His Own Words: Dave Edwards
Photos by Anna Radjl
A visiting lecturer at Hamline University and board member of the Minnesota Transgender Health Coalition, Dave Edwards sits down with Quinn Villagomez to talk about his journey raising his remarkable trans daughter, Hildie.
We didn’t talk about LGBTQ people directly, ever, I think, growing up. We didn’t know any people who were LGBTQ, and didn’t have a lot of exposure to any sort of positive representation of those identities.
I was taught that being gay was a choice. It didn’t come up that much. That was part of privilege—not having to deal with something when it doesn’t involve you. I didn’t have to confront a lot of what the LGBTQ community went through because it was a community I wasn’t a part of. The way things worked, the community that I was a part of didn’t force me to confront those things. That was the status quo.
We were starting to notice her present more details about herself. She started to draw herself with long hair. She asked us to tie blankets as dresses on her, or on her head as hair. And would ask to do that almost every day. We started to think that it might be something; it might be nothing; it might be…whatever. But as the years went by, it started to be more of a regular thing, a consistent expression of her gender.
Kids telling her ‘no, you can’t play with this because you’re a boy,’ or ‘no, those dress-up clothes are only for girls.’ We were in this place where she still wanted to be referred to as a boy and wanted to use male pronouns, but these were her preferences. We were in a spot where we were not really sure what to do.
She is the best. She’s so funny, so talented, so smart, so caring. She’s an amazing sister, she’s the best kid ever. We’ve always been shocked with how amazing she is, and how wonderful everything she does is. We’re totally on her team.
We quickly found out there were tons of kids like her. And that they followed all kinds of different paths and all those paths were great. And it wasn’t a big deal. We had kind of set ourselves up to be very supportive in our house, and everyone was happy and thriving. When she had to go to kindergarten we encountered some pretty significant discrimination at her school.
[At first] she presented as a boy who likes ‘girl things.’ People don’t like that. People are afraid of a boy being feminine.
One thing I’ve always admired about Hildie is that she is who she is, regardless of who’s around her. She’s not going to hide something about herself, she’s not going to change who she is or [how she] talks or acts or thinks just because somebody else thinks something.
The situation at her school got out of control pretty quickly; we had inadvertently stumbled into this community of very conservative, aggressive families and parents who did everything they could to make her school experience—and to make that school community—really terrible and unwelcoming and unsafe for her.
There was nothing wrong with her. It was feelings of, why can’t everyone else see what we see?
We pulled her from school and filed a human rights charge with the City of St. Paul. That began a long process that took longer than I think we thought [it would]. But it was a good year-and-a-half, two years later, the City of St. Paul found that the school discriminated against her and said that we had a right to sue for that discrimination, and we ended up settling to avoid a longer lawsuit.
Gender identity, who you are, your internal sense of self—male, female, both, neither—is protected by our human rights code. We were very happy for that chapter to be over and done. I think that since switching schools and coming to St. Paul Public Schools, she’s been great, and she’s found a community that celebrates her. And the whole time this was going on, we became more and more involved with leaders in the community. They came out, all the time, to support us.
It opened up our perspective, having this [discrimination] happen to our child, that this is happening all the time to so many other kids in all these other schools, and those kids might not have the support system that our kid does, or might not have access to [a support system], for any number of reasons. For example, when the stuff was going on at our school, I took off work all the time, I had meetings, I was emailing back and forth; not all parents have that luxury. Not all kids have a family structure that will work that way. There are kids that are not supported by their parents, who are all on their own. And it made us realize how important public school is for providing that safety net to these kids, because it’s like something everybody has to have access to.
I’ve been really excited to notice the difference in elementary schools in access to knowledge, so teachers need to know what to say and know what to do, and what supports to provide for students when they come in their building being their full selves. So it’s been great. I’ve been lucky enough to work with the Welcoming Schools Professional Development Program, which is part of the Human Rights Campaign’s foundation. It provides training for kindergarten to sixth-grade staff on being more LGBTQ-inclusive, addressing bias-based bullying when it occurs, and celebrating and embracing diverse families.
Educators need to be prepared to use people’s pronouns, whatever they are. I think that involves practicing, it involves talking about it. It involves learning how to make mistakes and move on and do better, and to make sure you do better because you care so much. Honoring someone’s pronouns is easy. It should be easy. It should be something everyone wants to do.
Our daughter’s experience as a white trans girl hasn’t been great. But she has a lot of privilege wrapped up in her identity, too.
I quickly realized that part of me participating in the work, too, is navigating where I fit in a way that didn’t add to the marginalization of other people who had been traditionally shut out or denied opportunities. The opportunity to work for Minnesota’s, I think, only organization led by trans folks of color, with a board that’s, besides me, made up entirely of trans folks of color, it’s really great. Because in order for Hildie to be safe, I need those communities to be safe. I need their voices to be centered.
When she walks in that parade, she dances. She dances the whole route of that parade. People react to her. People embrace this idea of her being herself. People understanding why she’s there, why she’s in the parade, and Hildie receiving all that love, is just really wonderful.