‘I truly never thought I’d make it to this point’: Santa Cruz trans activist talks about challenges and thriving

Reyes Morales Warne at the University of Oregon earlier this month.
Reyes Morales Warne at the University of Oregon earlier this month.
(Via Reyes Morales Warne)

Reyes Morales Warne says growing up transgender in Santa Cruz County had its positives and its negatives. While finishing up his first quarter at the University of Oregon, he told Lookout about the challenges, how he got through it and his proudest accomplishment.

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Reyes Morales Warne knew in middle school that he was trans.

A Q&A with Reyes Morales Warne

He had already told his parents that he was queer, but at age 12 he first he chose to come out as trans to his friends, before telling his family. He was surprised by his friends’ reaction. “They said, ‘No, you’re not trans,’” Warne recalled.

He knew his parents would accept him, but interactions like that still made coming out — and being accepted as transgender — all the more difficult. Experiences like this coupled with losing several loved ones led him to contemplate suicide in high school.

Warne isn’t alone. In Santa Cruz County between 2019 and 2021, 46% of trans youth reported that they seriously considered suicide in the prior 12 months, according to the County Office of Education. Warne and his mother want to share their story to not only raise awareness about the challenges trans youth face in the county, but also to let trans youth know that it gets better.

“Everything is telling them that they’re wrong,” said Rachel Morales Warne, his mother. “And they’re not wrong.”

As an 18-year-old now looking back on his teen years when he considered ending his life, Reyes is reflecting on all he’s accomplished already — including what he never could have imagined: making it to the University of Oregon, where he’s finishing up his first quarter.

Outwardly, it would be hard to tell Warne was struggling in his earlier years as he took on many roles advocating for LGBTQ rights.

While growing up in the Santa Cruz Mountains, he attended San Lorenzo Valley schools and was active in local groups like the Genders & Sexualities Alliances (GSA) Network. He helped plan conferences, including the Queer and Trans Student Summit at Watsonville High School, and has been recognized with numerous awards, including the Queer Youth Leadership Award in 2021.

His mom, who is a youth advocate at TransFamilies of Santa Cruz, often joined him in speaking at different community events. TransFamilies offers support for parents and families with kids and young adults who are going through the trans experience. Rachel joined the organization years ago and was part of parent support groups.

“It’s not Reyes’ job to educate us; we needed to educate ourselves,” she said, adding she couldn’t be more proud of all her son has accomplished.

While legislatures across the United States continue to press ahead on bills targeting trans people, including restricting health care access for trans youth or enforcing single-sex bathrooms, the midterm elections were a glimmer of hope. In what some call a “rainbow wave,” a record number of LGBTQ candidates won office — more than 350. New Hampshire’s James Roesener was the first trans man elected to a state legislature in U.S. history, according to the Victory Fund.

Warne says he felt great seeing the headlines about LGBTQ candidates winning.

“Seeing online, ‘First-ever trans man elected to the office!’, it’s just so exciting to see that. Especially as a trans individual, we often believe, because there’s no other trans person who does a certain thing, I most likely can’t do it,” said Warne. “So seeing trans people in these positions, it’s inspiring.”

Lookout talked to Warne about growing up in Santa Cruz, how he got through tough times and his proudest moments.

This interview was edited for clarity and brevity.

Lookout: What was it like growing up trans in Santa Cruz?

Reyes Morales Warne: I think growing up trans in Santa Cruz is very mixed emotionally. There’s a lot of good experiences and a lot of negative experiences. Living in a rural area, because I live in the Santa Cruz Mountains, is definitely interesting. I met a lot of queer individuals who were also struggling, like I was. But then, there was obviously bullying and a lot of pushback from not only our peers, but also parents.

I came out in a very public manner. I’m very proud of myself for doing that. What happened was, we were doing an assembly [at San Lorenzo Valley High School] where we talked about gender and sexuality. It was my freshman year, I was one of the presenters, and that’s when I came out as trans in front of everyone in my entire class. So everyone I grew up with since elementary school, they all knew me as one person, and knew me as my birth name and knew me as a woman or a girl. Then I came out to them and said, “I’m not a girl. This is my real name, Reyes.”

From left: Mark Warne, Joaquin Cruz, Rachel Morales Warne and Reyes Morales Warne.
(Via Mark Warne)

I had a couple of supportive friends. I have a best friend Annika, who stood by me the entire time. Ever since elementary school, she’s been by my side and I love her for that. She’s like a sister to me. Then, of course, my best friend, Joaquin, who was also a presenter during that time. But the pushback we received included people dead-naming [using his name given at birth] me on purpose and laughing about it when I would call them out. Or students walking up to me and saying, “What was your birth name again?” And I would just sit there, and say, “I’m not going to answer this question.” And I would even come up with things like, “I don’t remember.”

