One kid claims a space on gender spectrum

Parents make bold choice to embrace 'gender diversity' and find an Oak Park public school that's game to explore the path

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By Megan Dooley

Staff Reporter

Editor's note: The names of the child and parents in this story have been changed to guard the privacy of those involved.

Jamie is your fairly typical schoolgirl. She wears her blonde hair long, likes the color pink, and takes a keen interest in fashion. She's equally comfortable on the monkey bars as she is on a kickball field, and she's happiest doing both activities in a skirt. She's energetic and outgoing, and, at age eight, looks forward to playdates with her closest friends.

Jamie is also comfortable in her own skin, an accomplishment few people far beyond her years can claim.

It's not easy, and it's a continuing process, because Jamie was born a boy.

"There's this area, this gray area, where you've got these gender diverse or gender non-conforming children, meaning they were born with a certain gender yet they're not typically that gender," said Jamie's mother, Jennifer. "The way she says it is, her brain is a boy, her heart is a girl. And she really is both."

Jennifer and her husband, Robert, began to take notice shortly after Jamie's second birthday.

"The first inclination was the pajama pants, and taking my shirts," Jennifer said.

Jamie began to make a nightly habit of fashioning a pair of pajama pants into a makeshift wig. The elastic waistband was used a headband, leaving the pant legs to flow like long hair down his back.

After that, Jamie began asking for his mother's oversized shirts, long enough to belt into dresses on his tiny frame.

In the younger years, it was a steady mix of the masculine and the feminine, with Jamie's male gender defining his perception by the outside world, while his female expression continued to emerge at every turn.

By kindergarten, Jamie asked that her parents refer to her as "she." Later that year, she asked to go to school as a girl.

Jamie's parents did something that many parents of gender non-conforming children struggle with on a daily basis; they embraced it.

"What we're doing with Jamie is very unique," Jennifer said. "Our approach has been to make sure that people know that Jamie is a boy whose expression is a girl, whereas a lot of the families, they just have their kids present as girls."

For now, Jamie is still comfortable straddling two genders. "She knows that having boy parts is a part of her, but doesn't define her," Jennifer said. "She can say...I'm a boy, and it's not all of me. So when we say to people that she's a boy it doesn't disempower her or invalidate her expression, it's just a reality. Physically she's just a boy. That doesn't mean that her expression is that."

"On the outside, people assume that I'm a boy. But on the inside, in my heart, I believe I'm a girl," Jamie said. "They're not my body, and they can't tell me who I am."

Jamie entered kindergarten at a public school in Oak Park presenting as a boy. She was allowed to wear her girl clothes at home after school, and eventually outside. But it got to the point where she was tearing off her boy clothes the moment she got home after school.

"I felt more comfortable in girls' clothes," Jamie said. "I don't know why. It's just, girls are pretty, and I like their clothes so much."

Her true identity eventually became too difficult to suppress.

"Near the end of school, I showed my class," said Jamie who wore girl's clothing to school the last few weeks of kindergarten.

"By then, most of the kids kind of knew," said the principal at the Oak Park school where Jamie just finished up second grade. Those who didn't were informed by Jennifer, who spoke to the class to explain that Jamie is a boy, but likes to express herself as a girl. "We really didn't make a huge deal about it," said the principal.

The transition came with some bumps along the way.

"She would spend a lot of lunchtimes (at school) crying last year," Jennifer said. Older children sometimes antagonized her, and called her gay, though she didn't know what the word meant. But the school always intervened, and the incidents of bullying have drastically decreased.

"If there has been anything that's come out, Jennifer lets me know right away, and then we address it on the administrative side immediately," said the principal.

"It's been a gift," Jennifer said of the school. "When I talk with the other parents [of gender non-conforming children both locally and across the nation] they can't believe that she's in a public school."

But it can still be lonely, at times, for Jamie. In a society of rigid gender definitions, she's continuously trying to live both her physical gender and her gender expression.

"We worked really hard at having her be just sort of unshakable with it, and not take it to heart. And it's hard. She doesn't have a spot. So because she's got both expressions, she wants to play kickball with the boys, but they're like, no, you're in a skirt and you're a girl. And then she wants to hang out with the girls, and they want to hang out with girls, because she sometimes is really hyper and goofy, the way boys are."

Jamie is vocal about the difficulties she faces, but she's confident that she knows who she is, and made the right decision, to express herself as a girl.

"It was hard, when I started to be a girl, because I got bullied, like right at that moment," Jamie said. "And at the same moment, I wanted to be a girl."

"Would it just be easier to not deal with all that? Not to deal with the whispers, not to deal with the pointing, not to deal with all of that? For a lot of kids, it just is, it's just easier," Jennifer said. "But for someone with a strong personality like Jamie, it's way more damaging to suppress that. So she's healthier."

There was a mourning period, for Jennifer and Robert, for the son they'd never have. They are the parents of four children, but Jamie was their only son.

"There are some things that you have to deal with, and give up," Robert said. "I actually looked forward to playing baseball with my son. And that's probably not going to happen."

