(Note: This is a story about families and educators learning about gender diversity. Even in speaking of pasts in which they may have described themselves with a different pronoun, many transgender people use the pronoun they currently prefer. This story adopts that practice.)
In Amy Fabrikant’s When Kayla Was Kyle – an illustrated tale for “children of all ages” published in 2013 – 10-year-old Kyle refuses to get out of bed one Monday morning. Word is out among his classmates that he plays with dolls. He has nowhere to sit in the lunchroom, and during the weekend, no one showed up for his birthday party. His parents prod and cajole – we know it’s been hard, sticks and stones, you have to go to school – but to no avail. And then, in language both raw and true to the book’s gentle tone:
Kyle pulled the covers over his head. “I’m not going. I can’t go. It’s not going to work out. It will never work out for me. I’m a mistake!” Kyle screamed. “I only look like a boy, but I’m not like other boys,” Kyle cried.
“What are you saying?” Kyle’s mother asked.
“I can’t live like this anymore. I don’t belong here. Everyone hates me. I want to live in heaven.”
That exchange captures the moment when Fabrikant (M.A.’00) felt the world literally held no place for her own child and that if she and her spouse didn’t fully acknowledge and accept the reality of transgender identity, they could lose that child.
“The starting point for me was this precious two-year-old going to sleep, and as I’m tucking in and snuggling that two-year-old, I’m hearing so much longing and yearning for everything feminine – a Disney princess and the way her hair flows, the sparkle of her dress and how light she is on her feet. Observations that are so tiny and beautiful.”
Friends intimated, through code words like “Barbie” and “dress-up,” that she simply had a gay son – “but it wasn’t about sexuality,” Fabrikant says. “We were talking about gender identity, not sexuality. So I thought I knew, but I didn’t know how to bring it to light, because I couldn’t figure out a way to support my child in a society that has a lot of trouble accepting this.”
People do want a book about gender that everyone in the family can read and that creates a space for us to talk about the pain we may be living in. For example, gender expression is really one of the main reasons students are repeatedly targeted with aggressive behavior at school.”
Both Fabrikant’s book and the real-life story have happy endings. Kyle was affirmed as Kayla by her family and over time, she found friends and became a confident, funny and entirely winning young woman. But getting there was not easy. Along the way, therapists advised Fabrikant to communicate love and acceptance by telling Kayla that – as one put it – “he could be any kind of boy he chose. “I had to educate the therapists around gender, because they really didn’t know,” Fabrikant says. When she went to the library to try to find stories about transgender kids, the librarian handed her a children’s book on gay penguins. And when, prompted by that experience, she wrote When Kayla Was Kyle, the publisher who had initially green-lighted the project told her at, the last minute, that no one would buy it unless she changed the characters to ducks.
“That killed me,” she says. “I cried. And then, through an organization, I found an independent publisher. By then I was doing speaking, because I didn’t want anyone else to experience this pain. And they published the book. Lots of schools got it. The Anti-Defamation League put it on its list for education. Districts began to endorse it. So people do want a book about gender that everyone in the family can read and that creates a space for us to talk about the pain we may be living in. For example, gender expression is really one of the main reasons students are repeatedly targeted with aggressive behavior at school.” [Watch a video about the book on Fabrikant’s website, whenkaylawaskyle.com.]
Recently Fabrikant, who worked for many years as an instructor and supervisor at Teachers College, published a second book, Paloma’s Secret, about a young girl struggling with anxiety and depression. She also consults for organizations such as the Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility, the Restorative Justice Initiative, the Center for Nonviolent Communication, RelationshipsFirst, Safe Conversations and many public and private schools in New York and New Jersey. She provides important information – for example, that brain scans and other scientific evidence show that gender identity is a feeling of maleness or femaleness, which is fluid along a spectrum or sphere rather than two fixed points. It’s not just a passing fad – the data from the science is now catching up with what has been a lived experience throughout recorded history and presumably earlier. [Read a New York Times story on the American Academy of Pediatrics’s new guidance for people providing medical care for children and adolescents who are transgender or questioning their gender identity.]
But ultimately, Fabrikant’s focus on communication – talking without criticism, listening without judgment and connecting beyond differences – may be even more valuable. She believes many people are gaining a better understanding of gender. Nevertheless, when she visited a college campus not long ago to speak at an event for gender non-conforming students, the pain in the room was palpable.
We need to have self-awareness around our own gender stories so that we can grapple with our own implicit biases around gender. Only then can we begin to help the young people in our care.”
“Someone stood up and said, ‘How many of you have tried to kill yourselves?’” she recalls. “And almost every hand went up.”
The moment underscored what is perhaps the most essential take-away that Fabrikant offers: The urgency around understanding the complexity of gender, race or any area of difference. “This is something we all have to be thinking about and coming to understand in our own ways,” she says. “We need to have self-awareness around our own gender stories so that we can grapple with our own implicit biases around gender. Only then can we begin to help the young people in our care – because they’re not running to parents to talk about it. So I want to help communities have new systems in place and interrupt old systems that marginalize and oppress. That’s really the motivation behind both my books. It’s not about finding answers – it’s about creating spaces where every voice can be heard and all things can be possible.”
If you would like to learn more Fabrikant and her work, visit Amyfabrikant.com