"As a parent, the one thing we cannot do — the one thing — is silence our child's spirit."
That message was the heart of powerful testimony from Kansas City, Mo., father Brandon Boulware, who spoke in front of the Missouri House of Representatives in support of his transgender daughter and against proposed legislation House Joint Resolution 53, which would bar trans girls from competing alongside cisgender girls in school sports.
Footage of the testimony from Boulware, a "lifelong Missourian… a business lawyer… Christian… son of a Methodist minister… husband… and father of four kids, including a wonderful and beautiful transgender daughter," went viral after being shared on Instagram by the ACLU, bringing in more than 296,000 reactions — and then by Dwyane Wade, who has become a public advocate for his own transgender daughter, Zaya, prompting more than 82,000 reactions and 1,500 comments, many of them, though not all, in support of Bouware's message.
"I don't know Brandon Boulware at all but I do know we have something real in common… Thank you for using your platform and sharing your family's story!" Wade wrote in his caption of the shared video footage. "This is so important and beautiful," noted Tracee Ellis Ross in Wade's comments section, with Mark Wahlberg weighing in with supportive emojis, and Bill Bellamy adding, "This is so powerful…amazing…love our children." Gabrielle Union, Wade's wife, also shared the video with the caption, "We cannot silence our children's spirit. Across the nation we have seen an increase in legislation that is meant to HARM children. Please do not let these despicable bills pass."
And fellow parent activists have reacted with relief and understanding, stressing the importance of such a moment to Yahoo Life.
"This humanizes it," says Debi Jackson, a fellow Missourian, Christian and mother to transgender daughter Avery, whose own child-supportive video went viral back in 2014, turning her into an activist overnight.
The proposed legislation is one of 82 anti-trans bills introduced around the country at a state level this year, about half of which address the issue of trans children and team sports and others aimed at issues such as denying transition-related medical care. But HJR 53, unlike other similar bills around the country, would cement the ban into the Missouri state constitution.
Boulware (who turned down an interview request from Yahoo Life, out of concerns for his family's privacy) spoke out against it, citing not only his daughter's love of playing on the girls's volleyball team but of the importance of allowing her to be herself — something he was admittedly slow to do himself. He addressed the difficulty that so many people have in understanding transgender children.
"I didn't get it either," he said. "For years, I didn't get it." For years, he continued, "I would not let my daughter wear girl clothes. I did not let her play with girl toys. I forced my daughter to wear boy clothes and get short haircuts and play on boys' sports teams." Boulware said he did this to protect his child, his family and himself, going against the advice of teachers, therapists and other experts, but "my child was miserable. I cannot overstate that. She was absolutely miserable." He said he remembers the day that everything clicked for him — when his daughter wanted to go play with neighbors in a sister's play dress, and he said no, and she then asked if she could go if she changed into boy clothes first.
"It was then that it hit me. That my daughter was equating being good with being someone else. I was teaching her to deny who she is … and so on that day, my wife and I stopped silencing our child's spirit," he shared. From the moment they allowed her "to be who she is," he said, "she was a different child. And I mean it was immediate. It was a total transformation." He asked legislators to not interfere with her happiness by banning her from teams, including volleyball and dance, that bring her joy.
Jackson, who was waiting on Zoom with her husband to testify remotely against the bill (but never got to because of technical difficulties), heard Boulware's comments live. "My husband’s reaction was to cry, because he is so tenderhearted, and because we don’t see a lot of dads speaking out for their trans girls, in particular," she says. "It's always so emotional when a dad speaks up, and part of what makes it go viral. Because a lot of times the mom gets branded as pushover or the 'crazy mom' or as just having wanted a girl. People always question, 'Where’s the dad in this?' So it’s great when you have a dad who says 'I get it.'"
Further, she notes, there's power in his perspective — particularly as a self-identified Christian. As Jackson had noted in her own viral speech, "I'm a conservative Southern Baptist Republican from Alabama" (which she says got her proactively blocked on Twitter by various Baptist leaders). The fact that Boulware pointed out his own religious background, she says, is important.
"People not only have a stereotype about who a transgender person is, they have a stereotype about what family could have a transgender person in it — and transgender people exist literally everywhere," she says. "It doesn’t matter if you're in a red state or blue state, if you're Catholic or Muslim or atheist. Transgender people exist, and don't get to pick and choose what family they are born into… So, hopefully, you have one open-minded enough to learn that they also need to grow and transition themselves, and become an ally."
Susan Maasch, who founded the Maine-based national support and advocacy Trans Youth Equality Foundation when her own transgender son came out at 6 (he's now 24), says "there was nothing, I mean nothing, for support of trans children." She tells Yahoo Life that she also found Boulware's testimony effective.
"It was personal, emotional and you get the feeling it could be you or someone you know and love," she says, adding that it was made even stronger by "all of that relatable stuff — that he is a father of four, a Christian … also a person who didn't support his child for a very long time." Maasch says that every parent takes different amounts of time to come around, and that "his daughter really suffered a lot, so that’s a moving part of the story. … But he did what many would do, which is to pretend that they are going to will it away. That was relatable."
Maasch warns of the high suicide rate of transgender youth, and that sometimes, parents never do come around. "We did have a kid [we supported] whose father was just adamant that there was no way he was going to support this, and unfortunately his son became more and more depressed… and took his life…," she says, and that father was haunted, understanding, finally, that he "waited too long to come around… It was heartbreaking."
What parents who stick up for their transgender child not only in private but also in public can achieve, she says, is to also "support parents scared and new to this, and raise awareness that there’s a positive narrative in here, and not just the discrimination. It makes a difference."
Jackson agrees and says she's witnessed how people can change their minds about transgender kids when they have help understanding. "I know parents who have said, 'I watched [your] video and it finally clicked for me … I've heard it thousands of times," she says, which is why she keeps speaking out (even if now-13-year-old Avery has "retired" from activism for now) and has also founded an education organization, Gender Inc.
"Every single parent, especially these days, gets judged for their parenting … We have all felt someone criticize us and think, but you don’t live my life," she says. "We are talking about our child’s humanity and their happiness and their ability to be themselves and to know that they are loved unconditionally. And those are things we need other people to understand."
If you are thinking about suicide and in need of immediate support, please call the TrevorLifeline at 1-866-488-7386 or click here to connect with a counselor via chat or text.
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