Sarah and Ian Hoffman, authors of new children's book, speak with GLAAD about raising a gender non-conforming child and education through storytelling

Sarah and Ian Hoffman, parents to Sam, a gender non-conforming 12-year-old, and his sister, recently published a children's book inspired by their family's story. Jacob's New Dress follows Jacob who wants to wear his favorite dress to school and his parents who work out how to best support him while keeping him safe. The couple have previously written about raising Sam and reaction from other parents in Salon and the San Francisco Chronicle. The Hoffman's also wrote a piece for The Huffington Post responding to anti-trans comments made by Keith Ablow on CNN in 2011. They spoke with GLAAD about raising a gender non-conforming child, the book, and the importance of education through storytelling.

GLAAD: Sarah, you've written about your own experiences as the mother of a gender non-conforming child before for outlets like Salon and The San Francisco Chronicle.  What led you to create a children's book about the subject?

SARAH HOFFMAN: When our now 12-year-old son Sam was three and spending time on the pink side of the dress-up box, I started writing about gender-bending kids for an adult audience.  At the same time my husband Ian was writing children's picture books on other topics. So it seemed natural to bring our work together by collaborating on a picture book about a gender-creative boy.

We’d benefited greatly from meeting other parents of gender non-conforming kids.  Talking with those families, we saw a lot of isolation and concern among parents whose children weren’t behaving as they expected, and who didn’t have access to resources for managing the experience. We envisioned Jacob's New Dress as a way to support families like ours, and boys like Sam. For a young child who is different from most of his peers, it’s very powerful to see yourself in print.

GLAAD: Does Jacob's New Dress depict real-life events your own family has experienced?

SARAH AND IAN: Yes and no. Starting at age two, Sam became attracted to objects and activities that are generally considered "girl things." First pink sneakers, then pink t-shirts, then princess dress-up costumes and tiaras and fairy wings. Then one day, he wanted to wear a dress “for real” - to school.  We tried to balance supporting our son's intense desire to be himself with concerns about his safety and wellbeing. It was tricky, and confusing, and we had no other parents like ourselves to talk to. In time, we found Children's National Medical Center in Washington, DC, and Gender Spectrum in California, both of which have gender education programs and support groups for parents and kids. In these ways, we became connected with hundreds of families experiencing the same things we were, and we began to see our way through a situation that we just did not anticipate having to navigate.

Although we know well the joys and sorrows of parenting a gender non-conforming boy, the story of Jacob and his family is fictional. Jacob himself is an amalgamation of character traits we've seen in the gender non-conforming boys we know. He's imaginative, sensitive, not afraid to be himself, and not immune to the disapproval of others. The people who live in Jacob's world—parents, teachers, friends, and foes—are also composites of our experiences and those of people we know. 

GLAAD: Long before the book, Sarah wrote the real-life story of Sam’s first day at school in a dress for Cookie Magazine. What values or lessons do you hope that young readers will take away from the book?

SARAH AND IAN: There is a lot of leeway in our world for girls to express themselves all along the gender spectrum, from sparkly dresses to jeans and baseball caps. Our hope is for a world where boys are just as free to be who they are, and to express themselves however they’d like. So we hope, when kids read Jacob, that they will come to see a boy like Jacob as just another way of being a kid. And we hope that when Jacobs read Jacob, they will see that they are not alone.

More broadly, we hope the book will help teach kids that it's ok to be different in any way. That message is aimed both at the kids who are different and the kids who aren't different. We've learned through our own experience that kids are pretty tolerant of difference if they're taught to be tolerant. Education makes a huge difference in terms what kids will or won't accept. We’ve seen it in our children’s schools: when kids are educated about gender diversity, they accept Sam. When they are not, they reject him. Education is powerful, and it works.

In unsupportive environments—schools, homes, communities—kids like Sam are teased, ostracized, bullied, and brutalized. We want to try to prevent these behaviors before they start by building a culture that tolerates, values, and celebrates difference. Our book is a small piece of a much larger effort to build a more empathetic, compassionate culture.

GLAAD: How did illustrator Chris Case come to work on Jacob's New Dress, and what was the experience of collaboration with him like?

SARAH AND IAN: Our publisher, Albert Whitman & Company, paired us with Chris. They thought his style and sensibility were a good match with our story, and they were right. Chris' work really brings Jacob to life in the most wonderful way. It has been a delight to work with him.

