Parenting a Transgender Child
An Interview with Hillary Whittington, author of Raising Ryland: Our Story of Parenting a Transgender Child with No Strings AttachedBy Kit-Bacon Gressitt
Forty-one percent of transgender respondents to a survey, conducted by the Williams Institute at UCLA, reported having attempted suicide.
That’s almost ten times the rate of the overall U.S. population.
But statistics are just that, numbers, data without emotion or character—unless you have a personal connection.
Consider this: San Diego County lost four transgender or gender-nonconforming children to suicide in 2015, four we know of: Sage David, Taylor Alesana, Kyler Prescott and Emmett Castle. This makes the 41 percent disturbing, perhaps frightening—devastating for those who loved them.
For one local mother of a transgender child, it was motivating.
That 41 percent, perhaps more than anything else, drove Hillary Whittington, a San Diego County resident, to write Raising Ryland: Our Story of Parenting a Transgender Child with No Strings Attached (William Morrow, February 23, 2016). Part memoir, part instructive lessons, Raising Ryland tells her family’s story of her son’s transition from female to male.
“Just even reading about [the suicides], it just kills me,” Whittington said in a recent interview. “I know we’re so lucky. A lot of people have attempted suicide. They’ve been through so much—even I can’t understand what it means to be transgender—but I can do my best to try to understand. I’ve read memoirs and talked to a lot of [transgender] people and I have friends, but I don’t know what it’s like for them.”
Yet Whittington does know much more than most parents. She has to—for Ryland’s sake. She’s become a passionate advocate for her son and an ally of the transgender community, yet her book speaks only for Ryland, her family, for herself. It recounts her doubts, familial conflicts, the turmoil of Ryland’s gradual revelation, and her fears for him. Born with the body of a girl and the heart and mind of a boy, Ryland eventually communicated this to his family explicitly. When they were able to accept it, they helped him to begin transitioning, with a boy's haircut and all the accoutrements of a playful male child. They posted a YouTube video about their story, with the hope of enlightening others. And Ryland spoke at a San Diego LGBT event. Now eight, he is well loved and admired. But it is what goes on outside accepting circles that puts transgender children most at risk, from unspoken rejection to outright bullying.
“People just don’t understand,” Whittington said. “There’s a lot of curiosity about it, a lot of fear—they fear what they don’t understand. I’m sure from the outside it seems like this crazy thing that we did [allowing Ryland to transition at his age]—‘Oh my gosh, what’s going on inside that home?’—just a huge curiosity by the average family that hasn’t been through it. But I think they do want to understand it. We’re all curious about things we don’t know. Hopefully, it’s for the right reasons. If we don’t expose the truth, people will never understand.”
Whittington strove to help people better understand, but she struggled with the exposure Ryland and the family had already received. While queries about reality television shows poured in, in response to their video, she wanted to protect Ryland from that level of scrutiny; to educate, not satisfy undue or hostile curiosity.
“As far as our family was concerned, I felt a book was the way that I wanted to explain things, the platform that I thought was more educational, the least invasive. Ryland just wants to be a kid. I want to protect him from what’s going on in the world.”
And Whittington knows in order to protect Ryland, change is essential.
“I want people to read my book who wouldn’t typically pick up a book about an LGBT topic. I’m actually hoping that Bill O’Reilly reads my book and that some of the people who typically wouldn’t care to understand this, get a little glimpse into my world, what it’s like in my shoes. I also want trans parents to read the book, because I don't want them to feel that they’re alone. But I really hope for the bigger majority, because that’s what’s going to make change. There will be people who will criticize it, but hopefully I can change a couple minds with this book.”
Hillary Whittington will be appearing at Warwick’s Books, 7812 Girard Avenue, in La Jolla, on Friday, February 26, at 7:30 p.m.
And she'll be the featured author at our June 14 Writers Read at Fallbrook Library.
Need some help?
The Trevor Project provides crisis intervention and suicide prevention services to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning (LGBTQ) young people, ages 13 to 24. Call the Trevor Lifeline at 866-488-7386.
Also published by Gay San Diego.