Although audiences nationwide became acquainted with Sarah Tyler and her family following their appearance on Anderson Cooper's talk show, I got to know them in a completely different manner: at church. It was important that my partner and I, living in conservative Orange County, Calif., and being gay men with children, find a church family where every single person is welcome, which we found at Church of the Foothills. One of our pivotal moments as a congregation occurred when we learned that Danann Tyler would be transitioning from boy to girl, which prompted me to bring in a speaking panel from the Orange County Transgender Coalition to help educate our members.
As would be expected, having a child undergo such a transition caused numerous issues within the Tyler family, at school, in their community, and at work. Sarah Tyler graciously took time to share with me the journey her family has traveled, including not only the many challenges they've faced but the joyful child the transition eventually revealed.
Sarah, thanks so much for agreeing to chat.
I'm so honored you even think we're worth writing about!
I've been impressed not only with how gracefully you and your family have handled what would be, for most, a difficult situation, but also with how you then took that next step, advocating on behalf of your child and transgender people on a national level. Most people wouldn't feel comfortable taking such a public stance.
When it's your child being mistreated simply for being different, it's easy to become an advocate.
Many people may not be aware of your family's story. First, tell me a little about your family and what it was like prior to discovering that Danann was transgender.
Well, I'm a yoga instructor, and a bit on the liberal side, and my husband Bill is a police officer, definitely more conservative, and we have two children. I was always told I couldn't have kids, but I'm the kind of person who, when told I can't do something, immediately wants to do it. I knew that somehow we'd have them.
So your eldest, James, how did he come about?
He was a total fluke! [Laughing.] But Danann was planned.
Tell me about your pregnancy with Danann.
I was absolutely positive, when I was pregnant, that I was going to have a girl. I just knew it. But in all honesty I was rather hoping for a boy. You know, already having one, there were some benefits to having another, such as not having to buy any extra clothes, etc. Still, when they told me I was actually having a boy, I felt that they were wrong. The pregnancy with Danann felt entirely different than with James. With James I had no morning sickness, but with Danann I was sick for the first six months. I kept thinking the doctors had it wrong, but then, at delivery, they told me that I'd had a boy, and I was like, "Cool!"
What was Danann like as a baby?
I'll use the male pronoun, because pronouns for transgender people can be tricky, but when Danann was a he, he was a really happy, calm baby. He was serene, loving, content. We called him our little Buddha.
When did you first notice that all was not as it seemed?
My husband and I took James on a trip when Danann was 2, and left Danann with a friend for the weekend who had a young girl. When I went to pick Danann up, he was standing there in a dress, with nails painted and everything, and just looked so happy, the happiest I'd ever seen him. I was sure my husband was going to freak out, so I asked Danann to change. He started crying and got very angry. And from that day on things were different.
Did that desire to "dress up" continue?
At preschool he would gravitate toward the frilly dresses and feminine things. But at the time he was attending a very conservative religious school, and they frowned on anything that didn't fit strict gender roles. I ended up moving him to a different daycare, which let him dress as he chose, and again he would choose the girly things to wear.
Up until that point, was "dressing up" the only sign that Danann might be transgender?
Around that same time, Danann began insisting, quite strongly, "I'm a girl." She began to want everything around her, from sippy cup to clothes to you-name-it, be pink. She'd take a sheet and fashion it into a dress. She'd put my tights on her head so that she'd have "long hair." I mean, that kid was so creative.
And this was all around the time she was 2 and 3?
Yes. And we talked to people about what we were experiencing, and everyone just said, "Oh, it's just a phase. Don't worry about it."
While all this was going on, did you ever wonder if your then-son might be gay?
Definitely, that crossed my mind. I have lots of gay friends, and I thought that could easily be what it was. Not to stereotype, but Danann had very feminine gestures. He thought like a girl, hung out with the girls, and really seemed, aside from anatomy, like a girl. "Gay" crossed my mind, but not "transgender." The big difference, though, was when Danann began insisting she was a girl. That's when things evolved, quickly.
What was your "aha! moment" with Danann?
One morning we were getting ready to go to church, and Danann said she didn't want to go. I asked why, and he said, "I don't think God is that great. He made a mistake when he made me," and pointed to his penis.
What a profound thing to come out of a 4-year-old's mouth!
Exactly. Who has that kind of self-awareness at that age?
What happened next?
Just a few weeks later I walked into the kitchen, and Danann had taken scissors and was getting ready to cut off his penis.
That must've been scary. What did you do?
