I grew up a tough little tomboy perpetually riding in my older brother’s wake, and often wished I had been born a boy as well so that I could do all the things that he could do. Well into my teens, strangers would ask me, “are you a boy or a girl?” and my answer often surprised them. Even so, I have always known and accepted (at some stages more gracefully than others) that I am a female person in a female body. The longer I live, the more I appreciate the gifts of my gender, even while chafing against the restrictions it also imposes. When I entertain the idea of being male now, I find it distasteful. I won’t get into the details of why.
I will confess, I don’t really understand transgenderism and I know I’m not alone in that. Gender is an enormous component of one’s identity, and having any confusion around that is a ticket to all kinds of struggles: personally, interpersonally and socially. The first distinction we make about any person is “he” or “she.” With few exceptions, human beings are not able to conceptualize or tolerate anything outside of or in between those two poles.
But I do understand and give mad props to unconditional love and clear-eyed acceptance of people as they are even when they are not what we want them to be or wish they were. That’s why I so appreciate the story of Jeff and Hillary Whittington and their son Ryland as told in the CNN Films video “Raising Ryland.” (Sorry, video preview is not available.)
As soon as he could speak, 3-year-old Ryland began telling his parents that he was a boy and that he wanted to cut his long hair and wear boy’s clothing. They were understandably shocked and incredulous, and they could have shouted him down, mocked him, or isolated and punished him into complying with their understanding of which gender their child was biologically assigned at birth. But they didn’t. They listened to him. They supported him. They defended him. They loved him. And no matter what or who he chooses to be later in his life, he is always going to know that his family has his back, and that he is a person of value. There is no greater gift that parents can give their children.
In an open letter, Hillary Whittington warned all their friends and family that should they choose not to support her and her husband’s decision to accept their child as he is, they can expect that their relationship with the entire Whittingon family will no longer progress because “Our child’s happiness is most important to us.” Amen! Really, what else is there? Maintaining the appearance of “normality” for the sake of keeping society’s approval? Rigidly demanding adherence to a single definition of reality that their child is unable to accept? Living in isolation, shame and fear until somebody breaks down, or dies? All because of a simple quirk of biology? No.
We are who we are, and I hope that someday human beings will learn how to see one another as souls and spirits with infinite potential rather than as mere bodies born to play ancient, predestined roles.
I wish this little boy and his family all the best.