The beauty that comes from nuance: to help their daughter, a Microsoft employee and a filmmaker became transgender allies

Microsoft Corporate Vice President Chadd Knowlton and filmmaker Vlada Knowlton underwent a “radical transformation” and then made a documentary to tell stories of families like theirs

By Natalie Singer-Velush

Chadd and Vlada Knowlton will never forget the day they most feared for their youngest child.

They were driving to school and from the back seat of the car piped a little voice, asking where babies came from. Vlada Knowlton, a filmmaker and former Microsoft employee, explained to her 4-year-old that babies grew in moms’ bellies and came out when they were ready.

“I want you to put me back in,” said the trembling voice. “I know I’m a girl. It’s not fair.”

The parents worried immediately that this was their preschooler’s way of saying that life didn’t feel worth living.

“I kept the car straight. I tried to keep driving. But it was terrifying,” Vlada Knowlton said.

The Knowltons’ youngest child had always been artistic, creative, curious, and intelligent—but also, lately, very unhappy.

“She was born with the body of a boy. Everybody assumed she was a boy. [In the beginning] we never in a million years imagined anything different,” Vlada Knowlton said. “But . . . from about the age of 2, she seemed frustrated, unsatisfied with her life.”

At home, the Knowltons, who also have an older son and daughter, had been allowing their youngest to wear dresses and play with more stereotypically girly toys, and things seemed better during those times. But in public, their preschooler was frustrated and angry when presenting as a boy, which was leading to depression and withdrawal.

“She couldn’t express herself the way she felt she wanted to,” Vlada Knowlton said.

The day in the car was the turning point for the parents. Their daughter felt she was a girl, and so she should be able to live that way, they decided.

“We had to go through a radical transformation to learn, to understand, and to accept. Our daughter didn’t really transition—she was the same before. We transitioned as parents.”

“It was a great moment of clarity,” said Chadd Knowlton, a corporate vice president at Microsoft. “We were coming from a place of total unknown. Once we did the research and we understood how gender is formed in the brain, we could accept it. Gender is what it is.

“We had to go through a radical transformation to learn, to understand, and to accept. Our daughter didn’t really transition—she was the same before. We transitioned as parents. And then we moved ahead into a new kind of personal activism that we had never had to call upon in our lives before.”

That activism includes making a documentary about LGBTQ+ rights and the movements that threaten them. The film, “The Most Dangerous Year,” recently had its world premiere at the Seattle International Film Festival. It tracks a wave of antitransgender legislation, including bathroom bills, and tells the story of a coalition of Washington State families who have transgender children who join together to fight it. Vlada Knowlton directed, wrote, edited, and produced the film; Chadd Knowlton served as the supervising sound editor and composed the score.

As they navigated their daughter’s and family’s journey, the Knowltons have been supported by many of their communities, including Microsoft.

“The environment is inclusive, accepting, and empowering for people to express themselves and to be allies,” Chadd Knowlton said of the company’s culture. “One of the first things I thought about was hey, maybe my daughter could get a job at Microsoft one day because I know it’ll be a great place for her to work.”

Their family’s journey has broadened their perspective in a way that now empowers them to be advocates and allies.

“We were new people after this, and honestly we’re thankful for that,” Chadd Knowlton said. “Gender is not binary. You could be anywhere on that spectrum. It’s one of the things I think people struggle with in our society. They really want things to be easily categorized and named. But the world is all nuance—and that’s the beauty of it.”

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