Sunday afternoon in the Bowman family’s Emmaus neighborhood is almost eerily quiet, save for a cool January drizzle pattering softly on the sidewalk. Inside their ranch-style home, things are far more warm and welcoming. Various paintings adorn the peach-colored walls, and books, board games, and art supplies abound in the living room.
Ari Bowman sits at the table, amusing himself by rolling a nickel back and forth on the colorful tablecloth. Clad in a green-and-blue tee and khaki shorts, Ari looks the example of a carefree 7th grade boy.
Next to him, his mother Alisa sips from her mug, the beaming “Life is Good” mascot on her shirt peeking out from her purple hoodie. Her husband, Mark, just left to walk their dogs, beagle-bulldog mix Macy and Doberman Loki.
While they have all the makings of a perfectly traditional American family, to conform to such standards would be a bit too old-fashioned for the Bowmans. A year ago, calling them “progressive” might’ve cut it. In a turbulent time for LGBT rights, Ari’s presence as a happy, healthy transgender boy speaks volumes about the strength and fortitude of his family. However, when he and his mother spoke at an East Penn School Board meeting on Sept. 12, Ari made waves on a national level. No one word can quite sum up the phenomena.
“I was really nervous,” Ari says of the moments before his school board speech. “I thought it was just gonna blow over… and nobody would really care.”
He couldn’t have been more wrong. Ari’s courage bloomed out of adverse circumstances. Just before the start of the school year, an incoming Emmaus freshman voiced her concerns to the school board. She took issue with potentially changing in the same locker room as a transgender girl. Earlier in the summer, the White House issued Title IX, a directive stating that public schools must allow transgender students to use the restroom or changing room of the gender with which they identify. The student’s statement caused a stir on social media. In the midst of high tension and mud-slinging on both sides, Ari and his mother felt the need to speak out.
“At first, I was scared,” Alisa Bowman says. “I really wanted to go into [the meeting] strong, but with a lot of love… I wasn’t sure if we were going to be able to pull that off, and we did.”
A GROWING AWARENESS
Ari Bowman is not alone.
According to a 2016 study by the Williams Institute, nearly 1.4 million Americans identify as transgender. However, not every individual who identifies transgender will openly disclose their gender identity. The National Transgender Discrimination survey of 2011 revealed that 71 percent of its respondents said that they had either hid their gender or gender identity because they feared discrimination.
But as far as the number of adolescent teens go, there is no definitive answer.
The Center for Disease Control and Prevention has no concrete numbers because pediatricians typically do not solicit information about gender identity from their clients.
A PUBLIC DISCLOSURE
At the September meeting, Ari, who attends Lower Macungie Middle School, shared his experience as a transgender boy, and Alisa Bowman shared hers as his parent. Other members of the community also spoke in support of transgender students, including University of Pennsylvania vice president Maureen Rush and Rev. Tim Dooner of Emmaus’ Faith Presbyterian Church. Superintendent Michael Schilder reinforced his commitment – and that of the school district – to making East Penn a safe and accepting learning space for all.
Ari and his mom both express joy and relief over the positive outcome of the meeting.
“After the speech, I was really, really happy,” Ari says. “Like, ‘wow, I actually did that.’”
“There were so many people who showed up that night,” his mom recalls. “And the ones that blew me away were the high school students. Especially one or two in particular who were so nervous to talk and you can tell it took everything for them to… say what they wanted to say. And I was just like… this is a beautiful world where when students feel so strongly about equality, and sticking up for the marginalized, [they will] overcome that fear… That was a beautiful moment.”
While the affirmation and support of the community pleasantly surprised them, what the Bowmans truly didn’t expect was that the story would go viral.
“I initially posted the video of his talk just to my friends on Facebook,” Mrs. Bowman says. “And somebody was like ‘Can you please open up your settings and allow us to share this?’ And I was just like… ‘Okay, I’m gonna get public. If ONE person comes on here and says something nasty, it’s done.’ But nobody did. And by the end of it… It went into the thousands just that day.”
Mrs. Bowman’s video garnered over 43,000 views. News outlets including ABC News, Buzzfeed, the Huffington Post, and The Morning Call reported on Ari’s speech. At first, he was bewildered by all the attention.
“For a couple weeks there were like a million people asking if they could interview me and stuff,” he says. “And after a while I was just answering the same questions over and over again… It actually got really fun at one point… I got to meet the governor [Tom Wolf] and it was at that point that I was actually kinda glad that I spoke out.”
Mrs. Bowman also felt a bit overwhelmed.
“I think Buzzfeed was the first outlet to write a story about it,” she says. “And after that it was like crazy.”
At one point, her nerves finally gained a cause.
“[Good Morning America] wanted to do it,” she says. “And I thought I made the biggest mistake of my life when I let them do it, because the comments on the video on the GMA site were really bad. They were… nasty [towards Ari].”
However, Ari put a positive spin on the situation yet again.
“I didn’t even know he was doing it,” Mrs. Bowman says. “He was answering those comments back.”
“I finished all my homework early!” Ari says.
“Then I realized it wasn’t a mistake,” Mrs. Bowman says. “People just kept messaging me. ‘Your son’s amazing!’ ‘Your son’s the next Harvey Milk!’ That one I screenshotted and saved, I was like…” She mimics hysterical crying, to Ari’s laughter.