After taking the scissors away, I took Danann to our pediatrician, as we'd been talking about these issues with him on an ongoing basis. But every time we talked to the pediatrician, we got a different explanation as to what was happening. We looked online, trying to find information, but all we could find at that time was information on gender dysphoria and gender identity disorder.
You also spoke with several therapists, correct?
Only to get different answers from each! I had one who said, "Don't make dressing differently a bad thing, as your child will eventually have guilt." Another said, "He'll grow out of it." But eventually Danann's behavior just continued to escalate, and I knew we had to do something.
What was happening?
Danann began to get increasingly angry, with everything becoming a battle. He began hurting others, as well as himself, scratching, kicking. His desire for girly things was becoming more of an issue, as he was approaching kindergarten. We tried going gender-neutral with clothing, but that didn't really satisfy Danann. So I'd buy Danann a few things he liked, like those plastic princess shoes, but we began trying to hide it from my husband, as I didn't think he'd approve.
Did hiding things become an issue for the two of you?
We had other issues, as well, both around Danann and other things we were dealing with, but I'll tell you a funny story. Bill was working the late shift and slept with earplugs in, but one morning I was getting the kids ready for school. Danann was wearing these plastic shoes, clip-clopping around the kitchen, when I heard our bedroom door open. I thought, "Uh, oh, here we go," and Bill walked in, looked at all of us, and said, "All I ask is that my son not wear his high heels when I'm trying to sleep," then went right back to bed.
How did he feel about what was going on with Danann?
He thought it was a phase, and that we should just be patient and understanding, but that changed with kindergarten, when it was becoming clear that this "phase" wasn't ending. If anything, Danann's desire to dress as he chose became even stronger. Bill and I got into a huge fight over Danann wanting a princess backpack and lunchbox for school. I just felt, "Who cares what others think? What business is it of theirs?" It seemed more important to me that we try to calm Danann than to worry about what others thought.
How was Danann accepted by the school?
On the second day of class, we got a note home from the principal that Danann's backpack was upsetting and confusing the other children, and that Danann was standing in the girls' line rather than the boys'. We were told it all had to stop and given a list of Christian therapists who could help "fix" him. But I just thought, "Danann is gay. There's no fixing that needs to be done."
But you continued to keep Danann at that school?
At that time, that was all we could afford. We tried to make both the church school happy, as well as Danann, by having him wear bracelets under long sleeves, or clothes that made him happy underneath ones that they would approve of. It was still a struggle. One day, however, a babysitter of Danann's painted his nails, which he was so excited about, and I didn't think anything of it, but of course we got another letter from the school. The tension between the two was getting to be too much, not to mention the ongoing strain on our family.
Was there a tipping point?
Well, one day we had a blowup in Target. It was Halloween, and up until then we'd allowed Danann to pick costumes, like a witch or vampire-princess, which were female but not particularly feminine, more gender-neutral. But this particular Halloween, Danann saw a very frilly Southern Belle dress and just had to have it. Now, I'd wondered if some of this behavior was just that of a very spoiled child, but that day Danann was adamant about having this dress, and I said no, as I knew Bill wouldn't approve. Danann began kicking, screaming, trying to hurt me. I got the kids out of the store and into the car, when Danann went ballistic, scratching herself to the point of bleeding, hitting her head on the car, trying to break the window. She was so out of control that I was making mental notes to myself about the closest hospital with a psych ward. I locked the car doors, drove straight home, and the minute I unlocked the car Danann bolted from the car and ran straight into traffic. She was almost hit. The driver stopped the car and ran over to Danann, asking if he was OK, and Danann said, "Why didn't you hit me? I just want to die. I just want to die and have all of this be over." That's when I knew we needed to change things, immediately, because what we were doing clearly wasn't working.
What did you do?
We took Danann for a complete medical exam, as we were thinking she might be intersex. We didn't know exactly what we were looking for but felt like all avenues had to be explored. The endocrinologists did every test in the book, and each came back normal. However, they'd also done a psych evaluation, which showed that Danann was transgender. We were then referred to the Associate Dean of Behavioral Health at Cal State San Bernadino, whose specialty is working with the transgender and their families. During their first meeting, Danann walked over to a mirror and said, "Why would anyone think this face was a boy's face? I mean, look at me, I'm obviously a girl."
What did the therapist suggest you do?
In addition to ongoing therapy, she suggested Danann transition, immediately.
How old was Danann then?
