The writer and subject of this essay has asked to be kept anonymous for the protection of her family. Our hope is that one day this won’t be necessary.
For any parent, I think we can all agree that when your child is born, the love you experience is overwhelming. You don’t really know them yet, but that doesn’t matter; the love is unconditional. As long as they are happy and healthy, that’s good for you. Of course, you catch yourself dreaming about who they might become, their character, their athletic prowess perhaps, but that soon fades, and again, I think we can all agree they are even better than what we imagined.
From the age of 2, our daughter refused to wear dresses and skirts. She always wanted to be the male character: the daddy, Ron from Harry Potter, the male superhero …
At the time I suppose we thought she was probably gay. She begged for boys’ underwear and boys’ swim trunks. When she started school, she requested a buzz cut and signed her name “Ryan” and “Michael.” But when she told me at the end of kindergarten that she had been going into the boys’ bathroom and peeing standing up in the urinals, I thought, “That’s something else.”
As I came to find out, gender identity and sexual orientation are two very different things—who knew? Certainly not my husband or me. My kid saying she’s a boy, behaving and dressing like a boy, knowing she’s a boy—that’s gender identity. I had a lot to learn.
When I was about 15, I remember watching an episode of Phil Donahue featuring four transsexual women. “Transsexual” was the word used then. Four transgender women talked about being born into the wrong body and said they felt much better going through life as women, and I remember thinking, “Why on earth would anyone choose that?” It was beyond my comprehension at the time. Now I know it’s not a choice.
When my daughter first began insisting that she was male, at age 6, I worried for her and blamed myself. Maybe I should have forced her to wear dresses and take ballet? Maybe I drank too much soy during pregnancy and accidentally screwed up her fetal hormones. Maybe if I were a stronger female role model? Maybe she was rejecting me …
I decided to find a therapist who knew something about gender identity. It took a bit of searching but eventually I found someone—a trans man. He listened to me and said: “You have another child, right? A little girl? If you think you did this to your kid, go home and make her a boy. Change her too.” That registered for me.
I began to research transgender identity and the implications on kids’ mental health. I learned that transgender kids who are not supported by their families have very high rates of suicide, mental health disorders, substance abuse and self-harm. According to the National Transgender Discrimination Survey conducted in 2011, 41 percent of the more than 6,000 transgender or gender-nonconforming respondents had attempted suicide sometime in their lives. And those are just the people who survived to answer the survey. For parents of children like mine it means you are either going to have a transgender child or no child at all. For me that’s not a choice.
We transitioned our child from female to male in the third grade, changing pronouns from she to he. We changed his name too. Our local public school is in a progressive district, and when we asked them to hold trainings for students and staff on gender identity, they did. That was four years ago. His middle school experience, on the other hand, was far different. Kids who knew him from before told all the other kids he used to be a girl. He got teased and harassed.
Also, because he couldn’t use a urinal like other boys, he avoided using school bathrooms and held it all day. He stopped drinking liquids entirely and developed reoccurring urinary tract infections. Eventually the stress from the bullying caused sleep disturbances and depression. It was months before I got him to fess up and tell me what was going on. We pulled him out of school and enrolled him in a smaller middle school across town. None of the kids know he is transgender and he has friends now.
A couple months after starting at his new school, my son said, “Mommy, do you know what it’s like to keep a secret every single day? Do you know what it’s like going to school and not knowing if people will love you for who you are?” A nightmare for any parent to hear, when all any parent hopes is that when our kids walk out the front door the world will be nice and fair to them.
As the parent of a trans child I am hypervigilant. I know that our schools and communities are not set up to support kids like my son. I struggle when people tell me “You’re such an amazing parent” or “That must be so challenging. Your child is so lucky to have you.” Sometimes I think what they are really saying is “Thank God that’s not me. That must be so awful and hard.” More importantly, why am I an amazing parent for supporting my child? That’s what you do.
I spoke at a town meeting recently against a restrictive bathroom bill before the state senate and I left my job in community mental health to work with parents of kids like mine. I started to teach health and mental health providers about gender identity and how to support transgender patients. I never expected this to become my life’s work, or that my child would be my greatest teacher.
As parents, my husband and I are more optimistic for our child’s future than we were five years ago. Part of it is due to the changing perception in the media and also just getting to know transgender adults who are leading happy, fulfilling lives despite the enormous pressure to be like everyone else. Our son has fought hard to be who he is. He’s only 12, but he’s my hero.