A Short Story
News item: The Columbus Dispatch
Saturday, August 26, 2000
Couple fights for son, 6, they say is girl at heart
A Westerville couple is fighting to regain custody of their 6-year-old boy, whom they said was taken by social workers because they let the child dress and act like he's a girl.
The couple lost temporary custody of the child Wednesday, less than two weeks after trying to enroll him in first grade at McVay Elementary School as a girl. The child attended the school last year as a boy.
They said Franklin County Children Services is violating their civil rights by not allowing them to do what's best for their child. A gender- identity disorder was diagnosed in the child.
The disorder is recognized by the medical community. It can show up in the toddler stage when children begin to identify themselves as either male or female.
The child was diagnosed with gender identity disorder in November after being hospitalized at Cincinnati Children's Medical Center for trying to hurt himself and others during an emotional outburst, said the couple's attorney, Randi Barnabee.
A court hearing on Children Services' complaint has been set for Sept. 12.
Barnabee predicted a "protracted and bitter" fight.
"It's a tremendously tragic case over a socially unpopular disorder," she said. "Years ago, in private schools kids were slapped for using their left or 'wrong' hand. This is no different, just worse."
The sun had been up for perhaps half an hour, and the view from the massive picture window framed those most beautiful of mountains in changing colors of dawn. "Grand" is a true description, but inadequate to convey the majesty of the Teton range. How fortunate I felt, to be in this majestic old hotel in late summer, looking west across the marshlands around Jackson Lake to Mount Moran and the Grand Teton.
I could not linger in the lobby. The early rising hotel guests greeted me warmly as I carried my gear onto the patio outside the dining room. I was the first that day to find a viewpoint and set up my chair and easel. As I mixed my oils, I pondered my composition, planning to show in the foreground the waterfowl and the elk so abundant in western Wyoming. Perhaps even a bull moose. Other artists arrived and set up around me. We chatted briefly but grew quiet as we became absorbed in our subjects.
For over two hours I painted without stopping. Finally I had to stretch and have a cup of coffee. The artist seated to my left took the opportunity to inspect my work, and we compared our color choices for the morning light. "Your work is so precise," she offered. I accepted the compliment graciously, but I couldn't help imagining the unspoken end to her thought, "...for one of them..."
She continued, "Who was your tutor? I studied at San Francisco Art Institute." Oh my, we are getting more personal, I thought. Don't be upset; she's just curious. It's a good opportunity to do some outreach.
"I studied art at Arizona State," I replied, watching her surprised smile. As further explanation, I added, "I finished my M.F.A. last year." With that, she understood: I had gone back to finish my degree requirements recently, after the changes in the law which allowed me to live and work - and paint - openly, as my true self.
Then it occurred to her that she had seen me on CNN. "Oh, my goodness, I know who you are. You're Brad Richardson." I just smiled.
She seemed quite at ease with me. Not everyone was, even in this more enlightened era. "I think it's wonderful, after all you must have had to go through," she offered. "It's easy for me to say now, but it's true: I always thought the laws were wrong about you.
"I have always felt that left-handed people were just as normal as the rest of us."
My mother told me on several occasions of the times, back in her grandfather's day, when being lefthanded was not considered an illness or a perversion. Why, in some sports it was even an advantage! Imagine that, I thought as I tried to improve my penmanship with my clumsy right hand. How could this ever be an advantage? My parents told themselves, which made them able to tell the authorities, that I had been completely re-trained. But Mother always suspected that the unchanging facts of my birth were more influential than society's expectations. Bless her, she loved me so much, she loved me even if I had not changed. Not Father, not in those years. He wouldn't tolerate the stigma on his family.
I must have been two years old when my father noticed that I would use my left hand to throw a ball. I don't know what went through his mind, or how he explained to my mother what he would have to do. I only know that he told me I would have to throw with my right hand, because that was the only right way for everyone. To make sure I didn't forget, he bought me a toddler's baseball glove and placed it on my left hand. I didn't mind the glove at first, but when I would catch the ball, I would remove the glove and transfer the ball back to my left hand to throw it. Father was not amused. He tried various strategies to straighten me out: wearing a sling, using an elastic bandage to bind my left arm to my side, finally just giving up and taking away the ball. So many times I cried in frustration: it would be so easy if they would just let me be myself.
