Meet Ryland Whittington, Our Young Transgender Hero
In a welcome trend, the United States appears to be growing increasingly more accepting of LGBTQIA causes. Recently, this seems to be most applicable to trans* issues — Laverne Cox appeared on the cover of TIME to global applause, a commission co-chaired by a former U.S. Surgeon General declared that "there is no compelling medical reason" for the ban on transgender soldiers in the military, and Louisville's Atherton High School has allowed transgender students to use the bathroom of the gender with which they identify. Now, a particularly touching video has begun making the rounds because of the way it illuminates one family's complete and total acceptance of their transgender son.
Ryland Whittington, who is now 6 years old, was assigned female at birth. Around the child's first birthday, it was discovered that Ryland was deaf. They weren't discouraged, however, and immediately began looking into cochlear implants. Ryland soon learned how to hear and speak. One of the child's first sentences? "I am a boy."
At first, the Whittingtons thought that Ryland's predilections were just a tomboy phase. "The trouble was," the video's caption reads, "phases end." Ryland began to ask why God had made him that way, and declared that he was brother, not sister, to younger sibling Brynly.
And that's when Ryland's parents made a fantastic decision.
Based on the statistic that over 40 percent of trans* people attempt suicide, they decided that a life of misunderstanding and isolation was not the one they wanted for their child. They began referring to Ryland using male pronouns, cut his hair, and allowed him to wear the clothes he wanted. According to gender therapist Darlene Tando, who spoke to ABC News, this is healthiest for a transgender child. "With phases they just come and go or kids try things on for a little while. But with gender identity, when a child is transgender, typically nothing fades in or out. It just really stays the same for a long time," Tando said.
However, Ryland's parents have been criticized for allowing such a young child to choose his gender. "All of us have grown up with or have been tomboys," one comment on ABC News reads. "I am sorry, but this child has no idea what she wants to be as an adult," says another. Other commentators are more supportive of the Whittingtons. "Being trans isn't a cute little tomboy phase," someone wrote. "Good for his parents for listening to him," another comment says.
To get a more personal take on the issue, I decided to ask a friend of mine who is himself trans*. Over Facebook chat, Zephyr and I discussed Ryland's story and the reactions to it. First, I asked him whether he thought that 6 is too young to know. "Absolutely not," he replied. "A large amount of trans* people you talk to will tell you that they've always known. It's the same way that young cis kids 'know' they are boys and girls." He added that that isn't always the case, and there's a good deal of variation, as there would be for any group of people.
"A large amount of trans* people... will tell you that they've always known."
Then I asked him whether he thought that the Whittingtons' decision to upload a video detailing their family's experience was a good idea.
"Honestly, I think the only way to normalize these experiences is to talk about them and show that they happen," he wrote. "People are afraid of what they don't understand. No one is obligated to talk about their experiences, but doing so when you can opens doors for people who would have otherwise never understood what transitioning at such young age entails and how important it is for kids with persistent, consistent gender identity struggles."
In that same vein, I applaud the Whittingtons' openness and obvious love for their son, and I hope that their video helps other trans* children and their parents come to a better understanding of what it is to be accepted. If you'd like more information, check out this list of books on trans* rights.
Why did I use an asterisk after the word "trans?" Check out this article for an explanation.