Sunday, November 24, 2013

Transgender Children (interview)

This is an interview with a college professor who is also the mother of “Ruby,” a kindergartner who was born male but identifies as female. 

How old was Ruby when he asked you to treat him as a girl? How did you react?

Ruby was pretty young when she started turning my slips into dresses. When we were shopping at a department store when she was three, she saw a “My Little Pony” t-shirt that she just had to have. I worried a bit about how my husband would react, but I could tell that it was important to Ruby so we bought it. Originally the rule was that she could only wear it at home. That seems pretty funny now. 

Ruby started asking me to refer to her as a girl off and on, starting when she was four, before she started asking anyone else. By the time she turned five, she started to insist on being referred to as a girl by everyone. That’s when her father and I agreed upon a new name with her and officially switched pronouns.

Ruby has clearly looked to me to affirm her identity as a girl, to herself and to everyone else. While I have not always been sure about how to negotiate situations, especially those involving other adults in our family, I definitely recognized that there was nothing more important in my life than being her advocate and that I had no choice but to follow her lead.


What kind of reaction has there been from family and friends?

Ruby’s transition from being recognized as a boy to being recognized as a girl has been very gradual, playing itself out over several years, starting with playing with “girl” toys and dressing in “girl” clothes. So there wasn’t one clear moment when suddenly family and friends reacted. 

Overwhelmingly, they have been supportive—including our church community. It took a lot of talking together, with the help of a great counselor, to work things out among our family, with whom we are very close. Once we did that, once we all felt we were working together to affirm Ruby’s identity as a girl, we all gained a lot of confidence. 

Sometimes friends and acquaintances ask questions because they are curious about how we chose this path and the new name, “Ruby.” We just tell them that Ruby is leading the way and she is teaching us what kind of parents she needs us to be.

Has Ruby’s school made any special accommodations?

During Ruby’s last two years at preschool, she was trying out different names, clothing, and various fake hair options—from a purple tutu to wigs to headbands. Her preschool teachers were universally supportive, as was the administration. When we decided to change her name to “Ruby” (we have not done this legally), the preschool changed all of her records. 

When she started kindergarten, they ordered a new set of pencils with her new name to replace the set they originally ordered with the old (“boy”) name. Her public kindergarten has been fantastic. Our school district policy allows children to wear whatever school uniform option they want, the “boy” or the “girl.” All of the teachers and staff refer to her by her chosen name, Ruby, and they allow her to use the girls’ bathroom. Basically, it’s no big deal—for which we are very grateful.


What advice would you give to parents and teachers of transgender children?

As with parenting generally, parenting a transgender child forces you to confront whatever lingering identity issues you have. Try to address the issues that make you anxious—because your child doesn’t need extra anxiety injected into the situation—and let go of the issues that aren’t relevant yet (for example, we don’t need to be worrying about the decision to use puberty blockers or not until Ruby approaches puberty).

As for teaching, if you have any doubt about the pronouns that students use, ask them. Or you could even model that by introducing yourself and saying that you use “she/her” or “he/him” pronouns, then ask everyone else to do that when they introduce themselves the first time.

Has your own teaching changed at all because of your experience with Ruby? 

I posted a printed sign on my office door, “Everyone is welcome here” with various symbols and categories relating to gender and sexuality. I’ve had a few really interesting conversations with students as a result. Hopefully that lets students know that they can be themselves in my office.

Much of my research looks at racial and income-based disparities. My experience as the parent of a transgender child is opening my eyes to the special health, employment and schooling challenges that people face based on their gender identity and sexuality. In other words, I see “civil rights” in broader terms.

What does “mindful teaching” mean to you? Do you have a mindfulness practice, and if so, how does it help you with your work? 

Mindful teaching for me is being aware of the whole person I am teaching and being fully present. It’s easy to forget that we see only a small part of the person in class. I’m often amazed at how much I learn about students when they come talk with me, one on one, and how much I misjudged or underestimated them. 

I would love to find ways to encourage students to bring their whole selves to class, to set aside their insecurities and share their real passion and talent. But of course, that requires that we teachers are prepared to do the same.  

related posts:

Transgender and Gender Fluid Youth (interview)

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