I think my kids are special. The most special. But that’s not actually special. We all do, right? But… I can objectively say that I am really, really proud of my firstborn for a special reason. In the nomenclature we use at home to describe gender identity, when she was born, “the adults guessed she was a boy.” But as she got older and learned about herself, she showed and told us that we were wrong. She is a girl.
That was a challenge for her – or any gender non-conforming child – in innumerable ways. Through toddler and early childhood, she had to do all of these things, and all with limited understanding of society, language, and the existence of the LGBTQ+ community, let alone the strides made in LGBTQ+ rights: Censor her self-expression in many situations (regardless of supportive family and friends). Navigate childhood friendships with the realization that she was different – “a boy who likes girl things.” Come to an understanding of who she intrinsically is in spite of the world treating her as a boy. Express her deepest and most important secret to her family. With support from her family, stop censoring herself and allow herself to present as a girl. And finally, confirm to the world that she is a girl, A., she/her.
Although special (we think), our story isn’t that different from so many other families who have learned that they “guessed wrong” about their child’s gender. My husband and I spent years nurturing our gender nonconforming child’s interests, playing down how different she felt and playing up our acceptance of her uniqueness. We spent years telling her, “It’s ok to be a boy who likes girl things,” congratulating ourselves on our open-minded parenting skills: buying Barbies and princess dresses and those pesky LOL Surprise dolls; together showing the world around us that there are many ways to be a boy. When our child would sigh, “I wish I was a girl,” we would be quick to point out that she was happily enrolled in ballet and gymnastics and had a room full of American Girl Doll chattel. And that her friends and family accepted her for the creative boy that she was. What more could she need?
Although it’s painful to think of the confusion she may have felt at times but couldn’t express, when I really think about it, I don’t see that we could have done it any differently. We had to let her develop her sense of self awareness and tell us in no uncertain terms who she was. Part of the excruciating part of this journey, as a parent, is constantly trying to strike the right balance. I wanted to support her fully, to be sure, but needed her to be the exclusive owner of her identity and the guide of her journey. Plus, we didn’t fully anticipate what the future would hold for us. In all of the literature I read, there is a distinct difference between a child who says “I am a girl/boy” and one who says “I wish I was a girl/boy.” We had one of the “wish I was a girl” kids, and that was that.
We came to learn, of course, that it’s more nuanced than that, and has to do with whether a child is internally or externally processing their feelings and sense of self. Our child was steadily internally processing, studying the world around her. There were no hysterics over getting undressed at bath-time or protest when we referred to her as a boy. She didn’t express disgust over her body or her name. What she did, though, was withdraw into herself further as she got older and sensed that it was less cute and more awkward to be a boy in a princess dress for Halloween. She would go to friends’ houses and shut herself up in girls’ playrooms, poring over their shoes and toys and pink décor while the other kids tore around the backyard together. She would be stealthier when trying on my shoes and makeup at home. She stopped letting us cut her hair, and the short cut “like daddy” gradually grew into a shaggy skater-boy look… until it was a shaggy androgynous long-enough-for-pigtails look, which she would request on occasion.
So we observed, and educated ourselves, and showed our openness to whatever might come. We talked about neighbors’ rainbow flags and what they meant. We took care to show both our children that there is no one way to love or to be. We found little ways to increase awareness as a family: “look at this picture of Sam Smith! They are wearing eyeliner.” Or “when we talk about Coach C. at our swimming lessons we say ‘they’ or ‘them’ because they don’t feel like a girl OR a boy.” Our kids never questioned why some kids might have two moms or two dads, but together we were all learning more about gender identity and expression. It became clear that our then-four-year-old son is firmly male-identifying, and that his gender expression is all things male. He calls his friends “dude,” as in, “hey dude, look how much air I can get on my bike.” His best friends are whatever kids will dig in the dirt with him. His first love is trucks. It also became clear in stark contrast that our then-seven-year-old son was… what? That was the question that was growing in my mind, keeping me up at night, but never quite spoken.
And then one day was our turning point, the never-going-back moment that changed everything.
We were getting ready to go to a Charlotte Knights baseball game with some other families. The kids had been looking forward to seeing the stadium and mascot, eating junk food for dinner, and riding the sugar high way too late into the evening with their friends. But all of a sudden, A. became distraught. She didn’t have anything to wear, she wailed. Frustrated, I pointed out all of the clothes that we had recently bought her that she had so far refused to wear.
“No,” she protested. “I want to wear something like what you’re wearing.”
“Shorts and a tank top? But you have those things!”
“No. More like what you’re wearing.” She was stepping out over her own precipice, daring to say it. And then it clicked for me.
“You want… girls’ clothes?”
She buried her face in her bed, sobbing. It was true. “They would make me feel more like me,” she whispered through tears. I hugged her, comforted her, and thanked her for sharing what might have felt like an impossible truth.
