*This article was originally published in The Daily Breeze.
For most American girls, the color pink is a birthright, wrapped around them the moment their little lungs gulp their first breaths. Their nurseries are drenched in it; their wardrobes, homogenized.
But for Ally*, a transgender 9-year-old who was born a boy but who identifies as a girl, it wasn’t so easy.
“In kindergarten, she was getting questions about why she was wearing pink so much or why her shoes were sparkly,” said her mother, Stacy Drageset, 42, who works as a marketing director in West LA. “We would just tell her, ‘These are your at-home clothes and these are your school clothes.’ . . . We wanted to shield her from the bullying and teasing that we thought she might experience.”
It was that color war — a child’s worries over pink — that inspired Stacy and her husband Erik Drageset, 46, to action. In an effort to raise awareness, they created a children’s book, “Pink Is For Girls… And Other Silly Things People Say,” that tackles gender stereotypes in a way young kids can understand. The book was self-published and designed for kids ages 3 to 8.
Their goal was to inspire questions: Are toy trucks designed for boys? Are dolls for girls? Why are there “girl clothes and boy clothes?”
“This book is not about being gender nonconforming,” said Stacy, who will be reading the book Saturday at Pages Bookstore in Manhattan Beach. “It’s really to help dispel gender stereotypes that exist and to encourage kids to be who they are and to seek out activities that they like, regardless.”
As for Ally, she plays club volleyball and likes to cook. She loves Beanie Boos, stuffed animals, and her three dogs. She’s got two big sisters and a little brother who adore her.
But her blue eyes dart down quickly, long blonde bangs wisping over her face, when she talks about what she calls, “the transgender thing.”
“My friends have stood up for me a couple of times when people said, ‘You’re a boy, not a girl.’” she said, saddling up to her mom with the sort of half-cling you’d expect from a child about to reach double-digits. “They helped me.”
So far so good. Ally’s friends, classmates, family and teachers have, for the most part, been supportive. There was one mean note — stuffed anonymously into her backpack at the beginning of the school year — but she hasn’t had to suffer the sort of discrimination that her parents worry will eventually catch up to her.
It’s those tomorrows that keep Erik and Stacy up at night.
“It’s that feeling as a parent that you’re not going to be alive long enough to help her through everything she is going to go through,” Stacy said, her otherwise breezy demeanor turning tearful at the thought. “We thought, ‘What can we do now that might affect her growing up and make her life easier?’”
The statistics aren’t encouraging. There are an estimated 700,000 transgender people in the U.S. — about .3 percent of the total U.S. population. And, according to a National Center for Transgender Equality survey, 41 percent of them have attempted suicide at least once.
For kids like Ally — those who have openly expressed their transgender identity or gender non-conformity while in grades K-12 — 78 percent have reported harassment; 35 percent have experienced physical assault; and 12 percent have endured sexual violence.
“We want to make it so this generation grows up and doesn’t even know about gender stereotypes,” Stacy said. “This [book] is our way.”
Ally was a toddler when her parents started to notice: Their little boy liked to play dress-up. He gravitated toward girls. He played “Mommy.”
They didn’t think much of it at first.
“Of course, you think, ‘Oh, how cute. He is going through that phase,'” Stacy said. “But what they say is that if that behavior becomes consistent, insistent and persistent over a long period of time, then you may be looking at a child who will either be transgender or gender nonconforming.”
Stacy remembers the moment she realized her (then) son wasn’t just going a phase. He was 4, and she was cuddling him in her arms, telling him about when he was in her belly, and how excited she was when the doctor told her that he was a boy.
“After I said the boy thing, I sensed her demeanor change and her lip was curled and little tears started to form. I was like, ‘What did I say?’ And she said, ‘’I wanted to be a girl one, Mama.’ And my heart just sank. And I said, ‘No matter what, you can be whomever you want to be. It doesn’t matter what parts you have where.”
“We didn’t slap a label on her,” she continued. “She feels like she is a transgender girl because she feels like she is a girl who happened to be born biologically a boy. That’s her telling us that.”
After that, Stacy and Erik started to let her express herself more. She started to wear more pink. More purple. More clothing that was stereotypically, girl.
There were questions, of course. But her parents taught her how to answer them — “If people ask why you’re wearing pink, you just say, ‘Because I like it.’” Stacy said.
Then, at the beginning of third grade, she chose to present as a girl — even in school.
“For the longest time, she wore only dresses and skirts, sort of to make her statement that, ‘I am a girl,’” Stacy said. “Then the moment she realized she could just be, that it was cool — ‘Yes, you’re a girl’ — it was back to leggings and shorts and tomboy-type clothes.”
Earlier this year, Erik read the book to Ally’s entire elementary school, class by class. The kids were receptive. They asked questions; they shared their feelings.
“Their responses were so authentic,” said Erik, a video game artist who drew all the pictures for the book. “Some of the boys were like, ‘Oh, I play with dolls at home.’”
According to Judy Chiasson, coordinator at the Office of Human Relations, Diversity and Equity for Los Angeles Unified School District, the book has a message for everyone. Chiasson gave the go-ahead for the Dragesets to read the book at the school, though she stressed that it didn’t need official “approval.”
“The message is one of acceptance — of accepting one’s self and accepting each other,” Chiasson said. “Those messages are universal. . . . We certainly don’t want our children to grow up hating themselves or others.”
LAUSD has had policies in place to protect transgender students for 11 years, and Chiasson herself has been instrumental in implementing those policies, including the controversial law that allows transgender students to use the restroom representing the gender in which they identify.
And despite one parent’s alleged concerns that the Dragesets might be “pushing an agenda,” Chiasson said book itself is a non-issue.
“We want our libraries to be full of stories about people unlike us, so we can grow,” Chiasson said. “There was nothing controversial about this book. That’s why we are a literate society. Everybody should be able to find a book that calls to them that makes them wonder.”
What does Ally think? She’s quick to answer:
“I think [the book] is important because it helps people understand the meaning of transgender,” she said. “And that there aren’t boy toys or girl toys. It’s just toys.”
*Ally’s name is changed in an effort to protect her privacy.
To find out more about Ally’s story — or to buy the book, visit www.nogenderlines.com