Alienation, Depression Leave Wyoming’s LGBTQA+ Youth Vulnerable to Suicide (Part 4)

Thermopolis teens struggled to find sense of belonging in their hometown after transitioning

Stephanie Petty at her high school graduation from Hot Springs County High School in 2022. She took her own life in April 2023. (Courtesy photo from Tonya Petty)

By Jennifer Kocher

Special to the Wyoming Truth

Editor’s note: The following article discusses teen suicide and contains details about those who have taken their own lives. If you are having thoughts of suicide or are concerned that someone you know may be, resources can be found here.

This is the fourth story in a series about recent teen suicides in Thermopolis. Check out parts one, two and three.

THERMOPOLIS, Wyo.–The photograph says it all.

Stephanie Petty, then age 3, beams up from the folds of a sparkly, green tulle princess dress. She’s sitting cross-legged on the floor with a group of girls during his older sister’s fifth birthday party. To her mother, Tonya Petty, it’s clear how happy she is being dressed like all the other little girls.

Born a biological male, it would take Stephanie 14 years to finally come out as female during her senior year at Hot Springs County High School. Less than a year later, on April 25, Stephanie took her own life at age 19. 

This photo is one of many on the poster-size collage that hangs on Petty’s bedroom wall, documenting the lives of her two children.

In retrospect, Petty can now see that Stephanie’s desire to be female was obvious all along. She pointed to the solemn smile on Stephanie’s senior picture compared to the one at her senior homecoming dance, where she wore a dress and heels in public for the first time. In that photo, Stephanie smiles demurely in a form-fitting, floor-length black dress. Her expression is one of relief and uncertainty, as if she’s not quite sure how to take those first steps but eager to try.

“To not feel like you were born in the right body must be excruciating,” Petty said in an exclusive interview with the Wyoming Truth. “I can’t imagine what she was up against.”

‘Rough place to transition’

Jacob Randall can.

Randall and Stephanie were close friends in junior high and high school. In fact, Randall and Stephanie attended their homecoming dance and prom together during senior year; they went as  friends who shared the same struggle. Randall, who was born a biological female, came out to his parents at age 11. Two years later, he went public and began medically transitioning at 15.

Randall and Stephanie discussed their gender confusions at 11, but at some point, Stephanie stopped talking about it to him, Randall said.

Pictured above are Stephanie Petty and her speech and debate teammate Madeline Wagler in 2022. (Courtesy photo from Tonya Petty) 

As for his own transition in the largely conservative town of under 2,800, Randall described it as rough. Though his immediate family, school officials, teachers and majority of his peers  accepted his gender change, he was aware of the snide comments and stares from many – mostly adults – in the community.

“Thermopolis is a retirement community where the average age is much older,” Randall said. “Older people are more conservative, and this spreads to people’s kids who learn their politics.”

If Wyoming is a rough place to transition, it’s an even harder place to return to, he said. Randall came home to Thermopolis for the summer, after completing his first year at Columbia University in New York City, where he said he found people to be far more accepting of differences—including gender.

Comments by U.S. Rep. Harriet Hageman (R-Wyo.) in a recent congressional hearing, in which she referred to gender-affirming care as “sexual lobotomies,” seem to underscore Randall’s characterization.

“I hate it here,” he said, describing his dread upon seeing the “Welcome to Wyoming” sign as he crossed the Montana border into his home state after flying into the Billings airport. Randall said he spent the summer mostly inside his house, biding his time until he returns to school this month.

Not a choice

What people don’t understand, Randall said, is that gender dysphoria is not a choice. He described feeling alienated from his peers and suffering intense depression and anxiety while growing up because he didn’t feel as he was born into the right body.

“I didn’t connect with anything, and it felt sad and very self-alienating,” recalled Randall, who went into counseling in his early teens while he waited to transition.

Like Stephanie, Randall also battled suicidal ideations. To get through it, he said he poured himself into his studies, ultimately graduating as valedictorian.

“I was very suicidal at one point, because I felt like the transition was taking far too long,” Randall said. “It’s hard to tell what helped other than I knew I didn’t want to die as the old me in this town. As bad as it sounds, a lot of it was spite to not give up, because I was so determined to get out of this town and Wyoming.”

For Petty, it was excruciating to watch her daughter slip into depression, and she sought several avenues to help her. Beginning in her early teens, Stephanie saw at least five counselors in Thermopolis and neighboring cities, none of whom Stephanie felt understood her situation or helped her, according to Petty.

But Petty continued to seek out counselors trained to treat teens with gender dysphoria. And she gave Stephanie information from the Trevor Project, an international nonprofit focused on suicide prevention resources for LGBTQA+ youth, the group most susceptible to suicidal ideations.

Stephanie Petty, right, and Jacob Randall attend their senior prom together at Hot Springs County High School in 2022. 
(Courtesy photo from Tonya Petty) 

Stephanie did not access these resources as she was transitioning, to her mother’s knowledge. By January 2023, Petty believes Stephanie had already given up on therapy.

“It’s like going to an ears, nose and throat doctor for a foot problem,” Petty said. “They will look at you and say, ‘Yes, you have an issue, but I can’t help you with it.’ That’s literally where we are with mental health care, especially in this [geographic] area.”

Stephanie’s inability to get help caused her to sink into an even deeper depression, Petty said. She repeatedly told her mother that she wouldn’t make it to age 21, and Petty said she felt despondent in her inability to get her daughter mental health care.

After Stephanie’s first suicide attempt in February 2023, Petty was frustrated when the hospital released her after a 44-hour stay with no discernible treatment plan, beyond a referral for counseling that might take several weeks to schedule, medical records show.

“I can only imagine how that would feel,” Petty said. “If the therapists and doctors, regardless of how well meaning, can’t understand or emphasize or foresee some of her issues.”

Another challenge Petty faced: her daughter was 19.

“She was an adult, and I couldn’t force her to do anything,” Petty said. “Even though I knew she was suffering, I felt helpless because I didn’t think that there was an option for her. She had already given up on finding anyone who could help her.”

Improving the process

Randall also ran into the same problem in finding resources and sees many areas where both the medical community and school districts can improve to accommodate LGBTQA+ youth. He would like advanced training in gender-affirming care for medical practitioners, school counselors, teachers and mental health providers, so they can understand the myriad issues facing those with gender dysphoria.

Randall was happy to see Stephanie begin to transition and was devastated by her death. He described Stephanie as smart, funny and very creative—qualities that drew him to her when they were young adolescents. 

“People did not know that she was so smart,” Randall said. “She excelled at computer programming and did so many projects.”

Few can understand the mental challenges of transitioning, Randall said, and the acute alienation that comes from feeling like you were born in the wrong body.

As for her loss, Petty continues to try to understand what Stephanie was up against and echoed Randall’s call for more tolerance.

Petty said: “We’re not asking anyone to be trans or gay, but just to listen with open ears and some understanding.”

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