My Child Is “They,” And It’s Society, Not Language, That Needs Fixing
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. We learned all three of our kids’ 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 born in 2000 named Jack, a cisgender female born in 2002 named Kate, 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 because 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 world!” 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, 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. 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 that appeared masculine. Charlie went from just wearing a sparkly “girls” backpack and pink & purple Twinkle Toe Sketchers, to growing a long 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” and boy pronouns. 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 we founded and run a group for TGNC 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.” But Charlie, at this point, does not want to socially transition or begin puberty blockers. That may happen, or it may not. I have to be open and ready for whatever if I am to love my child unconditionally.
Earlier in the summer, we went 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 that in restaurants, but for some reason it seemed more ambiguous in those places, maybe because the whole family was there and we couldn’t really be sure which one of us the server was talking to.
But it was just Charlie and me in the shoe store, and everyone thought we were mother and daughter. When it first happened in a restaurant, I asked Charlie, “what do you want us to say or do when someone assumes you’re a girl and refers to you as a girl?” Charlie said, “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” myself for Charlie. 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 control. And I 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.” Our 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 everyone 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, 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 the tribe. Many other cultures and religions recognize more than two genders as well.
The reason we seem to be hearing more TGNC people’s stories now is because we have the internet, experience gathering groups on social media, and a whole generation of parents who watched their LGBTQ friends get kicked out of their homes for being LGBTQ in the 1980s, and we 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 is able to finally connect this community, who have existed forever, but who otherwise wouldn’t have ever connected. Also, the internet is driving awareness of TGNC issues with lightning speed, and in an unprecedented manner.
As a parent raising this type of child, 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 just step back, make conscious efforts not to judge, and just trust that us parents raising TGNC kids have done our research and homework — enough to have earned a Master’s degree on the topic — and we do actually know what we’re doing.
We know what’s considered best practices 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. This is because of gender-based victimization, discrimination, bullying, violence, being rejected by the family, friends, and community; harassment by intimate partner, family members, police and 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.
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 our misogynistic society. 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 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 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 surrounding 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 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 just a bit. Unconditionally loving a TGNC child exactly as they are, embracing that mindset, 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. This type of parenting is not for the weak.
Leelah’s parents said in interviews they “loved (him) unconditionally,” but during those interviews called Leelah by her dead name of Josh, and 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. Additionally, 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.
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 begged us to “Fix society. Please.”
To my own child, to Leelah, to Jay, and to all the other TGNC kids out there, please hang on. We’re working on it.