I disagree with Elisabeth Hasselbeck quite often, but during the Jan. 25 episode of The View, she brought me to tears with her eloquent support of transgender and gender-nonconforming children. Here's what she said:
We think about protecting our children in terms of safety and health, but we also should protect them emotionally and psychologically, and I think if you know your child is in a way suffering or feeling trapped, being forced by society to wear a certain clothing type based on gender, then as a parent, and having not going through this myself, I would imagine that you would want to make the best decision for your child to keep them safe there, too -- not just externally, in terms of safety et cetera, but also just in their hearts and minds, so they feel confident in who they really do think they are.
Growing up, I had a babysitter named Edna. She was a Mennonite for some time before she became a Methodist. A true local, Edna could tell you anything about any one of her neighbors and church members. She grew up on farms, was a die-hard Republican, and baked the best pies in Pennsylvania!
Like Hasselbeck, Edna understood the importance of protecting a child's heart. She let me stay over at her house so that we could wake up early the next day and go "yardsale-ing." We'd get up at 5 a.m. and drive all over the county, from house to house. I'd help Edna find the prettiest sweaters and jewelry, and the other "yardsale ladies," as I called them, would always tell her what a good boy I was.
I was a good boy when I was with Edna, because she respected me and made it clear that I could be myself. She would let me "get ready" with her daughter Tam before going out for the night. We'd do each other's hair and makeup, and parade around in our outfits. When Tam's boyfriend arrived to pick her up, I would hide, because he once made a disparaging comment about how I liked to wear makeup. "Getting ready" was one of my favorite hobbies as a child. Heck, I still love to primp before a night on the town!
At Edna's house I had a toybox full of things that didn't go home with me. I had barnyard figurines, a pretend grocery cart with groceries, and a play makeup kit featuring plastic lipstick and eyeliner. My favorite toys were my batons, one of which had colorful glitter inside and tassels on each end.
My parents were never hostile toward my tastes, but sometimes there was an unspoken disdain that lingered in the air when I would express my desire to purchase "girl toys." I once pleaded for a grass skirt for a year, using the argument that in Hawaii boys were allowed to wear skirts. They did, however, let me have batons, perform pretend figure skating shows in my socks, and purchase copious amounts of hair gel. In kindergarten my father shared in my devastation when my gymnastics teacher said I would have to stop learning the balance beam, uneven bars, and other "girl" exercises. I cried the whole way home.
When my teen years rolled around and the other kids started harassing me based on my feminine gender expression, my brother said he would stand up for me. When the guidance counselor called my mom telling her that I needed to toughen up and butch up, my mom told her to shut up and do her job. Finally, when I became suicidal because of the relentless taunts, my parents helped me switch high schools and go to college early.
Having people in my life like my parents and Edna taught me how to be confident and compassionate at once. I was able to see bullies beyond their behavior, as young people who struggled with issues like poverty and abuse in their homes. I was able to see that many of them didn't have family and friends protecting their hearts like I did. That's why today I support holistic measures to reduce bullying rather than so-called "zero-tolerance" policies.
Brené Brown, a researcher on shame and vulnerability, shared at a TED conference that one of her core findings was that the one variable separating people who have a strong sense of love and belonging and those who struggle for it is that "the people who have a strong sense of love and belonging believe they're worthy of love and belonging." Giving children the freedom and safety to be themselves creates an environment of worthiness.
I was incredibly fortunate to have parents and familial caregivers who sought to protect both my physical safety and my emotional health by allowing me to be my authentic self. I am without a doubt alive, and a more confident adult today, because of the people I had in my life as a child.
It may take an uncomfortable conversation or a lifetime of uncomfortable conversations, but it's worth talking with your own family about how to celebrate all children. Together we can create a world that treats every child with the dignity and respect they deserve. We can create schools that encourage any child to twirl a baton and community centers that let any child use the uneven bars.
The opinions expressed in this post do not reflect the official organizational positions of the Transgender Law Center.