You know that old question about who you'd invite to a dinner party if you could pick anybody from any time in history? My answer would likely be to re-create an incredible gathering from the spring of 2014 when three families -- none well known to each other, but all tied by a common thread of caring deeply about transgender kids -- sat down together for dinner.
There was the Maines family: Kelly and Wayne and their 16-year-old twins, Nicole and Jonas. Also at our dinner table were Kendra, my spouse, and our two daughters, who were 3 and 5, and our neighbors, Anna and her 13-year-old daughter, Aubrey.
I can't remember what we ate or every detail of the conversation, but I do remember the ease with which we all spoke, the gentle and caring atmosphere that enveloped us.
The Maines family was in Washington, D.C., advocating for transgender students, even as Nicole's discrimination case against her former school district was being argued by Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders. At the time, neighbor Aubrey was navigating her own transition in the often difficult milieu of middle school. And Kendra and I had gotten to know both families after being connected by mutual friends. They knew I was transgender and worked at the Human Rights Campaign with programs like Welcoming Schools, which aims to make classrooms more inclusive for kids like Nicole and Aubrey.
Over dinner, both Nicole and Aubrey spoke of being sure of their gender identities early on. By the end of elementary school, Nicole was living openly as a girl. But she met resistance among elementary and middle school administrators and bullying from fellow students. Jonas, who never questioned his sister's identity, stood up to the bullies. So did her parents. They were forced to move so that Nicole and Jonas could go to school in peace, even though it meant that Wayne had to stay behind for his job, and travel hours each weekend to be with his family. Anna and Aubrey talked about their lives, and particularly their work to ensure Aubrey's safe transition at school. They too had sought support for Aubrey since she was a young child, but finding it was difficult -- even inside the family, where a costly custody battle ensued with Aubrey's unsupportive father.
Kendra and I shared our own story -- falling in love and marrying before my transition, and her unwavering support. I spoke of my own my school battle, before I'd even heard the word transgender, to wear pants during my graduation, even though my public high school had a policy requiring girls to wear dresses.
Of course, as at any good dinner party, the conversation roamed. We also talked about politics and D.C. traffic, bands the teenagers loved and the adults tolerated, and summer vacation plans. Sprinkled in were side conversations, ranging anywhere from favorite TV shows to finding a trans-friendly doctor.
Despite the very real challenges we were discussing, I was struck that our tone wasn't one of defeat. It was one of gratitude. We all had family who supported us. In a situation similar to Jonas and Nicole's, I had an identical twin sister who was unyielding in her support of my transition. We all had good friends. We all had places to call home. And we had this new connection with each other.
Since that wonderful dinner, Aubrey and Nicole have remained friends, and Aubrey babysits our kids. Anna and Wayne are part of an incredible network of parents of transgender young people who stay connected and lend support to each other, no matter where they are in their journey of acceptance. And our work to advocate has continued.
Anna and Aubrey speak at events in D.C. about the need for inclusion, almost always using their pseudonyms (which I've used here) given concern about the impact visibility may have on Aubrey's future.
I've worked with Aubrey, Wayne, other parents, and leading advocates at HRC and allied organizations to create resources for supporting transgender youth and their families, including a new comprehensive guide to help schools do right by every transitioning student.
And the Maines family's story is now the subject of a new book, Becoming Nicole: The Transformation of an American Family, written by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Amy Ellis Nutt and hitting shelves today.
That evening we all spent together was special, special enough to want to share it with others. And in this small way, I can. Here's what I suggest to you: pick up the book -- and read it over a nice dinner.
JAY BROWN is the director of research and public education at the Human Rights Campaign Foundation.