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Coy Mathis: A family’s journey to support, understand their transgender child

Thursday, February 28, 2013

Editor’s Note: On Wednesday we reported a story about Coy Mathis, a 6-year-old transgender girl who has been barred from using the girls’ restrooms at her elementary school. As often happens when report on transgender youth, our readers had much to say on the topic, and this story was no exception.

Today we present a more personal story about Coy, and her family’s journey to understand and support her identity.

FOUNTAIN, Colo. — At first, Jeremy and Kathryn Mathis didn’t think much of their son’s behavior. Coy took his sister’s pink blanket, and shunned the car they gave him for Christmas.

Coy Mathis
Photo: Brennan Linsley, AP

Then, Coy told them he only wanted to wear girls’ clothes. At school, he became upset when his teacher insisted he line up with the boys. All the while, he was becoming depressed and withdrawn, telling his parents at one point he wanted to get “fixed” by doctors.

When the Mathises learned he had gender identity disorder — a condition in which someone identifies as the opposite gender — they decided to help Coy live as a girl. And suddenly, she came out of her shell.

“We could force her to be somebody she wasn’t, but it would end up being more damaging to her emotionally and to us because we would lose the relationship with her,” Kathryn Mathis said. “She was discussing things like surgery and things like that before and she’s not now, so obviously we’ve done something positive.”

Now, her family is locked in a legal battle with the school district in Fountain, a town 82 miles south of Denver, over where Coy, 6, should go to use the bathroom — the girls’ or, as school officials suggest, one in the teachers’ lounge or another in the nurse’s office. Her parents say using anything other than the girls’ bathroom could stigmatize her, and open her up to bullying.

Fountain-Fort Carson School District 8 declined to comment, citing a complaint filed on behalf of the Mathises with the Colorado Office of Civil Rights that alleges a violation of the state’s anti-discrimination law. School officials, however, sent a letter to the family, explaining their decision to prevent Coy from using the girls’ bathroom at Eagleside Elementary, where she is a first-grader.

“I’m certain you can appreciate that as Coy grows older and his male genitals develop along with the rest of his body, at least some parents and students are likely to become uncomfortable with his continued use of the girls’ restroom,” the letter read.

Coy, with her mother Kathryn Mathis

School districts in many states, including Colorado, have enacted policies that allow transgender students to use the bathroom of the gender with which they identify. Sixteen states, including Colorado, have anti-discrimination laws that include protections for transgender people.

Legal battles such as the one the Mathises are facing are rare, said Michael Silverman of the New York-based Transgender Legal Defense & Education Fund who is representing the Mathises. He sees about a dozen cases each year. Silverman refers most cases to social workers who work with districts to work out a solution to a well-recognized medical condition.

Psychologists don’t know what causes the condition, but it was added to the American Psychiatric Association’s diagnostic manual in 1980 — some three decades after the psychological concept of gender began to be developed.

The manual’s fifth edition, due out in May, changes the name to Gender Dysphoria — which refers to the distress from the gender conflict — partly out of concerns that the current name is stigmatizing, said Dr. Jack Drescher, a New York psychiatrist who serves on the working group that suggested the changes.

There’s no consensus on how to treat it in somebody Coy’s age because of a lack of data on the disorder in prepubescent children. Research suggests that many children gradually become “comfortable with their natal gender,” an APA task force reported in 2011. But the goal of any treatment should be to help the child adjust to its reality, the APA said.

Coy, with her sister Auri.

Coy, with her father, Jeremy Mathis.
Photos by Brennan Linsley, AP

Coy is a triplet, with a brother, Max, and a sister, Lily. At 5 months old, Coy was already expressing a preference for items associated with girls, the Mathises recalled. A friend gave them baby blankets, and Coy took a pink blanket meant for Lily. The Mathises didn’t think too much of it.

They bought Coy toys normally associated with boys, but she showed little interest. While Max was excited when Coy opened her Christmas present in 2009 to find a toy car from the Disney movie “Cars,” Coy simply set it down and walked away.

