One of my favorite conversation starters is to ask people, “What’s the bravest thing you’ve ever done?” Over the years I’ve gotten some amazing answers, everything from running into a burning building, to saving a Chihuahua from drowning in a large fish tank (it was brave ‘cause he hated that little dog). What I’ve learned is that bravery is an individual thing. It’s a person pushing up against his or her own fear to do something, no matter how big or small. Asking this question of other people has also helped me define my own story of bravery. It helped me understand who I was and what I was willing to do, specifically for the people I love. I was comfortable with that for years. Until recently.
A few months ago, I was having a conversation with a good friend of mine and we were talking about Jacksonville’s struggle to pass the Human Rights Ordinance. My friend, who is an amazing dude and an extremely smart and caring individual, said he was good with LGB rights, but he had issues with the “T.” “T” meaning transgender. This threw me off a little, ‘cause I saw him as a strong supporter of LGBT issues, but he just couldn’t wrap his head around the “T.”
That began a quest for me.
I had to find a way to explain it to him and that led to working on a “State of the Re:Union” show about transgender communities, more specifically transgender families. In my desire to educate him about this issue, I got an education myself. I thought I knew, but really I had no idea of the heartbreak, the struggles, and the joy people face just trying to be comfortable in their own body. It’s such a foreign concept to me. Don’t get me wrong, I’d love to lose this growing gut where my flat stomach used to be, but that’s an entirely different thing than feeling like you were born in the wrong body. After working with my producer on these stories, I don’t in anyway feel like an expert on the subject, but I have the beginnings of an understanding, and I hope we pass that off to out listeners.
Throughout the reporting of this episode, I kept thinking, “Am I that brave?” Story after story we talked to people who completely changed their lives because they felt like they had no other choice. Men with families, who decided they needed to be themselves and transition into becoming women; a woman with a child who met a transgender man and her decision to pursue a relationship despite what the people around her thought; all of these life-shattering events. But none of them made me question myself more then the story of Ella Snyder. Ella is a fifteen-year-old girl who transitioned at age eleven. Before meeting Ella, I read a lot of background material, talked with the staff of SOTRU about her story, and thought long and hard about how to handle the interview.
When I met Ella, I was completely surprised. She was a normal teenaged girl. I don’t know what I expected, but I was not expecting someone so comfortable in their own skin. She reminded me of my own daughter, which makes sense ‘cause they are both around the same age. All of the research I’d done made me forget one important aspect of Ella’s life. Despite the labels, issues, and struggles she’s had to endure, she’s a human being, a kid with the same wants and desires as my kid. It’s pretty simple, and I’m in the business of reminding people of other folks’ humanity, but with all of my research she just became a subject. It was her parents though, Van and Denise, that really taught me about bravery.
It was clear to them early on that Ella that was unhappy in her body. They took every measure possible to be sure transitioning was the right step. Ella was an advocate for herself to convince her parents and ultimately at eleven years old Ella transitioned from a boy to a girl. It hasn’t been easy, but Ella and her parents have handled it with grace and care. As I listened to this family tell me their story, I was moved not just by their love for their daughter, but by the bravery it took to substantiate that love. I couldn’t help wonder if I was that brave? If my child came to me with the same issues, what would I do? The one thing I know I would do is love my child. Whoever they will become in their lives I will love them as they are, for who they are. But transitioning, upsetting the order seems, well… big. But then, what is love if it’s not big?
In my research on these issues, I read and heard story after story of heartbreak, of families unable to extend their love beyond what they saw as the normal parameters; lives and bonds broken. When I reflect on that, and compare it to the love the Snyders have for each other and have exhibited to the world, the hard path doesn’t seem like “the hard path,” it seems like the right path. I think Van and Denise would tell you that they don’t see themselves as particularly brave, they just did what they had to for their daughter. After meeting them, I can unequivocally say that if I was in their position, I would too.
Article written by Al Letson