Coming out as trans in the rural West

A high schooler’s photo essay documents what it’s like to go through intense change in a place that never changes.

Paonia, Colorado, is an idyllic Americana-style enclave with about 1,500 residents nestled in the West Elk Mountains of Delta County. It’s a great place to watch the cottonwoods changing. But changing your gender presentation in such a rural place? That’s another story.

However, research by the Movement Advancement Project shows that from 3% to 5% of rural Americans are LGBTQ+, which is consistent with estimates of the U.S. population overall, and that urban and rural youth are equally likely to identify as LGBTQ+. Still, coming out in a small town can be isolating and scary.


“Being trans in Delta County,” said Apollo Rodriquez, a 16-year-old photographer and activist in Paonia, “I wouldn't recommend it.” One way he navigated this transition was through a high school photography workshop.

His photo project is designed to evoke the discomfort of dysphoria and the gradual move into self-acceptance, Rodriquez said. But personal acceptance doesn’t always mirror societal tolerance. In Paonia, kids have been attacked at bonfires and rodeos for being queer, and Rodriquez himself has been accosted by self-proclaimed Christians who once wrapped their arms around him to pray for him, without his consent. But “even though it’s very hard and I’m going through a lot of complicated things,” Rodriquez said, “it’s still worth it to be my authentic self.” – B. Toastie (they/them) is an editorial intern at High Country News.


Hi, my name is Apollo. 


Ive always been Apollo. It just took some time to be able to say it. 


It took time to say it to myself. And to everyone else.


I find spaces where I can be myself. And relish in
those quiet in-between moments of comfort.



Before it all is just too much again.

And Im back to being exhausted by how overwhelming
being your full self really is.


But I start to climb that hill again and do what makes me happy. 
Because I can
t sit in those draining feelings of dysphoria all the time. 


I cut my hair. I shaved it in my friends yard.



The androgyny makes me very happy.


I thought it was a good time for a fresh start.


And its going decently.

I am always in pursuit of living my most authentic life
and right now this is how Im going forward in that.


Anyways, its so nice to meet you.


Im Apollo.


When I started the photography project, I was kind of thinking that it was going to be really moody, edgy, and I didn’t really have much of a direction. I started it in the beginning of June and I had just come out, and it was not going well. It was pretty rough. The acceptance I thought I was going to get, I didn’t get. It was a very weird, messy time. But by the end of the project, I was doing way, way better. And I was way happier. People had come around and were more accepting, and I was in a better environment.

“I think it’s cool to see that shift in my project. I sequenced it from the beginning to the end, and I think you can kind of see that. I shaved my head halfway through the month, and that was a big turning point. I think you can see how the project developed from this crazy, messy, big cloud of not just negative energy, but energy, to having a little more clarity. Being able to take pictures of myself and not just ignore my identity that month was really good for me. Because I think without it and that workshop, I might have just been like, This is too much. And it would have been months.

“It’s still a longer process, but being able to, every week, self reflect and every day, analyze these portraits I took, it got me to a place of more clarity.

Apollo Rodriquez is a photographer and activist from Paonia, Colorado. Follow him on Instagram.

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