"I think finding a Barbie in my mom's room — that kind of sparked my whole adventure in being gender creative," 12-year-old CJ Duron told In The Know. Duron is the subject of the second episode of In The Know: Next Generation, where we meet young activists and creatives who are shaping and inspiring the next generation of voices and leaders.
CJ's gender identity is male, but his gender expression is female. As his dad, Matt Duron, puts it, "He likes being a boy. He, you know, is happy with his boy body, but — he always says, 'I like being a boy — I just like girl things.'"
His interests, especially in makeup, mean a lot to him. "I find it as an art form," CJ said. "And I've always been interested in painting and art."
For his immediate family, CJ being gender creative was never an issue and his preferences were always encouraged. But it wasn't an easy way to be outside of their home.
"When I was in fifth grade, I had a group of friends that turned on me," CJ said. "They just started bullying me."
"As parents, you can create a safe, loving environment in your home," Matt explained. "But, your kids — you can't protect them at all times, you can't defend them at all times."
Lori, CJ's mom, and Matt took CJ to Pride in Orange County to cheer him up, but a photo of the three of them went viral after James Woods attacked the picture on Twitter.
"It was scary for our family," Matt said. Both he and Lori publicly spoke out against Woods and defended CJ. "We were concerned for our son."
Even with a loving home environment — something CJ admits can unfortunately be rare in the LGBTQ+ community — it started to take a toll on CJ's mental health. "I didn't feel happy with what was happening and I didn't feel happy with myself, and I was just down all the time."
But when Orange County Pride asked CJ to be the grand marshal the following year, things began to turn around. "They said, 'When one of our members is pushed down and made to feel small, we rise them up,'" Lori said. And that's what happened.
"I think the bullies at school have made me stronger and a better person," CJ said. "I was an important role in making my school the first of its kind in my district. It used to be segregated between, 'this is a boy's dress code and this is a girl's,' and I made it just one."
Now there are 26 other schools that have followed suit.
"I have a lot of hope when I see CJ and his generation," Lori said.
Watch the full In The Know: Next Generation interview above to learn more about CJ and the impact he's making by embracing himself.