For Jennifer and Robert it was an ongoing process. And they've grown considerably since Jamie first began to express herself as a female.

"You think it's just a phase. You think, oh that's funny, she really likes dresses," Jennifer said. "And then after six or seven months, I realized it wasn't waning at all. In fact it was intensifying."

"I was really annoyed with my wife, for buying all this pink stuff," Robert said. "But then she started researching, and researching...and we started to get that there's this whole world of gender spectrum."

He eventually came around.

"You've got to house both ways of being for a little while. You're saying goodbye to the things you thought you were going to experience with your son, and at the same time, welcoming what will be," Robert said.

A few years from now, new issues will likely arise. The question of a physical transition, for instance. It's not something the couple discuss with Jamie yet, but there is a hormone regimen available that blocks some of the male characteristics that come with puberty. On one hand, it simplifies what might later be a much more complex process. But it's a life-altering decision for a prepubescent child, because the blockers cause sterility.

Jamie's parents feel it's simply too soon to have that conversation. "At eight years old, how the heck do you know?" said Jennifer.

The couple faces complex issues every day in their quest to honor Jamie's true self, but they said that they're the ones who have really learned from the experience.

"It's taught us both to have a whole new level of appreciation and tolerance for other views. Not just gender expression, but anywhere in life," Robert said.

It's one of their goals, to educate others on gender non-conformity.

"It's completely normal. It's completely OK. There's nothing to fix," said Jennifer. "And there are tremendous resources for [parents], to work through their own stuff. Because that's what it is. There's nothing wrong with [the kids]. It's our stuff."

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Reader Comments

12 Comments - Add Your Comment

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Emily from Corning, NY  

Posted: November 30th, 2011 9:23 PM

To say that "God" chose a child's gender and does not make mistakes is just not okay in my eyes. It's not about your religious beliefs and what genitals one is born with, gender identity is between the ears, not between the legs. I applaud these parents for being so supportive of Jamie. Allowing her to make her own decisions about expressing her identity seems like the ideal response to the situation. I wish them the best of luck in their future.

Debbie Simler-Goff from Elmhurst  

Posted: August 9th, 2011 8:30 AM

(Couldn't figure out how to log on facebook and still comment) Megan, while your article is well written, I strongly disagree with the whole premise of gender identity. God chose Jaime's gender at conception, and God does not make mistakes. I realize this is a complex issue and am in no way trying to be glib. Thank-you for the open forum and for allowing my voice to be heard. I look forward to reading other articles that you have written.

Kimberly Gazzo from Dryden, NY  

Posted: June 27th, 2011 6:23 PM

My trans-gendered son has taught me more about love and acceptance than I could have thought possible. I also mourned the daughter I lost, but the healthy and happy teenage son I've gained makes it all worth while. There is nothing to fix, but there are a world of lessons on unconditional love to be learned.

Haans Peterson from Itasca  

Posted: June 25th, 2011 12:51 PM

An eye opening and well written interview. Thanks to Megan Dooley. I appreciate the insight and enlightened openness of the parents. Thank you.

Ed Plum  

Posted: June 25th, 2011 9:44 AM

I didn't finish editing my comment on this story. Either edit the last sentence or don't post. Thanks

Melissa from OakPark.com/EmpoweredParent  

Posted: June 24th, 2011 3:42 PM

I'm so impressed by these parents - knowing that it is "their stuff" to work through, supporting their child to express who she is, and embracing their experience to learn. Thank you for this informative, life-affirming post, Megan.

Mary Beth Horsington from Syracuse New York  

Posted: June 24th, 2011 3:19 PM

What an incredible couple! "There's nothing to fix." I love that attitude, and it's one I wish more parents would embrace. Congratulations on an excellent piece.

Bruce Graham from Chicago  

Posted: June 23rd, 2011 3:37 PM

"Jennifer" and "Robert" are personal friends of mine. This was an extremely well done article - respectful, sensitive and informative. Thanks for doing such a great job!

Sophia Cairn  

Posted: June 23rd, 2011 12:24 PM

In addition to the parents and the school, I also want to express my admiration for and gratitude to Ms. Dooley for this excellent piece. Also the parent of a gender non-conforming boy (www.pinkisforboys.com), I appreciate the positive story! The world is becoming a safer place for our boys one story at a time.

CKW from Indianapolis  

Posted: June 23rd, 2011 12:19 PM

Bravo! What a wonderful article. What wonderful parents and what a wonderful kid. The world needs more families like this. Congratulations.

Sarah Hoffman  

Posted: June 22nd, 2011 10:49 PM

Jamie, fortunately, is not at all unique. And wonderfully, neither are her parents. There is a growing movement among parents to support their gender-nonconforming kids to be who they are, without shame. I write about raising my gender non-conforming son at www.sarahhoffmanwriter.com.

Ray Johnson from Oak Park  

Posted: June 22nd, 2011 12:16 PM

These are the kind of examples which reinforce my belief that Oak Park is indeed, a very special place. My admiration of "Jamie" and her parents, D97, and the school staff is deep and profound.

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