That moment led to the next, and the next, and to all of the moments that we walked together over a series of precipices. The day she wore her hair in pigtails to camp. The day she wore one of her cherished new girl’s outfits to a friend’s house (at first, she wore them just at home). The day she started second grade, still using he/him pronouns, but dressed proudly head to toe as a girl. And months later, the day she was ready to walk into her second-grade classroom and use her identified gender pronouns and the name she had secretly chosen for herself long ago.
That was our journey. It’s not over, but the voyage is on pause, in a contented steady state. At 8 now, she’s years off from needing medical interventions. And at 8, she’s already conquered the social transition and is living fully and happily as a girl.
Before she was A., while she was yearning for all things feminine, my child was also equally frightened of impending masculinity. At times, out of nowhere, she would suddenly be in tears: “I don’t want to have a beard when I’m older.” She doesn’t want to be tall like Daddy. She does, decidedly, want to develop as a female. Once she became A., we gave her generalized assurances that doctors would be able to treat her to first make sure her body doesn’t develop as a man (puberty blockers), and later to help it develop with female characteristics (gender affirming hormones). These assurances have helped her develop into the confident, carefree kid that she now is. But if just the specter of a years-away beard is terrifying for a young trans girl, please imagine with me the discomfort of actually going through male puberty: seeing unwanted facial hair and body hair sprout, an adams apple, deepening of the voice, and all while being powerless to stop it; her body literally betraying her.
We have been amazingly fortunate and supported in so many ways. We have experienced so much encouragement and affirmation. It helps that the clues were there for everyone to observe since A. could talk (or choose a toy or color to gravitate to) so nobody was exactly surprised. Mostly, people were excited and proud to see her blossom. It also helps that she transitioned at the age when kids may or may not understand the concept, but don’t really care. Or if they did care at first, they have already moved on and seem to have forgotten that she was ever anything other than A. (I have been impressed and relieved to tears witnessing this).
But for many of us navigating a child’s gender transition, it’s not really the kids we have to worry about. It’s the adults that bring their own baggage and transphobia and prejudice, or even simply lack of understanding or empathy that can still create wounds for trans kids and their families. And of course, it’s these same adults who can pass along their own baggage to the kids who would be otherwise open-minded and accepting. There are those who would question the legitimacy of my daughter, who are even fighting to create legislation which would have harmful and lasting impacts on trans kids’ rights and medical care. My hope now is to lend my voice to PFLAG and other organizations which supported us along the way, to help reach even just a few of those who don’t quite understand the issue and haven’t chosen a side from which to speak up. Because yes, there are clear sides. You can’t be ambivalent about whether trans kids should exist and whether they should have the support and medical interventions they need to grow into healthy, happy adults.
One of the bright spots in our experience has been finding new support and connections. We have a pretty special support group locally, Gender Education Network, which is specifically for trans and gender non-conforming children under 12. One of the reasons it’s so special is that most resources and support groups are geared towards older kids who may be at the point of needing the medical interventions. Our group, though, is just a gang of typical kids and their families. It’s usually impossible to tell which are the trans kids, and which are the cisgender siblings who have come along for the fun. We have playground meetups, where we are indistinguishable from other class groups or birthday parties flocking to the park. The group also consciously blends in, foregoing signs which might help a new member easily find us but also invite unwanted attention.
At first, A. asked to find a club of “kids like her,” which is what made me seek out Gender Education Network. But now that she’s so confident in being herself, she seems to have no desire to expand beyond her school and neighborhood friends. It might be like that for some of the other kids in the group, too. At our support group park meetups, A. and some of the others are sometimes hesitant to join in with the games of hide and seek and red rover. But the families keep going. Because even though my child might not always be thrilled to be there, I stand with other parents in small groups where we furtively talk about the best swimwear and ballet classes and therapists and doctors for our kids. And about struggles some of the families have encountered with neighbors or school principals or unsupportive family members. We share strategies and advice and just a listening ear. And because our son is always hoping to see his favorite kid in the gang – the boy who brings the cool skateboard.
So A. identifies as transgender, sure, but it’s not a key part of her identity. Mostly she is just a second-grade girl. While we used to have long bedtime talks about her fears and dreams of transforming into the girl she knew she was, now her concerns are limited to typical second grader topics. Our bedtime talks might be about friend issues at school, or an upcoming science presentation in class.
The other day A. said to me, “Mommy? You know, people like me…”
She paused, carefully choosing her words, while I braced myself. Had she been hearing the latest news about attacks on trans kids’ rights? Was she experiencing bullying at school?
“… people with brown hair. Can we dye it to be just a little lighter?”
Ah, yes. A. really identifies as a brunette who wistfully believes that blondes really do have more fun. We have frequent discussions about the age at which it’s appropriate to highlight or bleach one’s hair. I hugged her and said that in the summertime, we can try some sun-in and see how it goes.