Over the next few years I encountered the same restrictions with crayons and pencils. When Father was watching, I would print my alphabet slowly and deliberately, forming large letters with the pencil in my right hand. Upstairs, in my room, the words flowed easily when no one could see me writing in the only way which felt right. I was delighted to find that I could draw very well, even at age five; my humans were not just stick figures, but had near normal proportions. I had a talent for art, but I had to produce my work in secret, so no one could see the crayon in my left hand.
Until I started school, I had only the restrictions my parents had placed on me; no information about the abnormality known as left-handedness. Once I reached second grade, the teachers began their indoctrination. It started in the public school and was reinforced in church, in youth sports, in clubs and scouting.
"Our families are in danger when children try to choose a different path from the path which always works. We must always make the right choices." The right choices. Not, heaven forbid, the left choices.
"There is a temptation to follow a different lifestyle, to do things in a way opposite to the right way. We cannot tolerate this difference. To have strong families, strong communities, we must all work together in exactly the same way. There is no place for such strange behavior. It is perverse, it is an abomination, it is...not right."
Well of course, I thought, it's not right. It's left. What are they talking about? Do they think I am trying to be difficult? It's not that at all. I am just doing what I know to be proper for me. I didn't choose to use my left hand for all these tasks. It's just what works for me. I am sure I was born this way. What do they mean by "lifestyle"? I live a normal life just like all my friends. I just live it favoring my left hand.
No one would listen to me. I have no idea how many times I found myself in the principal's office after being caught using the "wrong" hand. I do know that I was sent home from school four times in one year, and my father finally used his belt to get my attention. "Son, you have to be a right thinking man, and that means a right handed man. Whatever it takes, I'm going to make that man out of you."
At church they used a different, but no less effective approach: guilt and fear. "It is wrong to go against so many years of our tradition. It is wrong to disobey your parents. it is wrong to fail to follow teacher's orders at school." Look at the words themselves, they said. The word "right" always means "correct." We talk about people having "rights." When did you ever hear of someone having "lefts"? Why, look at the Latin. The word for "right" is "dexter." We get "dexterity" from this - skill, ability, physical talent. What's the Latin for "left"? It is "sinister." Need we say more?
What could I do but pretend to comply? Slowly I trained my right hand to write cursive script. It was slow but it was legible. At least the equipment made it easier to use my right hand. The desks were built for right handed writers. Even the way we write sentences in the English language, from left to right across the page, is easier if you are right handed. Society favors normalcy.
My drawing was another matter. Deprived of the use of my natural drawing hand, I could only make the crude sketches which left me less than average for my peer group. An artist? Me? In no way would you have guessed it from my works. I cried in my room at night for what might have been - what should have been.
Maybe they were right. I prayed for God to take from me this abominable difference. They promised me my prayers would be answered if I really meant it. I thought I meant it, but never did I experience the change. My faith was shaken as I wondered if perhaps I really didn't mean my prayers; maybe I didn't have a direct line to God after all. I remained painfully aware of my difference. It was so frustrating, because I knew I had no visible proof of being left handed. It wasn't as though my right arm was withered. It looked quite normal. It just wasn't me.
In time I learned to tolerate my right-handed mediocrity and blend in with the crowd. From time to time I noticed others who seemed as uncomfortable as I did. It was as though I had a radar for picking out other left-conflicted people. But I never mentioned it to any of them; I was afraid of the consequences if I was detected. There were more penalties for non conformity as an adult than simple trips to the principal's office. The fines were steep and increased with each offense.
When I fell in love with Carla I was in my last year of college, studying general business. My love of art was buried under years of neglect and inability to be myself. She saw me as a steady, reliable man, someone she could count on to do the right thing. I never told her about my left-handedness. What good would it have done? Most likely she would never have wanted to see me again. Marriage would settle me down and get rid of all those foolish notions.
