about whatever you may be going through, but it’s also just really being able to exist in a space where you know without a doubt everybody is going to accept you and also be very similar to you.”

Edens said becoming involved with this group as a freshman at WKU was exactly what they needed to become even more comfortable with expressing themself and being around others with similar experiences.

The group faced an obstacle in 2019 when they needed a new adviser to continue meeting. Edens knew just the professor to ask.

English professor Jessica Folk met Edens in her creative writing course during Edens freshman year at WKU.

When Folk first met Edens, they were using a different name and pronouns. After Edens told Folk their new name and pronouns, Folk said she has seen Edens grow not only into themself, but also in their writing.

“I’ve seen a positive change in Eli’s demeanor and their willingness to share their work since they told me about their new name and pronouns,” Folk said. “Eli wasn’t ready to share when I met them, but they are now, and that’s all that really matters. I’ve been honored to see Eli become more and more themselves.”

Folk was also the one to assist Edens in changing their name on Blackboard when they figured out what they wanted to be called. Edens was also pleasantly surprised by Folk asking on the first day of class what everyone’s pronouns were. This has remained a part of the icebreaker questions Folk has incorporated into getting to know her students.

“I used to have everyone do it to normalize the practice, but I found that it could be anxiety-inducing for students who used pronouns they weren’t ready to share with the class yet,” Folk said.

She said she only asks students to share their pronouns if they feel comfortable.

“Most students do, and it’s a nice opening to communicate that this is important to me as their professor, and I would also like their classmates to have this opportunity to learn their pronouns if they choose to share them,” Folk said.

Folk has also noticed that some of the other professors in the English department have been trying to incorporate asking for students’ pronouns when getting to know a new class. 

“It’s important that we normalize these questions and conversations in our classrooms,” Folk said. “Automatically subscribing to an assumed gender binary can be dangerous and damaging to students who identify in ways that may not be what the professor expects.” 

Edens mentioned Folk to the rest of the members of the Transgender Non-Binary group and everyone agreed. When Edens reached out to Folk, she accepted the adviser position, allowing the group to still meet.  

Today, Edens shares an apartment with longtime confidant Lang and their attitude on themself is now one of confidence and acceptance.

“I feel comfortable in my existence,” Edens said “Before, I was uncomfortable with myself all the time, just like existing. But now, I feel better about doing and saying things, being who I really am.”