At 19 years of age, Alex McCray stood before a sold-out crowd gathered at a Hilton hotel in Chicago on March 17, 2017. The audience was there to support the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois. McCray was there to receive an award. He gave a speech about his activism in a rural downstate town. It was because of McCray that the Williamsville-Sherman public school district adopted a policy to better include transgender students. The battle for that policy had begun over the question of where McCray, who was transgender, should use the bathroom.
Officials had offered a separate, one-stall bathroom at Williamsville High School. The facility was a far walk from his classes and it was rundown. "I met with school officials a handful of times, asking to begin using the boys' restroom." That request was not initially met with success. "There were days when I felt hopeless and alone. It felt like I would never be recognized as my authentic self," McCray told the crowd.
ACLU of Illinois helped McCray launch an Illinois Department of Human Rights complaint that led to a settlement with the district. The resulting policy in 2016 became a model for other schools. Not only did it state students could use the bathroom that reflected their gender, regardless of the sex they were assigned at birth, but also that school support should be in place for transgender students.
McCray had been nervous before addressing the audience on that day in 2017 in Chicago. He had told Ed Yohnka up until the final moments before the speech that he was "not committed" to giving it. It was his way of joking away the unease.
Yohnka, director of communications and public policy for ACLU of Illinois, grew close with McCray during their battle for trans inclusion in rural Illinois and beyond. After a day of press interviews in Springfield, a beautiful rendering of McCray and Yohnka standing together showed up at his office. McCray had drawn it in pencil. An American flag was pictured behind them. In Yohnka's hand, McCray had drawn a magic wand. The wand was from an inside joke Yohnka had shared with McCray during a break in their meetings with media. "He never forgot a joke," said Yohnka.
McCray died by suicide at the beginning of 2020. He had been open about his mental health challenges and had sought a number of various treatments. He was pursuing a degree in social work at Fontbonne University in St. Louis at the time of his death. He was 22 years old. Those who knew him said McCray walked a path destined for helping others. In addition to his advocacy, he was a certified nursing assistant. "There's no doubt that he would have worked with people and helped people and been a resource, especially for kids in need," said Yohnka.
Jordee Yanez was working for the Illinois Safe Schools Alliance when he met McCray. Yanez served as a support person for McCray when he was still in high school and the two formed a lasting friendship. Yanez remembers McCray as a talented artist who had a number of tattoos which he designed himself. He loved Robin Williams. He was stylish, with his own brand of swagger. "He just knew how to dress," said Yanez. An introvert, McCray had a love for animals. Yanez described McCray as sarcastic and independent.
And he remembers McCray being out-and-proud, even though he could pass as cisgender (a person whose gender identity is the same as the sex they were assigned at birth.) McCray was open to speaking publicly about his experience if he thought it could help others. When people asked inappropriate questions, he handled them with grace. "Even though he was always nervous and said he hated public speaking, he was a great public speaker," said Yanez.
Owen Daniel-McCarter was also working for the alliance when he met McCray when he was 17 years old. "He was such a good self-advocate," said Daniel-McCarter. "He seemed like an old soul." Daniel-McCarter had traveled from Chicago to meet McCray, who made sure they went to a restaurant in the Williamsville area where they could feel safe. Daniel-McCarter remembered thinking, "I can't imagine what this has been like for him" – especially given the limited amount of support McCray had before out-of-town advocates got involved. In 2016, McCray won an award from the Illinois Safe Schools Alliance as activist of the year.
Tonia Faloon-Sullivan is a social studies teacher at Williamsville High School who met McCray when he was a junior. She said he will have a lasting effect on the school. "Because Alex was one of the first students to openly transition, and then was the first student to fight for the right to use the boys' bathroom, he paved the way for other students," she said. "We've had trans students since then who are able to benefit from the normalization that Alex helped to create."
ACLU of Illinois created a scholarship in McCray's honor after his death. The purpose is for high school and college students to undergo advocacy training. McCray wrapped up his speech at the organization's banquet in 2017 with a story about one of his favorite residents at the nursing home where he worked while in high school. Once the newspaper had gotten ahold of the story about his fight over bathroom access, he was worried how locals might react. As it turned out, students and teachers high-fived him in the hallways.
And the elderly woman at the nursing home had told him that he looked like the young man whose photo was in the paper. McCray told her that was, in fact, him. "In a small and warm voice that I will never forget, she looked up and said, 'You are so brave,'" McCray told the crowd. "The world is getting better. People's minds are changing. And people are becoming more accepting of those of us who are transgender."
"To all of my transgender brothers and sisters, be brave and be fierce," McCray said. Those who honor the legacy he created during his short life know that he was.
The Trans Lifeline is a 24/7 hotline staffed by transgender people to serve transgender people in crisis, whether they are struggling with their identity or considering self-harm. The number is 877-565-8860. More resources for those in the LGBTQ community and otherwise who are looking for a support can be found at: tinyurl.com/y3g46l42