Life was peaceful for several years. After we married, I was accepted to law school. It was not my first choice. Art, architecture, even medicine seemed out of my reach since I lacked the "dexterity" to practice those professions. I knew, deep within me, the difference was still there; but I was determined to take my secret to the grave with me. I didn't want to be different to be a "sinister". It would cost me my job, my marriage, my friends. It would hurt too much. Everyone who knows and loves me would never understand, because they were not born with this problem, and they can't see it in me so they would think I'm just making it up. They would take those words I hate so much - "perversion" and "deviation" - and apply them to me.
This state of denial came to an abrupt end the day I rolled a foam rubber ball to our young son Charlie, and he tossed it back in my direction - with his left hand.
Oh, God, no! Not him too.
But it became so obvious to me that Charlie shared my affliction. I tried to encourage him to use his right hand, but could never bring myself to discipline him. Finally, when Carla saw him drawing with the pencil held tightly in his little left fist, she demanded that I intercede.
"Yes, Daddy?" How he trusted me. How I loved him.
"You know I love to watch you draw, but I need to talk to you about the way you are drawing."
His smile turned to a grimace and he began to sniffle. "I knew it," he wept. "You are going to make me use that hand. But Daddy, I can't draw with that hand. I have tried, but I just can't. Why don't you let me do what I can do? You just don't understand."
My resolve was completely wiped out. I hugged him close and assured him, "Charlie, I do understand. I really do. I'll see what I can do to help you."
I tried to explain to Carla why I wanted to help Charlie develop his natural abilities as he felt he should. In doing so, I somehow found the courage to tell her my own truth, a truth I would no longer deny. I wanted to renew my love for painting and drawing, and I wanted Charlie to see that there was nothing wrong with using one's left hand, if that was where one's skills were found.
My efforts were spectacularly unsuccessful. "What do you mean? Have you been lying to me all these years? How could you have married me if you knew this? I'm not going to have people laughing at me for being married to a freak." She insisted I move into the other bedroom. For a time it seemed she was trying to shame me into being "right." When she realized it wouldn't work, she told me she would seek a divorce.
I was heartbroken. The person I loved so much was rejecting me for reasons beyond my control. How could she do this to our relationship? it was hard for me to understand that, since she did not experience my difference, she thought it was a simple matter which I could choose to forego. As much as I loved Carla, I could never go back into the closeted world of pretending to be like everyone else. I could no longer live that lie.
It was so difficult to say goodbye to Charlie, knowing that in my absence he would be disciplined and deny his true feelings, just as I had done. It was as if my early denial was coming back to haunt me.
Into my little rented apartment I brought home the paperwork from my law office. I also brought sketch pads, easels, canvas, and paints. My childhood talent was still present, and it rapidly grew back to an advanced level as I let my true nature guide my art.
Soon, however, the gossip began in regard to the reasons for my separation, and I was called into the office of my firm's managing partner and questioned directly about my handedness. Sternly he chastised me, "It's most unfortunate that you couldn't keep this suppressed. You know we cannot condone this lifestyle in our firm."
"What lifestyle?" I protested. "I was born this way - I had no choice in the matter."
My protests were in vain, and I found myself with a severance package and all the free time for painting I could ever want.
It was a lonely time. I would call and speak to Carla briefly. She wouldn't allow a long conversation. When I would ask to speak to Charlie, she always made an excuse not to let him come to the phone. How I grieved for him!
I painted at home and put my work up for sale at various art shows, where I didn't risk exposure as a sinister. One day, however, one of my former law partners was shopping for art and recognized me. The resulting uproar caused me to be banned from the local shows. I reluctantly understood I would never be free from recognition in my home town. I made a few calls to friends in the West, a more tolerant climate, and packed my belongings to relocate to Phoenix. Perhaps I could even re-establish a law practice where no one knew my past.
Arizona was a beautiful change of scenery from my native South. I especially loved the red rock country of Sedona, where the sunlight seemed softer and diffuse, a painter's dream. The open spaces allowed me to paint without distraction from others. I had some peace, but I knew one day I would have to find income more than I could realize from my art.
