When The Kid Becomes The Teacher: On What It Means To Be Transgender
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Parents across the country are figuring out how to answer questions and talk to their children about the national debate over bathrooms and transgender students. In some families, children are actually directing the discussions. Johnny Kauffman of member station WABE sent us this story.
JOHNNY KAUFFMAN, BYLINE: It's bedtime, and Ethan and Allie Slipakoff are riled up. The kids are in the playroom of their suburban Atlanta home as parents Jen and Adam sit in the kitchen nearby. The 8-year-old Allie likes to talk about her striking, red, shoulderlength hair.
ALLIE SLIPAKOFF: So sometimes I put my hair in a ponytail - like, a side ponytail. Sometimes, like, it actually turns out really good.
KAUFFMAN: Allie is transgender and gets lots of compliments about her hair. When she was younger and dressed in boys clothes, Allie still made her parents buy her dozens of accessories to wear on her head. Adam, the dad, tries to explain.
ADAM SLIPAKOFF: It's like a clip goes over your head.
ALLIE: It's a headband.
A. SLIPAKOFF: Oh, a headband.
A. SLIPAKOFF: And...
A. SLIPAKOFF: Thanks.
A. SLIPAKOFF: And so - and you know, it goes down about probably 2 feet.
KAUFFMAN: Adam says it worked as a sort of crutch as Allie and her family tried to figure out what clothes to buy and what name she wanted to use. It had been Eli. What it means to be transgender, let alone have a kid that's transgender, is something Allie's parents had never thought about.
JEN SLIPAKOFF: No.
A. SLIPAKOFF: Not even a little bit.
J. SLIPAKOFF: Not - it never even ever crossed our mind...
A. SLIPAKOFF: No.
J. SLIPAKOFF: ...You know, ever.
KAUFFMAN: Her parents learned using a different pronoun can hurt someone's feelings. Allie talks openly about what it means to be transgender. Jen says one day Allie told a new friend at school about her change.
J. SLIPAKOFF: Her friend didn't believe her. She's like, no, you can't do that.
KAUFFMAN: So Allie took her friend to the teacher.
J. SLIPAKOFF: How did she go from being a boy to a girl? And the teacher said, well, she grew her hair long and wore girl's clothes. And the little girl was like, OK. And that was it. I mean, and they literally held hands, turned around and skipped away, and that was the end of it.
KAUFFMAN: The City of Kennesaw where the family lives is one of the most conservative congressional districts in the country. Allies parents say they get a lot of questions from friends and other parents, but Allie remains the best teacher. Here's one of her lessons.
ALLIE: If you knew someone was transgender, even if you didn't like that person, you would still have to be nice to them because they've been working through...
J. SLIPAKOFF: Working through a lot of issues.
J. SLIPAKOFF: Yeah.
A. SLIPAKOFF: Yeah.
DEBBI SHULTE: That's funny. You're so sweet.
KAUFFMAN: That's Debbi Shulte, who lives close to the Slipakoffs and stopped by after the kids went to bed. Shulte is quick to talk about her love of Jesus and that she attends church every Sunday. She says she never knew a transgender person before Allie.
SHULTE: I honestly will tell you the honest truth. I don't know that I would've believed it had I not seen it firsthand.
KAUFFMAN: And Shulte says her own children have taught her to be more comfortable around people who are transgender. When Allie first started dressing as a girl, Shulte warned her son not to say anything, which only confused him.
SHULTE: I said, well, I just don't want you to point out that Eli is now wearing a dress. And he said, what are you talking about? Like, what would you say? And I said, I'm just saying, don't say anything that would hurt her feelings. And he said, why would I do that?
KAUFFMAN: Now Shulte says she's more relaxed, and like Allie's parents, she's worried the issue is so politicized now. Jen says it reminds her of racial segregation in the South.
J. SLIPAKOFF: You know, I'm not against anyone that's transgender - I just don't want using my same bathroom. I mean, that's like saying, well, I like black people. I just don't want them to sit at my lunch counter.
KAUFFMAN: Eight-year-old Allie doesn't know much about the debate over bathrooms. School and dance classes keep her busy along with the lessons she shares with neighbors about what it means to be transgender. For NPR News, I'm Johnny Kauffman in Atlanta.
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