While he may have done the heavy lifting, Ari also credits his accomplishment to the changing attitudes towards LGBT youth.
“I think if [the locker room incident] had happened when I was in first grade, it would have flip-flopped,” he says. “It would have gone [against transgender students]. And I think people would have been scared of it because they would have never heard of [transgender people] before, but there’s been so much… positivity recently about LGBT and… equality, and I think that’s the reason we got such a positive response… The world is changing in a good way.”
EARLY STAGES OF TRANSITION
While every transgender person discovers their identity at different times, Ari’s revelation came extremely early in his life.
“All the way back to when he was a baby, people would look at him and see a boy,” Mrs. Bowman says. “We would go out to eat and the waitstaff would be like, ‘Hey little dude! What do you want?!’ and I would go ‘It’s she. She.’ And [Ari] would look at me with this weird look like, ‘No, mom.’ It took me a really long time to get what was going on.”
“I wanted to get a buzzcut,” Ari says.
“Yes, in first and second grade he wanted to shave his hair off,” Mrs. Bowman says. “And we had family strife over this, because my husband, that was his line… He was like, ‘No buzzcut.’ And I got into a fight with my husband! And so then we ended up finding a therapist… it just took one appointment with her for my husband to get it.”
Alisa Bowman worried heavily about her son in the early stages of his transition.
“It took us a long time before we changed his name and pronouns,” she says. “I really bought into some of the things people say that aren’t true. They were telling me ‘oh, it’s a phase, she’s gonna grow out of it,’ stuff like that. And no. It never wavered.”
While Ari officially transitioned in 5th grade, his mother still had anxiety over his public speech to the community.
“I was worried about the family that initially went before the school board,” she says. “In my mind, the whole neighborhood is made up of families like that. And if they all know about us, what will happen? Will we have to move away? […] If we’re public about who Ari is, will our neighbors turn against us? Will he be bullied?”
Ari, however, has always had a supportive and loving network of friends. Despite his nerves, he had confidence in his community.
“I haven’t had one person come up to me and say a negative thing [to me],” he says. “No one has ever come up to me and said I am wrong about my identity. That gives me hope for the people who surround me and that I can have a positive experience at school every single day.”
“That night proved to me that probably 98% of this community is awesome,” Mrs. Bowman says. “There’s still that 2 percent… but they are so overshadowed by the supporting, loving, accepting, affirming people that are here.”
Ari’s friends also help him deal with today’s challenging political climate, especially in light of President Trump’s anti-LGBT sentiments.
“I’m trying to optimistic about it,” he says. “[The day after the election] was not the best day… I went to school that day and I was pretty sad in homeroom, but then the rest of the day all my friends were there and they hugged me… and it got better towards the end of the day.”
“I spent [Election Night] worrying about Ari,” Mrs. Bowman says. “It’s so hard as a parent. You have to trust the world sometimes to be there for your kid when you can’t be. And his friends were there for him. It was great.”
FINDING STRENGTH IN THE JOURNEY
Ari’s gender plays an integral part in his identity, but it’s only one facet. He has a variety of interests and involves himself in activities in and outside of school. This season, his everyday schedule is stacked.
“I’m basically at rehearsal [for the school play] until 5,” he says. “Then on Wednesdays, I’m at chorus until 4, so every day I’m staying after school. It’s pretty time consuming.”
Last year, Ari made it into Cadence Choir, and this year, he has a role in LMMS’s production of “My Girl.” Like most kids interested in theater and music, Ari loves “Hamilton.”
“Me and my other friends, we’re like ‘Hamilton’ freaks,” he says. “[My one friend] was like, ‘I don’t get the hype about ‘Hamilton,’ what’s so special about it?’ and I’m like, ‘I don’t think we can be friends anymore.’” He laughs.
“He knows all the words [to the songs],” Mrs. Bowman says.
In his downtime, Ari likes to relax the way everyone does nowadays. “I watch Netflix a lot,” he says. “Probably to an unhealthy extent.”
Ari excels in his academics, his interests, and now, in his community. It takes courage and resilience to parent a transgender child who not only survives, but thrives. Alisa Bowman explains her philosophy regarding raising a child like her own.
“I think the main thing is to see that it’s a journey,” she says. “And wherever you are in that journey and whatever you’re afraid of, to know that eventually you’ll be strong enough to deal with it. The other thing is to just love your child… your every decision starts with loving your child. You can’t go wrong.”
Bowman encourages other parents to persevere in the face of adversity, whether internal or external.
“I have this awesome kid… and I couldn’t have done any better,” she says. “I think my message to other parents [is] they can get to that place too… You will eventually get to this place of security and knowing you’re doing the right thing… as long as you love your kid, your kid’s gonna be just fine. The world is not stronger than your love.”
Eventually, she hopes that the world itself will no longer clash with her son and people like him, but learn to embrace everyone.
“Rather than clinging to your preconceived notion about who you think someone is, go up and talk to them,” she says. “If we could just all talk to each other, I think [we] would find that other people are not as scary as [we] think they are. So many people support Ari because they know him. And once they got to know him, they understood… If that’s what a transgender person is, there’s nothing to fear.”
Feature photo courtesy of the Bowmans. Additional photos by Angeline Stein.