British Columbia·First Person

Our 9-year-old child Ryder is transgender — but parenting isn't about labels

If you have a transgender child, listen to them and find age-appropriate ways to talk to them, says Anne Bruinn.

‘We tell Ryder she is just a girl who was born with a penis. No biggie.’

If you have a transgender child, listen to them and accept them for who they are, says Anne Bruinn. (Anne Bruinn)

This First Person article is the experience of Anne Bruinn, a parent in Vancouver who is raising a transgender child. For more information about CBC's First Person stories, please see the FAQ.

We knew from the very beginning that our child didn't fit the mould. Ryder preferred dresses and pink sparkly clothing from the moment he could crawl to the cupboard and pull out his own clothes. They belonged to his sister but he wanted to wear them and so he did. His sister wasn't impressed at first but as long as they weren't her favourite outfits, she soon adjusted.

At three, he wanted to grow his hair out. He went to preschool with dresses and pigtails. When the other kids were confused, Ryder just shrugged. He didn't feel the need to explain himself and we followed his lead.

When Ryder was four, he sat on the couch crying heavy, sobbing tears. "I want to be a girl! I want to be a girl!" he cried as he rocked back and forth covering his face with his hands. I rushed over, took him in my lap and cradled him, saying, "You can be a girl. Of course you can. Be a girl!"

There was a brief time when Ryder's dad had doubts and made him buy clothes from the boy's section. We had a major fight and I was ready to leave with the kids if he didn't come around. Those clothes sat untouched for weeks until Ryder brought the pile to Dad and said, "I don't want these."

Dad nodded knowingly. That whisper of doubt was washed away and, every day since, Dad has been nothing but loving and supportive.

Ryder started kindergarten in a dress and no one batted an eye. The world is different now, and schools, teachers, counsellors, children and a large portion of the general population are accepting and understanding of transgender kids. It's kind of a non-issue. Before starting kindergarten, I told the school about Ryder's situation. The school knew exactly what to do.

They had a staff meeting where they discussed Ryder's situation and how it was to be handled. I'm not privy to what was discussed but I do know the principal walked Ryder to the single person washroom for the first week of school and that's when I knew Ryder was in a safe place.

We switched to female pronouns a few years ago though sometimes people still falter. Ryder doesn't mind; she just rolls with the punches. We all do. We've never used the word "transgender" in her presence so if she knows it, it was taught at school.

When people ask if we have kids, we reply, "Yes! Two girls." Ryder is gentle and sweet and friendly and clever. And so funny! She loves to laugh, play games, do magic tricks, and play with her friends (all female). Ryder lives in light and joy, and it radiates from her like sunshine.

Ryder preferred dresses and pink sparkly clothing from the moment she could crawl to the cupboard and pull out her own clothes. (Anne Bruinn)

We have given her space and courage to be herself, but she has given us an equally precious gift: the strength and resolve to put our children's happiness above our fears. Peoples' opinions mean nothing. Supporters are cherished, condemners are happily cut loose. Nobody is more important than our children.

Someone once asked me if I had taken her to a psychiatrist. I looked at them like they were mad and said, "Why would I do that? She's not mentally ill. She's happy and well adjusted!" And that was the last time I spoke to them because I don't need to explain things to anyone.

If we had a question, I turned to parenting groups where I found support and advice from other parents of transgender children who had more experience than us. Doctors don't supply parenting advice, other parents do.

If you think you have a transgender child, just listen. Stand up for them. Tell them it'll be OK. Be the hero they need you to be. Don't label them. Just talk to them in simple, age-appropriate terms.

We tell Ryder she is just a girl who was born with a penis. No biggie. Nobody needs to know what's between her legs; it's none of their business.

Maybe in the end she will choose to keep the penis, but that's for her to decide when she's old enough. Maybe she'll decide she wants to be male and then we'll just switch pronouns again. We're flexible like that.

If she had a problem at school and was being bullied, we would move schools. If someone has a problem with her gender, they are cut out of our lives.

We would move heaven and earth for her. What wouldn't you do for your child?

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Anne Bruinn and her husband raise their children in Vancouver in the only way they know how: weaving and dodging and learning as they go. Flexibility is their secret weapon.