Hillary Whittington writes with raw honesty in her book “Raising Ryland: Our Story of Parenting a Transgender Child with No Strings Attached.” (William Morrow, $15.99)
Whittington writes about how she and her husband Jeff helped daughter Ryland transition into their son when he was 5, three years ago. The family, who live in the San Diego, Calif., area, first got attention in 2014, when Ryland spoke at the Harvey Milk Diversity Breakfast. They later released a video of Ryland’s life to YouTube that got 7.7 million views. The video was originally made to help educate the school district about Ryland, before he went to kindergarten, but it takes you through his life.
Transgender has attracted media attention with celebrities like Laverne Cox and Caitlyn Jenner. “It has helped gain awareness that this is happening,” Whittington says, “But I think that people think of Caitlyn Jenner as being a publicity stunt. It’s really frustrating that they don’t understand, that they have closed their minds.”
“Raising Ryland” is Whittington’s way of trying to educate people about what her family and many others are going through.
In addition to being transgender, Ryland also was born deaf. The deaf diagnosis came when he was 15 months, long after it should have been picked up on a newborn hearing screening. The shock of that diagnosis caused Whittington to question herself as a mother. While family members were beginning to wonder why this baby slept through noises or didn’t turn his head when called, Whittington, as a first-time mom, couldn’t process the signs that were there.
Yet, she immediately armed herself with information, taught herself and Ryland how to sign, found a support group and figured out how to work through the medical profession to get Ryland cochlear implants. The deaf diagnosis prepared Whittington to become the advocate for her son as both a deaf child and later as a transgender child.
While transitioning Ryland from girl to boy was much harder on the Whittington family than the deaf diagnosis, Whittington learned through that first diagnosis to stop dwelling on what she had missed and move forward with how to best support Ryland.
She says by phone, that “one of the biggest reasons I didn’t kick myself, was because of the deaf diagnosis.”
The deaf diagnosis also taught her to find resources, do her research and the importance of a support group.
One of the biggest questions people ask Whittington is how does Ryland know he should be a boy.
Shortly after Ryland’s implants were activated, Ryland announced that he was a boy. He became insistent on being a boy by drawing self-portraits as a boy, by refusing to wear any clothes that looked like they came from the girl’s department, by always choosing toys that many would deem “boy” toys, by insisting on wearing boy underwear and boy swimsuits, and even urinating standing up. Ryland never wavered and his increasing insistence sent Whittington into looking up more and more information about gender and transgender identification.
She learned there that people typically align with a gender when they are between ages 3 to 5. She learned the four signs that indicate a child might be transgender: bathroom behavior, swimsuit aversion, underwear preferences and type of toys chosen. She also learned that the transgender people raised without support for their identity attempt suicide at 41 percent, compared with a national average of 1.9 percent. She didn’t want Ryland to be in that 41 percent.
Ryland, who at this point was wearing mostly boy or gender-neutral clothes, but still had long blond hair, continued to give her clues on what they had to do. He asked “Mom, when the family dies … can I cut my hair so I can be a boy?”
And “Why did God make me this way? Why didn’t He make me a boy?”
They saw a therapist specializing in gender identity, who confirmed what the Whittingtons suspected, and encouraged them not to wait to make the transition.
In 2013, when 5-year-old Ryland came back to school from winter break, he came to class as a boy, instead of the girl he had been at the start of the year. There would be no more fighting every day about wearing “girl” clothes or hair bows and no more trying to find gender-neutral clothing in the girl’s clothing section. “It would take me hours to shop for Ryland and I’d be spending hundreds of dollars we didn’t have,” Whittington remembers.
“When I allowed him to be who he is, our life is finally calm and normal — whatever normal is,” she says with a laugh.
The Whittingtons wrote a letter to close friends and family explaining their decision to transition Ryland to a boy that gave a lot of information about Ryland’s experience as well as facts about transgender identity. She also kept copies of it in her purse, so when she ran into people who knew Ryland before, she would just hand them a copy of the letter and ask them to contact her if they had questions.
The first year, they sought help from a support group. They took their cues from Ryland, who requested that they remove any pictures of him before where he looked more like a girl. They adjusted their pronouns from she and her to he and him, which took some time.
Now, Whittington says, “my brain is so adjusted to looking at my child and seeing him as my son.
“The only time I get emotional is if I look back on pictures and think about what we’ve been through.”
She took cues from Ryland, who was very eager to stand up and talk about being a boy, at a transgender conference. “He really had this pride in the beginning,” she said. She also took cues from him after the video came out and after they did a CNN special, to take a step back. They had offers for their own reality show, but she says, “We wanted to educate people, not satisfy a gross obsession to badmouth us,” she says.
By writing the book, she could control the message and “really tell people how hard this was for our family.”
Jeff Whittington, who had been a firefighter, no longer felt comfortable in a career that had many colleagues who he didn’t feel would be accepting of Ryland. He later went into real estate.
And, they did lose friends, who didn’t understand. They have also heard from friends and neighbors who didn’t understand at first, but now do.
“I had to do something to help change the 41 percent,” she says. “The idea that people are killing themselves because of this.” She points to the story of a 7-year-old girl that ran out into traffic when her mom wouldn’t let her wear a princess dress for Halloween.
Now that Ryland has been a boy for three years, they face some new challenges. Many of his classmates only know him as a boy, but their parents know that he was born a girl. “He’s struggling with a way to come out to his friends,” Whittington says.
It might have been worse if they had decided to leave him as a tomboy. Whittington believes that he would not have fit in with the boys he now hangs out with who accept him as a boy, nor would he have fit in with girls. She also would still be running interference at events like birthday parties to get him the boy sticker instead of the girl sticker or the boy toy instead of the girl toy.
Whittington knows there will be many challenges ahead. Middle school and high school will come with hurdles like sports and locker rooms and kids being cruel. She has tried to prepare Ryland for those days with responses. She’ll ask him, “What would you say if one of your friends found out?” And wait for him to teach her again.
Ryland is already used to people staring at him all the time. With his short hair, he cannot hide his cochlear implants, but she says, “I’m hoping and praying he has the strength to stand up to people.”
One of the biggest lessons Whittington wants to impress is not to judge people without understanding where they are coming from. “It’s easy to say that that family is crazy liberals, but that couldn’t be farther from the truth. I was raised in the church, in a very conservative family. There’s nothing I could have done to change it. I didn’t push this on my son.”
Having daughter Brynley, who is 3, made it even more clear to Whittington the difference between Ryland at that age and Brynley. Being a girl is very innate with Brynley, Whittington says. “She comes to me and says, ‘paint my nails.’ She only wants to wear a dress. … Children are born this way.”
People also always want to know about Ryland’s genitalia and whether he will undergo a sex change. That will be a decision they will leave up to Ryland. “The only person that is going to matter to is Ryland — and his partner one day,” Whittington says.
At the first signs of puberty, Ryland will take hormone blockers, the same drugs doctors give people who have early-onset puberty. Those drugs will stop the process of puberty.
Then when Ryland is 14, if he still is presenting the same way, he will begin taking cross hormones to give him male characteristics. Until then, everything they have done can be undone if Ryland were to decide that.
People also want to know which sex Ryland is attracted to, and that’s still unclear. “My mind is so open,” Whittington says. “What is clear is his partner will be one of the luckiest people on Earth. Ryland is the kindest, sweetest, most empathetic person I’ve ever met in my life.”