I remember it clearly: I was driving my 2 year old home from preschool, when I heard a tiny voice from the back seat declare, “I not a girl, mommy! I a boy and I like ‘piderman!”
Most parents wouldn’t bat an eye over a statement like this. Except back then, I thought I had a daughter. So I paused, took a deep breath, and told my sweet baby that he could grow up to be anything he wanted to be — but he would always be a girl. (Note to the reader: I will use male pronouns consistently throughout this essay because — as I’ll explain — it turns out he was always a boy, and switching pronouns dishonors my son’s true identity.)
I’ve always tried to be a supportive parent. I don’t hover or helicopter, but rather let my kids lead the way, finding that I often learn more from them than they learn from me. And for years, I supported my child in the ways I thought were best: celebrating his gender nonconformity by letting him cut his hair short, buying him superhero t-shirts, and dropping his ballet class that he hated and enrolling him in taekwondo instead. I explained to him that just because he wasn’t a glitter bombed sex kitten who liked Barbies and makeup didn’t mean he was any less a girl. I celebrated with him all the ways someone could express her femininity, and together we worked on “redefining girly.”
What I didn’t understand back then, though, is that gender identity is formed at a very young age, and that there is a difference between being a tomboy and a boy. No one questions a cisgender child about their gender identity, but it often feels like the whole world thinks it’s okay to question transgender children about theirs, insisting that they are “too young” to make such “big decisions.” I fell into the same trap. While I was busy teaching my child about feminism and dismantling society’s expectations of gender roles, he was struggling to tell me that what he needed wasn’t more girl power — he needed to not be labeled a girl at all.
My child tried telling me he was trans when he was just 2 years old, but at least 50% of children don’t come out until they reach puberty, and sometimes they wait even longer. There are no “signs” that are “required” to be trans. Sure, Max exhibited stereotypically boy interests and activities ever since he was a baby, but what does that mean, anyway? These are societal constructs, after all. Can’t men like pedicures? Can’t women like pants and power tools? Aren’t all toys made for all children? (I’m looking at you, McDonald’s drive-thru.)
As parents, we want to support our children. Sometimes, though, we support them in ways that don’t help. and that has consequences. While Max was accepted as a boy among his friends, it wasn’t until years later that he finally “came out” to me. That doesn’t mean that I didn’t love him — I just didn’t know what he needed, because anti-trans groups like the Kelsey Project and the American College of Pediatricians were telling me that “trans doesn’t exist” and that I was harming my child by allowing this to continue. In fact the opposite is true: When trans kids are loved, affirmed, and properly supported, their mental and physical health is statistically the same as their cisgender peers. When they’re not, however, the consequences can be deadly: 41% of trans youth report that they have attempted suicide at least once, due to the constant stress of being misgendered, deadnamed, harassed, and forced to endure mentally damaging “treatments” like conversion therapy.
I recognize now that though I did my best for my child, it wasn’t good enough. That’s why he was out among his friends, but not at home. Sadly, this is common. A 2018 study of LGBTQ youth found that 78% were not out among family members, and who can blame them? Of the 1.6 million homeless youth in the United States, an estimated 40% are LGBTQ. Considering that roughly 7% of American youth identify as LGBTQ, these numbers are devastating. Often times, these children either run away to escape the emotional or physical abuse that comes from family rejection, or they’re kicked out due to “tough love.” Home should be the safest place for a child to be — but if you’re trans, it can sometimes be the most dangerous.
When kids spend the majority of their waking hours at school and are cultivating relationships, defining and discovering themselves, and finding their place in the world, it’s understandable that they may very likely be out among their friends, coaches, or teachers. Which is why it’s so important that schools speak with their transgender students about ways to protect them. Disclosing their gender identity to their parents might very well put them at risk — and if you have an issue with this, I recommend you spend less time evaluating your school district’s LGBTQ policy and spend more time evaluating your relationship with your child. Regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity, does your kid know that they’ll be loved unconditionally and accepted for who they truly are? If the answer is “yes, but” then the problem isn’t with the school. The problem is with you. Full stop.
I tried my hardest to support my child, but I fell short. I supported him in ways that did not celebrate and affirm his gender identity, and it took years before I finally provided what he needed. Once I understood that Max is transgender, the sky didn’t fall and the world didn’t end. All the scary things that people told me were going to happen to my child didn’t happen at all. It hardly seems possible, but Max is even more amazing than he was before he came out, because his confidence, self esteem, and happiness have all grown exponentially. As a result, he is thriving in school and in sports, he’s surrounded by friends, and he’s in good health. Being trans is the least of his concerns. I wish I could say the same for the rest of the world.
For more resources on how to support transgender children at home and at school, check out some of the great suggestions at Amaze.org