One day I picked up a copy of New Times, the local free weekly tabloid, and by chance (or was it?) I glanced through the personal services advertisements on the back page. The usual mix of ads were present: lawyers for DUI convictions; loans for poor credit risks; dating services. I made myself stay away from the dating services, although my divorce had been finalized and I was free. I couldn't risk another rejection. I was about to open the paper and look inside when a sentence caught my eye:
You are not alone.
I caught my breath. What courage. The papers back home would never print something like this. I held onto the paper for several days before finding the courage to dial the telephone.
A pleasant man's voice answered, "Good morning. This is Izzy's. Can I help you?"
"I - I saw your ad in New Times," I stammered.
"Yes, we do have an ad there," he replied. "Would you like more information? I'll need to know a little about yourself."
Could it have been a trap? Perhaps, but I was willing to take the risk. I told him my story, stopping to calm my voice when I talked of Charlie.
He was very sympathetic. "Please know that you have a lot of support. If you are interested you should come to a meeting of our group." He gave me the time and place for the next meeting. I knew I would have no reluctance to attend.
I drove to the address he had given me and found it was a private home. Several cars were parked outside. I knocked on the door and said to the woman who opened it, "Hi, my name is Brad. Izzy told me I should come here for a meeting today."
She laughed. "'Izzy' did, did he? Then of course you should come on in." She led me into the great room where five other persons stood to greet me. I was startled to see that each one extended his or her left hand to grasp mine.
"Hello, Brad, I'm Henry," smiled the middle aged man whose voice I recognized from the telephone. "Welcome to Los Izquierdos."
Ohh - now I understood the use of "Izzy." I remembered my Spanish. Los Izquierdos - The Lefthanded. I did feel at home.
I listened to Henry and the others talk about their personal concerns. All had suffered rejection similar to my own, and all were intelligent, talented people who were hurt and embittered from this rejection. Some were forced into lower paying occupations because their colleagues didn't want a sinister working with them.
The support group became a regular source of comfort for me. Some weeks we would have fifteen persons in attendance, sometimes only five or six. Always someone was able to offer encouragement to someone else. The time came when I had to apply for positions with local law firms, and I was able to use the resources of the group to find decent firms which were only interested in my legal skills, not the reason I left my firm in Nashville. Finally I was able to earn a living again, although I still had to hide my lefthandedness from everyone at the office.
Several years passed, and I became comfortable with life in Arizona. I returned to Nashville on rare occasions to visit my family, but was never allowed to see my son. I had the impression that his mother was ashamed of the both of us. I wished I could make her understand, but her mind was closed.
One day I got a phone call from Henry. "Brad, some important news has come up, and I'd like to discuss it with you." I wondered what it could be as I drove to Henry's home.
Henry brought me into the study. "Look at this medical information from the Netherlands." He showed me a current issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association, a lead article from the Free University of Amsterdam. I read it with increasing excitement.
The authors had enrolled hundreds of persons, half of whom were left handed and half were control subjects. They had performed magnetic resonance imaging of the brains of these people, and had found some surprising differences between the lefthanders and the righthanders. Certain structures in the pons and hypothalamus (whatever those were, I thought) were observably larger on the side of the brain opposite the dominant hand!
This had tremendous implications. I could imagine that it would be more difficult to deny us our basic human rights if we could conclusively show that there was a biological reason for our lefthandedness. Although we lefthanders had always maintained that we were always this way, that it was never a "choice" we made, many people simply didn't believe us. Now they would be more likely to do so.
As Henry and I talked, I knew I had to be the one to begin the legal movement to gain equal rights for lefthanded people. I began working on bills to be drafted, for state legislatures, and also for Congress. Others in our group took the medical information and made sure it was disseminated to every possible source. A nationally syndicated advice columnist ran as her headline story "Lefthanded is not a choice," printing a letter from the mother of a young lefthanded child, and citing the medical data.
What a difference it made to have others on our side, taking our cause. Momentum grew as we found state legislators - even two Arizona congressional representatives - willing to sponsor our bills. I found myself in public speaking situations. I had wondered how my law firm would react, but our managing partner assured me I would have the full support of the firm. Times were changing rapidly. I had never expected to be in the public eye, but became accustomed to it as I realized, "If not me, then who?"
