20 Under 20

Becky Pepper-Jackson is Making the Playing Field Open and Equal for Trans Kids Everywhere

In 2021, 11-year-old Becky Pepper-Jackson was living her normal preteen life–or at least, as normal as a childhood interrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic can be. In elementary school, she’d been a cheerleader, and was excited to enter middle school following the re-opening of schools in her hometown of Bridgeport, West Virginia. 

The state, however, had other plans. Leading a slate of anti-trans bills in 2021 and 2022, West Virginia passed HB 3293, which bans trans girls’ participation in school sports. Pepper-Jackson’s dreams of running cross-country suddenly disappeared: until she and her mother decided to do something about it.

Running wasn’t just an extra-curricular activity for Becky: it was something she’d grown up wanting to do. Running was big in her family, and Becky had come of age watching her older brothers compete on their school track teams. 

“I was always like, ‘I want to run,’” Becky told The Lily.

Becky’s mom Heather wasted no time in joining thousands of West Virginia citizens writing to Governor Jim Justice asking to stop the harmful bill. He passed it anyway, signing the bill into law on April 28th, 2021. But Heather, Becky, and the rest of the Pepper-Jacksons knew the fight wasn’t over: on the contrary, it was just beginning.  

With the help of LAMBDA Legal and the ACLU, Becky and her family filed suit to challenge HB 3293 in court. “I just want to run, and the state wants to stop me from running as part of a team at my school,” said Pepper-Jackson said in a press release. “I love running, and being part of a team, and the State of West Virginia should explain in court why they won’t let me.” 

Rather than offer that explanation, the defendants tried to get the case thrown out altogether. That effort failed. By May, Becky and her family were making headlines for going up against just one of many bills aimed at excluding trans girls from participating in sports as their true gender. For a kid who’d been out as trans since she was four years old, it wasn’t easy to become the new face of trans activism. But, like most trans kids who fight for what’s right, she wasn’t given much choice. Coming from a conservative West Virginia town that favored Donald Trump in the 2016 election by 67%, being trans, visible, and outspoken presented a risk for Pepper-Jackson. She took it on anyway. 

“I love running, and being part of a team, and the State of West Virginia should explain in court why they won’t let me.” 

“She’s not doing this just for herself,” Becky’s mother told The Lily. “She wants to help other kids who are just like her.”

It’s a unique and sadly specific burden to this upcoming generation of trans kids: they’re fighting for their own rights, with the very clear awareness that the progress they make will allow future generations the ability to have a normal childhood. That’s the dream, anyway, and so far, Becky is making it a reality. In July of 2021, a West Virginia judge blocked enforcement of the transphobic law that would have banned Pepper-Jackson from trying out for the track team. While her suit against the West Virginia Board of Education is still pending, Becky is able to run with the track team, dye her hair pink, and continue to show the world that trans kids can’t afford to sit back and let cruel bills tell them what they can and can’t do. 

“I am excited to know that I will be able to try out for the girls’ cross-country team and follow in the running shoes of my family,” Becky said in an ACLU press release last July. “It hurt that the State of West Virginia would try to block me from pursuing my dreams. I just want to play.”

And that’s exactly what she will do. ♦

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