Before anyone asks, no, I’m not some sort of new age, millennial, hipster-chic parent living in a commune, attempting to raise genderless, nameless offspring who will one day grow up and decide these things independent of their father and me. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but it’s just not us. My husband and I learned all three of our kids’ biological sexes via ultrasound and we planned accordingly. I dressed my boys in blue, my girl in pink.
I’d always hoped to have a child of each gender. And God, in only God’s divine way, was brilliant enough to give me one of each: a cisgender male, Jack, born in 2000, a cisgender female. Kate, born in 2002, and a few years later, when my third and last child was born, well, God threw all caution to the wind and decided to confuse everyone and make the ride just a little more fun.
Charlie arrived in 2006 and was assigned male at birth, but began expressing stereotypical female from the age of 2.5 years old. Charlie always preferred playing with Kate’s old ballet costumes and Barbies over anything Jack had in his room — from Legos to trucks, tools to action figures. Charlie had no interest in toddler, gender neutral, or typical boy toys. But Charlie would spend hours in Kate’s room, sitting at her tiny plastic pink vanity table, applying fake makeup and doing hair.
Once while we were playing, at the very young age of almost 3, Charlie casually revealed to me, “Mommy, you know I’m only a boy ‘cause of my parts, right?” At the time I knew nothing of transgender people, let alone trans kids. But I knew that was a really profound statement for my toddler to make. So I started watching and listening harder and more closely.
A year later, Charlie was obsessed with Dorothy and The Wizard of Oz, Rapunzel, and still, princess dress up. Still, showing absolutely no interest in any type of typical boy toys. Yes, we thought it was a phase. But by age 4, I started thinking, “Oh I know what this is. I have a gay kid. Charlie’s going to grow up and eventually tell me: Mom, I’m gay. And I’ll know exactly what to do because I grew up with so many gay friends in the theatre community!” Not that I thought my child was aware of sexual orientation yet, but I believe people are born the way they are, and part of that pre-programmed makeup includes their sexual orientation. However, I didn’t know about the complexities of gender, gender identity, and gender expression yet.
After years of reading & research, listening, paying attention (and struggling to find resources to support this type of child) Charlie watched something with me about a gender creative boy in California, and Charlie said, “that’s me!” And so it stuck. In 4th grade, Charlie began letting people know, “I’m gender creative,” and attempting to explain what that meant when they questioned, “are you a boy or a girl?” The search for a label and identity seemed so important to my child, who was struggling to make friends that year, and dealing with other boys saying “you’re gay,” and much worse.
By 5th grade, Charlie had begun rejecting everything remotely masculine, including clothing, shoes, and accessories that appeared masculine. Charlie went from just wearing a sparkly “girls” backpack and pink & purple Twinkle Toe Sketchers, to growing a longer head of hair, wearing floral headbands, and dressing in legit girls clothing, from girls clothing stores, head to toe. Labels and identity began being less important, though we were still using “he/him” pronouns and referring to Charlie as “our son.” The moment 5th grade ended, though, that was the last time Charlie wanted to be referred to as “he/him/our son.”
At the LGBT Center, where my husband & I founded and run a group for TGNC (trans and gender non-conforming) children on Charlie’s behalf, Charlie learned about pronouns. That’s when Charlie’s fierce adoption of “they/them” began. Now, as an 11-year-old, Charlie goes by “they/them;” however, Charlie won’t correct people who use “she/her.” In fact, Charlie is referred to as “she/her” by almost everyone in public, and by many of their teachers. Charlie likes that because Charlie still strongly rejects “he/him.”
Earlier in the summer, we went back-to-school shoe shopping and the sales clerk kept referring to Charlie as “your daughter,” “she,” and “her.” It was really the first time it happened so overtly. It happened a couple of times before in restaurants, but for some reason it seemed more ambiguous in those places - maybe because the whole family was there, and as talkative as we are, we couldn’t always be sure which one of us the server was addressing.