Then the telephone rang, and I found myself agreeing to appear on national television in a CNN interview. There would be interviews with other talented, capable lefthanded persons; a review of the medical findings; and opportunities to take phone calls. Most of all, I would be given an uninterrupted segment to make a statement supporting our efforts. I was very nervous as I boarded the plane at Sky Harbor Airport bound for New York City.
The staff of the Trey King show - all of them - were kind and helpful in relieving my anxiety. "We admire your bravery, Mr. Richardson," one of them whispered to me. Mr. King himself came in to meet me prior to going on the air, so I would feel at ease around him.
The interview began smoothly and I found myself relaxed. Mr. King's questions contained no surprises, and gave me the opportunity to introduce the topic very positively. Then they showed comments from a famous orchestra conductor, and from the lead guitar player in one of America's most popular rock bands. Both were declaring themselves as lefthanders and promising their future work would be even greater. It was time for a commercial break before taking questions from viewers.
"You know, don't you, that some callers may be hostile to you?" Mr. King asked me during the break.
"Yes, and I'm determined not to respond with hostility. I've tried to be more tolerant of them than they have been of me," I reassured him.
Surely enough, the first caller was a fundamentalist minister from a small town outside Nashville. "Don't you know how wrong this is? Some day you are going to have to stand before God and give him an explanation for what you are doing."
"Sir," I replied, "Thank you for calling. I want you to know that I do understand the spirit in which you are calling. For years I grew up in a denomination much like yours. Believe me, I didn't want to be lefthanded, with all the talk I heard about it when I was growing up. So I prayed to be cured from left-handedness. I kept praying, and praying. But there was no cure forthcoming for me, no matter how hard I prayed. Now, if you believe that God answers prayers which are in agreement with His will, then you have to assume that it wasn't God's will to cure my left-handedness. Either that or you assume I'm not telling the truth."
"I'm not assuming that," answered the caller, who had remained on the line. "I don't know the reason your prayers weren't answered. I just know the church has always considered left-handedness to be sinful."
"Not always," I countered. I cited examples of left-handed clergy and others. "And just because it is a church tradition does not mean it is truly God's will. Churches are made of fallible men and women. Traditions have been proved wrong on many occasions. And just ponder, if you will, how easy it is to condemn some trait you yourself do not possess. The non-afflicted can quickly cast blame on the afflicted and feel no remorse. It makes for an unsteady majority rule, with a very unhappy minority no matter what parameter you are using."
He seemed satisfied with my response, at least to the point of having nothing more to say. Then the conversation stopped for a second or two and I could tell that Mr. King was receiving an audio transmission into his earphone. I saw him nod his head and turn to me. "Brad, there's a child on the phone who says that you're his father." This on national television.
My heart pounded like a snare drum. "Charlie?" was all I could say. Then he was on the air, with his still-treble ten year old voice.
"Dad! I can't believe you're on TV!"
"Hello, Charlie." I was choking the words out before I started crying. "I'm so glad to hear your voice, Son. How are you?"
"Dad, my teachers have been reading about you in the magazines." Thank goodness the TIME story was favorable, I though. "They think you're all right. They say if this bill passes, they will let me use my left hand too."
A little gasp went up in our studio audience, who had just heard a very brave 10 year old boy "out" himself on national television because he loved and supported his Dad.
I wasn't even trying to hide the tears. "Charlie, I promise it will all turn out all right. I love you so much, son."
"Yeah! I love you too. But I have to hang up. Mom doesn't know I've called." She will soon, I thought to myself. Pretty soon not even Carla could hold back the tide, if our bill does pass. I had spoken to my son, for the first time in six years. What a wonderful, unexpected gift!
The next break came at a good time for me to wipe my face and collect my thoughts. I was determined to give my comments from memory, not read them. I had rehearsed them so many times and knew I'd be ready.
Trey King faced the camera. "We've already heard from tonight's guest as he fielded some intense questions, including one from his own son whom he hasn't seen in years. Brad Richardson is the Director of Public Relations for Los Izquierdos, the national organization of persons whose dominant hand is their left hand. I've asked Brad to make a brief presentation on the current proposal being considered in Congress." Then he turned to me. It was time.
