A CNN Documentary Short Looks at a Young Transgender Student

By Mark Walsh — March 17, 2015 2 min read
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Some states and schools have been struggling with how to treat transgender students, such as with sports-team participation and restroom use. But at the end of “Raising Ryland,” a short CNN documentary debuting on Wednesday, the namesake young transgender student enters a welcoming kindergarten classroom.

“One of my responsibilities as an educator is to make a safe classroom environment for all of my students,” teacher Stephanie Dodds says in the film. “They’re going to be in a learning environment where they are respected.”

It’s an admirable thought, and one that has only been paid lip service in too many other schools. Every educator would do well to tune in the 13-minute film, which is part of a new short film series on CNN’s digital platforms. (Update: The full film is available here; it doesn’t seem to be embeddable for now.)

To back up a bit, “Raising Ryland” is the story of Jeff and Hillary Whittington, a young couple who are brought great joy by the birth of their first child, a daughter. Director Sarah Feeley doesn’t give us much background about the parents. They are simply the nice couple who love their children and who could be living down the street from any of us.

Within Ryland’s first 12 months, the parents realize their child is not responding to sounds, and a diagnosis of profound deafness comes soon after. Ryland receives cochlear implants.

“As soon as he got sound, he said, ‘I am a boy,’” Hillary says in the film. Ryland doesn’t like wearing long hair or putting on dresses. The parents perceive it as a stage. In a family Christmas video, a voice observes that Ryland is quite the “little tomboy.”

Ryland himself describes his early discomfort with a female gender identity in simple and eloquent terms: “I was trying to tell my mom and dad. But I couldn’t talk and I was just making noises.”

The parents became more concerned with comments from Ryland such as, “Maybe when my family dies, I can cut my hair and be a boy.”

“What 4-year-old says that?” Jeff says. They study websites about transgender youth and are alarmed by the high suicide rates.

Still, Jeff worries about the trouble Ryland might face from classmates just for having cochlear implants, let alone over being transgender. But the parents make the choice to let Ryland be himself.

“After he got his hair cut, he was like a totally different kid,” Hillary says. “The smile on his face was bigger than I’d ever seen.”

The 13 minutes are over quickly. We do hear from a “gender therapist” about the basic tension for some between their sexual organs and their gender identity. And we see Ryland happily playing soccer and his successful entry into the safety of Ms. Dodds’ kindergarten classroom.

Fortunately, the digital short is merely an initial offering from a planned full-length documentary by Feeley. The filmmakers have set spring of 2016 as the goal for completing the longer version.

Even a year from now, there will be plenty for educators and others to learn about transgender students, and undoubtedly a lot more that Ryland and his parents can teach.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Education and the Media blog.