Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Raising Ryland by Hillary Whittington

Raising Ryland: Our Story of Parenting a Transgender Child With No Strings Attached
By Hillary Whittington
Copyright 2015
William Morrow - Memoir
253 pp.

Raising Ryland is the story of one family's experience transitioning a very young child from female to male. I first became aware of Ryland's story when a video telling about how he transitioned went viral, a year or two ago:

Ryland's story at YouTube

It was the video of Ryland's transition along with a scathing opinion article attacking those who identify as transgender that convinced me I needed to read up on what exactly a transgender person is. I had no understanding whatsoever about what goes on in the mind of someone who is transgender but my viewpoint as a Christian has always been, "It's not my place to judge. I must love everyone equally." With that in mind, I began reading articles by and about the transgendered. When Raising Ryland came up for review, I jumped on it.

Because Ryland was so young when he declared that he was a boy, his transition is probably pretty controversial and I admit that I have mixed feelings. However, there were only two things about the Whittington's parenting that I questioned. One was the fact that they freaked out so early in Ryland's life. They grew Ryland's hair long, put her in cutesy dresses and bows, and then were embarrassed when their little girl refused to wear a bathing suit with a top, asked for clothing from the boys' department when shopping and hid in the closet, dressing in dad's clothing. I have a granddaughter whose parents tend to only put her in dresses for holidays. She wears a lot of pink but she's often dressed in jeans or leggings with a simple knit shirt. And, sometimes she doesn't want to wear a shirt at all. From my own experience, I can tell you that toddlers can be pretty stubborn about clothing and toys; that alone is not unusual. So, I thought they became concerned a little too quickly. However, they had already dealt with the fact that Ryland was born deaf, so perhaps they were more sensitive than they might have been, otherwise.

The only other concern I had is that Hillary Whittington says Ryland won't be changing his mind, although he has softened up about playing with more feminine toys, now that he's been allowed to transition. As open as they've been about allowing Ryland to transition, I would have expected them to be equally understanding if he changes his mind, some time in the future. Having said that, I suspect that if Ryland does change his mind, they'll be okay with it, even though the author is emphatic about him being transgender and that he won't change his mind. The future is yet to come.

Otherwise, nothing jumped out at me. When the author became concerned about her child's determination to be thought of as a boy, she researched transgender children and talked to experts. This was not a decision that was taken lightly and if you watch the video or read the book you'll find that Ryland's parents were motivated by the frightening statistic that 41% of transgender individuals attempt suicide. More than anything, they wanted to raise children who are comfortable in their own skin and happy to be alive.

The bottom line is, we embarked on this path with Ryland specifically as a response to stories about the risks of suicide and self-harm, and because we refused to see that happen to our child.

p. 246

Recommended, particularly to those who are curious about why a child would transition to the opposite sex so young or what it means to be transgender. Memoirs can be humbly written, narcissistic, or somewhere in between. I felt like Raising Ryland leaned toward the self-congratulatory end of the spectrum but had no problem ignoring that. It's notable that the family lives in California, a state where anyone can use the bathroom of his or her choice (a California friend expressing her frustration at recent so-called "bathroom bills" told me of the lack of controversy in her state and said, "We pee happy!"). The Whittington family also has a strong support group with a particularly understanding family. I doubt transitioning a child so young would go quite as well in other states and for those who are lacking such an amazing support network. The writing itself was average, easy to read, nothing special.

What this book was missing:

A list of resources. I would have particularly liked to see a list of other books for further reading, particularly those mentioned in the book. I didn't think to flip to the end of the book to see if there was a reference section or I might have marked the few resources that were mentioned, as I'd definitely like to read more.

Just after I closed Raising Ryland, I found this wonderful article written by a Baptist preacher, which I found particularly helpful explaining the science of being transgender:

Seven Things I'm Learning About Transgender Persons

I also read the opposite viewpoint, an article written by a woman who was a tomboy as a child but eventually grew out of it:

I am Ryland -- The Story of a Male-Identifying Little Girl Who Didn't Transition

There are some distinct differences between the experiences of the former-tomboy who wrote the latter article and that of Ryland. Had I not read the book, I might have been swayed by that particular woman's opinion. Instead, I felt like some of what she said at the end of the article went further to prove that Ryland probably is genuinely transgender, rather than just a tomboy, as she implies. But, you really do need to read about what it means to be transgender to be aware of the differences, which are subtle but significant.

