Caleb Salmon has a mouth full of buttered toast. Some of it ends up in the tendrils of his hair as he laughs with his parents Ben and Emily, and shows me his favorite American Girl doll. “Her name is Rebecca – she is a Russian-Jewish immigrant. I play with her a lot,” he explains. “I have all the books about her, too.” Gently stroking the doll’s hair while sitting on his dad’s lap, Caleb pauses when I ask him why he chose her. “I like her because she looks like me,” he says definitively.
Seven years old and in first grade at Marshall School in South Orange, Caleb has wavy brown hair that flows past his shoulders. On a typical day, he wears pink leggings and a pink long-sleeved shirt; other days, he chooses a dress. He shows a visitor his favorite, a short-sleeved, fancy blue number (magenta is Caleb’s favorite color, and his nails are painted burgundy). He and his American Girl doll have matching dresses, father Ben points out.
Caleb Salmon is just one of a growing group of children in SOMA who have many pretty dresses in their proverbial bags, choose to wear them daily, and are not easily gender-identified by traditional standards.
A happy and energetic little boy who loves soccer, his little sisters, magic, his friends, and school, Caleb is in many ways a very typical seven-year-old. In other ways, he is clearly different. Caleb is “gender creative,” and this is not a “phase.” He has been actively choosing to dress as a girl and play with traditional “girl” toys from around age 2. At first, his parents chalked it up to his creative, free-spirited nature; but they soon realized Caleb was very clear in his choices. They remained open and supportive of his needs, and have developed a language of acceptance to help him interact with a world in which he will likely always be considered different.
When kids ask Caleb why he wears dresses, Ben, owner of Kitchen a la Mode in South Orange and Emily, a special education teacher in Summit, have taught him to simply say, “because this is what makes me feel comfortable,” or “this is what I like.” Young children are curious and can be unintentionally hurtful, but because Caleb is very at ease with himself, the response has been very positive.
He is very clear that he is still a boy inside, and thus wants to continue to use the boys’ bathroom at school and in public places, even if it raises an eyebrow or two in the outside world. “We check in with him frequently to make sure he still wants to be a boy inside,” says Emily, turning to look at Caleb for his assent. He nods. “So far, he always says yes.” The Salmons say they choose not to spend much time talking about how Caleb is different, but rather embrace who he is: a gregarious child who is socially inclusive with other children, and self-confident.
Experts point to three traits commonly seen in children who are gender creative or transgender: in their desire to live as, dress as or become the opposite sex, they are unerringly consistent, insistent and persistent about their identity. If they are showing these signs over an extended period of time, it’s very likely that they may be transgender, or otherwise “gender creative” or “gender fluid” – terms that have emerged in recent years that give families and children more appropriate language to describe their experiences and choices.
Greater awareness and acceptance of these children is key: according to national statistics, more than 30% of LGBTQ youth report at least one suicide attempt within the last year, and more than 50% of transgender youth will have had at least one suicide attempt by their 20th birthday. Typically, transgender youth have a two- to threefold increased risk of depression, anxiety and suicide ideation, according to a 2014 study. Statistics cited by The Trevor Project note that suicide attempts by LGB and questioning youth are 4-6 times more likely to result in injury, poisoning, or overdose that requires treatment from a doctor or nurse, compared to their straight peers, and that nearly half of young transgender people have seriously thought about taking their lives, with one-quarter reporting having made a suicide attempt.
In the SOMA community, there has been a conscious effort on the part of the school district to foster a culture of acceptance and openness.
“SOMSD has many anti-discrimination policies, all of which protect transgender students,” said a district spokeswoman. “In addition, the Board’s Policy and Monitoring committee is currently developing a specific transgender policy. In the meantime, SOMSD is following federal guidance on accommodating transgender students and faculty.”
Caleb’s experience at Marshall School has been a positive one from the beginning. “From the Marshall perspective, we don’t use the word ‘tolerance,'” says Principal Bonita Samuels. “Instead, we have changed it to ‘acceptance.’ We accept that we are all different, and make personal choices – this is WHO we are. A relationship with the family is very important, even before the child enters school. We were able to meet Caleb in advance of kindergarten, and make sure he felt comfortable.” Asked if children reacted negatively to Caleb or other gender creative children, Samuels said, “Kids generally don’t have a lot of questions if the adults are comfortable with the choices. If we’re uncomfortable, then they come to us asking ‘why.’ If we are comfortable, they are comfortable.”
