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Six months after her second birthday, her parents say Ryan was drawn to all things pink and sparkly. Ryan, the boy, wore pajama pants on his head, pretending it was long hair, or acted out girl roles from movies.
"I’m wishing . for the one I love . to find me!" the preschooler would enthusiastically sing into the toilet, copying Snow White, who sings into the echoing wishing well in the animated Disney movie.
By kindergarten, Ryan would bolt through the door of the family’s suburban Chicago home, leaving a trail of boy clothes up the stairway — then quickly changing into a skirt and matching T-shirt.
Ryan’s parents, initially told that Ryan had gender identity disorder, tried to get their child more interested in traditional boy things. But Ryan preferred chasing butterflies instead of footballs. Her dad scheduled extra "father-son" time, thinking that might have an influence. But nothing changed.
"The next step was to eliminate all girl things — can’t write about girl things, can’t draw girl things, can’t talk about girly things ... and that just didn’t feel right," says Sabrina, Ryan’s mom.
They decided to stop resisting and allowed Ryan to start taking small steps into the outside world, at a nearby park, for instance, where she wore her girl clothes.
For her kindergarten Halloween party, Ryan dressed as a princess and, shortly after, asked her parents to refer to her as "she," a request to which they agreed, though it took a few months to adjust.
Their first support came from a pediatrician who specialized in gender, as well as other parents with children like Ryan, many whom they met through an online listerv. They are, as they call themselves, "affirming parents."
"There’s a realization that it’s not a phase or something that’s ending when the preschooler gets to kindergarten," says Kevin Gogin, the program manager for school health programs at the San Francisco Unified School District, which recently added a transgender category in student health surveys. The survey found that 1.6 percent of high school students and 1 percent of middle school students identified as transgender or gender variant. Elementary students weren’t in the survey, but Gogin says the district has seen more young transgender and gender variant students, too.
Sixteen states and the District of Columbia have transgender rights laws, according to Michael Silverman, the executive director of the Transgender Legal Defense and Education Fund in New York City. He is representing the family of Coy Mathis, the 6-year-old transgender girl in Colorado.
But even in states that don’t have laws, he says districts are often open to guidance.
"By and large, most educators want to do the right thing and want to know how to treat all of their children equally," Silverman says. But often, they don’t know how.
In California, which has had protections for transgender people for some time, a new law requires schools to provide transgender and gender variant students with "equal and full access to programs and facilities," such as gender-neutral bathrooms, if need be, and private changing areas for gym and sports.
There can be resistance, of course — even in families and friends, as Ryan’s parents discovered.
Neighbors in the Chicago suburb where the family lived when Ryan was born stopped asking about or acknowledging her when she started dressing in girl clothes. "It was as if she no longer existed," Sabrina recalls.
Early on, people in their own extended family also struggled with their decision to let Ryan live outwardly as a girl. Some said: "I think what you’re doing is wrong" or "Ryan’s too young to know."
Cousins made fun of her, too, and once shut her in a dryer to taunt her.
Sabrina and husband Chris sat their family members down to talk and, over time, they say they came to an understanding.
"Our commitment is that our children are in an accepting, loving environment — and if someone’s not on board with that, then they’re not going to be around," Chris says, calmly but firmly.
They also moved to a neighboring suburb, where some said a particular elementary school would be more open to Ryan.
They still fear a harsh reaction from people outside their community. But they say most people locally have been accepting.Next Page >
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