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What's it like to come out to your 8-year-old friends?WYPR's Mary Rose Madden brings us the story of Eli, a transgender girl living in Baltimore. Eli and her parents share their experiences understanding Eli's gender identity and educating her school community.Grant funding to support education reporting on WYPR is provided by the Sylvan Laureate Foundation.

Eight and out: How she knew

Mary Rose Madden

In the past year, various states have taken up the questions transgender kids face when they come out in school. What bathrooms to use, where to get changed for gym class?  Those logistics are not the only things to be taken into account. Is there support for kids coming out as transgender, their classmates, and their teachers?

WYPR’s Mary Rose Madden brings us the series "Eight and Out: Transgender in the Second Grade," which centers around an 8-year-old child who wants to live openly as a transgender girl, so she forged her own path. 

Part 1: How She Knew

Eli loves to read books, play a lot of Pokemon, and hang out at the neighborhood pool with friends.

A few weeks ago, Eli wrapped up the second grade – and it was a very important school year. 

She came out as transgender and socially-transitioned. She told her parents, teachers, friends and neighbors in North Baltimore that she was born a boy, but she sees herself as a girl. And she wants the world to see her that way.

Standing in her bedroom, she holds up a purple cardigan with sparkly bows. 

"First of all I have an entirely different collection of clothes," she says. "This was a present from Finn." 

Finn is a friend at school. The sweater was a gesture to show support and encouragement. 

"It’s butterflies fused with bows. Bowflies!" she exclaims. 

Eli has a few mementos around her room like this. She has a card that’s tucked away in a book. It reads 'you are stronger than you think you are.'

Eli pulls out more of her favorite clothing, until she spots her old cub scout uniform and scowls. 

"Ugh, what is that? Was that a favorite? No!"

That was the first grade, around the time Eli was struggling to come out at Roland Park Elementary and Middle School.

For years, her parents, Terry McBride and Stephanie Safran, noticed Eli was identifying with the female characters in the books they read. 

"And you would say 'which one, momma, do you think I’m like?' And I would say to you 'well, you tell me which one you think you are like.'"

Eli would point to a female character in a book and say “that’s me.”

Then one night, Eli and Stephanie had one very important bath-time conversation. Stephanie turns to Eli and remembers the night vividly.  

“You sat up in the tub. And you said 'momma, do you think I’m pretty? I want to be pretty. I have nice smooth skin like a girl.' And you asked me 'Do you think I’m a boy or a girl?'" Stephanie says. 

She said there was no rush to make a decision, but Eli protested saying "This is important, mom! I need to decide right now."

"I said OK. You tell me," Stephanie recalls. "And you said 'I’m a girl.'”

Eli’s goes back to playing Pokemon. She isn't in the mood for reminiscing. 

"Skip the sob story," Eli says. 

She doesn’t seem to remember the bath as well as her mom. But she does remember what her dad, Terry, did in the days after that revelation.

He came home from work one day with a special present for Eli -  a package of barrettes and a headband to match. That meant everything to her.

"He supports me," she says about her father.  

But her joy was crushed when she wore the accessories to school. Some of the kids in her class started to ignore her.  They called her weird and they isolated her.  One kid, in particular, sat next to her on the playground and teased her. 

"You’re stupid, you’re a boy. What don't you understand?" she recalls. 

Eli came home, took off her special barrettes, and tucked them away. Stephanie says Eli wanted to deny what she had declared that night in the bath, and who she was. She didn’t want it to be. She’d walk home from school silently and she wouldn’t talk at dinner either. 

As that school year came to a close, she became withdrawn – and depressed. 

Her parents knew - they needed to do more.

In Part 2, which will air on Thursday, we learn about Eli's parents' mission to understand what their child was going through. They read, they educated themselves, and they started to look for support.

Education reporting on WYPR is supported in part by the Sylvan-Laureate Foundation.