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HOWELL - As a 1-year-old, EJ Torrisi loved playing with toy trucks.
As a 2-year-old, EJ “started picking out boys clothes” in stores, mom Emily Torrisi said. “I was like, ‘Ok, whatever you want.’”
By 4, EJ was telling sisters Saige and Cecelia, ‘I’m your brother.’”
None of this would have raised an eyebrow, except EJ was assigned female at birth.
“When EJ went into school he started telling all of his friends that he was a boy,” Emily Torrisi said. “In the beginning you wonder if it’s a phase. Then you just see that this is exactly who he was meant to be.”
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Emily Torrisi and her husband Al Torrisi, who live in Howell, didn’t know any other parents who had encountered a similar situation. They didn’t know anyone at all who is transgender. So they just followed parental instincts and gave EJ, now age 5, the latitude to follow his heart.
After reading a piece at APP.com titled, “What to do when you son wants to be a princess for Halloween,” Emily decided to share her family’s story.
“People ask a million questions,” Emily said. “It’s something I want people to understand, because I didn’t understand it until I saw it with my own eyes, how young a person is when they start feeling this way.”
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Concerned about school
Emily’s biggest fear was how EJ would be received at his school, Land O’Pines Elementary in Howell. He’s in kindergarten now.
“The school has been absolutely amazing,” she said. “Going into kindergarten this year, I was concerned. I wanted to make sure EJ had a teacher that was comfortable with this, that could handle this, that understood this. Everybody has their own opinion about it, and I want to make sure they were OK with it.”
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She connected with principal Dheranie Suarez over the summer and it's been smooth sailing from there.
“EJ is doing very well transitioning into kindergarten,” Suarez said. “He is incredibly well-adjusted and confident. He makes friends easily and is social. His classmates see EJ as a classmate and friend because that is who he is. That's the beauty of children.”
Suarez said EJ is the school’s first known transgender student.
“We invite parents/guardians of incoming kindergarten students to fill out an 'All About My Child' survey so we can glean information about our new students to provide the best environment for them as individuals,” Suarez explained. “Mrs. Torrisi included the fact that EJ introduces himself as a boy. I reached out to her to see what would make EJ feel safe and comfortable. We came up with ideas and our incredible staff works together to ensure that everything happens.”
One question that had to be addressed was EJ’s use of the bathroom.
“They asked what am I most comfortable with,” Emily said. “EJ goes straight to the nurse’s bathroom, so there’s no confusion for anybody.”
What advice would Suarez give peer administrators about this?
“My advice really isn't advice because it is our duty as educators to provide a safe and comfortable environment so children can learn,” she said. “So I would say that if the family reaches out to the school, keep an open connection and work together, like with every child.”
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'Stick EJ in a dress and a bow'
Obviously EJ’s journey is far from over. I asked Emily if there are any role models, or examples, for her and EJ to look to for guidance as he continues to grow. She doesn’t know of any, which is a big reason why she is speaking out.
“Sometimes I feel like, maybe kids who feel this way, their parents don’t embrace it,” she said. “I had some people say to me, ‘Stick EJ in a dress and a bow and EJ will get over that feeling.’ I was like, ‘No. For what?’ I feel like, how many other parents do that? How many other parents are throwing them in a dress and bow to get that into their head?
“There are so many people who come out later in life because they’re adults and that’s when they are most comfortable. Now I’ve seen for myself how truly young they are when it’s in their blood.”
Some folks in their extended family were quicker to understand than others.
“It took (some in older generations) a while and they asked a few more questions, but they all get it now,” Emily said. “They all see it with their own eyes.”
It's important to note: Emily was not an activist, had never given much thought to the meaning of transgender, doesn’t have a political bent. She’s a mom who wants to share her unexpected parenthood story for the benefit of others who find themselves walking in the same shoes.
“It’s all new to me and I’m learning myself,” she said. “I hope that more people see this and see that it’s OK for your kid to want to dress up for whatever they want to be, or if they feel a certain way, it’s OK to express it. I hope a few years from now, this will be (viewed as) a more normal process so parents don’t stress about it.”
For Halloween, EJ was the Incredible Hulk. Recently, he asked to have his head shaved, so they did it.
“I like to say to people: When you have a girl, you say she’s pretty; when you have a boy, you say he’s handsome,” Emily Torrisi said. “I always say, they’re perfect. That’s true regardless of who they are.”
Jerry Carino is community columnist for the Asbury Park Press, focusing on the Jersey Shore’s interesting people, inspiring stories and pressing issues. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article originally appeared on Asbury Park Press: Transgender kindergartener's Howell NJ mom of shares story