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‘Raising Ryland’: Alumna Hillary Whittington Gives Voice to Transgender Youth with New Book

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UC San Diego alumna Hillary Whittington

For Transgender Day of Visibility, UC San Diego alumna Hillary Whittington returned to campus as a proud mother of two, PTA volunteer, public speaker—and parent of a transgender child. She and her husband, Jeff, were on campus to discuss Hillary’s new book, “Raising Ryland: Our Story of Parenting a Transgender Child with No Strings Attached.” The memoir tells both the resistance and support Whittington and her family encountered during their child’s transition from female to male.

After discovering their 1-year-old daughter Ryland was deaf and in need of cochlear implants, the Whittingtons spent the next four years successfully teaching Ryland to speak. Once able to talk, Ryland insisted she was a boy, and Hillary and Jeff soon realized they had much more to learn about their child.

“I felt [Ryland] was going to be subject to bullying and criticism because of the cochlear implants, and I could not come to grips with something even larger going on with my child, something that could open the box even bigger, Jeff Whittington said.

While visiting UC San Diego, Hillary Whittington, a 2004 Division of Social Sciences alumna, talked about her journey as a parent, including overcoming Ryland’s hearing struggle and facing initial questions about his gender identity. At first, many dismissed Ryland’s insistence that he was a boy as just a phase.

But by age 4, Ryland was showing increasing amounts of shame around gender and gender stereotypes, and by age 5, the family realized this so-called “tom-boy” phase wasn’t actually a phase at all. What’s more, they came upon a disturbing statistic published by the Williams Institute at UCLA School of Law: 41 percent of transgender people attempt suicide due to lack of societal acceptance.

“We were not willing to take that risk,” they said in a video the family created that chronicles Ryland’s initial transition. “For Ryland’s well-being, we were advised to allow him to transition as soon as possible.”

“Raising Ryland” came about in part because of the family’s YouTube video, which has more than 7.7 million views since its original posting in 2014. Ryland’s story has also been made into a short documentary for CNN Films, directed by Sarah Feeley. The family wants to help erase the stigma surrounding the word transgender in part by bringing “hope, strength and humor” to their experience, through the book.

“I think a majority of people are confused,” Hillary Whittington said. “What does ‘transition’ mean? I think it means different things, for different people, at different ages.”

For Ryland, the family did a simple “social transition,” they explained, by changing pronouns, and allowing him to get a shorter haircut and wear typical boys’ clothes, all of the time. They also informed friends and family of the transition, and asked them to support the family in what was a multiple-year process.

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“Our hope is that our voice will be heard and this world will become a more loving and accepting place for Ryland and the entire LGBTQ community,” the Whittingtons said in the video.

Their visit to campus was one part of a weeklong series of events for Transgender Day of Visibility, recognized internationally on March 31. Current School of Medicine student and undergraduate alumna Daniella McDonald organized campus involvement, in large part to provide visibility of the transgender patient. The UC San Diego events were hosted by LGBTQ-Meds, Med Students 4 Justice and the UC San Diego School of Medicine.

“The Whittington’s story resonates so well … because they, too, struggled, as many people do, with transgender issues,” McDonald said. Two additional events included panel discussions on both the physician’s perspective in working with transgender patients as well as the transgender patient’s perspective.

“The family is warm and relatable to many,” McDonald said. “They show that you don’t need to be … ‘radical parents’ to accept your transgender child. Their story is very touching.”

UC San Diego’s LGBT Resource Center serves as a public space for students, faculty, staff and alumni to explore issues related to gender and sexual identities, their mission states. Housed at the Student Center complex, the center was formally dedicated in 1999 and hosts regular events supporting the transgender community.