Family in Transition – Washington, D.C. Family Photographer

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Sometimes it’s the ordinary moments that are the most extraordinary. Last week I travelled to Washington, D.C. and spent a rainy afternoon with Vanessa, JR, Ronnie, and Ellie. Their home is warm and loving, humming with the lovely chaos that comes with a couple of young kiddos. Wall climbing, bed jumping, playing, running, fighting, laughing, loving. Really, it’s just like any other young family’s home, but when you look a little closer you might notice signs of the transition this family has been going through together. Names and pictures that reflect past more than present, as the youngest member of this household has made it very clear who she really is.

This is not my story, so I will happily hand things off now to Vanessa to tell you about their life in her own words. But first, a huge thank you and all the love in the world to these four incredible people for the honour of capturing this chapter for you. It meant so much to me to come to your home and see your beautiful dynamic.

If you’re reading this post and are looking for more resources on how to help someone in the LGTB community, and especially someone who may be gender nonconforming or has made it clear that they identify with a gender different from the one they’re expected to have, please look to the end of this post for links and contacts.

And now, here’s Vanessa. ♥

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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. We have entered this journey open to learning, open to change and most importantly open to what our young daughter has told us.  We were honored to have Jill come to spend a crazy afternoon with our family and hope that in sharing our family’s journey as we go through it, that we build a knowledgeable web of allies, and hopefully help other families in their own transitions.

I 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 at school.

Dear Friends,

For over a year, 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 he’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 not settling 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 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. JR 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 the community around her in school, playgroups etc. has 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 or Ellie happy and safe so we are ready.

JR 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!

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(Jill again!)

I’d like to thank Vanessa and JR again for this opportunity to help them tell this part of their story. And I’d like to thank them for sharing their story, and making it easier for others to tell theirs. You two are amazing for helping to open up the conversation, for making it easier for Ellie and for kids like Ellie, for their parents who are struggling, for communities who aren’t quite sure how to navigate situations like this. You are incredible parents and beautiful people.

As I mentioned earlier, if you’ve been reading this and you’d like more information or need someone to talk to, please scroll to the end for links to resources and contacts. There is still more work to be done, but the world is changing and you don’t need to take this on alone. Things are going to be better for our kids than they were for us, or for our parents. Thank you for taking the time today to read this story. Check out more of this beautiful session below. I just loved my time with these people. ♥

Resources:

8 Great Children’s books: http://www.readbrightly.com/8-books-that-teach-kids-about-the-fluidity-of-gender-and-the-importance-of-acceptance/

Lots of great resources for families here: http://community.pflag.org/transgender

PFLAG has a great new resource guide for families of transgender or gender-expansive children: http://community.pflag.org/document.doc?id=921 (Childhood focus starts on page 16)

Resources on Gender-Expansive Children and Youth

Children’s National Medical Center – A Guide for Parents

 And if you’re in Ontario, Sick Kids has a clinic specifically for transgender teens, and they’re a great first place to reach out to if you have a child who’s gender nonconforming.