Anthropology students write transgender children’s stories

Research into the transgender community has resulted in four anthropology students and one professor creating children’s books based on what members of that community wish they could have read as a child.

Anthropology professor Aminata Cairo said ideas for the books came from interviews and surveys the class conducted in the transgender community, as well as current children’s books.

“The stories, we did not come up with them ourselves,” Cairo said. “They’re really a reflection of the transgender community and what we learned by studying them.”

Junior anthropology and English major Elizabeth Gombos said transgender is “a slippery slope.”

“It’s almost a controversial word because there’s some people [who] by a definition would be transgendered, but they aren’t. They say they aren’t, so they’re not,” Gombos said. “Then there’s some people that [say] they are, but they don’t look like it.”

Gombos helped create survey questions and conducted interviews with members of the transgender community. She said some of the responses were expected – sadness and gloom – but there was always an overcoming experience.

“That was kind of emotional,” Gombos said, “but as an anthropologist you have to set aside your emotions and try to focus on what kind of data you’re getting and so, it was definitely a quest. I guess I could say that we got a lot of good information that was relevant, and we were able to do something with it.”

Gombos’ story tells the tale of a transgender child and a child with a transgender parent.

“I didn’t want to make like a baby downer book, like a children’s downer book, but I wanted to approach serious topics…,” Gombos said. “[The children in the story] say a few serious things, and you can tell that they know what’s going on, but they’re still just kids. And that’s kind of what we wanted to reach with the literature, something that kids could relate to but that would still help them.”

Senior Zach Henderson, who wrote of the stories, said his past experience working at a children’s library helped him formulate his transgender story about a boy who is playing in his neighborhood but does not joining the other boys playing football. This boy is picked on, but a girl who he “doesn’t realize is a little girl because she has short hair” defends him.

Henderson said he wanted to be involved in the project because there are not a lot of books on the subject of transgender.

“What I mostly hope is that kids realize that gender roles are kind of unnecessary,” Henderson said. “Just because others think that it’s normal for little boys to play sports, normal for little girls to wear dresses doesn’t always have to be that way and there’s nothing wrong with kids who are different.”

All of the data collection research was conducted during the spring class, according to Cairo, but during a summer course Henderson, Gombos and Kayla Koger came up with themes for the stories based on data and another student, Ryan Anderson, focused on the health data.

These stores are being brought to life by theater professor Kathryn Bentley’s students beginning this week as part of “Trans Visibility Week.”

Gombos said she thinks it is fantastic the books are being turned into performances because it brings a reality to the stories.

“It’s one thing to release findings or do a presentation or publish a book, but then it’s another thing to take it and put it into physical motion,” Gombos said. “To see it happening, to see it played out. It was written for a book, but it’s going to be performed as a play and so that, it brings a certain liveliness to it.”

When children read these stories, Gombos said she hopes the stories make them feel like “there’s more to the world.”

“When the kids read the books, I want them to think, ‘Wow, there is some crazy stuff out there and maybe things are possible and maybe this isn’t so bad,’” Gombos said, “and I want them to be able to relate to it and I want them to be able to learn from it, and kind of experience it through the eyes of a book just like any other story.”

The project was completed with the assistance of Sayer Johnson, a transgender male who lives in Edwardsville and is president of Metro Transgender Umbrella Group, and Anne Wolfe of the Edwardsville Public Library.

Johnson was the class’s connection to secure interviews and conduct surveys in the transgender community.

For more information about performance dates for the children’s stories, contact Cairo at

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