Prism & Pen
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Prism & Pen

My Rock Star Nonbinary Kid is (Not) a Problem Child

Letting my inner mama bear rise up

Hanging out at home. (photo credit, author)

I crank the car and AC/DC’s “Problem Child” blasts too loudly through the speakers. I laugh while cringing at the volume. A surprised “Turn it DOWN Mom!” roars from the passenger seat — Alistair, my big-little August lion.

Alistair is headed out with me on errands before we go to the beach, and I am feeling happy and hopeful that they’ve decided to come along for a few brief stops before destination Target, where they hope to find summer shorts and something to swim in. The ninth grade schoolyear has just ended, we’ve booked a beachside cottage near an aquarium we haven’t visited before, and the first whiff of vacay is on the breeze.

Today, Alistair’s hair is mostly bright yellow with a hint of green — the color of a lemon-lime jelly belly or a mango sno-cone. They’ve recently done an impressively good job cutting it themself into a modern mullet. The shaved sides are colored an intense turquoise blue. Before this, their hair was about 3 inches long all over, layered and then dyed in a full-head rainbow starting red at the forehead, merging to orange and then yellow in the crown and sides, with green and then blue down the back. Alistair gets compliments everywhere we go.

But where they don’t get compliments, they sometimes get stares. And these are often accompanied by looks that range from rudely judgmental, to offended, to confused, to cruel.

People aren’t used to seeing a nonbinary kid who is comfortable being themself — is that it? Or they don’t like the bright hair and ripped jeans? My kid is unconventional. My kid is wonderful. My kid looks like a rock star. My kid IS a rock star.

In these moments, I feel my inner mama bear rise up and I walk a little closer, put an arm around my kid’s shoulders. I want the lookers to see my body language saying “yep, this one is mine.” Sometimes I stare right back. Sometimes I look at them and smile. “You wanna shoot those looks at my kid? Bless your heart. You’re gonna have to look through me.”

When the anti-trans legislation was signed into law in our state, we felt gut-punched. We were worried for our kid’s wellbeing. Far from protecting children as it claimed to do, this law exposed, deprived and isolated particular children who are already some of the most vulnerable among us — at risk of bullying, self-harm, rejection by some families, alienation by some faith communities.

I will stress here that our family, friends and faith community have been completely supportive, nurturing and welcoming to us and to our children throughout every circumstance and identity. We are incredibly fortunate, to be so loved. Our communities keep us going. What would it be like to navigate this without such support? How many trans kids and parents are having to do just that?

Worse yet, while pretending to protect children, the law looks at them as problems to be solved, sets of behaviors to be corrected. “If those kids would just use the correct bathroom,” I can almost hear the lawmakers say, “if they would just dress normally, if they would just use their birth names and pronouns, if they would just stop asking for medical treatment, if they would just stop being a problem….”

The law treats trans kids like problem children.

And it treats us like problem parents. The lawmakers who drafted this legislation have not sought to understand gender diversity, nor to consider current research from the realms of medicine, psychology and education. Frankly, those who drafted and voted for this legislation have chosen not to know much about people they consider to be unlike them, which is to say they’ve chosen not to know much. They would rather subscribe to a simplistic Us vs. Them, a lowest common denominator that they hope will align them with people whose votes they are courting. They won’t have mine.

When the anti-trans legislation was signed into law, we were launched on a roller coaster of feelings but also a wild ride of planning and contingencies. In short order, I had my academic transcript transformed into a more corporate one and started applying for remote jobs, of which there are many in my areas of expertise. The plan, I told Alistair, was to find a position with a company whose home base was New York City or San Francisco, Denver or Boston or Los Angeles — mostly, Anywhere But Here (anywhere that wasn’t in an anti-trans state), and work remotely. From that point I could travel occasionally to HQ and bring Alistair along, seek and set up appropriate medical care in that Somewhere Else.

I’d work at home, we’d travel occasionally, as a family we’d stay rooted in our present community, boom!—problem solved, at least for the foreseeable future. We will keep figuring out how to have good life, I told Alistair.

It seemed like a good plan, really the only plan we thought would address the right-nowness of our kid’s situation, and in fairly short order I had a good number of interviews. Alistair (always reading, often practical) pointed out that the new law also criminalized me as a parent for seeking gender-affirming care for my child. When I went back and reread the law, I realized they were right.

While Cavalier Me said I didn’t care and would do anything to protect and support my child, and Skeptical Me thought our state would never actually commit resources to finding, pursuing and prosecuting parents for taking their kids to a doctor out of state, Cautious Me considered that our elected officials had already used a great many resources to create this law while preening for election season and that however remote the chance, Me-In-Jail would not be able to do a great deal for Alistair. Where did that leave us?

The day after the anti-trans legislation was signed into law, our kid was harassed in public. While walking down the street for pizza just outside our subdivision, Alistair, on foot, was chased and terrified by someone driving a pickup truck. This someone hollered at them out the window, and as Alistair described in their very literal way, “drove way too close” to where they were walking.

