In September 2015, Vanessa and JR Ford sent a group email to announce that their four-year-old, whom their family and friends knew as their son Zach, would be starting prekindergarten that year as “her true self” — a girl named Ellie.
The Fords’ decision to help Ellie transition socially from boy to girl was not something they did on a whim. Starting well before age 4, Ellie showed countless signs of being unhappy as a boy: being sullen; drawing self-portraits as a stick-figure girl; pretending to be female superheroes; dressing up in princess costumes.
“For Ellie, whenever she put on a dress, she would turn into a different person; she would smile at people and talk to people,” Vanessa Ford said. “It was such a profound change, we thought we had a son who would grow up to be a gay man. We were only thinking about sexuality because it didn’t occur to us that gender identity was a part of this.”
That is, until their family’s “Frozen"-themed birthday party. When Ford said to her child, who was dressed in a Princess Elsa costume, “You’re my favorite princess boy,” the response was strikingly clear: “Mom, I’m not a boy; I’m a girl in my heart and my brain.”
The Fords, who live in Washington, sought guidance from gender experts and mental health practitioners. Ellie, they said, was “consistent, insistent, and persistent” in her gender identity, which experts say is a hallmark for those who are transgender — those whose gender identity does not align with the gender they were assigned at birth. An estimated 1.4 million adults in the United States identify themselves as transgender.
Though many children will experiment and play with a range of gender roles at different points in their life, early data reveals that kids who truly are resolute about their gender identity are unlikely to feel differently as adults.
The Fords felt certain that their child was not merely going through a phase. In fact, the Fords said, once she began to express herself and dress as she wished she immediately blossomed into a happier child. She chose the name Ellie, inspired by a favourite stuffed elephant.
The Fords said they went public with their story because they feel it is important to raise awareness about transgender issues and to humanise and normalise gender nonconforming people.
The Fords say they have had overwhelming support from their community. Still, they are acutely aware of the national climate and controversies surrounding transgender rights. They try to shield Ellie, but occasionally she will hear something on the radio about bathroom laws.
“The very first question we got about growing up was, ‘Daddy, do I have to have a man voice like you?' ” Vanessa Ford said. “We’ve told her that we can help her, and medicine can help her be the girl and the woman she wants to be.”
The Fords are optimistic, but they are also bracing themselves for possible struggles. To that end, they legally changed their child’s name to Ellie the week before Donald Trump’s inauguration in an event they called “Ellie’s Forever Name Day.” They consider it a first step in legally protecting her rights as a transgender person.
The original version of this article appeared in The New York Times.