Published on June 4th, 2019 | by Theresa Thorn0
NBD My Child is Trans
I’m a mother with three young kids. My eldest is transgender. She socially transitioned at age five. Now that she’s almost eight, her trans identity has become so integrated into our lives that I no longer see it as a big deal. It’s just one thing about her. Don’t get me wrong: I understand that, outside the safety of our home and community, my daughter’s trans identity is a very big deal. But it shouldn’t be.
If you’re not sure what I mean when I say my child is transgender, allow me to explain. My firstborn baby was assigned male at birth but socially transitioned to female at age five. The phrase “socially transitioned” is meant to clarify that the changes involved in the transition were social, not medical. My trans daughter doesn’t take hormones or hormone blockers and has not undergone surgery (to be clear: gender affirmation surgery is not performed on young children as a rule). When she is older, we will begin considering those kinds of options with her, if she wants. As a five-year-old, my child’s transition was all about allowing her to live as her authentic self, to be seen by her family and community the same way she sees herself—as a girl. We use the pronouns she, her, and hers for my daughter because those are her preferred pronouns. She chose a name other than her birth name because she wanted a more feminine name, so a big part of her transition was getting everyone used to her new name. Two and a half years later, it’s hard to believe we ever called her anything else.
I don’t think my daughter being trans should be a big deal. Of course, when she first came out, it was a big deal to me. Back then, I still operated on the assumption that there are basically two genders, male and female, and that someone’s body usually dictates their gender. Even though I knew this wasn’t true for everyone, as a cisgender person it felt true for me. So, it took me some time to catch on that my child wasn’t just experimenting or being creative. It took me some time to fully understand and internalize that the child I thought was a boy is actually a girl.
I forgive myself for the time it took. I think mine was an understandable response given who I am and the world I live in. I feel fortunate that I was raised in a relatively open-minded, politically-progressive and socially-compassionate household in San Francisco’s Bay Area. Thanks to my upbringing, I think my journey as the parent of a trans child has been easier than some others. But, even with my background, even with my acceptance of gender diversity in the world, my assumptions and expectations as a new parent were based in a cisgender perspective of the world.
Once I got used to my child being a girl, her trans identity stopped being a big deal to me. The way I have come to see it, being trans is one aspect of who my daughter is, like how she’s always been active, highly verbal, and passionate about her interests. Her younger brother identifies as cisgender and he’s funny and sensitive. Our toddler gives amazing hugs, loves to organize, and has an easy-going personality. Some kids are really into sports, some are picky eaters, some connect easily with music, some love to dance, some are chatty, some are easily scared by movies. And kids struggle differently with a broad variety of challenges, from academic to social and beyond. All of these qualities bring their own unique set of issues for parents to sort out. I see my daughter being trans this way, but our culture doesn’t, yet.
When my daughter first started going to school looking “like a girl” and going by a new, more feminine name, I sent a message to all the parents of kids in her kindergarten class, through the class messaging app. I said something brief, just letting everyone know that my child is going by a different name and prefers the pronouns she/her/hers. I also passed along links to a couple of resources in case anyone wanted to learn more or discuss with their child at home. I’m happy to say I received about a dozen kind and warm responses to my message. If anyone at our school had a problem with my daughter’s gender identity, they kept it to themselves, but I did receive one comment that shook me a little. A parent, who I had met and spoken with but didn’t know well, sent me a private message to say, “I don’t know how you’re handling this so well. I don’t think I could.” I believe this message was well-intentioned but the effect it had was to remind me that much of the world wasn’t going to see my kid’s gender nonconforming expression as something to celebrate.
Of course, I saw things differently. While my daughter’s coming out and social transition were intense and emotional experiences for me, watching her open up and express her authentic self was also one of the most beautiful and joy-filled experiences of my life. There was and is nothing wrong with my child—she is exactly who she is and, to me, that’s perfect. I wouldn’t have her any other way. So, her coming out and transition were, for me, a way of getting to know her better.
But the message from this parent was a reminder that what my daughter was going through would not be seen by most people in our society as a positive thing. When people think of trans women many people probably still picture Mrs. Doubtfire or some other male actor dressed up to play a woman on TV. Worse, for those who pay attention, there’s the news of trans women and the risks they face, from mental health issues to becoming victims of violence. The message from that parent stung because it was a reminder that, even if I accept my child and see my child’s transition in the best possible light, the world we live in won’t necessarily do either of those things.
While transgender youth have higher rates of depression, anxiety, and suicide than the general youth population, studies show that trans youth who are accepted by their families have similar mental health outcomes to cisgender youth. It seems clear that acceptance is the way. But acceptance doesn’t happen without understanding. If we can get it together as a culture to move past our old assumptions about gender and accept that gender diversity is reality, we save ourselves and our kids a lot of confusion and suffering.
Our bodies do not, in fact, define our gender. And, there are more than just two genders. In fact, there are an unlimited number of ways that a person may define their gender.
If we accept these truths, my daughter is just another kid. She has her strengths and she has her challenges, as all kids do, and most of her challenges have nothing to do with her gender identity. Being transgender is just one thing about her, much like any other quality she has.
Having kids is an incredible ride. It’s a ton of work, and there’s always at least something about our kids that as a parent we hadn’t predicted. I didn’t expect to have a transgender child, but I do, and she’s great. She’s a handful sometimes, but for me her trans identity is just one thing about her, among her many qualities as a person.
A little more than a year into my daughter’s transition, I struggled to find the children’s book that would approach gender the way I have come to see it: something unique and special to each one of us. Several excellent picture books feature a trans or gender nonconforming protagonist and these books were helpful for our family, but I grew wary of the idea that my daughter’s gender identity was the only one worth discussing or exploring within my family. It felt like we were sometimes reinforcing the idea that the world is cisgender and that we’re just hoping for trans kids to be accepted into that world. More powerful and more true, to me, is the idea that all children have their own unique sense of their own gender, and all children can benefit from opportunities to think about, learn about, and get in touch with their gender identity.
I wrote It Feels Good To Be Yourself to facilitate conversations and understanding. I see our culture shifting toward more acceptance around gender diversity and I see wonderful, compassionate parents and teachers wanting to have more open-minded conversations about gender with their kids and students. I see this book as a tool for that.
If our children grow up understanding that gender isn’t a binary and that our bodies don’t define our gender, then nobody’s gender identity is a big deal anymore. We are all humans with our own unique sense of our own gender. We are all different and we are all okay. I hope this book brings comfort to children who might be feeling some anxiety around their gender. I hope it’s gratifying for children who are interested in understanding themselves better. And, I hope it brings joy to all.
We’re living in a big, wide wonderful world. And this book is a welcome addition to it…”
– Booklist (starred review)