The interview was conducted with Ryland´s mother Hillary Whittington.
As a mom of two, a classroom volunteer and a public speaker Hillary Whittington hopes to bring hope and strength to her experience of raising a transgender child through Raising Ryland.
This powerful and moving story, which has already touched more than seven million people through a viral video created by the Whittington family, is a video of a mother’s first-hand account of her emotional choice to embrace her transgender child.
One Love, All Equal: Raising Ryland has touched or affected literally millions of people. Can you share Ryland ´s story with us?
HW: The doctor told us “It’s a girl!” when Ryland was first born and we raised him as our daughter for the first 5 years of his life. We thought we had a healthy, typically developing baby, until we discovered Ryland was deaf around his first birthday. We made the controversial decision to have Ryland implanted with bilateral cochlear implants, and around the age of 2 years old, he began telling us “I am a boy!” He would repeat this phrase, sometimes screaming and crying, and we thought maybe he was confused or it was just a tomboy phase. However, phases end and Ryland’s assertion of being a boy only increased with intensity. He refused typical girls clothes, toys, bathing suits, and even tried standing when using the restroom on multiple occasions. His behavior was consistent, insistent and persistent and peaked when he made a few comments that made me realize there was pain and shame that was negatively impacting my child. I needed to do something different to help him. I began researching as much as possible and learned that a child discovers their gender as early as 2 years of age and our further investigation led us to the discovery that Ryland is transgender.
OLAE: We noted on your video that most children realize their “true gender” between the ages of 3 to 5 years old. What does the term gender mean to you?
HW: Through my research, I have discovered one’s natal sex can be different from their gender. When a baby is born, we look at their genitalia and make an assumption their brain aligns with their body. However, this is not always the case. Ryland discovered his “true gender” when he was able to communicate with us. He has the brain and heart of a boy, even though his natal sex made us think otherwise. Some say, “Gender is between the ears, not between the legs.” Initially, I even confused gender with Ryland’s sexuality, which is very common for many people. The more research I did, the more I realized how vast the difference is between one’s gender identity, gender expression, natal sex and sexuality.
OLAE: When did you first realize that Ryland was actually a boy?
HW: I hit my “breaking point” when he made a few comments over a 2-day period. It shook me to the core when I realized how much shame was going on inside my child. It all began when he saw the return address labels I was putting together for our Christmas card one year. I made funny avatars that represented the family and for Ryland’s character, I chose a girl with long, blond hair and a cowboy hat (because Ryland loved cowboy hats). He saw the labels and cried out, “Mom, how could you do that to me?” I was shocked and replied, “Do what to you?” He explained, “You made me look like a girl!” I truly didn’t know how to respond because at the time he had long, blond hair and I believed he was a girl. Later that evening, through tears Ryland said, “Mom, when the family dies, I will cut my hair so I can be a boy.” I saw more than a child being deviant or wanting to be a “tomboy.” He had so much pain and shame in being seen as a girl, but didn’t want to disappoint his family while transitioning while we were still alive. The next morning he woke up and asked, “Why did God make me this way?” That statement was the final straw for me. I knew something was wrong and I needed to get to the bottom of it, so I could help my child be happy and comfortable in his skin.
OLAE: How did your family and friends react to Ryland´s transition?
HW: We had mostly positive reactions, but quite a few awkward, unsupportive situations occurred as well. Ryland transitioned back in 2012 and it was even less understood and talked about 4 years ago. In addition, Ryland was only 5 years old and many people still feel a child doesn’t know much at this age. I beg to differ, because children are much smarter than we give them credit for! We definitely lost a few friends and close relatives, but I knew we were doing what was best for him. As hard as it was to lose certain people in our lives, I knew it was necessary to allow Ryland to become our son and support him in everyway possible, even if that meant severing certain relationships. Once many of our friends, family, and community saw how happy Ryland became after transitioning, they supported our decision to allow him to live as a boy.
