Emma is a ball of energy, overlapping sentences and movements with her older brother as they dart throughout the house. She is 8 years old, with rainbow tie-dye hair as colorful as a unicorn’s mane.
On a recent afternoon, Emma and Miller, 10, play house detectives, using tape to pull fingerprints from the kitchen countertop.
“You can be any gender you want,” Emma said from behind the counter during a rare moment of stillness. “Just because they’re someone, doesn’t mean that they have to stay as it.”
Checking in, her mom Amy asked Emma a set of questions about her gender identity: “You still feel like you’re all girl?” “Do you still feel like you’re Emma?”
To each, Emma bent her knees and dipped her back before returning to an upright standing position. Perhaps sensing her mother’s confusion, Emma explained, “You’re supposed to pretend my whole body’s saying yes.”
Amy and Miller laughed.
“We’ve kind of been living in a bubble to be honest with you,” Amy said. “We’ve been enjoying just her being Emma.”
In full view
Emma’s last name was once hidden. We now know it is Smith.
When the Citizen Times first featured Emma in May 2017, Amy requested their family name be withheld from publication. At the time, she and her husband, Kevin, did not know how readers might react to Emma — 5 years old and still in kindergarten — being transgender. Amy and Kevin admitted they themselves had much to learn about parenting a transgender child.
The relative anonymity of publishing only a first name, they reasoned, could shield Emma and the family from community blowback: online vitriol, angry letters or something worse from intolerant slices of society.
“I didn’t know how it would be received,” Amy said from the Arden home she shares with Kevin, son Miller and Emma.
“We’re in the Bible belt. Even some of our family members had a problem with it.”
Emma’s story did bring some negative feedback. Amy recalled times people drove down their street to spew homophobic epithets toward their home.
Arden residents Amy and Kevin talk about their experience raising their transgender daughter, Emma, and her experience in kindergarten.
And the family members who took issue with Emma’s gender identity have not come around. Lego nights with Amy’s sister-in-law’s family ended, as Emma’s aunt refused to recognize Emma as a girl. According to Amy, the two families no longer speak.
Yet Amy also remembered supportive letters pouring in from all around Buncombe County, the country and the world, Arden to Australia. An Asheville woman with a transgender daughter of her own knitted Emma a pink blanket. Sparky’s, a local toy store, allowed Emma to come in and pick out her own pair of glittery fairy wings.
Amy and Kevin now feel comfortable sharing Emma’s surname. Over the past three years, Amy says she has evolved as an LGBTQ advocate.
“I’ve learned to just be more of a fighter for her,” Amy said. “She’s very resilient and that’s my main goal, for Emma to be trans, a girl and proud.”
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For Emma, going to the bathroom was once a big concern.
She attended kindergarten at Glen Arden Elementary in Buncombe County Schools. At the start of the year, a teacher directed Emma to use the boys’ bathroom, though Emma already presented and identified as a girl.
Bathroom access remained an anxiety throughout kindergarten as Emma urinated on herself twice. Though BCS and the Smith family worked through Emma’s bathroom access, Amy and Kevin pulled their daughter from the district.
“Even after this many years, she’s still dealing with issues with teachers and trust,” Amy said of Emma.
“I have the weirdest power,” added Emma. “Something with my mind. I can’t remember anything unless it was very bad.”
Amy said she would never again send Emma to a district school.
Local LGBTQ advocates say it is common for negative experiences to motivate transgender students to find new schools.
“It’s easy to forget that what the vast majority of trans people are asking for is to have normal lives, to not have all this attention drawn to ourselves,” said Brynn Estelle, operations director at Tranzmisison, a local nonprofit promoting rights of transgender people.
Estelle has known multiple controversies around restroom access to push transgender youth, and their families, to enroll elsewhere.
“If you’re accessing resources that are available to you, chances are you don’t want to be forced to go to a different school. Yet in my experience, specifically with trans feminine students, the result is always that the student is relocated.”
