“It started off like any other Monday,” Jake Ralston told The Washington Post in a phone interview early Tuesday morning. He chuckled. “It was kind of slow. I didn’t want to get out of bed and do 20-year-old things.”
When Jake woke on Monday, he was still legally named “Madeline,” Maddy for short. By the end of the day, Maddy would be Jake, and Jake would be trending on the Internet.
That morning, Jake received word that Judge T. Arthur Ritchie, Jr. of the Eighth Judicial District Court in Clark County, Nev., wanted to speak to him.
He immediately began worrying. What should he wear? He went with a plaid button-down and a pair of jeans. “What if I’m not trans enough?” he remembered thinking.
“Then I realized, he’s just a man sitting behind a desk like I’m a man sitting behind a desk talking to him. He’s just a person,” Jake said. “I told him that this was something I’ve been thinking about for a while. I told the truth and nothing but the truth — I had sworn to. He stopped me about halfway through.”
Nothing more was needed. The judge made his ruling and, for the first time in his 20 years on Earth, Jake felt like who he was. And his birth certificate reflected that — with both his gender marker and his name reflecting that he is male.
But his father, who stood by his side through every step of the long, confusing journey wasn’t there. His mother had passed away years before, and his father — who didn’t blink when his child had a boyfriend, then a girlfriend, who helped him research the testosterone treatments he began six months ago, who truly showed unconditional love — wasn’t with him.
Jake called his dad.
“I’ve never heard my kid as giddy as he was after the hearing today,” his father Jon Ralston said. “He finally is who he always wanted to be. I can just hear the relief in his voice.”
Jon, a contributing editor to Politico and the host of PBS’s “Ralston Live,” is one of the most respected political reporters in Nevada. He knows the importance of the written word. He joined lawmakers Rep. Michael M. Honda (D-Calif.) and Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) in publicly speaking about his transgender family members. After hearing his son’s elation, Jon sat down to pour his overflowing parental love into a post on his blog which he then posted to Facebook, simply titled “The child I love.”
“I’ve been thinking about [writing the post] for a long time, and Jake has wanted me to do it for a long time,” Jon told The Washington Post. “After he called me to tell me, I just decided to go sit at my desk, and the words and emotions poured out of me.”
His blog post began: “When Maddy Ralston came into this world almost 21 years ago, it was love at first sight. I cradled her in my arms, my adopted miracle, and couldn’t stop crying. She was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen.”
It ended: “When I get home later this week, I will see someone officially named Jake Ralston for the first time. And one thing I know for certain: It will be love at first sight.”
The point is simple: love is love. Jake is Jon’s child. That’s all that matters. The post took off online.
“The outpouring has been absolutely overwhelming,” Jon said. “I think it has less to do with the transgender issue as trying to show people that these kids are just like any other kids. I think that’s what’s resonating the most.”
Which isn’t to say it’s been easy for the two, as Jon’s blog post, and Jake’s own telling, illustrate. On the phone, reflecting on the 15-year-long journey that brought him to that courthouse Monday, Jake said, “Every major moment in history has begun with conflict.”
He was referring to the current conflict in this country, which has manifested itself in heated debates over who can use which bathrooms.
But an internal conflict took hold of Jake at the age of 5.
“I was 5 when I realized I wasn’t like every other little girl,” Jake said. “I walked around the playground telling people ‘I’m going to be a boy.’ ”
He was always active, playing sports on the playground — “If you sent me to school in a white shirt, I’d come home in a brown shirt.” — and skipping dolls for weekend fishing trips with his dad. He only liked wearing dresses if he could fashion them around his neck and down his back, like a superhero’s cape. “We went shopping for clothes, and she would never go into the girls’ section. Always the boys. It wasn’t even a question,” Jon wrote.
Finally, Jake remembered “sitting on the toilet and trying to push hard enough, realizing I wasn’t going to grow anything” and trying to decide if it was a phase or something more.
