In My Own Words: Elsie's Story

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March 31, 2016

This post was authored by Ann Laurie*.

“Mommy, I had the best time of my life!” said my beautiful 8-year-old daughter Elsie after returning from the Daddy-Daughter dance at her school. It was a bumpy road to get here, but Elsie’s happiness made it all worth it. This is our story about how Lambda Legal helped make this day possible.

Elsie is the light of my life. She is bubbly, smart, and funny. She likes to paint her nails, play with dolls, watch the Disney Channel, and hang out with her friends. Elsie is also transgender. For Elsie, that means she now wears the clothes that she likes and feels most comfortable in, which are usually the clothes that girls in her school typically wear; she goes by the name Elsie and not Joey, the name given to her at birth; and we use female pronouns when addressing her. These changes have made a remarkable difference in her life—she’s more relaxed, comfortable and confident. She doesn’t hide anymore. We aren’t waking up early on Monday mornings to take off her nail polish. She isn’t nervous about taking her shoes and socks off at school for fear that someone will see her polished toes—she is finally free to live as the girl that she has always been. She is growing into herself. So, when Elsie came home from the Daddy-Daughter dance, an important tradition for girls in our small town in Ohio, and expressed such happiness, I knew it was because she felt accepted.

At first, however, Elsie was not even invited to the dance. Her school records still incorrectly say that she is a boy, and the school’s principal had determined that the dance was only “for all of the female students.” He was essentially saying that Elsie isn’t really a girl. As the mother of a transgender child, I am all too aware that plenty of people won’t understand what Elsie is going through and that I will have to fight for my daughter and her right to live her life truthfully, but I will admit that this first battle completely blindsided me. I did not expect to have to fight for her to be able to attend a dance. A dance might not seem like a big deal for a lot of people, but it was really important for Elsie. Participating in an event for the girls in our community was vital to my daughter’s emotional health and sense of belonging. She had been excitedly anticipating this dance for months. As a matter of fact, she had been looking forward to the dance because, for her, it was an important step in her transition, almost as important as shopping in the girl’s section of the store. She was in heaven the first time we shopped in the girls’ section, and my mother, Elsie’s grandmother, had bought her dress for the dance back in January. Almost every day after school, Elsie would ask to put it on and just wear it for a few moments before carefully putting it away again. She needed this dance more than I will ever really understand.

When I learned that Elsie might not be able to go to the dance, I insisted that the school reconsider. While we waited, Elsie became anxious and sad with each day that passed that she didn’t get an invitation. The dance was all that her friends talked about and Elsie didn’t know how to explain being the only girl not allowed to go. I tried to reassure her that it was just a mistake and that she would get an invitation soon, despite not being sure that she would be able to go. Regardless of my best attempts to shield her from what was happening, she understood what was going on. “They’re not gonna let me go because I used to be Joey!” she finally said one day, feeling angry and embarrassed.

At the end of that week, the principal finally responded to my calls, and he told me that the superintendent would not allow Elsie to attend the Daddy-Daughter dance. I was so upset to hear this and I lashed out. “You are discriminating against her and I will fight you on this,” I said to the principal, so disappointed. I didn’t know how to tell Elsie what happened, especially because I would have to confirm what she had been fearing all along. She was being singled-out and treated differently because the principal and superintendent didn’t believe that she is a girl. Elsie is a good kid and hadn’t done anything wrong. She is only being honest about who she is, yet she was being punished for it. She didn’t deserve to be treated this way, and we needed help.

That afternoon, I called the Lambda Legal Help Desk and spoke with Alexis, one of the legal assistants in Chicago, who was kind and diligently took down all of the information about what had happened that week. She said that she would do her best to help, but the dance was quickly approaching. The next day, Elsie asked about the dance like she did every day. I sat her down and told her what had happened, but tried to reassure her that I was doing everything I could for her. This was taking its toll on her. She woke up in the middle of the night crying and begging me not to send her to school until after the dance. I was heartbroken, but thankfully, Lambda Legal sprang into action. Only a few days after my conversation with Alexis, I spoke with Lambda Legal attorneys Kyle and Aisha, who let me know that they would be immediately sending a letter to the school about its obligation to respect Elsie’s gender identity and allow her to go to the dance. I let Elsie know know that a wonderful group of people was going to try to change the school’s mind so that she could go to the dance. This gave her hope.

Though Lambda Legal couldn’t make any promises, I prayed that the letter would help convince the school and I waited to hear what might happen next. Only a few days later, the school called to let me know that Elsie would be getting an invitation to the dance. Happy to finally know that Elsie would be able to attend with the rest of the girls, I immediately sent a text to Renee, the mother of Elsie’s best friend Lana, and she responded within minutes to let me know that she had ordered a corsage for Elsie. I waited for Elsie at the bus stop so that I could deliver the good news the moment she stepped off the bus. She was ecstatic, jumping up and down and even doing cartwheels! When the day finally came for the dance, she and Lana had light blue dresses that sparkled—they looked absolutely adorable. Lana’s dad, John, who took them to the dance, wore a matching tie. It was a perfect evening.

While this experience was a blow for Elsie at first, she seems to have bounced back. She did say afterward, “I hope this doesn’t happen again, will this happen again?” I was honest and told her that I didn’t know. Elsie understands that there will be bumps in the road, but I hope she understands that she will never be alone because she has me and I will fight for her forever, and I am so thankful that Lambda Legal was there to help.

*All names in this story have been changed in order to respect the privacy of our clients. The Lambda Legal staff referenced in this post are: Legal Assistant Alexis Paige, Staff Attorney Kyle Palazzolo and Tyron Garner Fellow Aisha Davis.