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When Maddy Became Jake: A Father And Son's Enduring Love

Jake Ralston with his father, Jon Ralston. This week, Jake successfully petitioned to change the name and gender on his birth certificate to reflect that he is male.
Courtesy of Jon Ralston
Jake Ralston with his father, Jon Ralston. This week, Jake successfully petitioned to change the name and gender on his birth certificate to reflect that he is male.

Jon Ralston is one of Nevada's top political reporters. But earlier this week, he published a different type of story: a personal account about his child.

On Monday, his 20-year-old went before a judge to request changes to his birth certificate: name and gender.

The judge granted those changes. Madeline is now Jacob; instead of Maddy, Jake. Jon Ralston chronicles the journey of his son — and his own — in The Child I Love.

Jake Ralston says he wanted his father to write about his transition for a long time.

"I wanted him to write ... because I wanted other kids to realize that they weren't alone — that coming out to their family would be hard, and that it's not an easy road to walk, but they're not alone on it," Jake tells NPR's Kelly McEvers.

Jake was 5 when he says he first told his father he was a boy. Back then, he'd walk around the playground and tell anyone who would listen that he was going to be a boy someday.

"I remembered being different," Jake says. "I never wanted to wear dresses or skirts, or play with dolls or play house with the other girls. I never really fit in with the social norms of what a little girl was supposed to do.

"If my friends and I were playing a game, I'd play the man role — I'd play the dad, or I'd play the brother ... rather than having to hide it and force myself to play this gender role that I didn't fit in with."

At the time, Jon Ralston says, he thought Maddy was just going through a phase.

"I think I'm not much different than most parents: When your 5-year-old says things, you just smile and pat him or her on the head and say, 'Right, sure honey, that's right, you want to be a boy,' " he says. "All you really care about if you're a parent is if your kids are healthy and happy — and when Jake was Maddy, she was healthy and happy."

Jon Ralston with Jake (then Maddy) before the transition, when he was in middle school.
/ Courtesy of Jon Ralston
Courtesy of Jon Ralston
Jon Ralston with Jake (then Maddy) before the transition, when he was in middle school.

Maddy had "no patience for the girly-girl things," Jon says, but he didn't really think much about it until Maddy was older.

Jake and Jon have a particularly close relationship; Jake's mother and Jon divorced when Jake was young.

"I was happy to spend time with my dad," Jake says. "Like any little kid, I looked at him as my Superman. He was always gonna be that person that would be there for me, even at my roughest times. I remember I leaned on him when my mom died."

That was when Jake was 16.

"She was an alcoholic, and it got really bad before she died," he says. "She didn't have the mental capacity, when she was drunk, to be a parent. And if I wanted to make sure that I had food in my stomach ... I had to do it for myself, as well as making sure she was taking care of herself ... making sure that if she got sick, she was on her side, so she wouldn't choke."

At home, Jake always had the loving support of his father. At school, however, it was different. The whispers about Jake began in high school, and the verbal abuse worsened in college when he was out as transgender.

"I've had people come up and tell me that I'm an abomination of God, that I'm going to burn in hell, and that I bring shame to my family for being trans, and that I should put a bullet where my brain is," Jake says. "I just tell them, if that's how you feel, I can't change that. That's on you for feeling so strongly about things, and not having the knowledge or the understanding of what or who I am.

"Kill them with kindness is always the best option ... making up for their hatred, their lack of understanding."

It's never easy to know your child is in distress, Jon says.

"I don't know if you'll ever get past the anger that you feel when someone does something to your kid," he says. "Hearing those words just now, again, it's just ... I'm not angry so much as devastated to hear that my kid has had to endure that."

Through his job, Jon Ralston has done some reporting on the transgender bathroom issue, and it's another reason that he wanted to write his story about Jake.

"I do think there is an overwhelming ignorance in the world about ... transgenderism," he says. "I think people, out of their own ignorance, that breeds fear and hatred. ... And so if people don't know Jake, they don't know that he would actually try to kill them with kindness. But this is my kid — this is why I'm so proud of my kid. Because he is that way. That is the real Jake."

It has been a long journey for father and son. Jon Ralston says last year marked a turning point for him, calling it the year he "finally let go."

The change in legal status has been "cleansing," Jake says.

"It allows me to start fresh, from where I used to be to where I'm going to go," he says.

Surgery is among the next steps for Jake. And although response to Jon's essay has been overwhelmingly positive so far, he and his father are poised for a backlash.

"There's a lot of ugliness in the world, and the instinct to protect your kid, to shield them from all the horrors of the world is so, so powerful," says Jon.

But Jake is resilient and strong, Jon says — and his love for his son is strong, too.

"I love Jake the same at this moment that I loved Jake when Maddy was born," Jon says. "It's the same, and I hope that I convey every day — I hope he feels it every day — how much love I have for him.

And to Jake, Jon is still his "Superman."

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