Supporting Trans, Non-Binary and Gender-Expansive Youth: Q&A with PTEC Parents Vanessa and JR Ford

by Guest Contributors

Parents of trans, non-binary, and gender expansive youth faced profound uncertainty during the Trump administration. Now, with President Biden in office, we are starting a new chapter. Pallavi Rudaraju (they/them), Youth Well-Being Coordinator for the HRC Foundation, checked in with Vanessa (she/her) and JR (he/him) Ford, proud parents of Ellie (they/them) and members of HRC’s Parents for Transgender Equality Council (PTEC), to ask about their family, their future, and what advice they have for other parents like them.

Pallavi: How is life changing for your family with President Biden in office, and how do you hope it will change in the future?

Vanessa & JR: One of the most profound things we’ve seen is a sense of safety and relief from Ellie. We kept a fair amount of what was happening the last four years away from them, but Ellie understood the past administration didn’t care for people like them. We remember meeting with then Secretary DeVos in 2017, sharing Ellie’s story and encouraging her to protect trans, non-binary and gender-expansive kids in school. She told us how she had a grandchild the same age as Ellie, tried to empathize with us, only to revoke the Obama Administration’s guidance detailing schools’ obligations to transgender students under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972.

Ellie is really excited for President Biden and Vice President Harris. The trans flag displayed everywhere, pronouns being introduced on the White House contact page — they see this administration actually cares about the community. There’s this overall effort from the administration to be inclusive and roll back the damage done under Trump. We support and love Ellie, and are always advocating on their behalf, but know that isn’t the case for all kids. The last four years caused a lot of fear for families like us, but now with Joe Biden, it’s almost night and day.

We’re excited to see what this administration has in store, especially given they’ve already made trans issues a top priority in the first few months. From repealing the trans military ban to pushing forward the Equality Act, Biden isn’t waiting for the moment, he’s creating it. And these actions aren’t just impacting trans people, but their parents, caregivers, siblings, friends — all the people who can now trust in a White House that’ll support everyone.

Pallavi: Tell us a bit about your family and your child’s journey with their gender identity/expression.

Vanessa & JR: We’ve been on this journey as a family since Ellie began socially transitioning in 2015. Ellie has always known who they are, and is just a wealth of information, thoughts and emotions helping all of us navigate things and know how to be the best advocates possible. Their sense of self and identity is something to admire as a parent, seeing your child live so authentically and in the process better the lives of others. They’ve been our constant teacher in helping us understand what we need to do as parents to support them every step of the way.

It’s also been amazing to meet so many other families on similar paths and learning from one another. Ellie has given us the chance to not just support them, but so many others within this community. This is especially true when looking at our work with HRC’s PTEC and the many families all working together to make a better future for our children.

Pallavi: How did you educate yourself on how to be the best advocate you can be for your child? Any specific resources?

Vanessa & JR: We found great online communities built of families like ours and parents of trans kids. National organizations like HRC, Trevor Project, GLSEN and NCTE have been instrumental to us educating ourselves. We also knew from the beginning how important it is to know and connect with people in the trans community, hearing their experiences and learning how we can be the best parents possible for Ellie. It’s important we honor these people in our lives because they’ve had the most profound impact on us as a family.

Pallavi: Tell us a time when you saw the difference an affirming school/home environment made for your child.

Vanessa & JR: We had an incident a few weeks ago when Ellie had a new student join their class. The teacher always asks people to introduce themselves and share their pronouns, and when Ellie shared their pronouns, the student said they didn’t believe in Ellie’s gender identity and started to misgender them. Ellie’s principal and teacher got involved immediately, correcting the behavior and letting the student know they wouldn’t tolerate that kind of behavior and didn’t allow harassment of others. They also reached out to us immediately and stressed how important it was for them to foster an inclusive and safe environment for not just our child, but every student in the school.

Within 24 hours, the teacher connected with HRC’s Welcoming Schools program and implemented a lesson on inclusivity the following day. The student was also changed to another class after so aggressively misgendering and harassing our child. This was a profound experience for Ellie, seeing their teacher and principal act so quickly and advocate on their behalf. We know so many parents and students have to fight for their schools to respond — let alone listen — to situations like this, and are just so grateful for educators that do right by trans kids and create such a welcoming and safe environment.

Pallavi: What message would you want to share with other parents of trans youth who may have questions or are in need of information/resources?

Vanessa & JR: You are not alone. There are thousands of parents of trans kids all around the world who are proud, affirming and supportive of their families. You just need to tap into that community and allow others to lift you up so you can be the best advocate for your kid. We’re always growing our community, whether it’s local or national, and finding new ways to support one another and share resources. Also, remember to give yourself some space to be wrong while always working to be right, educating yourself and growing from each experience. When you do what’s best for your child, you’re only going to see them thrive.

Watch Vanessa and JR speak out against the Trump administration at our #ProtectTransKids rally from 2017.