While Samuels says she had had experiences helping older transgender students feel at ease in the school community, Caleb was the youngest child she had worked with. “For Caleb, the introduction was individual; he is comfortable with who he is, and he introduced himself to his kindergarten teacher…and his class directly. He didn’t need any special accommodations, but rather just awareness.”
Still, plans were put into place. Samuels spoke to the school nurse, Ms. Johnson, to make sure the school had a backup plan if Caleb wasn’t able to use the kindergarten in-class restroom during lunch or recess. She had conversations with staff about changing pronouns to be sensitive to the changing needs of the school community, altering common greetings from “Hello, little girl or boy” to “Hello, sweetie.”
These types of linguistic changes and relational nuances are happening both in education and in the national vernacular, globally and locally – and don’t only serve young people with different social or cultural needs. At the school level, educators like Samuels no longer ask a child whom their mother or father is at pick up. “We say things like “who’s your grownup?” not “who’s your mom or dad?”
Essentially, educators in SOMA are changing their language choices to reflect and respect the many different types of families the community contains. “There is training and professional development available, and we are taking advantage of that,” said Samuels. April Intile, Caleb’s former teacher, echoes these sentiments: “We have had trainings at Marshall that are geared towards gender fluidity, and we are applying that actively now, which I think is wonderful.”
SOMSD Board of Education member and director of South Orange Country Day School (which Caleb attended before grade school) Annemarie Maini wrote, “At our preschool we feel it is important that students feel comfortable in their clothing rather than encouraging them to conform to a stereotype….We encourage all students to wear the clothing that fits and feels comfortable and that allows them to play the way they want to play. Our teachers are also very careful to model and reinforce that by commenting on ‘How comfortable you look in your new jacket/shoes/hat,’ instead of the beauty of the clothing.”
“We also work on self-advocacy as a way to manage potential conflict and encourage students to state their feelings instead of telling other people not to ask questions,” Maini notes. “When we hear, ‘Pink is for boys,’ we support the student wearing pink by helping them express the joy they feel in wearing different colors, or in reminding everyone that rainbow of colors belong to everyone.”
“I not a girl, I a boy,” said Jules Liogys, as soon as he could talk. Born Juliet, Jules told his parents at age 2 1/2 that he was a boy and not a girl, leading them to realize that they had a transgender child. “Jules is very clear in his gender identity,” says his mother, Sarah Liogys. “Jules was the name choice that we made, because he wanted to be Julius Jr., but I refused,” she laughs. “He was a very unhappy little boy; he threw tantrums over getting dressed, he refused to wear dresses or girls’ bathing suits, and tried to cut his own hair. This went on for a year. When he turned four, I started to seriously consider the fact that he might be transgender or gender creative.”
The South Orange-based Liogyses, who have an older daughter, have taken Jules’ gender identity differences in stride and after an early period of believing it was a phase, they accepted and embraced that they would now have a son, not a daughter.
At first, this was hard, and the ease with which Liogys now refers to her son was not immediate. She describes a mourning period during which she and her mother grieved for the daughter and granddaughter there were losing. It took some time for her parents and in-laws to get their minds around the change. “My father still can’t quite call Jules ‘he.’ He calls him ‘the dude.’ Society is much more accepting of girls who want to dress like boys, because many people say, ‘Oh, she’s just a tomboy.’ Still, it’s really new to my parents’ generation: when I told them, it was a head-scratcher.”
Sarah looked for support in the local community and found Jan Kaminsky, a Maplewood resident and volunteer youth organizer for North Jersey Pride (who herself has a gender creative child) on Maplewood Online and later, the Salmons. “I couldn’t even deal with it at that point, but she offered to meet up with me,” recalls Sarah. “About a year later, I reached out to Ben Salmon. I knew about Caleb because my older daughter was in school with him. I was panicking before Jules started kindergarten.” After awhile, Liogys says she stopped mourning and started celebrating “this wonderful, happy little boy that I had.”
She soon joined a small, private playgroup for gender-creative kids organized by the Salmons and Kaminsky. Kaminsky and her wife created a private Facebook group, leading to the group’s first meet-up last fall. It has met several times since. The playgroup will expand into a formal project under the aegis of North Jersey Pride, and it has a new name: “RAD Kids”, which will hold quarterly events specifically for gender-fluid children. These will, says Kaminsky, include a mid-April art event, a mid-June outdoor activity, a mid-October disco bounce party and an end of year story hour and facilitated discussion with trained experts in gender fluidity designed to benefit children, parents and grandparents.
