How the daughter of a pastor became an accidental advocate for the trans community

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Rebekah Bruesehoff said she's always known that she was a girl.

The 15-year-old sat down with TODAY at the Tory Burch Foundation’s 2022 Embrace Ambition Summit in New York City. Backstage, she explained her family was supportive from the very beginning, helping her find “different terms and definitions” for her identity at around the age of eight before eventually settling on transgender. “It made me feel more me," she said. "It gave me a moment to empower myself.”

In 2017, Rebekah and her family become accidental activists after the federal administration rescinded past guidelines on transgender bathroom protections in public schools across the country, leaving the decision up to each state. She recalled the decision being “scary,” but it led to an opportunity to would change the course of her family’s life.

Rebekah’s mother, Jamie Bruesehoff, was offered to speak at a rally in Jersey City as the mother of a transgender child. Only 10-years-old at the time, Rebekah went with her, explaining, “I wanted to share my story, so I did share my story in front of the 200 people there. I also had a sign that said, ‘I’m the scary transgender person the media warned you about,’ and it went viral.”

The sign was widely shared across social media platforms, and covered by various news organizations. The juxtaposition between Rebekah's sweet smile and the notion that transgender people are scary struck a chord with many. It was also at the rally where Rebekah heard the stories of individuals feeling unsupported that kick-started her drive that she’s carried through today to be an activist and advocate for LGBTQ rights.

“I knew that there was a need for trans people to speak out, so I did, and I used that platform,” she said. “Suddenly I would come home from school and my mom would be like, ‘Teen Vogue' wants an interview’ and all this stuff. I was like ‘Whoa, this is crazy’ but I went with it. Now I’m here.”

Rebekah’s mom also recognized that the privilege her family and daughter have play a role in their opportunity to become advocates for the community. Bruesehoff explained that the family was able to put “protective bubbles” around Rebekah, but other families aren’t offered the same opportunity.

“There’s other people that can’t do what we’re doing,” she said. “They don’t have the resources or the support. We live in New Jersey, we have protective laws in place, we can put ourselves out there. So while we get hate and death threats and child abuse investigations, it’s so much worse in other places where they don’t have the protections, where they don’t have two supportive parents, where they’re not white. To use our privilege and put ourselves in front of that line of danger whenever we can just feels like something we’re called to do.”

2022 Embrace Ambition Summit | Tory Burch Foundation (Monica Schipper / Getty Images)
2022 Embrace Ambition Summit | Tory Burch Foundation (Monica Schipper / Getty Images)

Bruesehoff said that most of the hate she and her family receive is “in the name of Jesus,” due to Rebekah’s father’s profession as a pastor. Yet, out of the ugliness that came from the reports made against her family, Bruesehoff was able to help local authorities understand their situation better in order to help the next family like hers who has to deal with something similar.

“It’s trying to get that across and get people that are putting politics in the way of protecting our kids,” Bruesehoff said of her mission. “They’re using our kids as political football, and they’re real live children. There are adults bullying our children and that’s just so absurd.”

Bruesehoff and her family have learned over the years how to block out the noise and set boundaries due to their public platform. She said that she rarely responds to comments unless there’s a “teaching moment” happening.

“For Rebekah’s social media, I have access to it all,” she said. “I can put those layers of protecting in place so she doesn’t get the hate.”

As for what’s next for Rebekah, she’s looking forward to working more with the GenderCool Project, a storytelling campaign led by trans and nonbinary young people, as a champion.

"It’s all about stories," she said of the organization. "We share stories of trans individuals with our champions. What we do is we work to replace misinformed opinions with real life interactions with trans kids. Just doing a lot of work wherever we can because it takes this issue from a label to a person. When we put a face to an issue it’s taking from words to an actual human being so that you can take the empathy and understand this person more than you can a label. It helps change hearts and minds that way."

'Extraordinary people' at the center

The Tory Burch Foundation has been up and running since 2009, five years after Tory Burch founded her eponymous fashion line in 2004. This year, Forbes listed Burch as the 25th most successful self-made American women, in the company of icons like Rihanna, Oprah Winfrey and Sheryl Sandberg. They estimated Burch's net worth to be roughly $900 million.

At her foundations biennial summit on June 14, 2022 at Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Frederick P. Rose Hall, the 55-year-old entrepreneur and philanthropist spoke to TODAY in her dressing room about the foundation's mission, which stresses the importance of unique and individuality and holds “extraordinary people” at the center.

2022 Embrace Ambition Summit | Tory Burch Foundation (JP Yim / Getty Images)
2022 Embrace Ambition Summit | Tory Burch Foundation (JP Yim / Getty Images)

One thing that we really thought a lot about is how to highlight tough conversations but also give people takeaways that are actionable,” she said. “That’s something that’s really important because I feel like we all are affected by what’s happening in the macro environment constantly, but I feel like we all want to come together and do something. So at some point, we have to figure out how to do that.”

The same empowerment that Rebekah felt as a child when discovering a term she could identify with was paramount to the foundation’s summit this year, too.

“I want them to understand that everyone has a power to create change,” Burch said of the audience. “It goes back to sort of what I was saying (during the summit) … just the idea of changing one life at a time. If we all change one person’s life or have a positive impact on one person, and then you do the multiples, that adds up.”

At the summit, Rebekah shared the stage with author Tiq Milan and Adri Perez, policy and advocacy strategist for LGBTQ equality of the Texas ACLU. According to NBC News, nearly 240 anti-LGBTQ bills have been filed in 2022 so far. The slate of legislation includes measures that would restrict LGBTQ issues in school curriculums, permit religious exemptions to discriminate against LGBTQ people and limit trans people’s ability to receive gender-affirming health care.

"One misconception folks get wrong about trans kids is that when trans kids come out, they’re really only undergoing a social transition and socially transitioning means cutting your hair, going by a different name, wearing different clothes," Perez told TODAY. "These medical transitions don’t happen until much later and beyond that, there’s also ways to legally transition by changing your name. So these decisions, it’s a gradual journey and process."

Burch hopes that the lessons learned from the summit and the work of her foundation is infused into her company’s culture, that employs approximenyly 3,350 people. "It ties into mental health, happiness and creating a safe environment for people,” she said. "At times it’s better than others, because it’s a constant work in progress. So sometimes we have to regroup, and make sure everyone believes in it.”

2022 Embrace Ambition Summit | Tory Burch Foundation (JP Yim / Getty Images)
2022 Embrace Ambition Summit | Tory Burch Foundation (JP Yim / Getty Images)

'We're here ready to do it'

Bruesehoff doesn’t have any plans for her family to stop their advocacy anytime soon. “I think we both step into the opportunities where the need is," she explained.

“We’re here ready to do it and so when the right conversations in the right places show up that this makes sense,” she added. “Really, it’s just kind of following what’s happening to figure out how we can best show up in the moment because it’s not even about our plans, it’s about what the world needs."

For Rebekah, she just wants the things all other teenage girls her age want, but she also has no problem taking on the responsibilities of being a champion, too.

“As I grow up and get older, there’s different opportunities for me to speak and I think that’s going to be fun to realize,” she said. “But also, just keep doing this work because I’m passionate about it. It’s needed. It’s my thing.”