By Ron Ford Jr. and Vanessa FordBy Ron Ford Jr. and Vanessa FordJune 3, 2016
Ellie Ford, left, who came out as transgender at age 4, hugs her brother Ronnie. (Family photo)
The Ford family lives in Washington, D.C., where Ron works for the federal government and Vanessa teaches science in a public school. They wrote about their experience as parents of a young transgender child after speaking with Obama administration officials who helped craft the directive to public schools regarding accommodations for transgender students. That directive has sparked backlash in some areas of the country, leading 11 states to sue the administration arguing that the rules amount to federal overreach.
The Fords say that the debate about transgender children using the bathrooms of their choice isn’t really about bathrooms at all. They say it’s a debate about discrimination. This is their story.
— Emma Brown
By Ron Ford Jr. and Vanessa Ford
We are fortunate to have two wonderful children, each with an intense zeal for life. Ronnie, our six-and-a-half-year-old son, is filled with empathy and a love for all things active. Ellie, our five-and-a-half-year-old daughter, can light up a room with her magnetic smile and loves to run, laughing, as mommy and daddy chase her to the park.
Ellie is also transgender. She was born male, and we all thought she was a boy until, at age four, she let us know who she truly was.
When our children were born, our minds were filled with countless dreams for their futures. Like all parents, we hoped for lives in which our children were happy and fulfilled. We held our babies and pictured what those lives might be like: Making friends, discovering passions, pursuing happiness, finding love. As parents, we share common bonds with anyone else who has raised a child with love and care: We build safe environments for our children to learn and grow, we guide our children so they can stand strong as adults, and we hope that our children will bring joy and positive change to the world around them.
[From the archives: Transgender at five]
Having a transgender child doesn’t change any of that, though it does make it a little more complicated. And we have fears about Ellie’s safety and well-being that we never anticipated.
In many ways, we are lucky.
Ellie’s school has been a model of inclusiveness. No matter a student’s ethnicity, race, physical challenge, or other identity, her school actively works to embrace and celebrate differences. When we first met with teachers and staff to discuss Ellie leaving as a boy and returning as a girl, we expected to have a fight about bathrooms, dress codes, names on attendance sheets. Instead, we were met with a warm welcome, clarity that “of course she can use the girls’ bathroom … she’s a girl!” and a letter to parents — signed by the administration –- explaining Ellie’s transition from boy to girl and expressing the school’s support. Her classroom teacher stocked the bookshelves with books that affirmed Ellie’s identity, and the teacher made a point to read those books during class in the first few weeks of school. Ellie’s fellow students, taking the clear cue from teachers and staff, treated Ellie like the girl she is and have embraced her as a member of the school community. Ellie has blossomed in her school. She feels safe, loved, empowered and, most importantly, just like every other kid there.
Sometimes we ask ourselves: “What if?” What if we lived in a place that wasn’t so supportive of transgender youth? What if we lived in one of the states suing the Department of Justice and protesting that transgender students shouldn’t be protected under Title IX? What if Ellie was forced to attend a school where adults were not only allowed, but empowered and encouraged, to discriminate against her? What if, because the adults were able to do this, the school transformed into a place where her peers could tease and bully our daughter without fearing consequences from teachers or staff?
What if this caused so much pain for our Ellie, with her magnetic smile and love for life, that she felt she did not want to live?
[‘We’re human beings too’: Transgender teen gratified after ruling in bathroom case]
For us, these questions are hypothetical. For many transgender students, and their parents, these questions are all too real.
The national conversation about transgender people — about my daughter Ellie — isn’t truly about bathrooms. It is about discrimination. It is about whether or not transgender people should be welcomed fully into our society. It is about whether or not our daughter should be welcomed fully into our society.
During a town hall event on June 1, President Obama said his decision to direct public schools to allow transgender students to use the bathrooms of their choice was based on the law and is intended to keep children out of "a vulnerable situation." (Reuters)
[As a transgender high school student, going to the bathroom is scary]
If Ellie were forced to use the boys’ bathroom or the nurse’s bathroom each time she had to go, we know what would happen to our dear daughter. We see it in her transgender friends who live in less-welcoming communities, and through the eyes of their parents. Ellie understands, even at her young age, what being treated differently means. She would cry. She would withdraw. She would retreat back to that place she lived inside herself, before she told us who she was. She would feel alone, shameful, and unwelcome by her teachers and her peers. She would feel separate, and she would not feel equal.
We are an interracial couple. Fifty years ago, in many places across the country, it would have been legal to discriminate against us because, many people said, a fundamental part of who we are was somehow offensive and perverse. Our daughter is transgender. In many places across the country, it is legal to discriminate against her because, many people say, a fundamental part of who she is somehow offensive and perverse.
We are thankful that the Department of Education, the Department of Justice, and the Obama administration are standing with our daughter Ellie. They understand that our transgender daughter, our precious little transgender girl, is first and foremost our daughter and our little girl. But as a society, we must do more. We must refuse to give in to fear and misunderstanding. We must embrace transgender children and adults with love, not discrimination, and empathy, not hatred.
