A new documentary delves into parenting a transgender child
Ryland, photo courtesy of Mile Marker Entertainment
“Congratulations! Is it a boy or girl?”
Before they are even born, people want to know a child’s gender.
Gender identity, once considered a binary option and unchangeable fact, has become increasingly complex over the years as the transgender community has become more visible. The transgender experience is not a new one; one of the first records of a transgender individual dates back to 1880, when Rev. Joseph Lobdell, born as Lucy Ann Slater, was admitted to the Willard Asylum at age 56 after it was discovered that he was a “woman.”
Even as society grows more aware and accepting of the transgender community, when children declare themselves a different gender than the one assigned to them at birth, a whole new round of pearl-clutching starts. Take, for instance, the tabloid chatter about Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt’s child, Shiloh, who has a reported preference for boy’s clothes and wants to be called John.
Raising Ryland, directed by Sarah Feeley, is a CNN Films documentary debuting on CNN.com Wednesday, March 18 that provides an intimate look into the lives of the Whittington family and their decision to support and affirm the gender identity of their six-year-old child. Hillary and Jeff, Ryland’s parents, initially struggled when Ryland adamantly refused to conform to female gender norms, forcefully insisting, “I’m a boy.”
“A lot of kids are defiant, and say ‘I don’t want to wear that dress’ and be difficult, but it was deeper than that. Ryland had shame,” Hillary said. "He would come home from school…and take off his girl clothes immediately. He’d go straight to Jeff’s closet and put on all of Jeff’s shirts and ties and pants.”
A family portrait, courtesy of the Whittington family
For many years, when faced with such behavior, physicians and psychologists would recommend parents “redirect” a child’s tendencies to dress or act as the gender that was not assigned to them at birth. For example, if a parent saw their son playing with Barbies, they would replace the Barbies with G.I. Joes or some other acceptable “masculine” toy.
“It’s just a phase,” was a common refrain used to quell anxious parents’ fears. For some children, that may be true, or they may express certain non-conforming traits, but not others. But for some, their assigned gender identity simply feels totally wrong.
The farther children move from their assigned gender identity, the more their parents might try to force them to conform. “Very frequently, there is a period of crisis close to puberty, where parents start to pay more attention and try to intervene,” says Feeley.
In a new study, published earlier this year in the journal Psychological Science, researchers at the University of Washington led by Kristina Olson, psychologist and founder of the TransYouth Project, found that young people who claim a different gender than what was assigned at birth identify as consistently and innately with that gender identity as other kids their age that are not trans (i.e. cisgender).
The journey towards a still limited, albeit growing, public acceptance has been a long one. When transgender identity first penetrated Western mass media, news outlets sensationalized the concept with shock value headlines like “Woman Trapped in a Man’s Body!” Those who were brave enough to discuss their gender identity and transition in public were often subject to insensitive, probing questions. For instance, when talk show host Piers Morgan interviewed Janet Mock, a well-known transgender activist, he focused primarily on Mock’s current relationship and the moment of “having to reveal that she was formerly a man” rather than Mock’s work as an advocate and her book, Redefining Realness.
In Raising Ryland, Feeley and the Whittingtons avoid the sensationalist route, instead choosing to depict how an average American family comes to terms with a child’s non-cisgender identity.
“So much of what they’re dealing with is actually universal parental issues. The Whittingtons are engaged in a type of quiet activism. There are families out there that have legal fights with their school district or the Boy Scouts, people fighting for legislative change,” Feeley said. “The Whittingtons aren’t in that kind of legal fight, I’m more interested in the internal dynamics of the family.”
In the film, told partially through the Whittingtons’ home movies, Hillary and Jeff first work through Ryland’s deaf diagnosis at 12 months, his surgery to receive cochlear implants, and “mainstreaming” Ryland by enrolling him in kindergarten at the local elementary school rather than a deaf-specialized school. Since Ryland could not speak until he was two years old, they dressed him in traditional feminine clothes (pink dresses and bows primarily).
Once Hillary and Jeff accepted Ryland’s identifying as a male they grew more and more supportive, writing a letter to their friends and family explaining Ryland’s transition and creating a YouTube video for the teachers at Ryland’s new elementary school to educate them on transgender identity. The video went viral, accumulating almost 7.5 million hits.
As the Whittingtons explain, the turning point in accepting Ryland came when Hillary learned that 41 percent of transgender people attempt suicide. For the rest of the general population, that rate is only 1.6 percent.
A contributing factor to this disturbing statistic is a lack of family support; a 2011 survey by the National Center for Transgender Equality found that 40 percent of respondents reported that their parents or other family members “chose not to speak or spend time” with them due to their gender identity/expression. The suicide of Leelah Alcorn, a transgender teen, on December 28, 2014, made international news when a suicide note was posted to her Tumblr hours after her death. In the letter, she talked about her experiences growing up in a strict Christian household and how her parents tried to get her to attend conversion therapy. She wrote, “My death needs to mean something. My death needs to be counted in the number of transgender people who commit suicide this year. I want someone to look at that number and say ‘that's fucked up’ and fix it. Fix society. Please.”
“This film and this experience is like [a] flame… I don’t want these kids’ flames to blow out… I want the light of Ryland and his family to shine in the world,” Feeley said. “And maybe it will open some people’s minds in the process.”
You can watch Raising Ryland at CNN Films Digital Shorts.