MOUNT HOREB — Soft sobbing could be heard from the living room when an area mother would find her child laying face down on the couch. “Why can’t I be a girl at school?” the child had whimpered over a period of months.
The 6-year-old had been talking with her parents and other adults about being able to attend school as “the person she really is.” But the longer she had to wait, the more distraught she became, said her mother.
She could be “whoever she wanted at home,” explained her mother, who agreed to speak with the Wisconsin State Journal on the condition that her family’s names not be used to protect the privacy of her children. But when it came time to go to school, the dresses and sparkly headbands went back in the closet, replaced with boys clothes and a boy’s name.
The first-grader’s mental health began to decline. She became lethargic, quiet and prone to fits of sobbing driven by frustration.
One evening, about a month ago, the girl’s 11-year-old brother appeared in the parents’ bedroom in tears. He wanted to know why his younger sibling was so sad. He said he would see her sitting on the bus silently staring out the window. His normally cheerful and chatty sibling had become withdrawn and unfocused.
Her brother offered to contact the school’s psychologist if it meant helping his sister. That was when the family knew their plan needed to be expedited.
The child’s parents, school officials, and Mount Horeb Primary Center psychologist Nicole Tepe had been discussing the best possible ways to integrate the child’s social transition to her classmates. One of the options they had agreed upon was a reading of the book “I Am Jazz,” a children’s book about transgender teen and activist Jazz Jennings, to the student’s classmates.
The book reading was scheduled for later in the school year, but the child’s worsening mental health prompted the school to reschedule the event for the sake of the student.
What was to have been one family’s private journey of acceptance exploded into public view after the Primary Center canceled the scheduled reading.
The school pulled back after the Liberty Counsel, a Florida-based conservative religious group, threatened to sue on behalf of “concerned parents.” In response, public readings of “I am Jazz” were held outside the high school and at the public library, drawing up to 600 people, including the book’s co-author Jessica Herthel, who flew in from California to support the family.
“It’s been hectic,” the girl’s father said of the national news coverage the flap stirred up. “It just never stops.”
While the adults discuss the larger policy questions — the Mount Horeb School Board earlier this month approved measures granting transgender students access to the restrooms and locker rooms that correspond to their gender identities — little has changed for the shy girl with the quick smile.
Her classmates are still nice, she said, and so are her friends. She likes school, writing, her kitten, and making rugs out of string in art class.
Just one week after her public transition, the parents said they could see a 360-degree turnaround in their daughter. She is talkative and happy again.
Donning a jewel-studded headband and a shirt that said “BeYOUtiful,” the young girl climbed around the living room furniture as vibrant as one could imagine. Now she can wear her favorite colors, purple and pink. She even received a special handwritten note and signature from Jennings in her copy of “I Am Jazz.”
The family said they have yet to receive negative response from anyone in the community or beyond — but they are aware that it’s a possibility on the horizon. So they are working with school officials and Tepe to discuss how to handle any possible bullying in the future.
But even knowing that there was a naysayer does not stop her toothy grin.
The girl whispered to her mother to talk about the parent from her school who didn’t want her to wear her girl clothes to school — something that the young girl gleaned from talk at school about the parent who complained to the Liberty Counsel last month.
A rallying community
Although the family has been buoyed by the support of their community, their school and their church, their decision to accommodate the girl’s transition has provoked sharp criticism of the parents for indulging what the Liberty Counsel called a “psychological and moral disorder.”
But children start understanding gender identity around age 2, said Dr. Jennifer Rehm, a pediatric endocrinologist who specializes in treating transgender youth.
Rehm added that it’s normal for children to exhibit “gender variant behavior” and deviate away from masculine or feminine stereotypes. So the child’s preference for girl’s toys over her brother’s toys was not the driving factor in the family’s decision to help her transition.
What prompted their decision to begin looking at the possibility that their child was transgender was the stream of persistent questions: “Why do I have boy parts — I feel like I’m a girl? Can I grow my hair out? Why can’t I be a girl? I feel like I’m a girl.”
“I knew I was a girl when I was 6,” the girl’s mother said.
“People seem to think this is about sex, but it’s not. It’s about who she wants to be, not who she wants to be with. It’s about being who you know you are. This isn’t something we wanted. She’s going to have a lot of difficulties. It isn’t going to be easy all the time.”
At this point, the transition is strictly social — and reversible. Medical interventions such as hormone blockers, estrogen treatments or surgery, if they are pursued at all, wouldn’t happen until puberty or adulthood.
“Being transgender isn’t a fad — it’s just something that’s been hidden,” her mother said. “More and more people are talking about it. They’re letting people be who they are.”
Since the original reading of the book was canceled, the family has been overwhelmed by support in the community — even though most don’t know who they are.
“People are slowly figuring it out,” the father said.
Aware of the change in the family’s life, their pastor wanted to be included in discussions with school officials to help find ways to be supportive of the child and her family.
“I don’t understand transgender itself, but I do have a wonderful family with a wonderful little girl who has blossomed since she acknowledged to everybody that she is a little girl,” said the Rev. Kelli Fisher of Perry Lutheran Church ELCA.
“We all have a different understanding of what the bible says, Fisher said. “My perception is that some Christians live on fear and uncertainty. Christ loved everybody no matter their economic status or their gender or their livelihood. He called us to love.”
“We’re very active in church,” the girl’s mother said, adding the church teaches kindness and understanding.
“People are different,” she said. “And regardless of what their differences are, the basis of Christian faith is to be caring and compassionate. If Jesus was here right now, I don’t think he would look at a child and say, ‘This is wrong.’ You are who you are. God doesn’t make mistakes. And he didn’t make a mistake with her.”