[Some embrace Obama administration’s transgender directive, others vow to fight]
Our daughter, like thousands of transgender and gender non-conforming children, does not want special treatment. She wants to make friends, to learn, to participate in sports, to go trick-or-treating on Halloween and wear pretty dresses on her birthday.
And, yes, she wants use the bathroom that matches her gender identity when she needs to pee. Not because that’s special treatment, but because that’s the same treatment everyone else receives. Our daughter wants to be included, just like everyone else.
We want that for her, too. We want that for all kids like her.
Here are some of the reader responses:
“I am the father of a gender non-conforming daughter. At age 5 she refused to wear dresses.”
I am the father of a gender non-conforming daughter. At age 5 she refused to wear dresses. She sometimes said that she wanted to be a boy and periodically asked to be called by a boy’s name. She often refers to herself as “he” in her various imaginary games. At age 6, she started asking for “fancy” clothes, i.e., boys’ suits, which she loves wearing. That being said, she has never complained about using a girls’ bathroom, has never said she wished she had a penis and refers to herself as our daughter.
Her teachers have been incredibly understanding and supportive, and her fellow elementary school students appear to treat her just like anyone else. I confess that I don’t understand all of her preferences but what I do understand is that she’s my child and deserving of my unconditional love, support and acceptance. My daughter is a remarkably happy, easy-going child and we attribute that, in part, to the casual acceptance of those around her. Of course I have no idea what path my daughter will take through life but I know that the objective of all parents is to help their children become the best versions of themselves that they can be. It baffles and infuriates me that some people might stand in my way to do that.
– Steve Snyder, 56, from Bethesda, Maryland
“As a Christian this deeply disturbs me! It has gotten progressively worse.”
I find it outrageous. As a Christian this deeply disturbs me! It has gotten progressively worse. My daughters are grown but I won’t subject my 3 yr old gbaby to such foolishness. She should never have to worry about who’s in the bathroom with her. The problem with this is it will open the door to perverts and that IS the problem.
As far as the little boy wanting to be a little girl, I wont even comment but to say, Puhlease, God makes NO mistakes!
– Sonja Wilson, 48, from Waldorf, Maryland
“I would have been so pleased and proud of us as Americans if we could have had a respectful dialogue on the issue…”
I understand, appreciate, and respect the point of view expressed by these parents. On the other hand, most people (I am not one!) feel strongly that there should be separate bathrooms for males and females. Why? What are the emotion issues at stake, really – I reject the idea that there is a safety issue involved. I would have been so pleased and proud of us as Americans if we could have had a respectful dialogue on the issue instead of the two opposing camps looking for a fight to advance their own individual agendas without respect for the others’ point of view. But we didn’t do that.
– Michael Weinstein, 57, from Raleigh, North Carolina
“Sometimes people fear other people who are different because they lack information.”
This is a good article. I support people being who ever they are. I also believe that this is a civil rights issue. Bathrooms should be built that are unisex so this does not continue to be a real issue.
However, I have a few questions as I am trying to learn more about transgender people. Is this a chromosome issue? What happens when this child starts to grow facial hair? Will she have some kind of surgery to deal with genitalia? What about here voice? Will she take hormones? Will these hormones stunt her growth? Does she get psychological counseling ?
Sometimes people fear other people who are different because they lack information. Just like racism, sexism, ageism etc.
– Stephanie Rones, 58, from Washington, D.C.
“While I agree that truly transgender individuals deserve the right to use the restroom for which they identify, how do we determine who is transgender and who is simply being deviant with malintent?”
In many ways it is the same as any other civil rights debate. I agree that people who identify as transgender deserve the same treatment and rights as any other person. There is a significant difference that raises concerns in this issue though.
Speaking specifically to the shared use of public restrooms, how are we to know for sure who is truly transgender and who is not. By simply abusing the rights of those that truly identify as such to gain access to restrooms of the opposite sex, sex offenders are given an open door to do potential harm. While I agree that truly transgender individuals deserve the right to use the restroom for which they identify, how do we determine who is transgender and who is simply being deviant with malintent?
– Christina Snellgrove, 45, from Gadsden, Alabama
Ellie and Ronnie Ford. (Jill Promoli Photography)
Looking back on it, there were signs from a very young age.
Vanessa and JR Ford have two children, both born male. By 18 months, their youngest child was having major tantrums when getting dressed. This child was only happy in hand-me-down clothing that looked more girl-centric, rather than boy-centric. As their children grew, their younger child always wanted to be Batgirl, Spider-Girl, or Wonder Woman when playing, and was a girl wearing a dress in every picture drawn with fat crayons. Their second-born was insistent about this and never wavered. Finally, their child told them in no uncertain terms: “I am a girl.”
