Skip to main content

Gender identity not just body parts

By Donna Rose, Special to CNN
February 28, 2013 -- Updated 2100 GMT (0500 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Donna Rose: When a child's sense of self is nontraditional, people want to "correct" it
  • Rose: Transgender Coy, 6, is in every respect a girl, but she can't use girls' bathroom
  • Rose: School should know gender is not body parts, it is who you are to the core
  • Rose realized that to live an authentic life she needed to become a woman

Editor's note: Donna Rose is an author, educator and a former member of the Human Rights Campaign Business Council. She is a male-to-female transsexual and an advocate and spokesperson for transgender people and issues.

(CNN) -- Part of being a child is developing your identity. School can teach you knowledge. Society can teach you what it expects of you. But, once you develop a sense of yourself, no one and nothing can tell you who you are. You come to know that -- to your core.

When a child's sense of self develops in ways that are traditional and unremarkable, nobody takes much notice. But when it happens in ways that challenge traditional norms or expectations, people often try to "correct" it.

Such is the heart of a controversy brewing in Colorado involving a first-grader and, of all things, a bathroom.

Donna Rose
Donna Rose

The unlikely center of this uproar is a little 6-year-old girl, Coy Mathis. Coy knows she's a girl. She dresses as a girl. Her legal documents recognize her as a girl. Her parents accept her as a girl. On the playground, you would have difficulty identifying her as different from any of the other girls, because in all ways that matter socially and legally, this child is a girl.

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



The problem is that Coy was born in the body of a boy, so the school district wants her to use the boys' bathroom, or some bathroom other than the one the other girls use. The Transgender Legal Defense and Education Fund has filed a complaint with the Colorado Civil Rights Division on behalf of Coy and her family.

Discrimination complaint filed for transgender girl

Although generations of people facing a similar mind/body dissonance have been forced to hide, to pretend, to live unhappy and empty lives simply for being different, the world is changing. Kids such as Coy finally have a chance to avoid a similar fate with their dignity and their self-image intact, given the right support and opportunity.

Transgender child's family fights school
Transgender hoops player takes to court
Transgender veteran denied active duty
2011: Tammy and Mario: Gender journeys

Vice President Joe Biden has long been a supporter of gay, lesbian and transgender rights, referring to them as civil rights issues. It seems odd to think of this first-grader who simply wants to use the bathroom as a civil rights pioneer. But crossing seemingly simple barriers for rights is nothing new -- whether to ride a bus, to attend a school or to use a bathroom just like everyone else. It is unfortunate that we keep having to relearn these lessons.

I doubt many people stop to consider that the single most significant moment in their lives happens within minutes of their births. That's when, upon simple inspection, a doctor or a nurse pronounces a baby a boy or a girl. That seemingly simple and obvious proclamation has reverberations for the rest of our lives.

I can empathize with Coy because I faced those same overwhelming questions myself, almost 50 years ago.

I came to know a similar mistake had been made, except that at that time, I didn't have words to explain it. I learned to live a lie. Pretending to be what you're not, hoping things will magically fix themselves, seems easier at times. But lies have consequences.

News: Frat pays for brother's sex change

It is unfortunate that Coy's school has not learned the lesson that so many other aspects of our culture have already acknowledged, that a person's gender is more complicated than a body part or a chromosome.

Workplaces across this country are recognizing the challenges that their transgender workers face and are removing deeply embedded barriers to health care and wellness benefits. Organizations ranging from the National Collegiate Athletic Association to the Girl Scouts are accepting transyouth, sometimes under fire, treating children based on identify, not body parts.

Transwomen have openly competed in mainstream beauty pageants and have been featured in magazines such as Vogue. Transgender athletes, artists and writers, people in all fields, have shown there is a pathway to a happy, well-adjusted and fulfilling life -- not as an "other," but as the men and women we know ourselves to be.

Apparently none of this matters to the school that denies Coy the use of the girls' bathroom or to the parents who demonize her and her family. Arguments to treat Coy with dignity often fall on deaf ears. Why? Because discussion of the topic quickly becomes emotional rather than rational.

When I came out to my own mother, at 40 years old, I was a parent, I had been married to a woman I loved for 20 years, I had a successful career, we owned two homes, and there wasn't a single person who would have guessed my secret or my struggle.

But in the end, a quote from André Gide: "It is better to be hated for what you are than loved for what you are not," resonated to the point that I finally became who I should have been.

Today, my family and I have never been closer. I have never been more in tune with myself and the world around me. My relationships have never been more fulfilling. Those who would cling to outdated stereotypes of transpeople as sad, lonely, misguided, freakish and broken see more and more examples of people who bloom when they find the strength, and the opportunity, to become authentic.

My own advice for Coy and her family: Keep the spirit of the Serenity Prayer close to your heart. Love one another. Know that this journey is far more about happiness and fulfillment than about body parts or bathrooms. To Coy's parents, Kathryn and Jeremy: Doing what's right for your daughter will make a bigger difference for her, and for others, than you know. And last, don't forget to hug one another every day.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions in this commentary are solely those of Donna Rose.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2006 GMT (0406 HKT)
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 0102 GMT (0902 HKT)
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1600 GMT (0000 HKT)
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1135 GMT (1935 HKT)
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1312 GMT (2112 HKT)
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1851 GMT (0251 HKT)
Crystal Wright says racist remarks like those made by black Republican actress Stacey Dash do nothing to get blacks to join the GOP
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2207 GMT (0607 HKT)
Mel Robbins says by telling her story, Monica Lewinsky offers a lesson in confronting humiliating mistakes while keeping her head held high
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1329 GMT (2129 HKT)
Cornell Belcher says the story of the "tea party wave" in 2010 was bogus; it was an election determined by ebbing Democratic turnout
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 2012 GMT (0412 HKT)
Les Abend says pilots want protocols, preparation and checklists for all contingencies; at the moment, controlling a deadly disease is out of their comfort zone
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 0336 GMT (1136 HKT)
David Weinberger says an online controversy that snowballed from a misogynist attack by gamers into a culture war is a preview of the way news is handled in a world of hashtag-fueled scandal
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1223 GMT (2023 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says Paul Krugman makes some good points in his defense of President Obama but is premature in calling him one of the most successful presidents.
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 0221 GMT (1021 HKT)
Conservatives can't bash and slash government and then suddenly act surprised if government isn't there when we need it, writes Sally Kohn
October 22, 2014 -- Updated 1205 GMT (2005 HKT)
ISIS is looking to take over a good chunk of the Middle East -- if not the entire Muslim world, write Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider.
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1300 GMT (2100 HKT)
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 2033 GMT (0433 HKT)
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 1722 GMT (0122 HKT)
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 0442 GMT (1242 HKT)
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1345 GMT (2145 HKT)
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 2043 GMT (0443 HKT)
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 0858 GMT (1658 HKT)
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1342 GMT (2142 HKT)
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1221 GMT (2021 HKT)
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 2027 GMT (0427 HKT)
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 0407 GMT (1207 HKT)
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 1153 GMT (1953 HKT)
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 0429 GMT (1229 HKT)
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1653 GMT (0053 HKT)
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 2245 GMT (0645 HKT)
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 1700 GMT (0100 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 2301 GMT (0701 HKT)
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1744 GMT (0144 HKT)
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 1335 GMT (2135 HKT)
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 0208 GMT (1008 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1125 GMT (1925 HKT)
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 1303 GMT (2103 HKT)
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 2004 GMT (0404 HKT)
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 1307 GMT (2107 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 2250 GMT (0650 HKT)
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
October 11, 2014 -- Updated 1543 GMT (2343 HKT)
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT