gender nonbinary mosaic
Transgender identity, in their words
02:44 - Source: CNN

Editor’s Note: Kelly Wallace is CNN’s digital correspondent and editor-at-large covering family, career and life. Read her other columns and follow her reports at CNN Parents and on Twitter @kellywallacetv.

Story highlights

A new video showcases tweens asking questions of a transgender male

Parents can start talking to kids about gender at a very young age, one expert says

CNN  — 

What happens when you bring a group of sixth-graders together to meet – for the first time – someone who is transgender? You get an easy and honest conversation that speaks volumes about how we can talk to our kids about gender and how much we can learn from their openness.

Hennessy, a 32-year-old transgender male, recently participated in a workshop held by SheKnows Media, a leading women’s lifestyle company.

“What gender do you think I am?” Hennessy asked 11 sixth-graders in New York City who are members of SheKnows’ unique Hatch program, which focuses on teaching digital literacy and citizenship to the next generation. The program is in its fourth year.

There is silence for a second, and then one girl says “male” and another says, “I heard earlier that you were transgender.”

Hennessy, an actor in New York City and co-host of the podcast “Kill Me Now” with comedian Judy Gold, says they are both right.

“I’m a transgender male,” he says.

And then the questions begin. “When did you first realize you were transgender?” a boy asks before the conversation turns to terms the kids may or may not have heard before: transgender, agender (when you don’t identify as male or female), gender fluid (you feel more masculine one day, more feminine the next) and sexual orientation.

‘Don’t treat it like a gross, icky … thing’

Hennessy hopes the new video of the Hatch workshop, released Thursday, will be seen by children and parents across the country and lead to more understanding about people like himself who are born with reproductive organs that do not match their gender identity.

“If you don’t treat it like a gross, icky, weird, evil thing, they don’t treat it like a gross, icky, weird, evil thing,” Hennessy said in an interview. When kids as young as 4 or 5 years old use female pronouns when they meet him, he tells them, “Oh, no, I’m a boy,” at which point they often ask, “What, you’re a boy?”

He then explains to them what being transgender is. “And boom, they get it right away,” he said.

Maverick, 12, knew what transgender was before taking part in the Hatch workshop. His mom is a sexuality educator who has been talking to him about sexuality and gender since birth. But he had never met anyone who was transgender until Hennessy.

“I thought it was a very powerful experience for me,” Maverick said. “I’m not sure about other kids, but I think meeting a transgender male for the first time was a very impactful thing in my life.”

The experience gives him a better understanding of how other people think, he said. “I think it just tells me more about others and how to act with them and respect them in different ways.”

Reed, who’s also 12 and participated in the workshop, said it’s very helpful to meet and talk with someone who is transgender or watch them in a video.

“It’s not just like learning from maybe people who don’t know that much about that,” she said. “You’re learning from people who have experienced it.”

‘Just Google it’

Logan Levkoff is a sexuality educator who has taught and designed many of the sex education programs used in private schools throughout New York City and the surrounding areas. She is also the mother of Maverick and an 8-year-old daughter. Gender is a constant conversation in their household.

“We’ve always spent a lot of time talking about what it means to be a boy and what it means to be a girl and maybe more importantly, the fact that there is not one definition of boy and girl and anything in between,” said Levkoff, author of “Got Teens? The Doctor Moms’ Guide to Sexuality, Social Media and Other Adolescent Realities.”

She has told her kids that every person has the right to experience life the way they see fit, in a way that best reflects who they are.