“It was just one thing after another,” Jenifer said.
Maddie began her gender transition at 6 years old, and almost immediately, “we started having these incidents,” Jenifer recalled. One thing became clear to her: “We really needed a legal advocate in our corner.”
But rather than hiring a lawyer, the mother of two decided to become one — at the age of 45.
“She will probably need legal support throughout her life unless things drastically change in this country,” said Jenifer, who is now 49. “She’s going to need somebody to fight for her on those legal fronts, and who better to fight for her than her own mom?”
The idea to pursue a law degree came to Jenifer amid North Carolina’s highly contentious debate over its “bathroom bill” in March 2016, which — until it was partially repealed and replaced a year later — required people to use public restrooms that aligned with the gender on their birth certificates.
Sitting around the dinner table at their home in Fayetteville, N.C., she posed a serious question to her family: “What if I go to law school?”
Her husband and two daughters were right away on board.
“She was determined to do it, and I wanted to give her my support,” said Jenifer’s husband, Craig Davis, 51. “She was very passionate about becoming a lawyer to protect Maddie’s rights.”
So, while juggling her full-time job at a nonprofit and parenting her two young children, Jenifer studied for the LSAT and began the law school application process.
“I was terrified,” Jenifer admitted.
She knew that her daughters — Grace, who is now 16 and is queer, and Maddie, now 14 — needed their mother’s attention. Jenifer worried about the financial and emotional toll a three-year intensive program might take on her family.
Davis, who had also recently gone back to school to pivot careers from technical service to nursing, encouraged his wife. In the spring of 2017, Jenifer was accepted to the North Carolina Central University School of Law.
“I remember when she got the email saying she had been admitted, she just looked at it and cried,” said Maddie, who was 10 at the time, adding that she understood her mother’s motivation to become a lawyer was to protect her and other LGBTQ youths.
Maddie knew she was different from a very young age. By the time she was 2, she was already enamored by her Sunday school teacher’s high-heeled shoes, which she regularly asked to try on. She strutted around the house wearing her sister’s princess costumes, and all her friends were girls.
At the age of 4, when she was able to verbalize her feelings, she repeatedly told her parents that she didn’t want to leave the house dressed as a boy.
“She felt like God made a mistake, and that she was supposed to be a girl,” Jenifer said.
One evening, when Jenifer was putting Maddie in her pajamas before bedtime, “she mentioned there was a part of her body that she would like to cut off,” Jenifer said, adding that she sensed her daughter had become depressed. “That really scared me.”
The couple sought out a therapist for Maddie, and after about two years of working through her feelings with a mental health professional, Maddie began her transition. The process started with a trip to Walmart, where Maddie picked out a frilly Hello Kitty dress with sparkly stars on it, among other traditionally girly outfits.
“Her whole personality and demeanor changed,” Jenifer said. “As stressful as it was worrying about what people were going to say or do to her, the change was so profound, it really made our lives easier. Her being affirmed for who she was made all the difference.”
But the transition simultaneously spurred obstacles for Maddie, and she often found herself excluded.
As transphobic incidents against their daughter — such as being prohibited from playing on sports teams and barred from some social activities — mounted and the political climate in the country further alienated the transgender community, Jenifer enrolled in law school in the summer of 2017.
The school, located in Durham, N.C., is about 88 miles from Fayetteville, prompting Jenifer to move closer to campus — and away from her children.
To avoid switching the girls’ school — where they were just starting to feel comfortable — they stayed in Fayetteville with their grandparents while Jenifer and her husband lived in a tiny one-room apartment in a Chapel Hill church and commuted back and forth to see their daughters.
“We lived apart for a whole year, and that was extremely difficult for all of us,” Jenifer said.
Still, “I encouraged her to do it because I knew this is what we needed,” her mother, Katheryn Jenifer, 79, said. “The things that happened to Maddie were so heartbreaking to me. We needed to be in the best position that we could be in to face anything that came along.”
The following year, the girls switched to new schools in Carrboro, N.C., a small town — about a 30-minute drive from the university — where they now reside.
Jenifer spent her time in law school focusing as much of her studies as she could on LGBTQ rights. She took a class called “Sexual Identity and the Law,” taught by Lydia Lavelle, a professor at the university who is also the mayor of Carrboro. When Lavelle was elected in 2013, she became the first openly lesbian mayor in the state.
“Katie was all in, and she would come talk to me about what was going on with her daughter,” Lavelle said, adding that she suggested Jenifer work with her as a research assistant. “What she has done to support her daughter is really commendable.”
In the summer of 2019, Jenifer became a fellow at the National LBGTQ Task Force in D.C., and at her law school, she started a volunteer-based name-change clinic that helps people across the state change their legal names or gender markers — which, Jenifer said, is a complicated process with many roadblocks for transgender and nonbinary people.
She also joined two boards of directors for LGBTQ associations, one of which is the Conversion Therapy Dropout Network, a nonprofit that supports conversion therapy survivors.
“I just want to be a resource and somebody who is affirming and supportive,” said Jenifer, adding that she also wants to help people who transition later in life.
“I am a mama bear and will advocate fiercely for my kid, and for all the trans and LGBTQ kiddos out there as if I was their mama bear, too,” she said. “By kiddos, I mean all people — because everyone, no matter their age, is someone’s child.”
Since graduating in May 2020, Jenifer has continued to volunteer with various organizations and is in the job interview process, hoping to secure a full-time position working on cases involving transgender issues in health care.
In April, she and her daughter stood before North Carolina’s state legislature to testify against a proposed bill that would bar transgender students from competing on school sports teams that correspond with their gender identities. North Carolina is one of 37 states that have introduced similar bills this year.
Although she isn’t much of an athlete, Maddie said, she loves softball. She is determined to fight for trans kids’ right to play sports.
“That is something that everybody should be able to do — to play sports with their friends,” Maddie said.
Although the bill was set aside following the hearing, Jenifer fears such proposed laws will surface again.
“That’s exactly why I wanted to become a lawyer,” Jenifer said. “That’s my whole motivation — to protect people.”
Have a story for Inspired Life? Here’s how to submit.