My almost three year old son is a “real boy” – prone to boisterous antics centred around cars, trucks, buses, planes and trains. Did I force these things upon him? Not really. He’s chosen them mostly for himself and we’ve run with it, almost as if he’s had an innate pre-disposition to all things rugged and, well, typically boyish. I’d always said – much to the chagrin of family members – that if he wanted to play with dolls I’d be OK with it, because at some point in the future he might need to be a dad and care for a real-life baby. That’s an over simplification of gender roles, but one we all understand and tend to agree on. Boys play with boy stuff. Girls, with girl stuff. Right?
But what if it wasn’t that clear-cut?
Last year I came across an online short doccie called Raising Ryland that struck me to my core, as a new parent. If you haven’t seen or heard of the story of little Ryland Whittington, take a peek at the tearjerker here.
(And if you don’t feel like watching it, here’s a summary:
The seven-minute video explains the story of a six-year-old transgender child, who was born a girl but, according to her parents, began insisting she was a boy as soon as she could speak.
“This is my sister Brynly, and I’m her brother, Ryland,” a young Ryland can be heard saying in the video.
The video’s narrative explains that Ryland’s parents, Jeff and Hillary Whittington, discovered around Ryland’s first birthday that their daughter was deaf. After being fitted with cochlear implants and learning to hear and speak, some of Ryland’s first words were, “I am a boy.
As Ryland grew up, they noticed their child was not just a “tomboy” or going through “a phase.” Ryland eventually began to show signs of shame. One day, Ryland said: “When the family dies, I will cut my hair so I can be a boy” and asked, “Why did God make me this way?” The Whittingtons refused to let their child become another statistic. So they let Ryland be his true self.
After careful and deep consideration over a prolonged period, they changed Ryland’s identity, cut his hair, started referring to him only as “he” and sending a letter to family and friends about the change.” [Sources: YouTube, ABCNews, Huffington Post.]
|[Image credit: Examiner.com]|
My favourite part of that clip shows little Ryland giving a speech that includes the quietly profound words: “My name is Ryland Michael Whittington. I am transgender. I am the happiest I’ve ever been in my whole life. Thank you to my parents.”
People, I can only hope that if I am ever called upon to accept any utterly painful but truly liberating decisions my son makes in his life, that I am able to do so with even an ounce of the bravery and compassion of little Ryland’s parents.
That video, and several other pieces I later came across, became my first sources of insight into what it must be like to be born into a body, sex and gender that never quite feels like the ‘you’ that you were meant to be. Being transgender isn’t something people just wake up and choose. It isn’t something they can switch on and off. It can’t be prayed away. It is a deep psychological, mental and emotional mismatch between the way your sexual organs cause you to be labeled as one thing, when in fact your mind, your brain, your heart and your very soul identify and express themselves as almost the complete opposite.
It made me feel shame for all the tasteless jokes I’d thrown around out of sheer ignorance. (Umm, sorry, Caster.)
Seeing the contentment and confidence of the newly unveiled Caitlyn Jenner on her Vanity Fair cover this week made me really, really proud of her for taking such a massive step. Sure, the Kardashians/Jenners are one pretty unconventional family, but one cannot underestimate the acceptance and fearlessness this could bring to the ordinary people around the world who find themselves in Caitlyn’s very difficult position, of whom around 50% will end their own lives. I cannot for one second imagine the shame and torment of having to hide something as fundamental as the way you identify and express yourself as male / female / somewhere in between.
I don’t watch Keeping Up with the Kardashians. I follow Kimye with only mild interest. So I know very little about the person formerly known as Bruce Jenner.
But it doesn’t matter. Bruce is gone. Caitlyn and Ryland are here. And they are happy and content and finally beaming with self acceptance and authenticity. Regardless of how you feel about their “choice”, they were made in the same way that we all were. Fearfully and wonderfully.
The takeaway from all of this? Issues around LGBT, or mental disorders, or death, or race or religion, or whatever, can be unfamiliar and awkward and frightening and downright confusing for most of us. But it shouldn’t stop us from at least trying to have a conversation around them so that maybe we can be more tolerant and understanding and loving. And maybe we can teach our kids to be the same.
For some back-reading on the complexities of the whole transgender debate, see below.
Glennon Doyle of the Momastery blog’s letter to a transgender boy here. (Glennon is a Christian children’s minister).