As a parent, what do you do when your 4-year-old child refuses to communicate and strips naked every time you leave the house to take him to school?
Obviously, something's amiss. But what is the problem? And how do you go about fixing it? For Carl Wayne Denney and his wife, Tuesday, that was life with their son Dominic, the fourth child in their crew of five.
"He was kicked off the bus because he was taking off all of his clothes," recalls Tuesday. "When his dad started taking him to school and it was the same thing."
"He was throwing his shoes at my head as we drove down I-69," says Carl.
The ride from their home to the Indiana School for the Deaf was difficult. Not only was Dominic not staying in his clothes, but he was refusing to sign, which made communication tough.
"We would go to the store — Wal-mart or Target or something — and he would instantly go to the girl clothes," says Tuesday. "At first I didn't think anything of it. It didn't bother me that he liked to play with dolls. But he wouldn't sign. He would just point at things."
Sign language is the primary language in the household. Carl, Tuesday and Dominic are deaf. (The other children are not, but still know sign language.) Dominic's refusal to sign made getting to the heart of his issues even more difficult.
Thank God for Oprah.
Tuesday remembers watching an episode of Oprah featuring mother and author Cheryl Kilodavis, who talked about her son Dyson and his love of wearing dresses. Kilodavis wrote a children's book, My Princess Boy, that describes Dyson's story and addresses the concept of acceptance. Listening to Kilodavis' story made Tuesday wonder — could that story and situation apply to Dominic?
Tuesday initiated a conversation with her son on the next trip to the store where Dominic expressed he wanted to wear dresses.
But it went much deeper than simply attire.
"He said to me, 'Mommy, I'm a girl,'" says Tuesday.
Tuesday and Carl tried to negotiate with their young child. The first proposal was for Dominic to wear boy clothes at school and girl clothes at home. But for Dominic that wasn't good enough. The clothes continued to come off in the car. The next option was to split the difference — Dominic would wear girl tops and boy bottoms. But that too wasn't good enough. Dominic insisted he was really a she. That insistence wasn't just expressed in clothing, but in everything the young child did.
"One day he came and asked me how to go to the bathroom," says Tuesday. "I was confused because he was potty trained. But then he showed me and I saw that he had taped his penis down and out of the way."
When Tuesday caught Dominic with a pair of scissors attempting to remove the offensive appendage that kept her from being who she really was, Tuesday decided it was time to let her son be her daughter.
"I went and threw out all of the boy clothes. We went to the store and bought all girl clothes," says Tuesday. "Suddenly, she was a brand new person, like a butterfly coming out of her cocoon. She started talking [signing] constantly, so full of life, and she hasn't stopped since."
Dominice was born.
"She named herself" says Tuesday. "She added an 'e' to the end of her name and became Dominice."
For Dominice, known as Dommie to her family, she was finally free to be the girl she knew she was since age 3. But that didn't mean the transition was by any means easy. Carl admits it was hard for him to adjust to the idea that his son was now his daughter. Despite already having three sons, Carl expected his relationship with Dominic to be slightly different and special.
"I'm what you would call a macho man," says Carl. "I coach basketball and football. It is so rare for a deaf father to have a deaf son and I was looking forward to sharing those father-son moments."
But once he saw what Tuesday saw — the brooding angry shoe-throwing boy transformed into a bright, lively, happy girl — he knew he had another daughter.
The Indiana School for the Deaf, however wasn't so accepting of Dominice right away. Dommie fell victim to bullying from other students who didn't understand her. Parents told their kids not to play with her. The administration refused to acknowledge Dommie as a girl and even went as far as calling the Department of Child Services to report the family on suspected abuse charges, claiming Dommie was being forced to dress like a girl instead of a boy.
Eventually, Tuesday put her foot down and insisted the family move to California. As a California native, Tuesday knew her daughter would be accepted and would flourish in that environment compared to conservative Indiana.
And she did — for two years.
"But we eventually came back because of the cost of living," says Carl, who is a Hoosier native. "And Indiana is a good place to raise a family."
Thankfully, things had changed for the better at the Indiana School for the Deaf. Dommie's return was met with acceptance from the administration and teachers. She is allowed to live in the girls' dormitory and use the girls' bathroom. Things are definitely better than they were before the trek out West and back, but they aren't exactly perfect.