Jules’ family has now worked with him through his first stage of transition: specifically, the relationships he has with peers, teachers, and the community. “Last April we let him socially transition,” shares Sarah. “We cut his hair off, unofficially changed his name and changed pronouns [from “her/she to him/he”].” At this time, Jules was in a pre-k 4s program in Jersey City, and Sarah says the school was highly supportive. They let Jules use the boys’ bathroom and accepted his choice without controversy. “Once Jules transitioned, he became this joyful, silly little boy,” she recalls.
Social transitioning is typically a first step towards a life-long choice to become another gender. Because Jules is still young, the family is not making any medical interventions. But, “If Jules is still showing all the hallmarks of being transgender when he reaches pre-puberty, we will absolutely support it. The Gender and Sexuality Development Clinic at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia will do endocrine tests. The first step would be hormone-blockers. I will help Jules go through male puberty if he is still certain he is a boy, and I do see us heading down that road.”
Liogys reports that the overall local community has been exceptionally supportive, although there have been bumps in the road. The administration at one preschool were unsure of how to deal with Jules in terms of which bathroom he would use, because they’d never had a child like him before. Eventually, they reached a compromise that Jules could use the boys’ bathroom alone. “As long as he could line up with the boys, it was OK with me,” said Liogys, though she wishes the school had handled the situation better.
Meanwhile, the Baird Playground Camp and its head counselor, Miss Dee, were big supporters of Jules’ journey. “They were amazing, and felt it was no big deal whatsoever.” Now a kindergartner at Marshall School, Jules was assigned Mrs. Intile as a teacher. “Mrs. Samuels was so wonderful,” says Sarah. “She knew just which teacher to put Jules with. April is an angel, not just for gender creative and transgender kids, but for all children.”
Intile, who has been teaching for 19 years (11 of those in a kindergarten classroom), is certified in special education and general education, with a degree in psychology.
She recalls the experience of working with a gender creative child for the first time as a gift. “In my personal life, I’ve had experiences where I’ve had to see somebody work through their identity, but Caleb was the first little person that I was blessed to work with in a professional setting.”
She recalls that Caleb was always willing to try things, and wanted to do well. “Throughout the day and the moments where peer dynamics changed, he could play with every group. There was nothing he wouldn’t try. He was very good at problem solving.” Intile’s teaching approach is to guide all of her students towards independence, encouraging them to ask for help when they need it. And, like Samuels, she makes sure their voices are always heard.
“I learned a lot from Caleb,” Intile says. “I think that as adults, we need to know that we can learn so much; I learn from all my students, but in this instance, I allowed myself to try to follow him leading the way. If on certain days he needed more support, that’s what I was doing. We should always let ourselves learn from our students. They will tell you what they need.”
Samuels and Intile are quick to suggest, however, that acceptance and support starts at home. “Our experience is with very young children, and our job is to acknowledge who the individual is and build community around them. The openness of the family and how they partner with us and allow us to partner with them has made all the difference,” said Samuels. Indeed, “the thinking has changed a lot,” says Liogys. “Now, it’s believed that the education environment should well support what is happening at home.”
For their part, both educators acknowledge how much the children themselves have helped them grow as people and as a community. “I commend them for letting us know how we could best serve their family,” Samuels says.
See more photos of Caleb and Jules in our photo gallery below; photos courtesy of the Salmon and Liogys family.
If you believe you may have a gender creative, gender fluid or transgender child and are looking for local support or information, email [email protected]. For more general information, visit https://www.hrc.org/explore/topic/transgender-children-youth. If you or someone you know is struggling with depression or suicidal thoughts, call The Trevor Project on 866-488-7386. For information about how to help at-risk transgender and transsexual youth, visit the website for the Sam & Devorah Foundation for Trans Youth.
Simple Ways to Start Supporting Your Transgender or Gender-Fluid Child:
- Always use the child’s preferred gender pronouns and preferred names.
- Be your child’s advocate – call out discrimination or other bias when you see it and ask that others respect your child’s identity.
- Educate yourself about the concerns facing transgender youth and adults.
- Encourage your child to stand up for themselves when it is safe to do so.
- Assure your child that they have your unconditional love and support.
– Courtesy Human Rights Campaign