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Raising a gender fluid child in metro Atlanta

Parents, kids, and teens could soon have more options and resources

Faith Yewdall saw the light turn back on in her 6-year-old son Ziya's eyes. Eight months earlier, traumatic bullying in his first two weeks of kindergarten caused her sensitive and creative child to shut down a large part of his personality.

But before heading to a birthday party, Ziya changed from a Spider-Man shirt to his favorite "rock star" dress.

"Part of me said, 'Yes, finally!' Another part of me said, 'Oh no, I haven't had time to prepare for this,'" Faith says. "But I was excited because he was so excited."

Faith describes Ziya as gender-fluid, an internal overlap of masculine and feminine gender traits and expression. He doesn't fit the traditional boxes of boy or girl. He's one of potentially thousands of boys and girls in metro Atlanta who identify in a similar way. For those children, teens, and their families, there are few resources to help them learn and help support their loved ones. But those resources might soon be on the way.

Gender identity is distinctly different from one's biological sex as male or female. Melissa Dickinson LPC, an Atlanta-area gender therapist, notes that many people "fall in the gray area of the gender spectrum ... those who fit neatly into the mythical gender binary of masculine and feminine, whose gender identity and birth-assigned sex are neatly aligned, are actually in the minority."

For thousands of individuals in the U.S. who cannot fit traditional expectations of gender expression, a strong psychological dissonance exists between a person's birth sex and their core identity, according to Anna Lisa Derenthal, a local therapist who specializes in youth and adult gender-identity issues. For transgender individuals, that "internal dissonance often creates an unwavering need to transition totally to live in their more appropriate gender by hormone therapy, and often times gender-affirming surgery. But not in every case."

Gender-fluid is a blending of the common view of people as either boys or girls, Dickinson and Derenthal say. They describe gender as a continuum, similar to color. "It's much broader than just him or her, one or the other. There are a lot of people who live between genders," Faith says.

Christian Zsilavetz, a transgender man and educator, estimates there are possibly several thousand children and teens in metro Atlanta, based on national percentages, who are gender-variant, have a gender-variant family member, or are in a relationship with someone who is gender-variant. They may be transgender, mixed gender, gender-fluid, or a myriad of gender identity variations, he says.

Ziya was drawn toward dresses, Barbie dolls, sparkly headbands, and My Little Pony books and toys for as long as Faith and her husband, Eli, can remember. His gender preference has never concerned the couple. Ziya likes what he likes and they support that.

"Some people like broccoli, some people like pizza," Faith says. "Ziya is his own person."

The day of the birthday party was the first time her son wanted to venture out of the house in a dress, one of several that he typically wears only at home. Faith, whose friends were familiar with her son's gender-blended ways and promised to support her, was initially concerned how other children at the party might react. As was Ziya. "I think he wasn't sure if he would be teased or accepted," Faith says.

But the parents' worries were unfounded. The other children included Ziya in the activities. He had his face painted like a heavy-metal rock star to match the party's theme. "Ziya's dress wasn't an issue. Ziya was just Ziya," Faith says.

Things were different last September when Ziya started elementary school near their Grant Park home. Ziya was excited to go kindergarten, have a new experience, and be with other children. Ziya got a new haircut, red polo shirt, khaki pants, and boys' shoes. He also chose a new My Little Pony backpack for school.

The "gracious and understanding" staff assured Faith that her son's free-spirited, gender nonconformity wouldn't be an issue.

But outside of the classroom by the second day, Faith says, young kids tried to pull down Ziya's pants "to see if he was really a boy." Some students wouldn't let him use the boys' restroom. Students patted him on the bottom and called him "cutie." They mocked his lunch box.

Ziya began acting out at home with behavior that was out of character, Faith recalls. After five days, he broke down and sobbed for hours. He finally admitted what happened at school.

Faith doesn't fault the teachers, whom she thinks were probably overwhelmed with other students. The parents pulled Ziya from class and began homeschooling. But the psychological wounds had already been inflicted. It took months for him to rebound from the bullying and sadness.

Faith and Eli want the same thing that most parents do: to see their child happy. For now, homeschooling is going well. Faith would love to see Ziya have more friends and opportunities to socialize with other children.

While in the past some metro Atlanta families could only seek answers through counselors and message boards, new resources are becoming available.

Faith and Eli hope to meet other families to "share what works and what doesn't with our kids" with similar challenges at a Transgender Health and Education Alliance Family Symposium May 8-9 in Atlanta. The parents also want to enroll Ziya in Pride School Atlanta, a private learning environment for students and faculty who identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, gender-fluid, intersex, or who just support others who do. The school, under the direction of Zsilavetz, hopes to open in the fall with at least 15 to 20 students.

"These children need a safe place to be themselves while they learn, without fear of judgment," Faith says.