“My dad was always so accepting,” Jake said. He spoke to him about everything. Still, the two didn’t know what was happening.
“The father-daughter bond was growing ever-stronger,” Jon wrote. “We did everything together. I rarely missed a game, be it soccer or basketball or volleyball or flag football. We went to Europe three times, reveling in each other’s company. I loved making occasional allusions to her in my writing, calling her ‘The Teen.’ ”
But things became harder in high school. Jake was bullied and confused. In junior year, Jake found a boyfriend, but he didn’t take — “It wasn’t me. I found him as someone I could sit down and play video games with, rather than someone I could be with.” Maybe Jake was gay. He told his dad, who responded without blinking, “Okay, now let’s get back to your homework.” But a girlfriend didn’t feel right either. Closer, but not right.
“I didn’t care. She was my Maddy. That’s all that mattered,” Jon wrote in his blog post.
Then, came a lightning bolt later that year: Jake remembered sitting on the edge of his then girlfriend’s bed, Googling like a madman in a frantic search for something, anything, that could explain what he felt, “to see if I was an abomination or not,” to use Jake’s words, to use a word Jake has been called by his peers. On the seventh page of an innocuous Google search appeared a link to an old Wikipedia page about “transgender.”
“We’re looking at it, and I say, ‘this word seems to fit,'” Jake said.
Before lawmakers in North Carolina decided transgender people couldn’t use the bathrooms matching their gender identity and Bruce Springsteen and Target made the fight against those lawmakers a national cause, many people weren’t even aware of the term “transgender.”
Jake — then known as Maddy — had never heard it. Neither had Jon.
“I always thought I was completely by myself,” Jake said. “I never realized I could be anything else than what my body was. I looked at [my girlfriend] and said, ‘This is what I am.’ ”
He told his dad.
But, as Jon wrote in his post, “I don’t think I even listened very well when Maddy told me a few years ago she was really a male inside, that she was transgender. Sure, you are, I thought. It’s just a phase, I was certain. After all, the kid has been through a lot. Her mother had died. She had to switch schools. She had no idea who she was. But the truth was I had no idea. Or I was in denial.”
But Jake knew. Soon, Jon would too. But he was scared. “My first instinct, as ever, has been to protect my child, to make sure Maddy is safe and happy,” he wrote. “That’s all most parents ever want for their children. Life is difficult as it is. But with so much ignorance out there breeding so much fear, so much visceral recoiling from the concept of transgenderism, I fear this will make Maddy’s life that much harder.”
Since that day, the country has come to know the term “transgender,” one it uses almost offhandedly to discuss political points of view and to debate public policy. Jake notices that some people seem to understand him better and others, ironically, understand him less. “Since ‘transgender’ is a word on the national spectrum, I now have to be more aware for who I am around,” he said.
As for Jon, “Slowly but surely, I have come to not just accept it but to embrace it,” he wrote. “I have learned a lot about transgender issues through my job. I have read a bit.”
But Monday was not a day for political debate for Jon or Jake. Wrote Jon,” I don’t want to talk about bathrooms or locker rooms. I don’t want to debate the public policy issues in North Carolina or whether the president was right to sue. There will be plenty of time for that.” No, the day was about a father, a son and the love they share.
“I hope more people realize this is really just about love, that these kids are just kids,” Jon told The Post. “If that can help people … then that’s great. I wrote this for my son and to express how I feel about him.”
Though Jake has strong political feelings — “Unless you start looking at people as people, they’re always going to be a number,” he said of the North Carolina debate becoming a national circus — on Monday, he was just proud. Of himself, and of his father for using his considerable platform to maybe help someone else sitting on the edge of a bed, confused about who he or she is, feel a little less alone.
“This is not only something that would be good for us as a family, but this is something that would be good for everyone out there who might think they are alone in this,” Jake said of his father’s blog post. “He has not only stood up for our family, but he’s stood up for thousands of families like us.”
“I’ve never been more proud of him,” Jake said.