Six. And our initial thought was, "No, she's too young. Isn't that something she could do later in life?" But the therapist said she believed if we didn't do this now, Danann would continue to self-mutilate and possibly even attempt suicide.
Was that a real concern of yours?
Around that time, a friend of ours whom Danann knew had hung herself, and when Danann realized you could kill yourself that way, she began putting things like belts, ribbons, and shoelaces around her neck and trying to tie them to her bunkbed. So, yes, that was definitely a concern.
Still, making the decision to help her transition so young must have been incredibly difficult.
It was. One thing that helped was that our therapist had us watch the "My Secret Self" episode of 20/20, which focused on transgender youth. One of the stories, about a young girl, Jazz Jennings, could have been our own, right down to the fact that Jazz and Danann both love mermaids. It turns out that mermaids hold particular appeal to male-to-female transgender kids, given that they can be a girl on top, but the tail makes all below ambiguous.
When this decision was made, were you still at the same school?
Yes. We decided that Danann would wait just a few weeks, until summer, to transition. But in the meantime we asked the school to be more patient and sensitive to her needs. We sent letters from our physicians and therapist, asking for the school not to punish Danann, as she'd get extra homework or lose recess for standing in the girls' line or choosing pink paper over blue paper. While initially the other kids didn't have a problem with her, once they saw the teacher single Danann out for punishment, they began to taunt Danann, which just compounded the situation. Finally, it got so bad that we pulled Danann from the school and completed kindergarten elsewhere. Since then, we've had good luck with schools and found surprisingly supportive teachers and staff.
How did you begin the transition?
We went on vacation to a friend's house in Hawaii and let Danann present as female. The housekeeper there took her first look at Danann and James and said, "I thought you had two boys," and before I could even answer, she said, "Oh... Two-Spirit. I get it. You're very lucky."
You mentioned that James had easily started referring to Danann as his sister, but around the time she was transitioning, he also made it clear that instead of being called Jamie, which is how we then knew him, he preferred James. Was that about asserting his masculinity?
Definitely. We have also seen more anger from him recently, both about the attention placed on Danann and the amount of discussion we have around transgender issues, which is completely understandable. He really wants more of a sense of normalcy from us, and we try to give him that while also making sure we are doing right by Danann. It's a tricky balance, taking care of our family and also advocating on this issue.
You were also fired from your job due to your situation with Danann, right?
Yes. For over four years I had been a teacher trainer for a nationally known yoga studio chain. I had trained over 200 students to become teachers. One day I was to teach an early morning class but had a problem with childcare. Instead of canceling the class, I took the kids with me and had them wait in another room. After the session a group of students gathered to chat. One of the women was very conservative, and after she saw the kids emerge from their room, she came over to me with a scowl and said, "I thought you had two boys." I just replied, "It's a long story, but I need to get them home," and we left. Another woman, thinking she was being helpful, filled this woman in. And that same day I was fired.
That shows you how much work still needs to be done to protect employees from discriminatory firings.
Exactly. That helped turn me into an advocate. I started a support group for families with trans children, called Shift Happens, and we began being more public about our situation, which is eventually what led us to do the documentary Trans, as well as Anderson Cooper's show.
Did you have concerns, being so public, about outing Danann or yourselves?
That was definitely a concern, and we've had to take precautions around safety, due to all of the negative emails and letters we've gotten. But at the end of the day, if we can help another family not undergo the trauma we did, or prevent someone from committing suicide, or help educate, and create awareness and understanding, it's all worth it.
Has Danann ever expressed any confusion or doubt about this decision to transition?
Not at all. She is incredibly happy with who she is. One interesting thing is that, ethically, you can't surgically transition someone to another gender until puberty, as sometimes people do decide not to transition. While we don't think they will happen with Danann, we'll be fine with whatever she decides.
And all the behavioral issues you were having with Danann?
Gone. I mean, she's still a kid, but all of that bad stuff just went away.
One final question: When Danann was finally allowed to dress as she chose, what did she pick?
Oh, it was the most ridiculous pink outfit you've ever seen! Obnoxiously girly-girl! What was funny was she wanted to change the minute she got into the car, and then we went to lunch. A little girl came up to us at the restaurant and said to Danann, "I like your skirt," then walked away. After she'd gone, Danann asked me, "Do you think she knows I'm transgender?" and I just said, "I think she knows you're a little girl."
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The Tyler family appears in the new documentary Trans, which won best documentary at both the Torino Gay & Lesbian Film Festival and the Philadelphia QFest. Information on Sarah Tyler's support group, Shift Happens, can be found here.