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Book Review: Raising Ryland

Raising Ryland: Our Story of Parenting A Transgender Child with No Strings Attached

Raising Ryland: Our Story of Parenting A Transgender Child with No Strings Attached

Raising Ryland: Our Story of Parenting A Transgender Child with No Strings Attached. (2015, Harper Collins)

Raising Ryland  is about a California family and their struggle and acceptance of their preschooler’s female to male gender transition. Written by the child’s Mother – Hillary Whittington – the book is at its best in chronicling the Parent’s struggle with shame that accompanies their having a gender variant child. Interestingly, this child presents an earlier parallel struggle as hearing impaired (completely deaf – with hearing restored by Cochlear implants). The parents first come to that realization in the book and deal with their shock, sadness, acceptance and treatment. The following struggle with Ryland’s Gender Dysphoria is fraught with much more anxiety and shame.

At first Hillary thinks “I have a tomboy for a daughter”. She goes through a phase of conflating gender non-conforming behavior with the idea that her (then) daughter might be gay. The father is concerned about explaining Ryland’s male dress to people around town. When true gender variance is acknowledged at last – the game “is on” as they say. And here Hillary is brave and honest with her foibles confusion and occasional successes. We cheer and groan along with her as she negotiates birthday parties, Kindergarten teachers, bigoted parents and LGBT award ceremonies. In one incident later in the book Ryland is presenting male at a softball game and has to pee. The coach – not knowing that Ryland is Transgender suggests he just use the bushes, but Hillary scurries him away to the back of their station wagon for an ad-hoc solution… Such are the challenges of protecting privacy vs, disclosure and decisions around when and how to disclose for both the parents and the child.

This book can certainly be helpful for other parents or adults with a gender variant child in their lives to know that others are struggling and have overcome similar feelings of uncertainty, anxiety and shame and have lived to see their child happy and flourishing as never before.

There are, however, a few problems with the book.

When Ryland needs surgery for hearing implants and the surgery date is months away the Mother–in-law calls the hospital to remind them of her many donations. A sooner surgery date is found – perhaps at the expense of a less fortunate child. The book is populated with many such examples early on of the in-law’s ability to solve problems with their wealth. For some the persistent and apparently unconscious class privilege might be off-putting.

But it is just this milieu of suburban Christian white middle class hetero-normativity, of never having been discriminated against or thought of as less-than for any reason whatsoever and suddenly finding yourself considered as “not normal” or “going against God” that will resonate with some readers and give them hope for their own family’s future. I have often found in my own therapy practice that the stigma around being Trans is harder on those who have never experienced stigma before.

It should be noted also that Ryland is an exceptional little boy in that he was able to express and persist in expressing his true gender identity in spite of his parents’ initial disapproval. Most children will take the parental hint and repress the gender non-conforming part of themselves until they are no longer able to do so. Some of these I see at ages 40, 50 or 60 in my practice.

A Response to New York Times ‘Ethicist’ Chuck Klosterman

In the February 3rd New York Times Magazine, Chuck Klosterman (‘The Ethicist’) addresses the following Question from a reader:

I’ve been living the life of a married man for 20 years. I have a successful career and three children. All this time, however, I have battled gender dysphoria and the deep sadness that comes from living a lie. From the earliest age, I’ve been unhappy being male. I believed I would find happiness only once I was true to myself. I recently had my self-diagnosis confirmed, and I’m initiating a transition to living as the real me. There is a cost involved: pain to my family and stress on my career. Ethically, is it right to be “true to myself” even if that authenticity ends my otherwise happy marriage and damages the emotional stability of my three children? If I had to maintain the lie, the emotional cost would be tremendous; a transition would share the pain with all who love me but might result in happiness. What’s the ethically correct thing to do? NAME WITHHELD, MASSACHUSETTS

The following is my response (which I also sent the the New York Times).

In Response to Chuck Klosterman’s February 3rd ‘Transition Point’.

Ethical Issues Gender TransitionChuck Klosterman (The New York Times ‘Ethicist’) response to a (natal) Massachusetts man’s question on gender transition wraps itself around the idea of measuring happiness.  He talks about the potential happiness of the transitioning man vs. the loss of happiness of his wife and kids.  He notes that there already “is happiness in your life”, and that the transition “might do damage” to the children who “lack the intellectual and emotional maturity to comprehend what’s really happening”.

What is really happening?  As a therapist who has specialized in Transgenderism for the past 18 years I know that people of this age come to see me when they can no longer live with their Gender Dysphoria.  It’s not about happiness; it’s about no longer being able to continue as they have in the past.  Gender Dysphoria is an intense, psychologically painful and anxiety laden state which can intensify over time to the point of being intolerable.  Gender is our first and most intimate identity, and to have that be wrong in some way is deeply disturbing.  I have had many people say some form of:  “there is no choice, it’s either this or I kill myself”.  Furthermore, transitioning is a process of becoming who one authentically is.  I think that’s a pretty good lesson for kids.

