If your 2-year-old daughter keeps insisting she’s a boy, your first reaction might be that she’s just trying to bond with her older brothers. But if years go by and that child is still claiming a gender she wasn’t born into, what does that mean and what do you do? Jodie Patterson and her partner, Joseph Ghartey, faced this situation. While they sought guidance to better understand what Penelope, now Penel, was experiencing, it became clearer to them that their child was transgender, which GLAAD defines as “an umbrella term for people whose gender identity and/or gender expression differs from what is typically associated with the sex they were assigned at birth.”
When Penel first announced that he was a boy, his parents thought their child was just being assertive. “Like ‘I’m tough, and I want you to respect me,’ and we were fine with that,” says Jodie. “But when we realized it was a much deeper expression, we had to sit back and just watch Penel for a bit. We had to take the time to learn. It’s been an eye-opening experience that’s given all of us a better understanding of the world. I’m just starting to comprehend ‘identity’ in its true meaning.” One of the biggest misconceptions, Jodie finds, is that when people talk about transgender, they assume it’s about sexuality. “They’ll ask me, ‘Isn’t it too early to know who Penel is going to want to be intimate with?’ What I understand now is that transgender is about identity—how an individual sees him- or herself. The process begins with each human very early.”
Jodie and Joseph are happy that Penel attends a very small private school where everyone knows him as a person, not as “the transgender kid.” They have asked for acceptance and received it from classmates, teachers, parents and the administration. As parents, one of our goals is to support our children and help them shine as their true authentic selves. Through their open-mindedness, commitment and love for their child, the Patterson-Ghartey family is creating a safe, loving environment where Penel can thrive.
Which three words best describe your family?
Loud, loving, relentless.
What is the most gratifying thing about parenting?
Having children is the fastest and most direct way to understanding yourself. Through my kids, I'm able to see my flaws and my strengths and ultimately get closer to my true and most beautiful spirit. There's no hiding with kids. They force you to either succumb or rise above!
Describe your favorite quality in each of your children.
Nain is our musical genius and a classically trained flutist at Julliard; he's the kid whisperer, great with any age. Georgia is an outspoken feminist and a kind soul. Cassius is a phenomenal scholar—we call him the President. Penel is a rock star; he believes in himself and is ready to show the world. Othello is our rascal, always looking for Mr. Trouble.
What has been the reaction of other parents and kids at Penel’s school?
We attend a very small private school where there are only 100 families, so everyone knows Penel intimately and as a person, not as "the transgender kid." We've asked for acceptance and received it from teachers, parents, classmates and administration. Before we started calling Penel "he," his classmates did! They didn't seem to think twice about it. Our community is very tight.
How does the rest of your family handle it?
We were all happy to adjust around Penel. Our immediate family has only ever know Penel as he is—we've never asked him to change his ways. So we simply had to change our language around him.
Our extended family, which sees Penel less frequently, needed time to understand what the heck we were talking about. My mom's from the South, and transgender isn't as open a topic where she lives. But as a family, we embrace happiness in all forms. So everyone's championing Penel.
What is the biggest misconception about transgender children?
Many people assume we're talking about sexuality when we talk about transgender. They say, "Isn’t it too early to know who Penel is going to want to be intimate with?" What I understand now is that transgender is about identity—how an individual sees him- or herself. That process begins within each human very early.
What is the best part of your day?
Dinner. We all eat, talk and dance together. It's our end-of-the-day wind-down, which ends up being a wind-up! Conversation is sure to get heated.
What is your spin on having it all? How do you make it work?
Each day I touch everything that's important to me, so that gives me a feeling of having it all. Family, work, spirituality, health, travel, beauty: These are what's important to me, and if I touch them daily, I feel complete. Having it all is about completing yourself.
To learn more about what it means to be transgender, visit the following sites:
Jodie Patterson’s book recommendations:
Transgender Child: A Handbook for Families and Professionals by Stephanie A. Brill and Rachel Pepper (Cleis Press)
Coming Around: Parenting Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Kids by Anne Dohrenwend (New Horizon Press)
Literature for children:
I Am Jazz by Jessica Herthel (Dial Books)
This story of a transgender child is based on the real-life experience of Jazz Jennings, who has become a spokesperson for transkids everywhere.