So growing up trans in Santa Cruz, there were a lot of positive experiences and a lot of negative experiences. I feel like no matter where you grow up as a trans individual, that’s what’s going to happen.

Lookout: What helped you get through those moments where you thought about suicide?

Warne: I feel like my straight answer would be: I saw therapists. Most of the time, that’s not available for a lot of individuals. So besides seeing a therapist, there were points where I found joy with my friends. There was a lot of moments where I was suicidal, but then I found the right group of people and they just made everyone everything slightly better for me.

A major point students should understand is, there’s always gonna be a group of people who are loving and supportive and you just need to find the right support group. I know in Santa Cruz, I had a support group where it was my close friends who I went to school with and we’re all queer and we’re really like the outcasts at school.

But then, when I moved to college, I knew no one. I ended up finding my support group in a small program where, once again, we’re all kind of the outcasts. No matter what happened to us, we all just sat together and talked about it.

So, besides seeing a therapist — because therapy could actually be super freeing — definitely, having the right group of friends. And also understanding that people in your life come and go, and that’s OK. People are there for a reason and they might be there for a long time, or they might be there for a short time, but they’re in your life for a reason.

Lookout: Talk about what it felt like to have people see you for who you were.

Warne: Honestly, it felt amazing. I know there was a lot of pushback. And obviously, there was some negative stuff. But I feel like to put it in perspective — when I went by my birth name, I always felt like it just didn’t fit. I just felt like hearing it didn’t feel right. And then when people started using the name my mom and I chose, it felt like it was the perfect fit. It was like the missing puzzle piece and it felt amazing.

Being able to freely express myself. In high school, what I ended up doing was, at school, I would dress in a very masculine manner to get it across that I am a man. But then outside of school, I would dress however I wanted to. So I could be wearing a skirt or a dress and everyone still respected me. It truly felt amazing — not only feeling respected, and feeling like my name and my expression truly fits me — [but] being able to be yourself is a good feeling. It definitely boosted my mental health because I had really bad mental health issues previously, before I came out. So being able to express myself definitely helped with my mental health issues.

One moment that stands out to me was [freshman year]. A lot of younger teachers often hand out notecards on the first day. It’s like: Write your name that’s on the grade books, write the name you want to go by.

It was my second period class, my freshman year of high school. Over the summer, that’s when I talked to my mom about changing my name. So I was debating on whether or not I want to write Reyes, or leave it. I decided to go for it. I just wrote my chosen name.

Obviously, it was my first day knowing the teacher, the teacher didn’t know me previously. So it was an easy transition. Everyone was just confused [about] who Reyes was. I was just happy that a teacher was calling me by the name I wanted to go by.

It was the first day of school and I felt so good. I remember the day specifically I was wearing this brown button-up and my great-grandfather’s bolo tie. My mom was super happy that I chose to wear that bolo tie because it was like I [was] carrying on my ancestors’ legacy, and I’m carrying my ancestors with me, and they’re going to support me through high school. I didn’t really think much of it then but it’s a very strong image when I look back at it. I just remember that class period, I felt so good just being able to finally tell someone: “This is the name I want to go by. This is my real name.”

Lookout: Looking back, what would you tell the younger version of yourself?

Warne: Every mistake is a learning moment. I definitely had a couple cringe moments when I was a little kid. Everyone has those moments. I’m older now and I understand that those things happen for a reason and it builds onto your character, and it builds on to who you are today.

I would also tell my younger self, “You can’t change the past and things happen for a reason. You’re going to go through really horrible things. And especially as a trans person, they are going to be really horrible moments. But sometimes you just have to struggle and get through those moments and find those people are going to stand and support you, and you’ll make it through stronger than ever.”

Lookout: What are you most proud of?

Warne: I think I’m most proud of getting into college. Both my sister and I have said this to each other: I truly never thought I’d make it to this point in my life. I’m getting kind of emotional thinking about it. I truly never thought I would make it to 16. I’m sitting here at 18. I’m just shocked that I made it this far.

I’ve done so many amazing things. I’ve talked with senators and congressmen. I’ve won awards. But yet, the thing that sits out to me the most is getting into college. I didn’t do any of those things to get into college, I did it because that’s what I was taught — to stand up for what I believed in. But I’m sitting here studying something I never thought I’d be able to study — marine biology. I never thought I’d make it to this point where I’m sitting in a public university. I made it with scholarships and everything — they’re paying me to be here. I think that’s the thing that I’m most proud of.

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