"She wants to do everything," said Tuesday. "Gymnastics, cheerleading, basketball, volleyball ... she wants to be with her friends."
Of course she does — just like so many other American kids. But there is also the reality that while sports at an elementary level is child's play, competition and pressures increase with age, practice and skill. That increased level of competition is something Carl knows and understands as a coach. It led both Carl and Tuesday to be proactive in their thinking regarding Dommie's future in school sports.
"Knowing Dommie wants to play volleyball and basketball in middle school, we decided to talk to the middle school athletic director," said Carl. "We wanted him to know that Dommie was coming and to prepare for that."
The Indiana School for the Deaf (ISD) is a part of the Indianapolis Independent Schools League (IISL), where interscholastic play between schools begins at the middle school level with fifth- and sixth-grade teams and seventh- and eighth-grade teams. Other schools in the league include the International School of Indiana, Sycamore School, the Oaks Academy and St. Richards Episcopal School among others.
Dommie would be eligible for interscholastic play in two years when she enters the fifth grade— if the athletic director lets her.
According to Carl and Tuesday, the middle school athletic director said Dommie would not be allowed to play as a girl on the girls' basketball or volleyball teams.
"He said he is concerned about what other parents would say. 'What locker room would she use? Where would she use the bathroom?' What does that even mean?" asked Tuesday. "She is a girl! She sleeps in the girls' dorm when she is at school. She uses the girls' bathroom at school. Why would playing a sport be any different?"
For coaching dad Carl, the argument is even less valid from an athletic standpoint.
"There is no competitive advantage for any fifth- or sixth-grader at that age at ISD's level and conference," said Carl.
ISD superintendent Dr. David Geeslin says the "no" the Denneys were given by the school's athletic department was taken out of context. Although Dommie turns 10 years old this year, an age typically associated with fifth grade students, she will actually enter the third grade in the fall. Geeslin says regardless of her age, Dommie would need to play with her grade level and is two years away from playing as a fifth-grader.
"However, we will support her when she enters the fifth grade," says Geeslin. "The research says that a positive environment creates a positive learning environment and we are dedicated to providing that for Dommie as well as the rest of our students."
Greeslin adds the middle school athletic director, Wade Curtis, is in agreement with the administration about Dommie and will let her play when the time comes.
There are no rules or guidelines for gender of any kind at the middle school level, but the stakes increase dramatically when students get to high school and college. The Indiana High School Athletic Association (IHSAA) policy requires transgender athletes to complete gender reassignment (surgical sex change) and provide proof in the form of an amended birth certificate or other government documentation. The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) only requires hormone therapy and gender acknowledgement from the school.
IHSAA commissioner Bobby Cox says Indiana was one of the first state associations to adopt a gender policy which was first included in the policy manual for the 2012-2013 school year.
"At the time of authorship, the protocols included in the policy succinctly addressed the issue of transgender students and their identity with respect to interscholastic participation," says Cox. "The IHSAA did not consult with the NCAA or any other non-interscholastic entity to develop our policy."
The NCAA policy was approved in August 2011 and published September 13 the same year. However, Cox says the IHSAA policy has not been challenged so there are no plans to change it.
Carl says the high school athletic director is "ambivalent" about allowing transgender students to play as the gender they are identified instead of their birth gender. The varsity athletic director expressed concern about how other teams would react to a transgender player on the opposing team. But Carl says that is a non-issue.
" According to FERPA [the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act], the other schools don't have to know," he says. "It is the family's right to keep that information private."
Even so, the underlying issue for any sport is the level of competition — something Carl's well aware of as a coach and realizes is a major issue for transgender athletes.
"ISD competed in this national basketball competition among other deaf schools from around the country," recalls Carl. "The ISD girls' team played the Phoenix Deaf School girls' team and ISD, of course, mopped the floor with them. Later I discovered that the Phoenix team had a transgender player. When I brought this to the attention of ISD's athletic director, thinking about Dommie, he said, 'Well, that's different.' When I asked him why he said it was because they weren't any good. I told him it didn't matter. A precedent had been set at that moment."
