Part one in a two part series about parenting, gender, race, and class as they intersect with community policing . To continue to the conversation, visit www.lizhanssen.com.
It was a weekday afternoon and things were pretty quiet in our house. I was tidying up with the beats of my cleaning music in the background when I glanced out of the window and saw a police car parked in our driveway. The sight of a cruiser outside my door caused my mind to run in any number of directions. We had recently moved to this small town with its 700 inhabitants (which I will call Smallville for the purposes of this story), and I hadn't yet met any of the "locals" or neighbors for that matter. I wondered briefly if this might be a welcoming committee of sorts, a "check out the newcomers" kind of small town thing they did 'round these parts. I didn't trust cops, having had far more negative encounters with the authorities over the years, and mostly when I was seeking help to boot--from gruff and aggressive behavior to full-fledged come-ons to flat out indifference to my plight. This had been my experience from Brooklyn to California to France to Syria and also even in western Massachusetts, otherwise known as the Happy Valley. In my experience the police were to be approached with caution, mistrusted until they elicited trust. I couldn't imagine that a small town cop could or would be any better than the others--and more likely, worse.
The officer sat in his cruiser for a good 10 minutes not even glancing my way, his eyes intent on some papers he held in his hand. I was growing increasingly uneasy. Maybe a family member had been injured; perhaps I had unwittingly committed a crime (but what? My mind raced through a checklist of potential offenses.). At long last, the officer exited the vehicle and made his way to the path, papers in hand and asked if a Jonathon was living at this address. My nervous system immediately shifted into overdrive. Why was this cop inquiring about my child? I knew she hadn't gotten into any trouble because she rarely left the house, preferring the sanctity of her room over the social limelight. There was no possibility of raucous teen parties at our address, nor of sexting inappropriate photos. True be told, I was harboring a secret at the time about my teenager--one we had not yet shared with anyone beyond our family and close friends-- but certainly nothing illegal and nothing to warrant a police call. But then, maybe there were rules, regulations, stipulations I was unaware of? By this time, my maternal brain had left my rational mind in on some distant shore, my heart beat thrashing inside my chest like a fish out of water.
The officer seemed to be looking beyond my shoulder into the house, scouting a quick assessment of the environment I supposed. My heart pounding, I asked him if he would like to come in--an offer he accepted a little too eagerly for my comfort. His eyes darted around the room while he introduced himself as Officer Tom and then informed me that the superintendent of our district had informed him that my fifteen-year-old was not in fact registered in the local school system as was required by the law, and records showed that Jon had been enrolled the previous year. At the time we were homeschooling, as we had been on and off for years, and, as usual, I was running behind schedule in submitting the home school plan, but I really hadn't given it a second thought. In all of our years of homeschooling I had been consistent in submitting late plans, if nothing else. But I had never encountered this decidedly prompt and official response.
Officer Tom started asking me questions about Jon, which made me even more uneasy. He then asked if "Jonathon" was at home. I responded that yes, she was upstairs in her room, and I would be happy to produce her as evidence of good health and sound mind. Officer Tom looked perplexed at my response and looked down again at the paperwork he held in his hand. Noting his confusion, I quickly interjected that Jon was in fact transgender and was now using she/her pronouns. (At the time Jonathan had not yet changed her name). Officer Tom looked and me and responded: "we'll need to fix that then." The rest of my body kicked into high anxiety gear following suit with my heart. My hands grew clammy and my field of vision narrowed as frantic, half-rational, fearful thoughts continued to storm my mind. What could possibly "fixing"? Was officer Tom going to put in a call to Child Protective Services and report us for truancy? Or report me for raising a transgender child? Or try and temporarily remove my child from our home? Or remove her for her own protection--from a deviant mother who would dare raise a transgender child? My grasp of the law was solid enough to know none of these could or would transpire, yet my mistrust of the police and knowledge of the high rate of violence and bias against transgender people, especially trans women. My body revved up into full-fledged mother tiger fighting mode.
With a face devoid of expression, and without uttering another word, officer Tom started dialing a number on his phone. It soon became clear that he was speaking to the superintendent's herself. He explained that we were homeschooling but hadn't yet turned in the paperwork. I listened, ready to pounce, while Officer Don explained to the superintendent that Jon was accounted for, healthy and safe, and that she was homeschooling but that the papers hadn't been filed yet. He continued on to inform the superintendent that Jon was transgender and the district's files would need to be updated to reflect the correct gender and pronoun usage.
Wait, was I hearing Officer Tom correctly? I felt my body soften into a puddle of emotion: absolute surprise, immense gratitude, enormous respect. This officer from Smallville USA actually got it; he understood how to be an ally, imparting the correct information in simple and direct terms, switching to correct pronouns without a pause or stutter. No questions asked. He apologized for startling us, and explained that they do their best to make sure all of the kids in the district are accounted for and safe. Which, in retrospect, made complete sense given the sprawling rural landscape in which a vulnerable child could easily escape any radar. Before he departed, Officer Tom turned to me and said he could understand why my child had chosen homeschooling for the time being. He added, "that's no easy thing, especially for a kid her age."
(Pseudonyms have been used to safeguard my child's identity).