Raising Ryland by Hillary Whittington - Read Online
Raising Ryland
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Editor’s Note

“Pride Month…”The Whittingtons garnered viral fame when they posted a YouTube video of their then-five-year-old daughter as she transitioned from her assigned gender to the gender she knew she was: a boy. This touching tribute written by Ryland’s mother Hillary explores the emotional journey of parenting a transgendered child with sensitivity and grace.
Scribd Editor

Summary

This powerful, moving story—which has already touched more than seven million through a viral video created by the Whittington family—is a mother’s first-hand account of her emotional choice to embrace her transgender child.

When Hillary and Jeff Whittington posted a YouTube video chronicling their five-year-old son Ryland’s transition from girl to boy, they didn’t expect it to be greeted with such fervor. Beautiful and moving, the video documenting Hillary’s and Jeff’s love for their child instantly went viral and has been seen by more than seven million viewers since its posting in May 2014.

Now for the first time, they tell their story in full, offering an emotional and moving account of their journey alongside their exceptional child. After they discovered their daughter Ryland was deaf at age one and needed cochlear implants, the Whittingtons spent nearly four years successfully teaching Ryland to speak. But once Ryland gained the power of speech, it was time for them to listen as Ryland insisted, “I am a boy!” And listen they did. After learning that forty-one percent of people who identify as transgender attempt to take their own lives, Hillary and her husband Jeff made it their mission to support their child—no matter what.

From the earliest stages of deciphering Ryland through clothing choices to examining the difficult conversations that have marked every stage of Ryland’s transition, Hillary Whittington shares her experiences as a mother through it all, demonstrating both the resistance and support that their family has encountered as they try to erase the stigma surrounding the word “transgender.” In telling her family’s story, she hopes she can assist the world in accepting that even children as young as five, can have profound and impactful things to say and share. What emerges is a powerful story of unconditional love, accepting others for who they are, and doing what’s right, regardless of whether those around you understand it.    

Published: HarperCollins on
ISBN: 9780062388896
List price: $10.99
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Author’s Note

This is a work of nonfiction. The events and experiences detailed herein are all true and have been faithfully rendered as we have remembered them, to the best of our ability. Some names, identities, and circumstances have been changed in order to protect anonymity of the various individuals involved. Though conversations come from our keen recollection of them, they are not written to represent word-for-word documentation; rather, we’ve retold them in a way that evokes the real feeling and meaning of what was said, in keeping with the true essence of the mood and spirit of the event.

Please note that in the first chapter, when this story starts, we will refer to Ryland using female pronouns. Then, at the point in the story when we allow Ryland to transition to the male gender, we will use male pronouns, which everyone who knows him does today.

Dedication

For Ryland and Brynley, with hopes of making this world a more

loving, accepting place for you and the future generations to thrive

Contents

Dedication

Author’s Note

Prologue

PART ONE: LEARNING TO LISTEN

Chapter One: Ryland’s Creation

Chapter Two: Baby Signs

Chapter Three: The Gift of Sound

Chapter Four: Clothing Catastrophes

Chapter Five: Immediate Attention

Chapter Six: Growing Family

Chapter Seven: Canvas for a Cause

Photo Section

PART TWO: EMBRACING OUR SON

Chapter Eight: Transitional Kindergarten

Chapter Nine: Shaping the Future

Chapter Ten: Gender Spectrum

Chapter Eleven: Heat in the Marriage

Chapter Twelve: Nuclear Reaction

Chapter Thirteen: Educating the Educators

Chapter Fourteen: First Day of School

Chapter Fifteen: Spiritual Enlightenment

Chapter Sixteen: Transgender Day of Empowerment

Chapter Seventeen: Coming Out

Chapter Eighteen: Child at Play

Chapter Nineteen: Conclusion

Acknowledgments

About the Author

Credits

Copyright

About the Publisher

Prologue

Mom . . . why did God make me this way?

It happened two years ago, but I still remember it like it was yesterday: in his Batman zip-up pajamas and with his chin quivering, five-year-old Ryland stood in the doorway of his bedroom. His face streamed with tears as he looked up at me, struggling to understand why he’d been the kid chosen to walk such a difficult road.

It’s amazing how one question can hold the power to change everything in your life. It was profound in its simplicity, and the most incredible part of it was the fact that it came from a toddler. But that’s who Ryland is: the innocent, self-aware, strong, and compassionate child who has already educated millions of people about what it means to be transgender.

The moment when I knew we could not ignore Ryland’s journey had actually occurred the night before he asked me that question, after he’d told me that he would wait for our family to die so he could cut his hair. To him, only being free of the very people who loved him most would make it possible for him to exist on the outside as the same person he was on the inside.