But in that shoe store it was just Charlie and me, and everyone thought we were mother and daughter. When it first happened in a restaurant, I had asked Charlie, “what do you want us to say or do next time when someone assumes you’re a girl and refers to you as a girl?” Charlie said, “Mom. Just roll with it.” So that’s what I did in the shoe store. Didn’t correct anyone, didn’t bat an eyelash, went along and used “she/her” in public myself for the first time, for Charlie. The cashier rang us up and I asked Charlie to please take one of the three bags. They had chosen a pair of tall black boots, short gold boots, pink & purple sneakers, and a pair of red high heels (an impulse buy, but on the clearance rack for $3.00, how do you say no to that?!) Charlie instinctively reached for the large bag with the boots and the heels. The cashier said, “She knows which bag has the good stuff!” I replied, “Yes, she sure does.” On the way out to the parking lot, Charlie said, “Mom, that’s exactly what I meant by ‘just roll with it.’ Good job! Thank you!”
For me, this originally felt so odd and foreign. I wanted to have control in these situations. I wanted to have a plan A and a plan B, and I wanted to know specifically what I would say or do if both Plan A and B backfired. But this is why we have a gender therapist. And she has told us, with 20+ years experience counseling trans and gender non-conforming clients, we’re doing exactly what we’re supposed to do: follow the child’s lead. Don’t needle with too many questions. Let go of that need for control. And I just have to trust that she’s handling all the role-playing, what-if scenarios, and coping mechanisms in response to the insults and slander that is unique to this community of people.
Having known my child for 11+ years now, it all makes perfect sense to me, but I understand why others hearing our story — which is just a small window into our complex lives — think we are not being parents. Those who think that simply don’t know. They don’t know how much time and money we’ve spent on therapy for the whole family, how much blood, sweat, and tears we’ve put into our own research and workshop attending, how many nights we’ve stayed up too late comforting a child screaming in anxiety over things we now know were caused by gender dysphoria.
I understand that people think children are confused over gender. But gender dysphoria is not the same thing as “confusion.” TGNC kids aren’t confused. They know exactly who they are, they just lack the vocabulary and the cognitive ability to explain it so that us adults can understand it. And that’s rightfully frustrating for them.
There’s also a perception that gender is an “adult” topic, that children are too young to know or understand these things. Part of the flaw in that thinking is the assumption that gender identity and sexual orientation are the same. They aren’t. But also, if every cis person thinks about their own gender story, they’ll likely respond they didn’t know when or how they knew they were male or female, they just knew, and had that internal sense of identity from a very young age. The same is true for transgender people (which includes gender non-conforming, and non-binary people). They’ve always known. And though it may seem like it, there aren’t more and more of them popping up everywhere all of a sudden; this isn’t a new phenomenon. Native Americans have always had “two spirit” people, whose gender identity exists beyond binary male or female. Two spirits were some of the most respected and revered people in their tribes. Many other cultures and religions recognize more than two genders as well, including early versions of the Bible and Christianity, and classical Judaism, to name a few.
The reason we seem to be hearing more TGNC people’s stories now is because we have the internet, we have experience gathering and organizing groups on social media, and we have a whole generation of parents who watched their LGBTQ friends get kicked out of their homes for being LGBTQ in the 1980s, and we now realize the amount of harm that did. We want to do better. And for all the grief both the internet and social media get, they are capable of connecting people like never before. The internet is ultimately helping the TGNC community because it’s the one bridge that has the potential to be able to finally connect this entire community.
Though TGNC people have existed forever, most of them in America have felt isolated and alone; they’ve hidden their authentic selves in a closet of shame, and they’ve been forced to live a lie. Today, if not for social media, this huge community of amazingly gifted people otherwise might not have ever connected. Also, the internet is driving awareness of TGNC-related issues with lightning speed, in an unprecedented manner. This is wonderful because knowledge is power.
For all the progress we’ve made, however, our work isn’t done yet. As a parent raising this type of child, I can bear witness that we get all kinds of ill-informed accusations and harmful motives ascribed to us by complete strangers. But when people have their knee-jerk reactions, this is where they need to step back, make conscious efforts not to judge, listen, and just trust that us parents raising TGNC kids have done our research and our homework — enough to have earned an honorary Master’s degree on the topic — and we do actually know what we’re doing. By advocating for and supporting our TGNC kids exactly as they are, we are doing everything within our power to allow them to live their truth and have confidence in it.