Dr. Geeslin says when the time comes for Dommie to play in high school, he and ISD will continue to advocate for her right to play in both the IISL and the IHSAA.
For Tuesday, it really doesn't matter if Dommie plays or not, but the decision to play or not to play should be Dommie's and not based on someone's assumptions or their lack of knowledge about transgender people.
"I don't care if she wants to play or not," Tuesday says. "Just don't say no to her because of who she is."
It's already happening — even before Dommie gets to middle school. "There was a cheerleading thing where the girls were doing cheers for the school and the parents," says Tuesday. "Dommie had practiced with the other girls and knew the cheers but she wasn't allowed to perform. Dommie was fine with it and was doing the cheers from the audience and cheering for her friends who were on the stage, but I was crying inside because I knew she was being excluded. It wasn't fair."
Like any mom, Tuesday's number one concern is the emotional well-being of her children. Dommie's situation and the potential for harm keep Tuesday on heightened alert.
Her biggest fear is that one day Dommie will fall victim to all of the negativity thrown in her direction — and perhaps even become suicidal.
"She is such a loving child and rolls with the punches," says Tuesday. "But she does come home sometimes crying because she wasn't completely included in something. She has friends that say they are her friends but then she finds out there was a birthday party and she wasn't invited. What happens when she gets older? I want her to be able to stand up for herself."
The family support Dommie has around her is what allows her to be stable and confident in her identity. Her parents know the road ahead is full of obstacles, but they are dedicated to educating everyone around them about transgender people to ensure their daughter's continued stability and security. The opportunity to play sports is just one more level of acceptance they feel Dommie deserves to have.
But for now, Dommie is just what she is supposed to be — a happy-go-lucky little girl surrounded with pink frilly things, baby dolls and love.
mixed signals for transgender athletes
Both the Indiana High School Athletic Association (IHSAA) and the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) have rules regarding eligibility for transgender athletes — but the rules and requirements for each do not complement each other. In fact, the IHSAA rules are much more stringent and discriminatory compared to the NCAA rules.
According to the IHSAA (2012):
"The IHSAA rules do not permit transgender or transsexual, cross-dressing or similar types of student-athletes to participate on a member school's team which is other than the team of the gender which matches the student's birth gender." – IHSAA C-1 Gender Policy
• The only exception to the rule is if the student athlete completes gender reassignment surgery. In other words, the minor student athlete would have to undergo a surgical sex change in order to play high school sports in Indiana as their chosen gender. The rules also state that all legal recognition of the change in gender would have to be "conferred" by all the proper government entities. An amended birth certificate, a court order or another official state document showing the student's new gender would have to be presented.
• To verify a student's changed gender, the student may be required to submit to a confidential case-by-case evaluation by an IHSAA Gender Committee relative to the gender change.
According to the NCAA (2011):
Transgender student-athletes are eligible to participate in sex-separated sports activities so long as the athlete's use of hormone therapy is consistent with the NCAA policies and current medical standards, which state:
• A trans male (female to male) student-athlete who has received a medical exception for treatment with testosterone for gender transition may compete on a men's team but is no longer eligible to compete on a women's team without changing the team status to a mixed team. A mixed team is eligible only for men's championships.
• A trans female (male to female) student-athlete being treated with testosterone suppression medication for gender transition may continue to compete on a men's team but may not compete on a women's team without changing it to a mixed team status until completing one calendar year of documented testosterone-suppression treatment.
Participation policies for high school transgender athletes in other states mirror the NCAA policy including Wisconsin, Washington and Colorado.
IHSAA commissioner Bobby Cox on the gender policy:
"Initially, the IHSAA was one of the first state associations in America to adopt a gender policy. Our policy was first included in our policy manual for the 2012-13 school year.
"At the time of authorship, the protocols included in the policy succinctly addressed the issue of transgender students and their identity with respect to interscholastic participation. The IHSAA did not consult with the NCAA or any other non-interscholastic entity to develop our policy.
"All policies are subject to membership review and potential revision. Having stated that, the IHSAA has received no request to alter our gender policy based upon the actions of the NCAA or any other governing body and at this moment, we do not intend to make any modifications."