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I’d like to introduce Gov. DeSantis to my nonbinary child | Column
As a retired journalist and educator, I am keenly aware of the historic persecution and violence against members of the LGBTQ+ community and now, with my deeply personal experience, I realize a basic truth.
Ace Shelton-Sella and their spouse, Shiloh Shelton-Sella, along the boardwalk of the Big Bend manatee viewing area.
Ace Shelton-Sella and their spouse, Shiloh Shelton-Sella, along the boardwalk of the Big Bend manatee viewing area. [ Courtesy of Gretchen Letterman ]
Published May 26|Updated May 26

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis says he is fighting for my family.

He is not.

To show him why, I’d like to introduce my remarkable first-born child.

More than 31 years ago, my husband and I were overjoyed, as most parents are, to hold our blue-eyed, blond-haired, healthy newborn in our arms. For us the wonder was doubly sweet, as the path to pregnancy was not easy; we had begun to investigate adoption when we learned this baby was on the way.

This child charmed us from Day One, filling our lives with Barbies, soccer and basketball games, theater practices and homework battles.

This child, despite developing serious anxiety and depression at a very young age, made it through school with high grades, including college with a semester abroad. Along the way, this child experienced some tough turns, including sexual assault at age 15, thwarting the true realization of identity and soul.

Knowing what I know now, there is no doubt that the early-onset anxiety and depression were a result of that stymied self-realization. Only in the past two years has this sweet, gentle child been able to acknowledge the obstacles, some of them painful, and embark on the process of transitioning into the beautiful person God created.

Our child, Ace Shelton-Sella, who was assigned female at birth, is now at age 31 trying to build and live life as a nonbinary transmasculine person, someone who uses they/them pronouns. They pursue this difficult path not only for their own freedom, but also because, as the late Hindu spiritual teacher Ramana Maharshi observed, “your own self-realization is the greatest service you can render the world.”

Gretchen Letterman
Gretchen Letterman [ Provided ]

I am a Christian who believes God made all human beings in God’s own image, therefore God is a reflection of all, and loves all. In the Christian tradition of that universal love, there are no divisions, “neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus,” as Galatians 3:28 states. If all humans are equal in God’s eyes, they deserve to be treated as such, to be who they are, for a better world.

Unfortunately, a deeply embedded culture of bigotry, hatred and misinformation, and most disheartening, the cruel policies of this state in which Ace lives, have been impeding and threatening them from the very beginning of their journey.

My incredible child only began this hard work of true self-realization in their late 20s. In my support of this process, I am intent on trying to comprehend the complications and barriers they face at each corner.

As a retired journalist and educator, I am keenly aware of the historic persecution and violence against members of the LGBTQ+ community and now, with my deeply personal experience, I have come to realize this basic truth:

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If we truly shared one another’s humanity, if we truly believed we are all the same in God’s eyes, we would completely upend the way we teach and talk about gender identity, sexuality and loving relationships, and the broad continuum across which those subjects are arrayed. There would be no laws restricting the humanity of anyone.

I know that had I been exposed to more than what I was taught by the Girl Scout filmstrip about menstruation and physical attraction (only to boys, of course), I would have been better prepared to understand the vast spectrum of human creation and love, and better prepared to help my child understand, and be, themself.

I know that if “human sexuality” education explained that human beings come in a wide variety of gender identities, as deeply ignored history tells us has been evident since the beginning of time, conversations about the kindergartner with two dads would be anything but awkward. Health care providers would not misgender their patients. And lawmakers and other politicians would not pass laws that demonize the very existence of people who do not fall within the confines of the traditional binary system.

If Ace had been taught these simple principles in school about life and its infinite and wondrous variations, maybe they would have been comfortable expressing and exploring their feelings at an earlier age about being different than the identity assigned to them at birth. They would have had access to a more open medical and behavioral health system that would support them and us. Perhaps they would have been protected from sexual assault on the second day of trying a bigger high school in the hope of fitting in better. Maybe if their attackers — two boys who said they chose their victim because of an appearance they deemed “not girly enough” — had been taught about gender identities at an early age, they would not have committed such a heinous act.

Their cruel ignorance caused Ace to spend the rest of their sophomore year in the homebound schooling program, unable to explain why their anxiety had grown too much to attend school in person. Having received the message that not looking feminine would cause them harm, they kept the experience hidden from us for 13 years, halting the process of self-realization that was just beginning.

Nearly every day I get a text from Ace, expressing despair over a Florida law, or proclamation or guideline, that says to them, “I am less than human.” Most recently, the threat against the right to a safe abortion has my child fearing the door that will open to further endanger the rights of LGBTQ+ people like them and their spouse. Will the right of same sex couples to marry be revoked? Will interracial marriage be declared illegal? Will providing and receiving personalized health care for the specific needs of those transitioning be a crime?

Ace and their spouse are trying to be galvanized by, instead of disconsolate about, these inhumane developments that threaten them. They are researching what states might be more hospitable to who they are. I wonder if the governor can imagine having to make a decision on where to live based on whether he could be himself there — without fear? I wonder if he can imagine one of his children having to do so? The governor and recent legislative session have made a heartbreakingly concerted effort to do anything but fight for those who are different.

I believe God gives us the children we are supposed to parent, with all their realities. The lucky ones, no matter who they are, find unconditional support and love from their parents, birth or otherwise. Would I have wished upon my child the painful trials their identity has caused? Of course not, but I love them for who they are. It is my fervent prayer that society can become a kinder, more tolerant place for people like them, especially younger LBGTQ+ individuals whose parents, and the government, do not provide a safe place in which they can be themselves.

No, the governor is not fighting for my family. He is fighting for votes. He is fueling the votes of the people who share his lack of understanding of humanity in all its beautiful diversity.

My hope is that the governor can view the irrational hatred still directed toward LGBTQ+ people in the same light as the persecution of Black, Hispanic and Native Americans, or religious groups, or any category of people considered less than human, historically and now.

It is also my hope that the next time the governor plays a role in a decision that impacts the humanity of those who are not like him, those who do not fit the neat but limiting male/female template, that he considers the humanity of my strong and brave first-born child.

Gretchen Letterman was an editor and writer for the Tampa Bay Times for more than 30 years. She later worked with Pinellas County Schools as coordinator of the Journeys in Journalism program, which the Times helped launch at Melrose Elementary, John Hopkins Middle and Lakewood High schools. She continues as chair of the Journeys in Journalism Advisory Committee.

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