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What Nathan understood of being transgender was from pop references, where someone was usually the butt of a joke: a father who became a woman but still had a beard, or the character of Chandler's dad in the TV show "Friends." Unlike with LGBQ issues, where people can often balance what they hear with personal experience, only 8 percent of Americans say they know someone who is transgender, a statistic that's probably area-specific. "When I realized that it was more than experimenting," Nathan says, "there was a lot of emotion around it: projecting what the dangers might be; a little bit of a mourning period where you have to let go of the gender you thought your child was. All the projections you had about what your child's life was going to be like."
"There's also A to consider, as far as being S's sibling," Jipala says. A's awareness is particularly mature around the issue, and he'll advocate for S in his own five-year-old way. As a younger child growing up with a trans sibling, it's just the way it's always been. "He did ask questions about it when he was three or four," Jipala says. "'Mom, you get what you get and you don't get upset. I'm a boy, and I'm not upset about it.' I explained that some people are just born like that."
"It took him a year to get the pronouns right," Nathan says. "And sometimes when he gets mad at her, he'll use it against her." "But he apologizes," Jipala says.
When S enters the room, she goes straight for Jipala's lap, and we talk about her summer camp, which is just for gender-nonconforming kids. With arts and sports activities, it's a traditional summer camp experience. "There was karaoke," S says, "and Kate the Great came. She's trans. She made all her props." They learned about it at the annual Philadelphia Trans-Health Conference—three days of workshops and activities each June, now in its 14th year.
Though people have mostly been accepting of their family, the bathroom at S's private school was a hot issue for a few. "Adults tend to sexualize everything," Nathan points out. Most trans kids don't want to draw attention to themselves in the bathroom, generally afraid of anyone seeing their genitals. The school figured out and implemented within a month of S's enrollment that having one bathroom be gender neutral for everybody was a quick and simple solution.
When James Rios walks confidently away from the camera at the end of the short film Passing Ellenville he says, "I don't care what everybody else sees. This transition is about no more acting, just being myself, and not worrying about anybody else." The film documents two transgender youths from Ellenville: Rios, who is female-to-male, and Ashlee, who is male-to-female. It had its New York premiere at the Woodstock Film Festival in October.
Coming from an unstable home, Rios couldn't give any energy to figuring out his situation. "Once safety wasn't a issue, I could realize patterns from early childhood." It was an eye opener to meet Ashlee. Rios was a client of Family of Woodstock's MidWay Program, a live-in option for high-risk youth ages 16 to 21. Ashlee wasn't transitioned yet either, and they both struggled with gay and lesbian labels. Ashlee revealed to Rios, "I'm a gay man, but I don't feel like that fits me, but that's all I can figure out."
"When Ashlee started transitioning," says Rios, "I remember feeling very jealous and confused because I didn't want to be a girl." It was a counselor at MidWay who first asked Rios if he might be trans.
"If families support their young person in figuring out who they are, how they'll live, how they identify themselves, without redirecting or setting a different course for them," says Vanessa Shelmandine, program director for the Kingston-based Hudson Valley LGBTQ Community Center, "they might avert some of the high-risk factors prevalent in those who aren't able to express their gender identity: anxiety, depression, suicide attempts, self-harm, and substance abuse."
Rios says it's easier to pass as female-to-male than male-to-female, and that passing is more about moving on and being the person you are now. "If you're born with a birth defect and have surgery to correct it," Rios points out, "it's not like every time you meet someone new you 'insert embarrassing birth defect here.'" Corrective surgery is also not performed in every transgender case. "It's on a need-to-know basis," he says. "I want them to meet me, not my history."