At any rate, I felt like I learned a bit from Raising Ryland but I need to read more to fully understand what it means to be transgender. Raising Ryland was definitely a good start on the road to understanding.

©2016 Nancy Horner. All rights reserved. If you are reading this post at a site other than Bookfoolery  or its RSS feed, you are reading a stolen feed. Email bookfoolery@gmail.com for written permission to reproduce text or photos.


  1. Oh boy. I have such mixed feelings about this topic. I think you're right, kids are so wishy washy and toddlers can be so crazy. I'm not sure I would have freaked out so early in this child's life. And then I've seen shows where transgender people that went ahead with a sex change totally regret it. Which makes me wonder if people in general are too wishy washy and discontented. Always into the latest and greatest...until they're not. You know? Sigh! I just don't know what to think.

    1. Toddlers are a mess, for sure. They're going to throw a fit about something. One of the big differences, though, is that Ryland started saying, "I'm a boy," quite young and never stopped saying it. All of the tantrums were about the fact that child believed herself/himself to be male. And, there is apparently science to prove that a little under 1% of people are born feeling like they're the opposite gender. It's just very, very difficult for most of us to wrap our minds around that concept.

      I've read about transgender people who had regrets after going through with the surgery. You have to wonder if those who have regrets were expecting some kind of miracle, though, and the expectation didn't meet the results (kind of a "grass is greener" thing). At any rate, it's a rough and very controversial topic that I want to know more about because I truly believe a quote in the book by a bishop: "All God's children are of sacred worth and welcomed into the embrace of God's grace." I may not ever fully understand what it means to be transgender but the one thing I will try to do is accept everyone for who they are, regardless of how bizarre it seems to me. It's God's job to create; it's my job to love without judgment (personal opinion).

    2. Oh me too! I'm not judging. I just wonder if people are inherently searching for some great happiness that just doesn't exist. Well, at least for them. Like you said, the grass is greener thing. I'm just glad I don't have to deal with those feelings. My heart goes out to them.

    3. I didn't think you were judging. I was sort of thinking aloud, responding with how I felt about a particular article I recently read in which a scientist claimed that having seen that many who went through the surgery to change their sex were still suicidal, he believed that the state of being transgender is a mental illness. I'm agreeing with you, actually. People are wishy washy, in general, and I think the concept that everything will be better if one major thing changes (weight loss, new job, moving to another state, etc.) is so typical that you can probably blame that same thought process on what happens to someone who goes through with the surgery and then has regrets. Maybe they just think of it as a miracle cure and when their lives don't magically change, they become every bit as unhappy as they were before the surgery. Even if that's not the case and it's a mental illness (which I don't personally believe, after my recent reading), the one thing a transgender person needs more than anything has got to be love and acceptance. That's what we all cry out for, after all.

    4. You put my thoughts right into words! Couldn't agree more. At least it makes for very deep conversation. A good book club book???

    5. Oooh, I didn't think of that! I'll bet it would generate some really terrific discussion.

  2. I love how open-minded you are about this! My sister's child has transitioned. He was never a happy kid, always uncomfortable in his body (we can see in retrospect especially.) Now, I've seen him smile and happy, and that wasn't the case for a long time. He will always struggle with anxiety and depression, but that is heriditary.
    I read the tom-boy article, and agree, there are differences. It's the certainty that trans kids display that make their parents support their decision. One thing that I noticed in the tomboy article, was she said she was female because she liked males as a teenager. Trans people can still like males after they transition; they just become gay!
    The brain is such a complex thing!

    1. Thanks! It's good to know you read my thoughts as open-minded. I wondered how this review would appear from the angle of someone who actually has experienced life as or with a transgender person. I'm so glad you chimed in!

      I think what you said in the first few sentences was a part of the difference between Ryland and the tomboy who wrote that latter article. Ryland was very, very unhappy before transitioning and has been happy since they let him transition. The tomboy, on the other hand, didn't mention being unhappy with her body. She's missing the fact that being transgender is not limited to preference for toys, clothing and activities or attraction to a particular sex. It's understandable why that's confusing but that doesn't mean we shouldn't try to understand.

    2. Forgot to say YES to the certainty concept, also. There was never any waffling about Ryland's belief that he was a boy.

      Huh. Looks like I got more out of this book than I realized!!! :)

  3. I'm just grateful that this is actually being discussed out in the open more. The more visibility as issue has, the more understanding others will have on it.

    1. Yes, absolutely, the more we talk about it, the sooner people will begin to understand what being a transgender person is all about and accepting those people for who they are.


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