ANN ARBOR – Jacq Kai Tchoryk and Sydney Tchoryk giggled Saturday as they chased each other around the sunny backyard of their family’s home in a well-kept cul-de-sac northwest of Ann Arbor.
Their father, Pete Tchoryk, emerged from the house late that afternoon with an aluminum bat and bag of baseballs. Sydney, 10, turned cartwheels in the yard while Jacq Kai took his turn at bat. Their mother, Sarah Tchoryk, stood near the deck offering words of encouragement. If there’s one thing she wants her children to know, it’s that she supports them.
Baseball is one of the many sports Jacq Kai likes. The blue-eyed 7 year old is into Star Wars and he also likes building things, as evidenced by the “house” in the Tchoryk’s family room he constructed for himself. The lopsided wooden box is roughly held together with duct tape and filled with “dinosaur skins,” little pieces of foam Jacq Kai used for cushioning on the bottom of the box. His middle name, Kai, is written on the side of the house in duct tape. Jacq Kai worked hard for that name.
Jacq Kai is transgender, meaning he was born biologically female but identifies as a male. He knew as early as 2 years old that his sense of himself didn’t match his physical body, and his family has supported him through the past five years of figuring out how to express his true identity.
It’s going to be a lifelong process.
“It’s a process you never rush into,” said Pete, who is the CEO of Michigan Aerospace Corp. and Springmatter in Ann Arbor.
In light of the Michigan State Board of Education’s proposed guidelines to help schools create safe and supportive environments for LGBTQ students, the Tchoryk family felt compelled to share their story. They’ve offered insight for the state board based on their experiences enrolling Jacq Kai at Dexter Community Schools, and they want to promote more understanding about what it means to be transgender.
As Pete put it, “We want to show people this can work.”
“We have to tell this story. You look at what the stakes are if we don’t,” Pete said, referencing high rates of suicide attempts and self-harm among LGBTQ youth. “There’s a lot of fear and a lot of misconceptions out there. That’s the way we look at it now. Let everybody speak their minds and raise the fears. I want to hear it all now.”
Pete and Sarah, who have been married for 12 years, consider themselves “reluctant advocates,” carrying a sense of guilt that they were not better educated on transgender issues and the discrimination that community faces before it directly affected their family. As Sarah reflects on Jacq Kai’s journey so far in expressing his true identity, she becomes emotional when thinking of how long it took her to accept the concept.
“As soon as he acquired language, he said ‘I’m a boy,'” said Sarah, who is a fifth grade teacher. “Of course, we thought that he was confused because he was just learning to talk. We’d correct him and there’d be a major meltdown over it. So we stopped correcting him and we thought, ‘oh, he’ll figure it out.’ We ended up figuring it out.”
On July 23, 2008, Sarah and Pete welcomed their third daughter, Jacqueline, to the family. Their oldest daughter, Jessie, 25, is married with two daughters of her own. Sydney is in fourth grade.
As a toddler, Jacqueline started insisting she was a boy and rejecting any clothing, colors or accessories typically associated with girls. Sarah and Pete started calling their child Jackie — a gender neutral name — and purchasing girl’s clothing in gender-neutral colors.
That still didn’t satisfy Jacq Kai, who felt anxious and would often cry at his reflection in the mirror because he looked too much like a girl. Allowing Jacq Kai to get his hair cut like a boy when he was about 3-and-a-half years old was a milestone for the family and left him “jubilant,” Sarah said.
“People have said ‘We used to call that a tomboy in my day,'” she added. “But the intensity of it, it’s not the same. He doesn’t say ‘I like boy things and I like boy clothes.’ He says, ‘I am a boy’ and he’s always seen himself as a boy. … He’s not happy with all the parts of his body. It’s that intense.”
Finally in October of 2012, Pete asked whether using a boy’s name would make a difference to Jacq, and he said it would. Pete and Sarah had already told school staff Jacq is transgender, and they decided to make the switch to referring to him as Jacq Kai and using male pronouns for him.
Having that affirmation of his identity made all the difference to then-4-year-old Jacq Kai.
“It’s like a light switch,” Pete said. ” All the despair, all the anxiety, all these painful symptoms he was exhibiting and the problems I had getting him out the door disappeared.”
Last September, the Tchoryks legally changed Jacq’s name to Jacq Kai Tchoryk, which was cause for the family to celebrate. Another milestone came last December when Cornerstone Elementary School Principal Craig McCalla spoke to Jacq Kai’s class about what it means to be transgender.
It’s all part of the process of normalizing their family’s experiences and educating people on transgender issues.
Since speaking out about their transgender son, Pete and Sarah received what they considered a disheartening amount of negative feedback, though they noticed online comments tend to be more positive when they talk about their personal experiences rather than the issue of transgender rights as an abstract concept.
Some of the main misconceptions they’ve run into are people who think gender identity and sexual orientation are the same, those who believe being transgender is a choice and the widespread bathroom debate, which argues that allowing transgender people to use bathrooms that correspond to their gender identity rather than their biological gender will lead to an increase in assaults taking place in bathrooms.
Pete’s analytical side shows as he recounts what he’s learned in all of his research on the topic and from speaking to numerous doctors and psychologists in reference to Jacq Kai.
“I try to put all these facts on paper. The fear has to be addressed head on,” he said. “You can see everywhere with these bathroom bills the kind of panic that this starts. The fact of the matter is transgender people have been using the bathrooms they identify with for decades. … There are healthy fears in this world and there are unhealthy fears. That is an unhealthy fear. That is not based on reality.”
The federal Title IX civil rights law protects students from sex discrimination in federally-funded schools, and legal experts say that covers students’ right to choose which bathroom they use. Jacq Kai uses the boy’s bathroom at school without issue.
Pete also pointed to research that shows making schools more inclusive and safer for LGBTQ students benefits all students. The Torchyk family is now committed to doing whatever they can to ensure all children have a positive, welcoming school experience.
“This is not something that’s going to help one subset of kids and all of a sudden put other kids in danger. … I’m kind of ashamed that it took for us to have a transgender kid to open our eyes,” Pete said. “We’re just marching through life as the privileged majority. … That’s another reason why we have to tell our story. It changed our world completely – for the better. It made us better human beings.”
This piece took first place for best feature story in the 2016 Michigan Press Association awards.