It’s hard for most people to imagine that starting as young as age two, a child could feel so much anguish about being categorized as one gender when he identified with the other. As parents, it’s our job to guide our children into making healthy, wise decisions for their future; but few parents ever face the degree of challenges that we’ve experienced with Ryland. As devastated as we were to get the diagnosis that our child was deaf, just after his first birthday, no one could have prepared me for the news that this same child, my little Ryland, was also transgender.

But there was no fighting it. At two years old, Ryland underwent a procedure to receive cochlear implants that made it possible for him to hear. But almost as soon as he was able to hear our words and communicate with us verbally, he needed us to listen to the truth that he was trying to express: I’m a boy, our child would tell us, even though Ryland had been assigned female at birth.

It grew impossible to try to talk him out of it. After much conflict, many sleepless nights, and stacks of books written by developmental psychologists, gender experts, and individuals who had made their own gender transitions, we knew that we had to allow our daughter to become our son.

This was our child, and we would love Ryland unconditionally, but our fears came from how the world would view our child. Wearing external devices on each ear that make it possible for the cochlear implants to do their job, Ryland was already visibly different . . . but as the reality of our child’s gender identity grew clear, I didn’t want Ryland to go through the pain of feeling different. As his mother, when I read the statistic that 41 percent of transgender people attempt to take their own lives by age twenty, I felt speechless—but it ignited a certain empowerment in me. Prior to that, I’d been lost, but now I had direction. I would not lose my child this way . . . even if that meant sacrificing my marriage to the man I loved—Ryland’s father, Jeff.

Through it all, however, we remain together, and Ryland’s knowledge of who he is never wavers. This is part of what many people find so lovable and admirable about him.

Raising Ryland is our story of raising a child who lives with not one, but two factors that have threatened to make him an outcast in today’s world. Primarily, this book chronicles our journey as a family with a child who has voluntarily stepped up before the public in an effort to bring understanding to the plight of the seven hundred thousand Americans, plus those unknown numbers of people, who are transgender like him. Our goal in writing this book is to let them know that they are not alone—that there is love here for them.

We’re also eager to bring more understanding about this topic to all families, teachers, and individuals who are open and even interested to learn more about it. We’re not here to single-handedly sway all of society to accept Ryland and the transgender population. Instead, we’re here as a mother and a father who are determined to do everything we can to create an environment where our child can grow up with the chance to cultivate the same self-love and confidence to which every child has the right when he or she is born.

This book is also the revelation of the private turmoil we have faced as the parents of a transgender child, the resistance we’ve encountered from some of our family, the overwhelming amount of love and support that pours in to us from friends and strangers, and our commitment to our mission to make the world a better, more loving place for both of our children—Ryland and his little sister, Brynley.

Denial is the most common way for parents of transgender children to deal with the signs we noticed early on . . . and most transgender children are not as fortunate as Ryland is. Having known what the book is about when you picked it up, readers might marvel at the irony that we encountered as we recalled some of the early events of Ryland’s life—before we were aware that on the inside, our child was a boy. Most transgender children don’t have parents who accept them and embrace them for who they really are. For us, and for those children, it’s time to uncover the truth. There are many transgender children in this world who will become part of that terrifying statistic.

Ryland is one of the lucky few who can be himself. We wouldn’t have it any other way.

Part One

Learning to Listen

Chapter One

Ryland’s Creation

I’m not looking for love on the Fourth of July in 2003, but, as they say, that’s exactly when you find it.

In June 2003, I ended a year-long relationship with a boy I met during my sophomore year at the University of California, San Diego. Like me, he was a communications major, but unlike me—who has found an internship at a local news station here at home—he’s taken off for the summer in New York to pursue his dreams of finding work in theater.

My friend Tammy, an upbeat coworker at a local chain restaurant, has made a summer project of helping to get me over my heartbreak. I have to give her credit—she’s doing a great job. Oh good, she says as I climb into her passenger’s seat.

What’s good?

You’re in flip-flops. We’ll have to park and walk awhile.

Pacific Beach is one of the most happening spots in all of San Diego, especially on the height of summertime holidays. After we find parking, it takes us thirty minutes on foot to make our way to the sand. We’re sweltering by the time we spot the roped-off property that a group of friends from work has reserved. When a round of margaritas makes it our way, Tammy and I toast and giggle over the first salty sip.

I scan the scene: thousands of young, excitable, beautiful people packed up and down the San Diego coast. Around us, they laugh and dance and pose for photos.

Then, my eyes land on a group standing next to us—good-looking guys, all tan and fit. My eyes fix on one in particular: he’s tall with dark hair, green eyes, and muscular, broad shoulders. He’s gorgeous.

I lean into Tammy. Look at him, I say.

"The one in the gray T-shirt? Yeah. I know."

