Trailblazer: Parents go the extra mile to protect transgender son

Members of the Klein family (from left) Holly, Luke, Abraham and Joe, pose for a photo at a school Valentine’s dance in February. Holly Klein photo Members of the Klein family (from left) Holly, Luke, Abraham and Joe, pose for a photo at a school Valentine’s dance in February. Holly Klein photo

Luke Klein’s life in North Carolina hasn’t been much different than that of any other pre-teen boy.

An all-star pitcher on the Watauga County Parks and Rec baseball team and obsessed with sports, Luke dreams of perhaps becoming a sports reporter one day, if not a professional athlete. 

But Luke’s life has been different at least one way. He was assigned female at birth.

“I guess once I started kindergarten,” Luke said, “I always, like, watched the boys playing and I was like, ‘I want to be like that and not like, a girl.’”

In retrospect, Luke’s parents, Joe and Holly, had known that Luke wasn’t like their older children, and have since come to terms with Luke’s identity. Now, they’re plotting a path forward after Luke’s home state worked diligently to pass laws that would make his dreams that much more difficult to achieve.

 Luke, Joe and Holly Klein agreed to speak with The Smoky Mountain News despite transgender people and their allies being increasingly targeted — sometimes with violence, and sometimes with the pen. 

Related Items

“I think I want my story to be known, because, like, it can inspire other people,” said Luke, who will turn 11 in the coming days.

Luke’s dad, Joe, is an associate professor in the speech language pathology department at Appalachian State University in Boone who completed his PhD at the University of South Alabama where he met Holly, a speech language pathologist who has a master’s degree from the University South Alabama and worked for Watauga County Schools for 13 years.

“I think this is a chance to humanize the story,” Holly said. “I think it’s a chance to see that we’re just real people. We want to get rid of, number one, the perception that for people who are trans it’s a choice, and number two, that this is some agenda we have. It certainly is not the easiest road to take.”

Joe and Holly first thought Luke was just going through a tomboy phase, playing with his little brother and eventually borrowing his clothes.

“Even before that, I feel like doing his hair was always an issue, and then dresses,” Joe said. “We didn’t know he was trans, but he just hated anything ‘girly.’ It was just not anything he was interested in.”

During kindergarten, Luke was given a Steph Curry jersey that Holly had to wash every day because Luke refused to wear anything else to school.

They didn’t know it at the time, but the Charlotte native, Davidson College alum and NBA MVP Curry had spoken out against North Carolina’s controversial HB2, the so-called bathroom bill that in 2016 cost the state hundreds of millions of dollars in corporate investment and ended up being scrapped a year after it was passed.

The next Christmas, while hanging decorative lights with older sister Greta, Luke came out to her, saying he wanted to be a brother and not a sister. He said he thought she would be a good person to tell.

“He went to each of us, individually and systematically, to talk about it,” said Holly, who was last to learn.  

Joe was accepting, but initially thought it might still just be a phase.

“I took him out and we got a haircut. He’d always wanted short haircuts, but they were like a girl with short haircut,” Joe said. “So this time we went out and we got him a boy’s short haircut. It wasn’t that huge to me, but over time, you start to realize that this is probably going to be who he is, and this is going to keep going. I didn’t really ever have a lot of emotionality around it. And then just kind of thinking about who he was, he always was a boy.”

Before Luke was born, Holly had seen the film “Raising Ryland,” a short documentary about parenting a trans boy. The film had unknowingly prepared Holly for what Luke ultimately told her, but she still had some trouble processing Luke’s feelings.

She remembers spending time that holiday season curled up in bed with Greta, grieving.

“I remember thinking, ‘I just lost my daughter.’ It was almost like losing all the things that a mother wants to do with a daughter like wedding dresses and all those things. But it was all my vision of what should be, and never who Luke actually was,” Holly said. “I had this whole invention for her, but she was never there. It was always Luke. So I didn’t lose anybody. I just came to accept exactly who he is.”


At first, Luke was comfortable in his identity at home, but by February 2020, when he was 7, he decided to live authentically at school as well. 

“Yeah, I was a little bit nervous, um, but after I finally did it my friends were like, ‘Okay, you’re a boy now,’” Luke said, adding that he wasn’t bullied by his peers over the change. “I was really happy.”

Part of the reason for that, Holly explained, was because a social worker at Luke’s school came in and gave a presentation to his first-grade class using the book, “Red: A Crayon’s Story.” Written in 2015, the book centers on a blue crayon with a red label. Everyone calls him “Red,” and expects him to write in red, but he simply can’t.

The social worker then introduced Luke to the class, much as a teacher might introduce a new student. The girls in class were somewhat perplexed, Holly said, but the boys couldn’t have cared less and were happy to have another player to join them in their football games.

“His peers were amazing, and I think that was the glory of having a kiddo come out at such a young age,” Holly said.

A month after Luke’s introduction at school, COVID-19 prompted nationwide shutdowns, including at schools. When Luke went back to in-person learning in second grade, it was almost as if he’d always been blue and never was red at all.

But by the end of Luke’s time in second grade, legislators in several states began actively working to suppress the acknowledgement of people like Luke, leaving Joe — and especially Holly — with some serious soul-searching to do.

