Their daughter was five when Ann Elder and her husband began noticing. During play dates, Elder remembers, her daughter wanted to role-play as a teenage pirate named Max. She hated dresses. She wasn't into girly pink toys.
When she was seven and nothing had changed, they took her to a child psychologist. That's when it made sense: Their child was transgender, the psychologist told them. Soon she would become Benjamin, with a new boy haircut and a new wardrobe and set of toys. They took him to Target for a shopping binge.
“When he came home, he ran into his bedroom and changed into his clothes,” Elder told the Houston Press. “He came out in a pair of camouflage boy underwear, and he was beaming. I had never seen my child so happy.”
On Wednesday, Elder went public with Benjamin's story for the first time, speaking in support Houston Unites, a grassroots coalition fighting to save the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance, or HERO. The ordinance — which will secure equal rights for people of every race, ethnicity, gender and age in employment, housing and public businesses — will be put up for a public vote on November 3. And between now and then, Houston Unites will be knocking on doors and campaigning to build support for the ordinance's passage. “Our major message is that it's really as simple as the golden rule,” said Richard Carlbom of Houston Unites. “The bottom line is, all people should be equal under the law, and that's what this ordinance does.”
Benjamin is now nine, and the only discrimination he has faced so far is not from classmate bullies but from adults who are afraid to have him over at their house for play dates with their kids. Elder says other parents have even confronted her about Benjamin's gender in front of him. She's hoping that several years from now, that doesn't get worse. And that's where HERO comes in.
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“[Passing HERO] would mean a great deal to me, because then I would know that if we did experience any negativity about him using a public restroom or applying for a school or a job or a college, it will tell me that we have the law on our side,” Elder said, “and the city of Houston will back us and say, no, this is not fair for him to be discriminated against.”
Elder said that the opposition's focus on transgender people's ability to use the restroom they identify with has irked her. In various cities across the country in which similar ordinances have gone up for the vote, this was also the concern: that men could simply say that they identify as female and use that as a pretext to enter a women's bathroom and sexually assault or harass someone. Carlbom said that another part of Houston Unites' mission is to squelch any misinformation or “scare tactics."
“It's more than just bathrooms,” Elder said. “As a matter of fact, the bathroom issue is like 1 percent of the whole issue. And 99 percent of it is about making sure people can't lose their jobs because of their sexuality or gender identity, and that they can't be refused housing.”
Elder says that when she and her husband took Benjamin to the courthouse to have his name legally changed, they met a transgender woman who was there for the same reason. Not long before, she had lost her job after she told her employer about the gender change. Elder says the woman is now self-employed.