No, I point, inconspicuously. The taller one.

Just then, he glances over.

He just caught me pointing! I whisper. Tammy and I burst out laughing. Secretly, I’m glad he busted me.

Gradually, his group hovers in to circle around ours, and he and I begin to chat. His name is Jeff, he tells me. He’s twenty-six, five years older than I am, and has just finished his master’s degree in industrial technology at Cal Poly, on the central coast. He’s been working as an EMT and doing some real estate on the side with his dad, but he’s considering going into a field where he can be hands-on in helping people full-time—paramedic training, the fire academy, or maybe even medical school.

Instantly, I’m intrigued.

I like Jeff’s ambition and the fact that he likes to be the one helping people—our attraction is instant and mutual. The ocean water is warm and glimmering with sunshine when he invites me to join him for a swim, but after a few minutes, his friends holler down to him—they’re leaving to host a house party that night. I follow his lead out of the water and whisper to Tammy, who’s waiting at my towel: We have to join them. Fortunately, she and Jeff’s friend have hit it off, too.

When we arrive, his smile lights something inside me: This is what they mean when they talk about love at first sight. As he and I stay close at the party and talk, it’s clear that he’s ready for the same things I’ve always dreamed of: to find someone to share life with, to share a home and start a family.

The first few dates solidify my feelings for Jeff. I open up to tell him about the problems in my family, mainly my older brother, who’s been struggling with a serious drug problem since we were teenagers. Jeff listens quietly, with great patience and understanding, and when he responds, he’s thoughtful, kind, and intelligent. He’s the eldest of three boys, very responsible, and he loves to take charge and manage everything. Jeff always chooses the right thing to do, and over time, I find a deep sense of security in him. He’s the first man who’s ever made me feel safe—an experience I have never felt in my life, definitely not in dating. I trust him to make sure nothing bad will happen to me—to protect me.

Over the next couple of months, I grow more and more sure that Jeff is everything I’ve ever wanted in a man, but because I know right away that I’m going to marry him, I can feel myself coming on too strong—and so can he. He’s used to being a bachelor who lives on the beach, and I observe that maybe he would prefer to remain free to do whatever he wants.

Three months into our relationship, in October, Jeff’s birthday arrives. Not knowing where we stand or whether he wants me to be part of it, I decide to break things off. I tell him that if someone doesn’t reciprocate my feelings, I can only continue to give for so long. Because I can’t be completely cruel, I leave the gift that I’d bought him—a surf shirt—outside his door.

Hurt and angry, he calls me. Why did you do this? I know he’s referring to both the gift and the breakup. Gently, I tell him that I really care about him, but that I need things to be different if he wants me in his life.

He goes out and buys himself a new truck—a man’s rebellious manner of coping with heartbreak—and within a couple of weeks, he picks me up in his truck and asks for reconciliation. He says he regrets letting me get away and makes a decision to open up more and commit. I’m not sure that he’s ready to change so for the next few weeks I tread very lightly and maintain some distance from him . . . but, unable to imagine my future with anyone else, I finally decide to give him another chance.

Right away, I begin to see Jeff including me into more of his life. A month later, on Thanksgiving, he takes me to meet his parents. On the wall inside their hallway, he points out a portrait of his family. There are dozens of them, and they’re all handsome and pulled together. By the way Jeff talks about them, I sense that he will make an amazing father someday.

But following that day, there’s one piece that’s still holding him back: he speaks often about the need for a bigger challenge in his life; more incentive to work harder and use the gifts God gave him. He’s decided that he wants to join the fire department and train as a paramedic, and I support him to move forward with the decision—even taking on some of the costs of his tuition.

The week of my college graduation in June 2004, just shy of a year since we met, Jeff proposes. I’m beside myself. We nail down some of the details immediately: the date, which will be July 2005, the ceremony’s location on the beach, and Pastor Eric—the former pastor of the church where I grew up, which is an hour north of where we live in San Diego—to perform our wedding. Pastor Eric is a longtime friend of our family, and he commits to our wedding date and leads us through our preparations when we drive up to see him for premarital counseling. The session between the two of us and Pastor Eric confirms that I have made the right choice in my future husband—we share the same beliefs about love, family, and faith, and Jeff has Pastor Eric’s seal of approval as well as my dad’s. It doesn’t get any more assuring than that. Besides having a home and a family, I can’t imagine what our future might hold, but if it includes Jeff, I’m ready for anything.

AS I BROWSE wedding blogs and magazines, I can only wish for the stresses that most other brides seem to face: How to pare down the guest list? Which colors to put on the bridesmaids?