The year after Emma left the district, BCS enacted new Gender Support Guidelines. They state: “A transgender student may not be required to use a facility that conflicts with the student’s gender identity consistently asserted at school.”
The policy recommends “reasonable alternative arrangements,” like the use of single-occupancy restrooms or separate changing times for students who desire more privacy.
“Any alternative arrangement should be provided in a nonstigmatizing way and in a manner that protects a student’s ability to keep their transgender status confidential,” the guidelines continue.
After considering homeschooling, the Smiths visited FernLeaf Community Charter School in Fletcher, where school administrators used proper feminine pronouns and assured the family Emma could use the girls’ bathroom without issue. Emma enrolled immediately.
“They’ve never given her any reason to make her feel like she was not who she is,” Amy said of the school.
Livi Switzer, 7, a second-grader at FernLeaf, describes Emma as boisterous and funny. Though Livi is a grade behind Emma, both classmates love art class and spend time together outside of school.
“They don’t feel like they’re the right person that they want to be,” Livi said of transgender children. “They can be someone else.”
FernLeaf enrolls around 300 students from kindergarten to sixth grade. With the school’s plan to expand a grade each year until 12th grade, Emma’s family hopes she will not have to switch schools again.
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A plot twist
Between home and school, Emma’s worlds appear to lack much turbulence. But with teenage years on the horizon, the future holds uncertainties.
Emma was born anatomically male. At age 4, a doctor diagnosed her with gender dysphoria, a condition where people’s gender identities do not match the sex assigned at birth. Her birth certificate said “male,” but Emma says she has always felt in her heart and mind like a girl.
Gender dysphoria can cause distress, and Emma sees a psychologist every few weeks. Older Asheville-area transgender students can seek guidance from groups like Youth OUTright, though Emma is still too young to join.
Around the onset of puberty, children with gender dysphoria can start taking hormone blockers. Emma says she is eager to pursue this medication, which would halt the side effects of male puberty. Later on, Emma can add estrogen pills to help develop secondary sex characteristics like breasts, the softening of skin, and more feminine patterns of body fat. Gender confirmation surgeries like penile inversion will be future options as well.
“We’re taking it as we go,” Amy said, noting each choice will be left to Emma. “I don’t know how her body is going to react.”
While puberty carries a wealth of social and personal challenges for many, the developmental period presents distinct experiences and choices for transgender children.
“Depending on the treatment, and how the child feels within themselves, there are mental health challenges that come,” said Michael Hoeben, trans health coordinator at Western North Carolina Community Health Services. “It can be really hard if your body isn’t aligned with your internal sense of gender, and you’re having to face that daily within a school context.”
Blockers, estrogen pills and surgeries also carry costs. Amy says her family’s current insurance would not cover Emma’s transition medicine.
It’s an expensive process, Hoeben said. “Especially with where someone like Emma’s at, in terms of the larger scope of what could possibly be in their transitioning, costs are undoubtedly an issue. Especially from a surgical standpoint, the costs are insane.”
Hoeben estimates the average cost of a penile inversion procedure would run around $20,000 without insurance.
To help cover future medical costs, Amy decided to write a children’s book.
With Miller as the narrator, “Yes, My Brother Wears a Dress” tells one young boy’s experience as his beloved sibling transitions from being a brother to a sister.
“Some boys like blue, but he likes pink, although his favorite colors aren’t what makes him unique,” one section reads.
The back pages contain a glossary defining terms like “questioning,” “pronoun” and “outing,” followed by a section titled “How To Be A Good Ally” for cisgender readers.
Writing under the pen name Indigo Sterling, Amy hopes the book will soon be available online and in area bookstores. Emma and Miller both read the story and gave their approval.
“The book is just trying to normalize it,” Amy said. “Get it out there. Kids need to know that their friends might be transgender.”
On the dedication page, Amy left her daughter a message: “To my beautiful Emma. What a plot twist you were.”
Brian Gordon is the education and social issues reporter for The Asheville Citizen Times. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, at 828-232-5851, or on Twitter at @briansamuel92.
See one transgender kindergartener’s journey through six years of life.
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