“These two are unfit to be parents and this is child abuse! Someone needs to get CPS involved so these kids can be taken away!”
Ouch. It’s not the sort of thing you hope to see written about your family. It’s worse when it comes after going public with a decision you’ve made for your child, one reached with their happiness and best interests in mind. But such is the way of social media.
When I was a kid, anyone with the desire to express a blunt opinion had to do it face-to-face on a playground, or, in the more passive mode, through a note slipped inside of a locker. The ability to criticize or demean someone anonymously was limited. Usually—fortunately—this made us all think carefully about our words and approach. In traditional human interactions, the other party could react to us with a fervor equal to our own.
Today, our public space allows people to hide behind computer screens and write the most vile and despicable comments without fear of retaliation or confrontation. I suppose it’s taking the good of the Internet with the bad, but when you become the subject for those harsh words, it can leave you feeling vulnerable and broken down. Trust me, I’ve lived some of the worst of it.
Back in 2009, my husband and I gave birth to a beautiful little girl named Ryland. She was diagnosed as deaf at age 1, and there quickly came the need for surgery and a lot of work as a family and with professionals to get our child to be able to hear and speak. We pushed hard to ensure her success. With her newly activated cochlear implants, we aimed to have Ryland attend a traditional kindergarten program. We were making great strides. Her teachers and doctors praised us, and as first-time parents, we felt such strength in what we were doing for her.
Through all of that, Ryland began to find the ability and courage to share something that had sat silent within her: She began to tell us that she did not feel as though she was a girl. Instead, Ryland knew that she was a boy. I would love to say that my husband and I jumped right on board, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. We struggled individually, we struggled as a couple, and Ryland struggled in finding the support for his truth. After what seemed like an eternity, we all eventually came to the same place: Ryland is transgender.
At the time, Ryland was 5 years old. We knew this decision, at this age, would draw criticism from strangers as well as people who knew us. Still, our child’s happiness was paramount. We could not bear the overwhelming amount of shame we had seen on his face and in his actions. After his transition (a social transition that required no more than a haircut, a change in pronouns, and new clothing), he lit up and presented as a different, happier, healthier child in what was literally overnight. At the time, it was all we needed to know that we were doing the absolute best we could for Ryland.
We came to know the grim statistics associated with the transgender population, including a 41 percent attempted-suicide rate. It was a shocking figure to learn, and an in-your-face illustration of the fact that we as a culture and society are absolutely failing people. It was the driving force toward our next step, which was the decision to go public with our story in an attempt to educate and create understanding. We couldn’t wait for someone else to change the world… because of Ryland, we needed to be a part of that change.
In May 2014, we took the leap with a YouTube video that told our story. We hoped to find understanding and support, but we braced ourselves, too. And rightly so: The barrage of comments that condemned our decision was overwhelming and downright appalling—even though we thought we had prepared for them. Our first reaction was anger and frustration, wanting to scream back into the computer for the whole world to hear. It was pointless, though.
Soon, we learned to accept the negativity and in time, we learned to reframe our responses to try to be a little more compassionate toward everyone who could not get their heads around our decision. How could we look to others for empathy and acceptance if we weren’t willing to give that ourselves?
That became our new approach to dealing with those who were coming at us nasty and outraged. It formed our responses to those who chose to question. We understood that many of these people had a lack of education or personal experience that tied them to anyone transgender—or ever seeing the human side behind those they criticize. It was OK… we understood… and we knew that if we hadn’t had the personal experience with our own child, we may have our own difficulties or misunderstandings. Finding empathy allowed us to release any anger and focus on the one thing that could make a difference, which was continuing to educate people and trying to connect with them by sharing our very real, very raw, and very emotional story. We understood that it was only by allowing people to get to know us and our son that we would start to see change and understanding in people.
With our approach to peace, we have seen an effect on those who are quick to demean and chastise. We have seen opinions change and enlightenment begin. It’s an amazing experience, but we can’t reach it without acknowledging someone else’s viewpoints or opinions. It is only at that point in which they feel heard that they will in turn lend an ear.
For many, the backlash is about fear. For others, it’s about personal beliefs or religion. No matter what the reason for their criticism, we must attempt to understand how their opinions have been formed before we can ever attempt to alter that thinking. This is the only approach we feel is worth taking. Energy put toward anger is just wasted energy.
To anyone who finds themselves faced with the same difficult situation, take our advice: Remain strong in your decisions, and do not be afraid to face the world. Only you know the truth behind your story and the path you have traveled, and it is only by allowing yourself to be vulnerable that you can make that story heard. We will never silence all of the critics and we will never change every heart or mind, but we rest easy seeing the smile on our child’s face every day.
Oh, and to the person that said we weren’t fit to be parents: Legal authorities, school administrators, and child-protection specialists are well aware of our family, and after hearing our story, many of them stand behind us proudly. We invite you to learn more about us and our family. I think you’ll see that behind our decision is nothing but a true, unconditional love.