My biggest worry in our wedding planning isn’t a factor I’ve ever been able to control—it’s my brother. The opinion of Jeff’s family means a lot to me, and there’s been a struggle in my life that’s been the source of deep shame for years. My brother, Ryan, is two years older than I am. He lives in Oregon on some property our grandfather owned, but even when he’s away, I worry about him constantly. He has such a great capacity for love that his sensitivity is sometimes too much for him to bear, and for the better part of the last decade, Ryan has suffered a serious substance abuse problem.

He’s my only sibling, and he and I are very close. Recently I even bought him a journal. I wish I could be up there when you need me, I wrote on the front page, but if you ever can’t get a hold of me and need to talk, just jot down your thoughts in this little book.

Of course I want my brother at my wedding, but I just don’t know whether it’s a good idea to put him in the wedding. For Ryan to be a central part of the celebration, inside a mix of strangers and alcohol on a very emotional day, could be a recipe for embarrassment in front of my new in-laws.

To help me decide, I turn to Jeff. He knows how much my brother means to me deep down, and tells me, We have to include him, Hill. You’ll always regret it if you don’t.

Jeff’s wisdom and compassion in such a touchy situation cause me to fall even deeper in love with him, and soon, on July 9, 2005, our wedding day arrives. Showing up in his linen groomsman suit, combed hair, and clean-trimmed goatee, Ryan cooperates beautifully, posing in all of our bridal party photos with a proud smile and participating cheerfully in the festivities. Later, my parents tell me that as they were driving my brother to the airport, he told them: Hillary’s wedding was the best day of my life.

At the time, none of us knows that it will also be one of the last days of his life.

THE FIRST YEAR following our wedding isn’t exactly the way I’d imagined. With most of our finances going toward Jeff’s training at the fire academy for the city of San Diego, I return to the restaurant where I worked with Tammy and pick up as many shifts as I can. I crave something more: I’ve always been drawn to high-stress environments—it’s why I wanted to be a television news reporter. Now, as a new wife in her early twenties, I’m beginning to wonder whether I’ll ever be able to pursue the dreams I had for my own life.

I begin to consider going back to school for nursing, but our lifestyle ends up taking priority. After our wedding, we rented a two-story beach house in Pacific Beach, just three blocks from the sand. The house is one of the most amazing designs I’ve ever seen, complete with secret passages and artsy designs crafted into every corner. We frequently entertain friends and spend our money going out to eat, and it’s not long before our finances have spun us into a panic. Jeff and I sit down and have a very honest discussion: I’d always believed that getting married was supposed to create security, and deep down, I’m feeling resentment at Jeff. How is it fair for him to pursue his passions, while I pay a majority of the bills? We agree that we have to start prioritizing better, and we need to make some sacrifices—together. We look long-term: What are our dreams? We want to have children, we want to buy a home, and to do either or both of these, we need to start saving money.

When our one-year lease is up, we pack up the little furniture we have and put it into storage. Then we move out of our beach house, and in with Jeff’s parents, fifteen miles east of the beach in the suburbs of Mount Helix. As a temporary plan, I cannot complain—it’s generous of them to let us move in on their space, and my mother-in-law keeps a home and a yard that could be featured in Better Homes & Gardens. I can hardly enjoy it, though. I’m so worried about what my in-laws think of me, and I feel devastated—humiliated—that at twenty-four years old, I cannot take care of myself financially. In our bedroom, Jeff and I often argue in a forced hush, and I feel like a failure to both him and his parents. There’s no one I can vent to in private, and I never thought that even with a husband, it would still be possible to feel alone in the world.

After a few weeks, we’re having so much trouble that we decide to take some time apart. I pack a bag and leave for the weekend to stay with a waitress friend, who takes me to a party and reminds me how to let loose like I haven’t done since college. We arrive back at her apartment in a blur and fall asleep for a little while . . . until late that night—August 12, 2006—when my life changes forever.

It’s my cell phone that wakes me up, my dad’s number on the glowing display. It’s also two o’clock in the morning. Hillary?

Dad?

There’s been an accident.

I grip the V-neck of my pajama top as my dad’s voice shakes while he narrates the details: my brother had been at a party, and, after drinking too much, he got behind the wheel of a car. Then he and two of his friends—one of them who was in my class, she’s the young mother of an infant—tried to make it home. Someone is dead, Hill, but they won’t tell us who. Mom and I are headed to the scene now.

No . . .

Hillary . . .

I’m coming home!

I hang up and run into the bathroom, where I lose everything I’ve consumed throughout the course of the night. Then I emerge, and I call Jeff’s phone. . . .

No answer.

I dial again, but still, there’s no answer, and again. I leave a message. My brother’s been in an accident, Jeff, someone’s dead. Please call me back!

After a couple of minutes, my phone rings. He’s with friends around a bonfire on the beach, and he’s had some drinks, too. I don’t know what’s happening, Jeff.