Ben, 24, was the first openly transgender student at Cedar Falls High and ran boys' cross country. He started physically transitioning at 14 and credits it with possibly saving his life.

Photo of Ben: Michael Zamora/Des Moines Register

The Christiasons think of Ben, 24, in two phases. The first Ben, when he was young, was sad and didn’t smile. He didn’t like to look in mirrors. The Ben of today, by comparison, flashes a million-watt smile and exudes enthusiasm and joy.

His parents attribute that to their son being able to physically transition and his realizing that he would be able to live a life that aligned with who he truly is.

When Ben was small, he would insist that he was a boy. His mother, Jennifer, meaning well, would correct him and tell him, "Oh, you mean you’re a tomboy."

Jennifer, a registered nurse, and Ben’s dad, Kyle, a physician, found they had some self-education to do. And the more they learned, the more clear it became that their son had gender dysphoria. When he was a freshman, in consultation with doctors and a counselor, he started to physically transition.

Ben, a child who formerly walked with a slump, started to thrive and became "radiant," Jennifer says.

He also didn’t set out to be a pioneer in transgender rights advocacy, but he became one. Ben was the first openly transgender person to graduate from Cedar Falls High School. He was also the first openly transgender boy in the history of Cedar Falls High School to participate in boys’ sports as a member of the cross-country team.

Being able to run school boys track was hugely important to him. "Physically, I was weaker than some but mentally just as tough," Ben says.

Ben attended St. Olaf’s College and is now working for a Chicago nonprofit that supports social change. His parents have helped establish an LGBTQ care clinic in Cedar Falls to make sure others can receive appropriate care locally.

"I am so excited about the future," says Ben. "I want to have kids and a family. Now I look forward to the rest of my life. That wasn’t always the case."