The ‘problems’ inherent in all this is that there is significant stigma and discrimination around being transgender in our society.  The only way to combat this is for brave people to acknowledge and be who they are and try and maintains good relationships with those around them.   I think if we envision a person in other (and now less) stigmatized groups in Mr. Klosterman’s article, the issue becomes clearer.  For example – an African American man in, say 1940 wanting to marry a white woman, or a gay person of the same era wanting to be an “out” school teacher… all things that the individual’s family would have not been too happy about.  Transgenderism is at the point in its own unique history of discrimination evolution where these groups were 30 years ago.   Is it easy to have a family member who is a member of a stigmatized group?  No.  Is the answer to have that person disavow their membership and suffer in silence in order to not embarrass anyone?  I don’t think so.

Mr. Klosterman’s “advice” is a good example of a person attempting to grapple with the issue of Gender Dysphoria while possessing only surface knowledge of the subject.   When public figures, doctors, psychiatrists and others do this – they do harm.   This is decidedly ‘un-ethical’.  Mr. Klosterman  – please do your homework and write a better response.

Ami B. Kaplan, LCSW

New York City Psychotherapist

Member of the ‘Policy and Procedures’ and ‘Child and Adolescent’ Committees of WPATH – the World Professional Association for Transgender Health.

www.amikaplan.net, www.tgmentalhealth.com

Book review: Letters For My Brothers: Transitional Wisdom in Retrospect

Letters For My Brothers

Edited by Megan M. Rohrer & Zander Keig. 2010 Wilgefortis. Kindle Edition.

With writing by: Jamison Green, fAe Gibson, Cristopher Bautista, Chase Ryan Joynt, Malcolm Himschoot ,Lou Sullivan,  Reid Vanderburgh, Aaron Raz Link, Elliott Anthony Brooker, Aaron H Devor, Patrick M Callahan , Zander Keig, C.T. Whitley, Raven Kaldera, Tucker Lieberman, Lyle Blake, Keith Josephson,  Evan Anderson and Matt Kailey.

The book provides the newly-transitioning man with the wisdom of nineteen older brothers who have traveled the road before and offer their views, advice and thoughts on the trip.   As one of the editors – Megan Roher notes in the introduction to this Kindle book “Transmen, who rely solely on online materials to learn about transition, miss out on the wisdom that can only be found in a mentorship experience.”

The short, to the point chapters are a refreshingly devoid of artifice.  The standouts (for me) are Christopher Bautista’s essay which expresses the powerful impact of acceptance:

 …reading that little piece of paper was the most terrifying thing I had ever done. But the entire class of a hundred something people, all of them, started clapping for me. All of that previous frustration from the quarter melted away. I had made my declaration to the class, and they had accepted me. I had never thought this would happen. I no longer had to pour so much effort into trying to pass as a guy, to dress like one, act like one, talk like one, like I had to do in the outside world. My class was fine with who I was, awkwardness and all. And for the first time that quarter and in my whole life, I felt like I belonged somewhere. It felt like home.

Chase Ryan Joynt’s essay expresses doubt and uncertainty about what type of man he should be and will be.

…I struggled for a long time with the various versions of masculinity that were represented in my community. Upon reflection I think that I subconsciously attempted to fit myself into the versions of trans that I thought were acceptable and available…

Reid Vanderburgh gives clear advise and reassurance on various tricky points in transition, such as:

Let yourself feel lonely. You’re losing your lesbian community, and you don’t yet have community to replace it. That’s okay. You didn’t fit that identity, and now that you know it, you really can’t stay. Know that in the future, your individual lesbian friends are still going to be there, but it’s not going to be the same.

Aaron H Devor, an academic writes particularity well on discoveries about male privilege:

…everything I say now sounds more authoritative, or more ominous, or both. Sometimes that works in my favour. Sometimes, especially with women, that evokes fear, resentment, or hostility. I think that I’m just making a plain statement. They see and hear me throwing my weight around. I get tense and may raise my voice a bit in anger because I’m hurting. They perceive me as being scary and abusive.

There are more examples, but I recommend getting the book!

On the down side the writing was uneven, as can be expected in a group project and there was some subtle anger towards male to female trans folk:  “…I have quit working at [].. Felt I was wasting my time on all those male-to-females.” and  “In hindsight, not being in that group was one of the best things that could have happened to me, as it was led by a domineering transwoman who had a ‘my way or the highway’ attitude about how transition was supposed to work.”

However, that aside, there’s a lot of wisdom, comfort and inspiration to be found in these pages and any newly transitioning trans-man will want to read them at least once if not more and hopefully will also be inspired to go out and find some real-live brothers to connect with.

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