Trust that we know what’s considered best practice in raising this type of child, we know what the statistics regarding transgender youth and suicide show, and we know trans people are the most at-risk group of marginalized people to self-harm, attempt suicide, or complete suicide. When coupled with a non-supportive, non-accepting family, the suicide statistics for trans people are especially alarming. Add in the intersectionality of being black and a trans female, and the statistics of death by suicide, violence, and murder are overwhelming. Trans people as a whole are most likely to commit suicide or be murdered because of gender-based victimization, discrimination, bullying, violence, being rejected by family, friends, and community; harassment by intimate partner(s), family members, police; public discrimination, and ill treatment at health-care systems. These are the major risk factors that influence the suicidal behavior among transgender people. These factors penetrate them literally everywhere across society.
Conversely, we know that a loving, accepting family is often the line between life or death for trans kids. But even when a trans person has an all-accepting family around them, it’s still not enough, because hatred towards this population is so ingrained in society, which is inherently misogynistic. We need look no further than the stories of trans youth like Jay Griffin to know we’re not doing enough for these kids. And because we love our children so unconditionally and want them to live, we fight for the rights to educate others, and to support our TGNC kids. We are in tune with the politics of the day — because we have to be — and we’re aware of things like how the LGBTQ Suicide Hotline calls from transgender youth have spiked — more than doubled — under Trump’s presidency.
This is in direct correlation with today’s political climate, one where the President of the United States has surrounded himself with advisers and cabinet members who are notoriously racist, homophobic, and transphobic. We have a political climate in which it’s perfectly acceptable for a rich white man who brags of sexual assault to get elected President, and not only not have to give up his personal Twitter account, but is also allowed to use it for issuing ridiculous, non-enforceable, but still harmful mandates such as the transgender military ban.
The death of Leelah Alcorn, one of the most infamous trans youth suicides, sheds light on so many issues still plaguing transgender youth, and the micro (and macro) aggressions they endure. She took her life because she felt no sense of hope. It’s almost as if in 2014, she could foresee what this country would go through politically, how the pendulum would swing too far the other way, reversing social progress, by the time she would be graduating from college. Indeed there are many days now where things seem hopeless, but we have to find a sliver of hope, and hold on to that.
It’s ironic that some people accuse parents like me, who are advocates for our TGNC children, of being “child abusers” simply for allowing our children to explore gender, and advocating publicly for the world to shift its collective mindset a bit. Unconditionally loving a TGNC child exactly as they are, embracing that psychology, and advocating for them is quite the opposite of child abuse. A parent has to have a very mature sensibility and understanding of unconditional love in order to let go of their wants and needs for their child’s life, to let go of their hopes, dreams and perceptions of what the child’s gender should look like. This type of parenting is not for the weak.
Leelah’s parents said in interviews they “loved (him) unconditionally,” but during those same interviews disrespected Leelah by using the birth name they gave her based off of her sex assigned at birth, a.k.a., her “dead name,” and they refused to use female pronouns when talking about their child. This is not showing unconditional love. Their child took her own life because her parents refused to acknowledge her gender dysphoria, and even in death they continued to disrespect her in that way. Also, Leelah had to mask as gay, because that was easier for her parents to accept than trans. This is still happening in families everywhere today. In my advocacy, I’ve talked to numerous adults who tell me that coming out as gay was just easier than having to admit they were transgender, or that if their parents had been as accepting back then, they wouldn’t have had to hide their authentic selves and lead a forced, fake life.
In her suicide note, Leelah pleaded for her death to be counted in the number of transgender people who committed suicide that year (2014). “The only way I will rest in peace,” Leelah wrote, “is if one day transgender people aren’t treated the way I was, they’re treated like humans, with valid feelings and human rights. Gender needs to be taught about in schools, the earlier the better.” She then begged us to “Fix society. Please.”
To my own child, to Leelah, and Jay, to all my friends who got kicked out so long ago, and to all the other TGNC kids out there right now, please hang on. We’re working on fixing it.