OLAE: How did Ryland´s teachers and people outside of the family react?
HW: Ryland’s teachers have been amazing. We have been so lucky to have a staff willing to educate themselves and protect Ryland from any negativity or bullying. Luckily, Ryland entered his current elementary school after transition, so most of the students and staff have only known him as a boy. For the most part, people outside of the family withheld negative comments to our faces. If they didn’t understand or support us, they became silent and distanced themselves (for the most part). I sent out a very detailed letter when Ryland first transitioned, answering many questions before anyone had the opportunity to ask. I used references in the letter so everyone could research what I had learned, and so that I didn’t have to answer the same questions over and over again. When I ran into someone at the grocery store who hadn’t received the memo, I would politely hand them a copy of my letter and ask them to read it and get back to me later. This was helpful to avoid uncomfortable questions or reactions in public.
OLAE: Could you share with us a story of hope that you’ve encountered recently?
HW: Some of my favorite experiences are when I change perspectives of people with religious or conservative backgrounds, who never understood or supported the transgender community until they met us, read my book, or watched our video. One email, in particular, was from a well-respected man in our neighborhood who serves in the military. He wrote, “I have to admit to you both, I was very conflicted when I first heard your family’s story. Initially I felt like it was impossible for a child that young to understand the implications and I felt like it was a mistake, as parents, to reinforce it. Seeing first hand the love you have for your child, and actually meeting Ryland in person began to persuade me. I believe that decisions made genuinely out of love are pure and true. There is no greater justification. And your family is very genuine…” His letter was very long, but what means even more is that he has gone on to educate others and openly defend us among skeptical peers. It gives me so much joy to see the seeds being planted by people who, at one time, were skeptics too. This is how the world will change…little seeds being planted all around.
OLAE: What are some of the most common issues that you face as the mother of a transgender boy?
HW: I am typically very anxious and worried about the future. I worry about Ryland’s happiness and also making sure his little sister gets the equal attention she deserves. I know I can’t control everything in their lives, or keep them in a bubble forever, but I am always conscious of giving them both the happiest lives I possibly can. Most parents want their children to “fit in” and feel confident. I may put a little more pressure on myself to make sure Ryland and Brynley are well liked, kind, involved and confident. Another fear I face is puberty and whether our insurance will cover the costly hormone blockers and cross hormones. Right now, I am appreciating the lull before the onset of puberty, knowing we will have extra hurdles to conquer.
OLAE: What would your advice be to other parents that have transgender children?
HW: I think every transgender/gender non-conforming child and their families have their own unique situation and story. Depending on where you live, your child’s personality, when your child “came out” or transitioned, and individual medical challenges, we all face different obstacles and issues. My best advice would be to have open communication and unconditional love for your child. They need to know their parents and family are there for them and will help in anyway possible.
OLAE: Is there any additional words or message you would like to share with our readers?
HW: Thank you for taking the time to read this interview and better understand the transgender community. I know there are still so many people who believe being trans or gay is a choice. From my experience raising Ryland, I can assure you he was born this way and he has taught me more about life than I even imagined. Truth be known, I would never change anything about him. I am so proud of Ryland for speaking his truth and living his life authentically. Now, I feel it is my destiny to show other parents it’s okay to support your children for who they are, even if it is different from the picture you once painted in your head. If we can identify transgender children at earlier ages, I believe we will see a generation of happy, healthy, thriving young people. I love Ryland just the way he is, and my hope is that others will embrace their children in similar ways. At the end of the day, we all want to be loved by our family.
OLAE: Thank you so much for taking time out of your day to speak with us, Hillary.
HW: Thank you so much for this opportunity to share our story. Thank you to One Love, All Equal for your dedication to educate others and support our community. I hope this world becomes more loving and accepting all of LGBTQ+ people. Like I tell Ryland, the world would be boring, if we were all the same.
You can buy Raising Ryland by Hillary Whittington in paperback – here.