Trans-Parenthood: Raising Hope For Equality

“We’re going to talk about our experience with the person who is now our son and was born as our daughter,” said Dr. James Collins, a professor of anthropology at the University at Albany. On Oct. 21 in the BTC auditorium, Collins and his wife, Fiona Thompson, volunteer coordinator for the Albany School district, discussed raising their transgender child, Rowan Collins, and raising awareness for gender non-conforming persons.

Thompson reflected on Rowan’s birth, saying, “This is our one and only child, and we waited a long time before we had a child so we were delighted [to have Rowan].” Thompson was 38 at the time of Rowan’s conception.

Thompson and Collins first made parental adjustments when Rowan, then called Rosa, was around the age of three. Rowan refused to wear dresses and did not want anything that was pink.

“It was very clear that the traditional signs of femininity were not something she was going to take on,” Collins said.

On Rowan’s sixth birthday, he had his hair cut short, another step that Thompson recalled identified Rowan’s self image at an early age.

Trauma entered Rowan’s life at the same time, when he returned to public school that fall. He was excluded from the girls’ bathroom on various occasions due to harassment.

“Big girls told her that she was a boy and she couldn’t come in this bathroom,” said Thompson. She explained all children know which bathroom they should use, even if they’re uncomfortable with it. “But when big girls say you can’t come in here — then you don’t,” said Thompson, who only discovered the harassment when Rowan developed a urinary tract infection.

“Schools were badly equipped to handle these issues. They were then and they are now,” said Thompson.

Rowan’s struggle did not rest at public school restrooms, recalled Thompson, saying, “Every camp, every afterschool program, I had to sneak up to people and say ‘Excuse me, can you make sure my child is safe going to the bathroom?’”

Experiences like Rowan’s are not only common for transgender individuals but also drastic. In New York, 75 percent of transgender or gender-nonconforming persons have reported harassment throughout grade school, and 36 percent of people who are transgender or gender-nonconforming have attempted suicide. This is 22 times the national average.

“What’s brutal is social isolation. You can see why so many transgender kids head for suicide,” said Collins.

When Rowan was in middle school, Collins and Thompson developed strategies for him such as “dashing out of class” after the bell rang. Rowan learned to gather an abundance of friends in school to prevent hallway harassment.

Rowan revealed to Collins in eighth grade that he was gay.

Collins heard a story that Rowan was slammed against the locker several times and called a homophobic slur in middle school. After Rowan’s parents expressed their concerns to the Albany High School administration, teachers would walk with or stand by Rowan between classes.

During high school, Rowan developed an interest in theatre. He was cast in the controversial production “The Laramie Project,” a play written about the 1998 murder of gay student Matthew Laramie at the University of Wyoming.

The Westboro Baptist Church, an unaffiliated fundamentalist Baptist church, visited Albany High School with counter-demonstrations against the production. Thompson said, “Ro gained a sense that ‘these are my issues and I have to act out against it’.”

Although Rowan was comfortable fighting for the local LGBT community, he was not comfortable with being labelled as a lesbian. “The only costume that Ro was uncomfortable with was the lesbian professor,” recalled Thompson, who was a costume designer for the production.

“The word ‘lesbian’ was never a word that Ro had ever been attached to. ‘Gay’ was fine but ‘lesbian’ was not,” she continued.

After high school, Rowan had a difficult time with filling out boxes in college applications. “He was right on the verge of figuring out that he was a trans man,” said Thompson.

After a short stint at Hunter College, which Rowan ultimately decided not to attend, he had gender reassignment surgery, became an intern for Pride Agenda, and pursued therapy before entering Nazareth College in Rochester the following fall semester.

While at Nazareth, Rowan met a man from an internet dating site and they are still together.

After college, Rowan has continued activism in the battle for transgender equality with the establishment of www.theselfmademan.com, a website to promote awareness and education in the transgender male community.

“Ro became an activist, which was really quite stunning,” Thompson said.

Over 160 cities (including Albany in 2004), 17 states, and the District of Columbia have adopted legislation prohibiting gender identity discrimination in support of the approximately 700,000 transgender or gender nonconforming persons living in the United States.

New York City Councilman Corey Johnson (D-Manhattan) recently proposed an act allowing transgender persons to change their birth certificates. Nationwide, 40 percent of transgender people have reported discrimination based on mismatched documents.

Thompson currently works with organizations involved in gender equality including the Pride Center in Albany, In Our Own Voices, and the Youth Developing Network.

With New York’s current policies, he fears that Rowan and other transgender persons could still be thrown out of work, department stores, restaurants and restrooms.

Rowan, now 22, supports the 2013 Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act, which adds gender identity or expression to the state’s current civil rights code.

The New York State Assembly has passed the bill seven times but the bill has failed to move past the Senate. “That’s the story of New York State,” said Collins.

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