October is LGBT History Month. To honor transgender people and their unique histories, I will be featuring transgender people and parents of transgender children all month long. Through sharing their stories, I hope to raise awareness of this amazing population of people who still struggle for basic human rights.
Every family has to choose how to keep their child safe. Our best friend noted that the way we have chosen to address her transition is with the mindset: “silence doesn’t equal safety”. We have shared on social media the same as we did before her transition. We share her story, along with resources for adults and children so they can learn and understand more thoroughly. We talk to people in person, when they see us for the first time since the transition simply saying “we call her Ellie now. I’ll shoot you the friends and family email.” Every conversation isn’t easy, and there are many who we’ve been afraid to tell. Yet, the one amazing thing we’ve found is that every single person, regardless of religion, race, ethnicity or background, has been respectful and welcoming to Ellie. As of now, the community in which Ellie lives (happily) each day is one that values her role in their lives.
More than just sharing, we have encouraged adults and children to ask us questions, believing that knowledge about transgender youth provides a path to acceptance, support and safety unlike any other. As a result, we’ve experienced so many meaningful conversations, and transformations of beliefs even. Colleagues of ours in other states have started leading professional development on Transgender Youth for their school districts. High school acquaintances who are now doctors, lawyers, nurses and teachers have asked for resources so they can be prepared should a family like ours come through their door. We are not experts, but the more knowledgeable people are, the more a web of security and safety provided to our daughter and the many others like her.
We feel guilty sometimes watching what other families go through. Horrific bullying, discrimination and loss of family and friends are an incredibly common experience. We feel it is important though to let families know that hate, bullying and unhappiness don’t happen in all situations, everywhere. There is great possibility of joy, love and acceptance and sometimes, like in our journey, it comes most readily through openness.
On that note, below is the letter we sent to the families in Ellie’s class. If the letter below helps even one family understand a child’s journey, or helps them form a way to share their own, this post will have been worth it.
Silence doesn’t always equal safety; sometimes it equals knowledge and acceptance.
We are the parents of Ellie and wanted to take this chance, with the complete support of the administration and teachers, to share her story with you. Ellie is a (loving and rambunctious) transgender girl. Below you will find Ellie’s whole story in our “friends and family” email. It is long, but it best describes our journey and may add some context to this all.
We don’t feel that you need to tell your child if they don’t already know and we want to give Ellie the chance to be “just one of the girls”. We do feel though that it is important for you to have the knowledge and resources to answer their questions, should they find out. Discretion is not a strength of the preschool set (they forget to close bathroom doors for example). In addition, some students knew her as Zachary and it takes time to have a new name and pronouns come naturally. It is also possible your child will never know, and this is fine. However, like all of you, we want our daughter to have a happy, safe childhood and we hope that with our story, comes an understanding and added support network for her. Please know that we are happy to answer questions you or your child may have and help navigate this conversation if needed.
So many families like ours are fighting for basic rights for their children in schools and often deal with angry school communities—all because a child is living as their true self. We want to note that the entire school staff has been incredibly welcoming and supportive of us in this process as well as being proactive in helping make this as smooth a transition as possible. We are so thankful and excited for this year. Please find our “friends and family” letter below and we look forward to getting to know all of you.
Vanessa and Ron
For a long time, we said, “Zach likes dresses but also ninjas” to describe our child to others. However, we, and a number of experts and specialists, don’t feel that’s a fair description of our child anymore. Our child insists every day, in many ways that they are a girl and has for a long time. Our child has asked for us to call them her/she/sister and Ellie is a name she chose once she realized people would think she was a boy with the name Zach. We are now doing this (as you’ll see in the rest of this email).
Ellie has consistently and persistently told us she is a girl in many ways. The most clear have been “I’m not a boy. I am a girl.” “I’m a girl in my heart and my brain.” Most times when she says these things, she says them without prompting or questioning. She draws herself as a stick figure girl, says she’s a girl–often many times a day when playing (“I’m the girl power ranger, I’m Wonderwoman/SpiderGirl/BatGirl etc). We purchased a whole “girl” wardrobe after a tantrum one morning about having to wear “boy” underwear. Since that point, our daughter has truly emerged. She has blossomed, is happier and just seems more herself. It’s hard to explain. (Ellie chose her new name by the way. It’s the name of her lovey and it means “shining light”!)
We haven’t seen that she’s experienced a lot of the distress (dysphoria) that often appears in transgender children, but we have seen some, and it’s been concerning. For example, we’ve heard her talking in her room late at night pointing and poking at her chest saying “boy! Boy! Boy! I am a boy! I like power rangers!” It was unsettling and her tone was worrisome. That was the last time she ever mentioned being a boy and we soon got her the clothes to match who she said she really was. This has helped. Another example was when we didn’t have a “girl” swimsuit and she had a rash guard that said “surfer girl” on it. Twice she threw a tantrum having to put on a life jacket. We didn’t know why but eventually she said, “It will make me a boy! It covers my girl words. People will think I’m a boy and I’m not!” So we got her a “girl” suit and she is much happier… and safer in the water!
When a person is transgender, their brain doesn’t match their body and we are going to work to ensure we can do whatever we can to affirm our child so she doesn’t feel the conflict between how she feels inside and how she is seen on the outside. For this age, gender is very cut and dry. “Boys do _____, girls do ______ “and as such, Ellie makes sure that she expresses herself VERY girly. I tried to tell her that girls can wear jeans and t-shirts like mommy to which she said “Or you could try to get pretty sometimes mom!” (Touché, Ellie, Touché…)
We thought about waiting with the name and pronouns… seeing how this played out over time. But the reality is, the risks are too high for us to ignore her true self as she tells us, and has been telling us. If, later in her life, she tells us differently, we will listen then too. Over 50% of transgender teens attempt suicide, even higher for teens of color like Ellie. Ron and I are going to do every single thing we can so our child knows they are loved for whoever they tell us they are… and as of now, we have a daughter.
Finally, and very importantly, we don’t see anything “wrong” with our daughter. This is the way our child was born and we love her… and hope the community around her in school, playgroups etc. will do so too.
All experts say how important it is for parents and other important people to be knowledgeable about this all and that acceptance and support of the child is the #1 predictor of the child’s health and safety (especially when it comes to that horrific statistic above). The leading groups around all of this are here in DC so that’s good. Ultimately we don’t care at all about the label, only about the well-being of Ellie. Again, we are just trying to gain as much info as we can “behind the scenes” to ensure we keep our Ellie happy and safe so we are ready.
Ron and I are also completely open to answering your questions– or your child’s questions and have listed some resources below if you’d like to read more on your own. Thank you so much for your support!
Lots of great resources for families here.
PFLAG has a great new resource guide for families of transgender or gender-expansive children. Childhood focus starts on page 16.
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Special thanks to Mary Tyler Mom who inspired this unique and beautiful way of honoring LGBT History Month.