Alistair was walking down the street, through the parking lot, looking forward to pizza. Alistair is 15. They’ll be 16 in August. Alistair is petite, 5'2" or so, not much more than 100 lbs. Alistair is a young teen, a child. Alistair looks their age — young, small, vulnerable. The truck driver looped back and zoomed up on Alistair over and over until Alistair, terrified, made it into the pizza place.

Knowing none of this yet, I’m reading something when my phone rings. It’s Alistair. “Uh, Mom, can you come pick me up?” Ok honey, is everything ok? “Uh, this truck kept driving too close to me really fast and someone was yelling at me out the window. They did it over and over like seven or eight times. I thought they were going to hit me. I’m in the pizza place now.” Trying to keep a measure of calm, though my heart and mind are racing, I say ok, we will come get you right away. Just stay where you are.

I was stricken, stressed, and having difficulty processing the reality of what I had just heard. Marc, hearing about Alistair’s call, went directly to pick them up. They drove the parking lot: saw the truck parked. They walked every aisle of the Publix next door, but the SOBs were nowhere to be seen. When they got home, Alistair was all “Don’t worry Mom, I’m fine, I’m fine.” My tough little August lion. I’ve tried to bring it up a couple of times since, and Alistair curtails the conversation every time — “I’m fine.”

Well, I’m not fine. My mind is whirling, going right back to Matthew Shepard, brutally murdered 24 years ago, and to the rising tide of attacks on transgender people as recently as 2020 and 2021. So yes, I am terrified. I am terrified that my beautiful, intelligent, one-of-a-kind Alistair could become the victim of a hate crime. Who knows, who will ever know, if that truck driver was aware of recent legislation, or if the harassment was opportunistic and circumstantial, but it’s not lost on me that our state had only the day before passed a law that made it more ok, more acceptable, to actively endanger my child because they don’t fit the “girl” and “boy” categories that our governor sanctimoniously invoked when signing.

As time wore on, it began to look hopeful that Alabama’s anti-trans law would be overturned. But I stayed on the job market because the leap toward finding remote work also met another need — Alistair’s need for more of a parent-at-home presence during the long days of homeschool/unschool. They did a brilliant job this academic year of self-motivating through exploratory study and taking deep dives into subjects that interested them: Byzantine history and culture as well as the history of enslavement from the ancient world through the colonies and U.S. history, and its legacies in Civil Rights and Black Lives Matter; Russian language and current events; fantasy literature and mythologies and their cross-currrents; taxonomies of moths and isopods, animal behavior, anatomy, bones and forensics; countless hours making digital art, hand-sewing one-of-a-kind clothing and handmaking jewelry.

But when they told me in March of this year that they were lonely and too much on their own, I knew something had to give. I didn’t have immediate clarity about what that would be, but we started talking about options: return to conventional school (no, Mom), come to my and/or Marc’s offices every day (PLEASE no, Mom), or I could find a way to be home more (yes). Clearly, my kid doesn’t need a lot of help with school. But what they do need is someone here, someone to say hello, to offer a sandwich, to be present, to care. It’s what we all need. Since the truck incident, I also feel a sense of urgency to know when they go on a walk or bike ride, to hear the phone if they call, to be nearby.

On May 8, 2022 a federal judge issued a preliminary injunction, halting enforcement of the medical portion of Alabama’s anti-trans law. This frees us to continue seeing Alistair’s gender-affirming doctors in Alabama. This month, with a strong sense of humility and gratitude, I am accepting my current employer’s offer for a part-remote work schedule that will permit me as director of my area to better focus on data analysis, research, planning, communication and related technical work during work-at-home hours, and then be boots-on-ground team shaper and public face of my department during in-office hours. I have a fantastically capable work team and every confidence that we will all be able to continue working efficiently, serving our students effectively, and supporting one another with heart in this new arrangement.

Back in the car, I’m turning the volume down on “Problem Child” and laughing to myself. Through some mysterious entanglement of the Family Plan on a shared streaming music app, rock and roll is always first on the playlist, even though I have my phone and am in the the car I usually drive. (Me? I listen to The Smiths, Snatam Kaur and Olivia Rodrigo.) I haven’t bothered to fix the blended music stream because I savor being reminded of those I love, including the ways in which we are unique, different from one another. I actively enjoy the opportunity to engage in this reminder that love is about the joy and the work of embracing another being with their own personhood, interests, curiosities, intelligences, sense of humor.

I think of our entangled music as an active, living metaphor for the rest of family life. Our “family plan” when we started having kids did not anticipate a transgender child, nor a child on the autism spectrum, nor a child with ADHD. It did not anticipate that our beautiful firstborn Jacob would live for 21 magic-filled months and then not survive the last surgery to repair his heart, nor that this would make babies 2 and 3, Isaac and Alistair, feel nothing short of miraculous for their whole, healthy bodies. It did not anticipate the utter darkness of grief, the glimmers of hope that found their way in, the support and love of our faith community. It did not anticipate the way that grief is always present but life grows larger around it and makes room for joy and love again. It did not anticipate how our children would stretch us, teach us how to love better and better.

Alistair, a problem child? Never.

Alistair, deserving of our respect, love, and support as they grow more and more into the amazing human they are? Always.



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Jennifer Roth-Burnette

Jennifer Roth-Burnette

Love is a creative force. Love is all that matters.