Chicago-based children's author, Jennifer Carr, didn't publish her first book in hopes of becoming famous. (That thought actually terrifies her.) She started publishing because she wanted to give her kids something that many families take for granted- a storybook that reflects them.
Carr is the mother of a transgender 7-year-old girl and a 5-year-old boy, and her first book Be Who You Are (AuthorHouse, 2010, Illustrated by Ben Rumback), is an unprecedented addition to children's literature for more reason than one.
Be Who You Are is a 32-page picture and story book about a child born male who grows up feeling more like a girl. When she tells her parents this, they say "be who you are." That mantra is repeated throughout the book as Nick transitions towards girlhood- picking out dresses, growing her hair, and changing her name to "Hope."
The book is first of its kind: a storybook about a family that embraces a transgender child.
It's a story that Jennifer Carr has lived over the last three years, ever since her oldest child broke down after a shopping trip and confessed that she felt like a girl inside.
Carr described that moment as an "internal tsunami." However, she didn't let on at the time. "I told her 'you have been given a boy's body, but you can feel any way you want to on the inside,'" Carr said. "We didn't think like 'oh, she's transgender.'"
Carr, who uses a pseudonym to protect her family, said she never wanted to speak for her kids. She didn't exactly understand the meaning of her child's confession, who she refers to as "Hope" (the name of the character in her book), but she didn't discourage her, either. Carr helped Hope pick out dresses and let her wear pink. "I just said 'be who you are,'" Carr said.
In time, Carr and Hope would learn that Hope was transgender. Hope asked Carr to find her other kids who felt the same way. Carr promised she would. She took Hope to counseling and did extensive research to find her transgender playmates, even flying her family to the Gender Spectrum Family Conference, an annual gathering for gender-variant children and their parents.
Hope's transition had its ups and downs. While her community was growing, Carr was also finding it difficult to advocate for her daughter. She sent Hope to school presenting as a girl, but she had to fight the school system to do it. Their lives were filled with new questions and challenges: How do you get a passport for a transgender child? How do you deal with doctor's visits?
However, perhaps the most unexpected question Carr had to tackle came from her kids during story time at home. Hope and her brother asked for a book with a transgender kid in it. Carr didn't know of any.
Research led Carr to a copy of 10,000 Dresses, Marcus Ewert's award-winning storybook about a transgender child named Bailey. In the story, Bailey wants to wear dresses but is discouraged by family members who say that Bailey is a boy and boys don't wear dresses. Bailey finally finds a friend in an older girl who, despite not knowing Bailey, invites Bailey to come make dresses with her.
Reviews for 10,000 Dresses are overwhelmingly positive, including a 2009 review in Windy City Times. But Carr and her kids disliked the book. Carr's son asked why Bailey's family rejected her just because she was trans. Her daughter said she, "didn't like Bailey's choices" to go play with an older stranger.
Carr decided that if she was going to give her kids the kind of book they needed, she would have to write it herself.
"It was born out of a need to see something that looked like us," Carr said.
Be Who You Are, a fictionalized account of Hope's transition, is the first children's book with a transgender character who transitions with the love and support of family and community. In transgender circles, that kind of narrative is ground-breaking. The lesson is as applicable to young people as it their parents.
Other parents tell Carr that she had it easy, that it was in her nature to accept that she had a transgender child, while others struggle for years to come to terms with that reality. Carr said that's just not true.
"When my daughter was going to transition, I felt like I was standing on the edge of a cliff and there was a tornado in front of me," said Carr.
After everything that Hope had revealed to Carr about wanting girls shoes, about liking pink and dresses, about feeling more like a girl inside than a boy, Carr gave hope a crew cut the following Spring. It was a terrible mistake, Carr said, choking up as she described how she spent the summer gluing bows to Hope's too-short hair. It was before she realized that Hope's tendencies towards girl things might actually mean she was a girl.
She knew that Hope's transition would change their family, and she didn't know how to support her child. Older transgender people in Chicago had resources through LGBTQ organizations like Center on Halsted and Howard Brown Health Center. Carr had tried both early on when she and Hope needed answers, but neither served children so young, leaving Carr feeling adrift and alone in her search to find support for Hope.
However, Carr's failure to pinpoint what was happening to Hope early on can hardly discount the obvious: When it comes to parenting a transgender child, Carr is light-years ahead of the curve.
As with transgender people generally, few statistics exist to shed light on the experiences of transgender children. But a multitude of recent studies that suggest that trans youth experience homelessness in staggering numbers, supports a widely-held belief that many parents disown their children after they come out as transgender. A 2011 survey from the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force noted that double the number of transgender respondents reported homelessness currently in comparison to the general population.
Carr represents a small but growing number of parents who are not only embracing gender-diverse children, but are fighting for them in schools, doctors' offices, and in the media. For Carr, going public with Hope's story has not been easy.
"I had people saying wolves should raise my children instead of me," Carr said.
Many people in Carr's own family have renounced her, claiming she is ruining Hope's life by letting her live as a girl. Other parents have accused Carr of child abuse for the same reason. Carr worries for her safety and the safety of her children because she fears that transphobic people will retaliate against her. It's why she uses a pseudonym in public and why it has taken her months to step into the spotlight with Be Who You Are.
"I think the violence is a reality," said Carr, speaking generally of the experiences of many trans people in the United States. That threat is part of what motivates her. If she remains silent, she said, nothing will change. Hope will grow up in a world that punishes gender-variance.
It's a fine line between protecting Hope now and fighting for her future, a line that Carr walks uneasily as her work gains publicity. Carr's book is drawing a lot of attention these days, and she has two more trans-themed books in the works: one on bullying and another on puberty.
Carr said she knows that Hope might grow up and decide she isn't a girl after all, or that the name she chose is not the one she will want to keep. Carr is open to both possibilities. But for now, Carr said, Hope is being who she is. "She looks more like her than she ever has."
Jennifer Carr will be at the Hinsdale, Ill., PFLAG meeting Sunday, May 1, at the Unitarian Church, 11 W. Maple. Email firstname.lastname@example.org .