Interestingly, Chris was the second illustrator our publisher approached. The first one declined to illustrate the book because he was uncomfortable with the idea of drawing a character who was a normal, dress-wearing boy. When we learned that, it made us further appreciate not only Chris' skill, but his open-mindedness and his responsiveness to the story.

GLAAD: Besides your own son, have you known other families with children who are gender non-conforming or transgender?

SARAH AND IAN: We're very lucky to know many real life Jacobs and their families. The boys (and girls) we've met and known span the entire spectrum of gender expression and circumstance. Tomboys and pink boys from mildly gender non-conforming to radically so.  Closeted dress-wearing boys and flamboyantly, publicly pink boys.  Kids who are gender-fluid and kids whose gender expression is unwavering.  Trans kids who are “out” and trans kids who [aren't.]  Trans kids who [eventually] go on to hormone therapy and trans kids who don’t. Over the years, we've been able to see these children evolve, sometimes as expected and sometimes in quite surprising ways. It's really taught us there's no "girl box" and "boy box" to sort kids into. Ideally, the world is more like a giant sandbox that kids can explore as they please.

GLAAD: What would you want to tell parents who think they may have a transgender child or a child like Jacob?

SARAH AND IAN: One of the unexpected things we learned as parents of a gender non-conforming child is that our children are who they are, regardless of who we expect them to be. Kids begin to express their gender around the age of two or three. If a child is gender-normative—a boy who drives his trucks noisily across the floor, a girl who quietly tends to her dolls—no one really takes notice. But when a child’s interests go strongly against gender norms, they stand out from their peers. However it’s expressed, gender identity is inborn; it can’t be changed. And the consequence of trying to change a child’s innate self, or of not supporting their true selves, is high. Studies show that LGBT children who are rejected by their families have dramatically higher rates of depression, substance abuse and suicide. Those who are supported by their families have health and mental health levels comparable to the general population. Of course, supporting a child whose gender or sexuality is different from the norm can be a challenge for parents, from dealing with their own biases to concerns about their child’s welfare to lacking support and feeling isolated. So how can we support our gender non-conforming or trans children?

First, find support—for both yourselves and your children. Join a support group of like-minded parents; bring your child to a group for gender non-conforming or trans kids. Enlist thoughtful, supportive family and friends to buoy and celebrate your child and your efforts to make their world safe. Read books about parenting gender-creative children, and fill your child’s library with books that reflect gender diversity (our website has a list of books for adults and kids of all ages). Ask your school to be proactive about anti-bullying programs in general and gender education in particular (and if asking doesn’t work, demand it). Our website has a list of organizations that support families and schools. Wonderfully, the National Association of Independent Schools just came out with a document, Guidelines for Independent Schools Working With and Supporting Transgender and Gender Non-conforming Students, which will prove invaluable for building acceptance in schools (and which includes GLAAD’s Tips for Allies of Transgender People).

Educate everyone you can. Gender diversity is a new concept for most people; ignorance and prejudice are deeply ingrained. Even people who love your children—like grandparents—often need time to adjust. See each interaction as an opportunity to educate someone else about acceptance of unique forms of gender expression. Remember that your responsibility is to your child, not to manage the discomfort of adults. Walk away from judgment, and shield your child from it as best you can.  And when you can’t shield them, teach them to manage it. Teach them the historical context for overcoming bias. When Sam was in kindergarten, we taught him about Rosa Parks and Harvey Milk—people who stood up to bias against them and changed the world. Tell your child that the world will change. That it is changing. And that they are helping to change it, just by being themselves.

And lastly: breathe. When you're the parent of a kid who's different, it’s easy to overthink everything you do, tempting to try to interpret the significance of everything your kid does, and appealing to try to predict the future. Our job is really quite simple: to accept our kids for exactly who they are, and to protect them from harm. We can’t know who or what our children will evolve into as they grow up. We had no idea that one day Sam would put on pants and cut his hair short (as he did at age 11) and be happy. We had no idea if he would grow up to be straight, gay, bi, gender-queer, trans, or his own special something—in fact, we still don’t. Sam, like all of us, is a work in progress. All we as parents can do is support our children unconditionally, and be open to who they become.

You can keep up to date with the Hoffman family at their blog and Jacob's New Dress is available for purchase now.