As Coy got older, she found and wore her older sister’s bathing suit, which had fringe that made it look like a tutu.

Still they pressed on in raising a boy, encouraging Coy to wear boy clothes and bought shirts that had pictures of sports, monsters and dinosaurs on them. She showed little interest, and refused to leave the house if she had to wear boy’s clothes.

It didn’t bother her father, an ex-Marine, that Coy liked to wear pink bows and dress up in girls clothes. That is, until Coy insisted on leaving the house with them on.

“She would see the stereotypical outfits laid out and then get this look of defeat and then would go, ‘I’d just rather stay home,’” her mother said. “It wasn’t about the pink. It was about people knowing she was a girl.”

When Coy asked to be taken to the doctor to be “fixed,” they took her to a psychologist who diagnosed her.

Coy started kindergarten in August 2011 but once the Mathises learned that Coy’s behavior wasn’t a phase, they allowed her to wear dresses and identify herself as a girl in the middle of the school year. The withdrawn child who was lagging behind in school began to flourish.

In kindergarten, the children used unisex bathrooms. Last fall, in first grade, the district allowed her to use the girls’ bathroom. But then they told the Mathises that Coy would have to either use the staff bathroom or the one in the nurse’s office starting in January. Coy is being home-schooled now, along with her siblings, while the issue is being litigated.

The family hopes that the district will reconsider, especially since using the bathroom is done in private anyway, and that Coy isn’t stigmatized by being forced to use a different bathroom than her peers.

“The doctor’s bathroom is only for sick people and I’m not sick,” said Coy, wearing white tights, a red dress and sweater and sitting on the living room couch at her house as her siblings played a computer game nearby at the kitchen table.

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27 more reader comments:

  1. her parents are so supportive. takes my breath away to be honest. i wish every parent loved their child this much and wanted the best for them…

    Posted on Thursday, February 28, 2013 at 9:45am
  2. This is love

    Posted on Thursday, February 28, 2013 at 9:49am
  3. Dani Love

    Posted on Thursday, February 28, 2013 at 9:57am
  4. thank you <3 rudy

    Posted on Thursday, February 28, 2013 at 9:58am
  5. shes so beautiful

    Posted on Thursday, February 28, 2013 at 9:59am
  6. Thank you Dani for supporting us!!!

    Posted on Thursday, February 28, 2013 at 10:00am
    Who *DOESN’T* love “Cars” (regardless of gender)?! How can you NOT love Mater!? <3 My nephew is a "Cars" fanatic; so when he brings his "Cars" toys over, I'm always Mater :D

    *Anyway, sorry bout my spaz attack. Back to the original issue* What the hell is wrong with this school district?! First off, she's ADORABLE! How can you look at a cute little girl like this, and tell her that she has to use a different bathroom because other people will get "uncomfortable"? What, so now the way transgender people urinate/defecate- in a closed stall, mind you- is offensive to people?!
    She's six freakin years old, people!!! It's not like she's gonna jump a classmate in the john!!! GTF over it!

    Posted on Thursday, February 28, 2013 at 10:10am
  8. Rudy Ramirez always Rudy always!

    Posted on Thursday, February 28, 2013 at 11:21am
  9. This is a touching article, but something in it bothers me deeply. They say that Coy has gender identity disorder (reclassified in the soon to be released DSM-V as “Gender Dysphoria — which refers to the distress from the gender conflict — partly out of concerns that the current name is stigmatizing”. Why is this a psychiatric condition at all??? To have a condition in the DSM indicates something that is psychologically wrong with a person… I don’t see what Coy is experiencing as wrong. I see it as a physical disorder… change the body and everything is as it should be. Am I alone in this?

    Posted on Thursday, February 28, 2013 at 11:27am
  10. ^^ I agree with you Tracy. I’ve had a couple Trans friends. Nothing was wrong with their mind or psyche. Just their body.