“We were thinking we wanted to stay and work our 30 years in the state and pull a state pension and then figure out what to do after that,” she said. “But the writing was on the wall.” 

In March 2022, Florida Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis signed the “Parental Rights in Education” bill, which detractors have dubbed the “Don’t Say Gay” bill. It effectively prohibits classroom instruction on sexual orientation or gender identity. 

A spate of states followed suit, according to Education Week, and by February 2023, there had been more than 40 copycat bills introduced in 22 states.

North Carolina was not one of them.

“We always held on to the fact that, hey, we’ve got a governor that we know would veto this. It’s OK. Checks and balances are in place. We’re fine,” Holly said. “And then the supermajority thing happened with that woman who switched parties and then it got really real for me.”

Charlotte-area Democrat Tricia Cotham announced she’d change her party affiliation to Republican on April 5 — the same day three anti-trans bills were filed in the General Assembly.  Although Republicans held a substantial majority in both chambers, they were exactly one vote short of a mathematical supermajority that would allow the legislature to override any veto by Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper, as long as all Republicans were present to vote.

Veto overrides aren’t always voted strictly on party lines, but Cotham’s move gave Republicans an even greater chance of success in making laws over the governor’s objection.

And that’s exactly what happened. Cooper vetoed the bills, one of which prohibits transgender women and girls from playing on girls’ sports teams, but doesn’t prohibit transgender men and boys, like Luke, from playing on boys’ sports teams. The other two restrict the discussion of gender identity in schools and ban gender-affirming care for minors.

“It’s not right, because there’s other people out there that want this stuff,” Luke said. “Even if you found, like, two people that like have done it and regretted it, there’s way more people out there that need this care.”

After veto overrides, all three bills became law, with Cotham’s support.

“That lesson that Luke’s guidance counselor gave when Luke transitioned, that lesson wouldn’t be able to happen today,” Holly said. “It would be illegal for that social worker to go in and do that lesson for another student who may be transitioning. It would be illegal for Luke to ask for literature and things like that, that represent who he is.”

It also gave Holly, an educator for nearly 20 years, cause for concern in her own right.

“If a middle schooler were to come and try to ask questions about this, I wouldn’t be able to respond without jeopardizing my career,” she said. “I couldn’t live with that.”

 Near the end of June, as the anti-trans bills were set to pass, the Kleins began to explore their options. 

“I just thought, ‘Well, I’ll start looking at jobs and see what’s out there,” Joe said. “There usually aren’t a lot of academic jobs open over the summer, but there was a job that opened at Eastern Washington University that I was really interested in. From there, we just kind of started looking at Spokane and looking at Washington State and realizing that this would be a great place to be. And then really quickly, we decided that even if I wasn’t going to work here as a professor, that we’re just going to move here no matter what.”

In April, the State of Washington became the sixth to pass a “shield law” that protects access to gender-affirming health care.

“It’s one of the few that already has legislation in place that protects LGBTQ youth, and particularly trans youth and their right to live their authentic lives and their right to get services and gender affirming care, which matches what the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends,” Holly said.

Holly found an attractive job opening, threw together an application in two days, had an interview a week later and was offered the job four days after that.

It pays double what someone in North Carolina could expect to earn; the state has struggled with teacher pay for decades, is experiencing an “unprecedented” teacher shortage and ranks 36th in the nation in average pay — more than $12,000 below the national average, according to the National Education Association. Washington State ranks fifth.

“I mean, that’s a whole ‘nother plug for, ‘pay your educators,’” Holly said. “But with the pay increase It was something we realized that if we had to, we could make something work there, and even if the university job didn’t come through [for Joe] that we would be OK.”

Holly packed up the car with kids and cats and dogs and headed west a few weeks ago. Joe is still teaching at Appalachian State until he hears back on his application. Holly said that their community and their colleagues were incredibly supportive of the family’s decision to stand by their son.

“Everybody knows why we’re making this move,” Holly said.

news kleins bros

Luke (left) and his brother Abraham prepare for their first day of school in Washington State. Holly Klein photo

Now, the family looks forward to a reunion in Spokane, where Luke won’t have to navigate the pitfalls of being born in North Carolina as a member of a marginalized community that often has trouble being heard — especially in government circles.

“The word ‘trailblazer’ is a word we use a lot. Luke has been so brave and so true to himself,” Holly said. “I think if we seek anonymity, we seek to hide. And I think the more people feel like they have to hide, the more we give the perception that this is something shameful, and it is absolutely not shameful to be who you are. And to love who you love.”

Meanwhile, Luke is happily settling into his new home, looking forward to playing basketball this fall at his new school. The name of his school team is the Trailblazers.

Smokey Mountain News Logo
Go to top
Payment Information


At our inception 20 years ago, we chose to be different. Unlike other news organizations, we made the decision to provide in-depth, regional reporting free to anyone who wanted access to it. We don’t plan to change that model. Support from our readers will help us maintain and strengthen the editorial independence that is crucial to our mission to help make Western North Carolina a better place to call home. If you are able, please support The Smoky Mountain News.

The Smoky Mountain News is a wholly private corporation. Reader contributions support the journalistic mission of SMN to remain independent. Your support of SMN does not constitute a charitable donation. If you have a question about contributing to SMN, please contact us.