Today, Ellie is a happy and very loved 6-year-old (almost!) girl whose closet is full of dresses, who plays with her older brother, Ronnie, as she always did, who is called sister and daughter, who has a great group of friends and goes to a public school where she is welcomed and that she loves in D.C. Her parents say she is happier, lighter and more herself now that her family is letting her live as she feels, in her words, in both her heart and her head.
The family is one of the subjects in a new documentary, “Gender Revolution: A Journey With Katie Couric.” We spoke with Vanessa and JR so they could explain what this process has been like for them, as parents and as a family.
When did you realize that perhaps something was going on?
[Parents of transgender child: Our child is not a threat]
VANESSA: Both of our children, around 3, liked to play dresses. Ronnie used to play dress-up, loved ballet and loved pink. But by 4, that was gone for him. Which makes sense in the development with kids. Ellie did the same, but around 4 [wanting to wear dresses] got much stronger. Other things we noticed with Ellie that we didn’t with Ronnie is when she had these dresses on, or anything she perceived as girlie, she would act differently. When she wasn’t in these clothes, she wouldn’t engage with people, she was much more difficult for us. When she did have these clothes on, she was smiley, playful. In retrospect, we look back to when she was pre-verbal. For a while between the ages of 18 months and 3, we would have a lot of trouble getting her dressed. Eventually we thought maybe she had a sensory issue. So we started to try to get super-soft hand-me-downs. More gender neutral clothes came to us, things that would be considered a little more non-masculine. Once she could tell us she didn’t stop.
The Ford family. (Jill Promoli Photography)
Was there a “lightbulb” moment when you realized, oh, this is really something?
VANESSA: It was the Frozen and Lightning McQueen birthday party. We had a “son” in a tiara. At the end of that party, when everyone left, I said, “You are my favorite princess boy!” And she stopped and said: “Mom I’m not a boy. I’m a girl in my heart and my brain.” I said, “It’s time for bed, go brush your teeth and get in bed!” and I jumped on the Internet. Up popped different articles that described just what she was saying. We reached out to groups and people and over the next three months it really became clear.
JR: That was the moment. Before that, we kind of just went with the flow of letting Ronnie and Ellie just kind of be themselves. We didn’t know what was going on, and she couldn’t describe to us how she was feeling inside. It took about a year-and-a-half to get to that lightbulb moment, after we had started noticing something was unique about her.
What was the next step? Were you resistant?
JR: Vanessa found Children’s National Medical Center has a gender and sexuality clinic. She scheduled an intake to really find out what’s going on, were we doing the right thing. The summer [after Ellie’s 4th birthday] was kind of that whole research phase where Vanessa took a lot of time to research and find support groups. That led into the fall, when we finally got to the intake. That summer there was a lot of educating us and our family about what was going on.
VANESSA: She had told us in every way possible. I was so naive and said things like: But you know girls are born with these parts and boys with these parts. And she said, “But mom that can’t be true because I’m a girl.” This was not about her body, this was about her brain and her heart. By end of preschool, she had already asked Ronnie to call her sister and he was doing that.
Were you hesitant at all about moving toward her living as a girl?
VANESSA: We were both reticent and also moving forward. I don’t know, do we call her a girl? We finally got her pink swim trunks and a rashguard that said “girls rule.” We were visiting family and she tantrumed when we put a life vest on her and it covered the words. She said “No one will know I’m a girl.”
How did you let people know?
VANESSA: We wrote a friends and family letter. Went to every parent in her class. We continue to have an evolution of that letter at her new school. We also talked to the school she’d be entering so she could move in as a girl. The District has very strong rules about gender, so they changed her gender and her name. At this point, it’s been almost two years since she told us, and she’s just who she is.
What has it been like to parent your children through this?
VANESSA: The biggest thing we have done as parents is just be whirlwinds around her. There’s a safety in this city. We want to advocate so people with young kids going through this same thing can find resources and know they are not alone. It’s been really helpful. Our day-to-day lives very much do revolve around this, because we have a safe, happy kid in a safe, happy school, and that’s not the case for so many.
How has this changed your lives?
VANESSA: It’s changed my life in a specific way. I was a D.C. teacher for 14 years. During the last school year, I needed more time to be mom both emotionally and literally. I loved my students and my school, but I needed to find a job that allowed me to use my skills but have more flexibility for appointments and advocacy. I’m now the director of education for a nonprofit. It’s been a really nice balance. At the [National Geographic screening], I had my old principal and my new boss sitting next to each other. They both knew what I was coming into the organization with, and what I needed from my career. I’ve been making choices around my career that allowed me to be an advocate and stay connected.
JR: As a dad, those stereotypical traditions have been broken. I internalize a lot. Now I’ve been able to go and see a therapist and unpack emotions; there are a lot of complex issues to deal with. But it takes a lot for me to open up, and just going through this journey with Ellie has definitely humbled me and has broken the ceiling I thought I had for loving and supporting both our kids.
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