    Posted on Thursday, February 28, 2013 at 11:56am
  11. There tends to be an enormous binary with gender both in the public and in psychological discussion. Liking pink and not liking cars is not representative of sex but identity with a socially specific gender and what that gender means to them individually. Most trans people have divisions in hormones during utero ie the body and mind developed differently but I think Tracy the reason this disorder exists is for the people who are not specifically trans because they are instead caught between our definitions for binary gender ( native americans called it Two Soul). It’s for the people who seem to identify with neither specification, as someone might enjoy the privileges of one gender but want the physicality of another. In reality, without ‘society’ gender and sexuality are fluid, its the social constructs that make it so rigid and confusing. So I personally think this disorder criteria is just to cement that if you aren’t binary, you’re disordered, which is shit. Because we all know pronouns don’t make a person: choice, intent and action do. And about the bathroom thing, all kids should be going in a stall. This whole exposing yourself for the convenience of a urinal thing is stupid if they have this much of an issue with genitals. Also come on, universities have co ed bathrooms and that’s the real age you want privacy in. This whole paranoia comes from the ‘diagnosis’. Annoying.

    Posted on Thursday, February 28, 2013 at 12:27pm
  12. What a pretty baby she is :)

    Posted on Thursday, February 28, 2013 at 5:21pm
  13. Jackie: I appreciate your astute comments. Binary thinking, I believe, infests more than just the thinking on gender issues; it’s also the scourge of domestic politics, foreign policy, & cultural matters. Binary thinking promotes the dumbing-down of thought in general.

    Posted on Thursday, February 28, 2013 at 5:46pm
  14. I just love their family… She’s so freaking adorable.

    Posted on Saturday, March 2, 2013 at 10:38am
  15. I just see a beautiful child. Yay.

    Posted on Saturday, March 2, 2013 at 10:38am
  16. A+++ A loving and very supportive family and a precious little girl.

    Posted on Saturday, March 2, 2013 at 10:41am
  17. We are what we are. Saw her on a news segment somewhere and was so pleased to see the story not sensationalized…just a family dealing with something normally not dealt with as well as they did and who has a lovely little girl who is psychologically a whole lot less screwed up than most kids who are like her do. Nature wins out almost every time over nurture, and this is a case in point. (From an old broad who used to be a beard for her gay friends when that was a social necessity and who played the straight friend as window dressing to lessen the impact of parents meeting the lesbian lover of their daughter, etc.)

    Posted on Saturday, March 2, 2013 at 11:02am
  18. SorryI no longer support your page

    Posted on Saturday, March 2, 2013 at 11:05am
  19. ^^^ Why did you in the first place if this offends you?

    Posted on Saturday, March 2, 2013 at 11:08am
  20. I’ve said this elsewhere, but I’ll repeat it for posterity’s sake: why do we even slap gender roles on children? What purpose can they possibly serve to someone not of reproductive age? It’s not necessary to enforce such archaic teachings if children are provided honest, informative, and age-appropriate sex education.

    Posted on Saturday, March 2, 2013 at 11:26am
  21. It is what it is. A great story and thankful for the family sharing. It is the other parents problem. We need to educate acceptance of all and embrace it. Children know at a very young age. They are not stupid. We need to learn to listen to our children. God bless to you.

    Posted on Saturday, March 2, 2013 at 11:30am
  22. This child is very fortunate to have these parents. Going to grow up to be a well adjusted human being. (I purposely did not use gender related terms).

    Posted on Saturday, March 2, 2013 at 11:45am
  23. What’s not to support, Sarah Creek?

    Posted on Saturday, March 2, 2013 at 12:05pm
  24. I watched this on Katie Couric show how cute :)

    Posted on Saturday, March 2, 2013 at 12:49pm
  25. Good for her parents!

    Posted on Saturday, March 2, 2013 at 1:46pm
  26. For every girl like her there are most likely 7 who are not so supportive of transgender individuals.

    Posted on Saturday, March 2, 2013 at 2:08pm
  27. I truly hope her parents win the case and Coy can use the girl’s bathroom

    Posted on Saturday, March 2, 2013 at 6:28pm