"Thank you, Trey," I began. Then I looked into the camera. "Ladies and gentlemen, tonight I want to talk about what's right." Polite laughter followed, as I had expected. "Sometimes we get our rights mixed up. We confuse 'right and wrong,' issues of morality, with 'right and left,' issues of biological fact. I hope to help you understand that no one should be judged as a good or bad person simply because of the facts of their birth."
"We don't choose to be born into a certain life situation. We don't choose our race. We don't choose our gender, or gender identity. It's now well proven that we don't choose our sexual orientation. Handedness is just like these characteristics. It's inborn. We don't have to think which hand we use to pick up objects, throw, write with crayons. It's automatic, and we do what our body tells us is the right thing. It's as natural as breathing, and if we continue to develop normally it will be much better for our physical skills. It harms no one, unless society creates false expectations which arbitrarily determine it to be wrong.
"Sin? It is no sin to be born. It is no sin to be born with your own particular set of constant characteristics. This is just one of many possible variations in homo sapiens. Blue eyes? Brown eyes? Color blind? Are they sinful? Then neither is being born left handed.
"We lefthanders are called "sinister" by those who have never experienced our circumstances. We are discriminated against in the job market, in marriage and family relationships, in the church and even by our own parents. The medical studies first reported from Amsterdam and duplicated by the Medical College of Virginia all tell us that there is a biological cause for handedness. Please grant us the same privilege you enjoy of being accepted for who we are, no matter which hand we use. Please call or e-mail your congressman and ask him to support our bill."
The loud applause lasted for what seemed like several minutes, and I knew I had scored my points. People were listening. Within the month the bill to include left handed persons for equal protection under the law in all areas passed the House and Senate, and was signed into law by the President.
All over the country lefties emerged into the light of the truth. Some were still hesitant: old feelings die hard, sometimes no matter what public policy states. Some spouses still would not forgive. I had assumed Carla would be one of those, but I was wrong.
I answered the call about two months after my Trey King show appearance. "Hello, Brad," said the voice from the past. "It's Carla."
"I just wanted to let you know that, for hurting you and Charlie, I'm very sorry," she said. "I was doing what I thought was 'right' at the time. But I do understand better now.
"Brad, would you consider moving back to Nashville?" I wonder if anyone else could know, as I knew, how hard it was for her to swallow her pride and make that request.
"Carla, it makes me feel good that you asked. But I'm already enrolled in my M.F.A. program here, and I've become very accustomed to living out West. Maybe you can come for a visit sometime - both of you."
She continued to surprise me. "We'd like to do that - and Charlie would love to spend some time with you. Maybe a few weeks next summer?"
"So, that's your son, then?" asked my California artist colleague, motioning to the handsome teenager walking toward us. "I remember when it made you cry on television to hear his voice."
"That was a few years ago," I smiled. "He's been traveling all over the West with me the last few summers. I've tried to interest him in art, but he's more into sports and girls."
Charlie approached and gave a polite "Hello" to my colleague. "Hi Dad, you met Roxy, didn't you? She and her folks are leaving tomorrow, and they asked me to ride up to Yellowstone with them today. We'll be back by ten. Oh, and can I have some spending money?"
"Don't bother the bears," I teased him. "You never know what a bear thinks about a lefthander."
Charlie was used to me. "Don't worry. If a bear walks up while we're throwing the Frisbee, I'll just stop until he goes away." My colleague stifled a laugh.
The sun was almost directly overhead, and the light was too direct for painting. It was time to pack up my work until just before sunset. I returned to the lobby of the Jackson Lake Lodge and joined several of my fellow artists for lunch. I must admit, I've been getting off my diet now that I can properly cut up a steak without slicing my fingers.
It was time for the check, but instead of bringing a bill to our table the waitress said to me, "Mr. Richardson, the gentleman seated at the bar wants to buy lunch for your table." I turned to see a very well-dressed older man and woman smiling at me. Then they arose to go, and as they were leaving, they both gave me the "thumbs up" sign with their left hands.
I get that a lot. It never gets old.
When you take a stand for the truth, you finally learn what it means that the truth shall make you free.
Life is sweet.
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