Laura Yuen
See more of the story

David Annis wants to make it a little easier for folks to show their support for transgender kids — like his 12-year-old son.

"Most people stay in the middle where it's safe, maybe especially in Minnesota, like, 'I don't want to make any waves here, everything's fine,' " Annis said. "But I believe that in the middle, there's more people that support this cause."

So the Minnetonka dad is making public support for trans kids more visible, one clever punk-rock T-shirt at a time. A couple months ago, he reached out to Minnesota artists — friends and former colleagues — to create apparel carrying messages and metaphors that express solidarity with trans and nonbinary people. Bearing slogans like "Straight But Not Narrow" and "Fear Less," the shirts sold on Annis' new Trans Action Apparel website look like the kind of merch you'd shell out $30 to proudly proclaim your favorite band.

Annis launched the site a few weeks ago, coincidentally not long after Target pulled some of its trans-friendly products following customer backlash. All proceeds from Trans Action Apparel will go to the LGBTQ advocacy group OutFront Minnesota.

Dave Annis and his transgender son, who asked to remain anonymous, hold up Trans Action Apparel shirts designed by artist Marc Iwanin.
Dave Annis and his transgender son, who asked to remain anonymous, hold up Trans Action Apparel shirts designed by artist Marc Iwanin.

Alex Kormann, Star Tribune

The idea springs from one dad's desire to show his kid that there is more kindness than bigotry in this universe. That he is loved. That he is perfect the way he is. That he is not alone.

"The fact that he has any reservation about being proud of who he is, it hurts. It's painful," Annis said. "There's nothing wrong with him. He's a beautiful, talented and wonderful person."

At Annis' request, I'm not naming his son in this column because middle school can be tough and internet trolls are cruel. Annis' son admitted that even he feels comfortable in the middle, "in the herd," where he feels safe. When kids at school ask him what he thinks of LGBTQ issues, he sometimes isn't sure how to answer. He says he's not the type of kid who would don a Pride flag across his chest.

"I don't want to be too obvious," he said.

But he will wear the new creations, including a simple black T-shirt that simply says "Protect Trans Kids" in a heavy metal font, designed by artist Cory Tobin. Annis' son says it's one of his favorites in the collection.

"I'm into metal and punk. I'm super-duper cool," he said, with a self-deprecating grin. "I have no friends because of it, but it's fine."

Joking aside, he and his father understand why a trans kid might not want to stand out today. Twenty states have passed laws or policies banning minors from receiving medical care — which may include puberty blockers, hormone therapy and surgery — that affirms the gender with which they identify.

Minnesota lawmakers defied the wave of anti-LGBTQ legislation this session when they established a safe haven for trans people seeking such treatment. Our new laws will protect families and children traveling here for gender-affirming care from repercussions and extradition orders from other states.

David Annis says maybe he lives in a bubble, but most people in his circles believe transgender people deserve acceptance and respect. Annis grew up in a conservative family, and has three brothers who served in the military. He recalls being anxious about calling his parents to break the news about his son's new name and pronouns. "Their reaction was like, 'OK. When do we start?' " Annis recalled. "The reaction has been supportive in every aspect of my life."

These interactions shifted Annis' perspective and helped him see what's missing from news coverage about trans kids. They're often used as political wedges, and depicted by some conservatives as something to fear. Journalists are trained to focus on the conflict. But in doing so, sometimes we gloss over the more human elements of connection and kindness.

Dave Annis’s transgender son, who asked to remain anonymous, plays guitar with his father while wearing a Trans Action Apparel shirt designed by Cory Tobin.
Dave Annis’s transgender son, who asked to remain anonymous, plays guitar with his father while wearing a Trans Action Apparel shirt designed by Cory Tobin.

Alex Kormann, Star Tribune

Not that it was initially easy for Annis to come to terms with his son's truth. He remembers it finally sinking in when his child was around 3. The toddler was seated on the kitchen counter, sobbing, trying to articulate some very big emotions.

"It's not that I want to be a boy," the child cried. "It's that I feel it in my heart that I am."

By kindergarten, he got a short haircut. By first grade, he started going by his new name. By second grade, he introduced himself to his entire class with his new pronouns.

Looking back, Annis realizes his son has known who he was out of the gate. "It took us a while to catch up, and I've been incredibly proud of him for that," Annis said, adding that his wife, Jodi, has assumed most of the responsibility for finding doctors, endocrinologists and support groups.

Through his career in the Minneapolis advertising and marketing scene, Annis had built friendships with various local artists. When he approached them about the apparel project, their collective response was: Heck, yeah. And they weren't surprised by the ask.

"Dave has always been such a dedicated, loving, involved and active dad," said artist and children's book author Joseph Kuefler. "There are times when you have to go to bat for your kid. You have to step out in front of them, or stand behind them, and do something to show them through your actions that you love them. It's just so courageous, so loving, to do that for your child."

Kuefler treated Annis' son as a client, setting up a Zoom meeting to gather his feedback on early designs. The final product is a white T-shirt featuring a dandelion — a metaphor for the hidden beauty and resilience of someone who simply wants to change.

Annis' son says being transgender is hard enough without the discrimination. It can feel like everyone is against him. His dad, the optimist, reminds him of the countless people in their corner.

"Maybe I'm naive, but I believe there is more good in the world than bad," Annis said. "So let's try to show more of that."