As the mother of a transgender child, I find myself doing a lot of education. When people initially find out about our family, the reactions range from blank stares of incomprehension to high fives and, “That’s so cool!” We’ve decided to be pretty open because we’ve discovered first hand that education only opens some doors. What seems to work best is to share our story.
I’m writing this post as my husband and son are halfway to a new state while my daughter and I are packing the rest of our stuff until the moving truck arrives. We’re moving for several reasons but one of the biggest is that we need family support. We’ve been away for seven years and our family has changed dramatically in that time. We joke that we are a fierce family foursome but underneath that we are two tired parents who look forward to sharing some of this burden with our parents and siblings. It can be emotionally draining when every situation has to be taken into the context of transgender issues. Starting a new school, play dates with friends, slumber parties, bathing suits that cover unexpected anatomy, telling friends, meeting new pediatricians, telling coworkers. It’s rarely just a simple explanation and usually requires a 20 minute conversation where we share our story, answer questions, assure people that we aren’t easily offended, explain some more.
We are always happy to share our family experiences. As I mentioned earlier, sharing our story seems to overcome a lot of initial negative reactions or preconceived notions about what transgender is and isn’t. Many people don’t realize that in many states, there’s no legal protection against discrimination for members of the LGBT community so not everyone is forthcoming. And in many other areas, the law is moving faster than the population’s level of acceptance. Gay marriage is being accepted in state after state, and many states are adding laws to protect against discrimination for sexual orientation and gender identity. But, as we’ve experienced first hand, policies can’t force acceptance.
Jennifer Finney Boylan recently published an Op-Ed in the Los Angeles Times about this very issue. She points out that while the laws are being changed at a rapid pace, changing hearts is the more challenging issue. That has been our experience and is why we are always willing to sit down and share our story with you. It’s one of the main reasons why I started writing. Every week I see stories of another transgender suicide. I’d like to delude myself into thinking that all of these suicides stemmed from individuals who didn’t have supportive families but that would be false. I know lots of kids who have the support of their families who suffer with suicidal ideation. My own child struggles with feeling bad about herself, unaccepted by peers, and like she doesn’t have a group she belongs to. I hope that surrounding her with grandparents, aunts, uncles, and loving cousins will help her feel more supported, but until she is accepted by society I know the struggle will continue. So, we continue to educate and share.
Let me ask you: Are you a girly girl? A bad ass guy? An effeminate man? A masculine woman? Somewhere along a spectrum? Does it change one day to the next? How do you know that you identify this way? Were you taught? Or, is it just an intrinsic part of who you are? Have you ever really thought about it? Can you imagine someone telling you that your gender identity is wrong?
It’s the same for transgender individuals. They haven’t been taught to identify a certain way. It’s just who they are. Can you imagine how freaked out you would be if you’ve always identified as a female only to find out that you are really a male? Notice I’ve never even touched on sexual attraction because who you are and who you love are two completely different issues.
So, if you are reading my little blog out here in our corner of the web, then please take a look at your own preconceived ideas about what transgender means. I hope that reading our story has shown you a little bit. I hope this stops you from making your next “tranny” joke, or making a cruel comment about Caitlyn Jenner. I hope you stop associating transgender with sexuality. I hope it encourages you to look at how you identify yourself and extend grace to those who are different from you. Mostly, I hope our story has touched your heart and encouraged you to look inside yourself. Laws are good and necessary, but what my daughter and others like her need most is love and acceptance.
I’ve mentioned before that most of our stories are wonderful examples of love and acceptance. This is one of them!
If you don’t live in the Twin Cities, you may not realize how many options for schools we had to choose from when we were deciding about kindergarten for Conner and Murphy. I’d asked lots of parents and we finally decided on a year-round integrated district school. We chose it because of the melting pot of backgrounds in the school not realizing at the time the type of diversity we would be adding as well.
I got a call from the school in July about two weeks after Conner transitioned. The school asked for an evaluation of each kindergartner to see if they knew the basics like shapes, colors, etc. When I filled the applications out in March I marked the box “male” for both children. When I got the call from the school, I realized that we would be bringing Conner to meet a teacher who had the information with a box marked “boy” but seeing a child in sparkly sandals and a dress.
Naturally, I panicked.
Many parents of young transgender children are encouraged to have a “safety folder” in case Child Protective Services shows up at your door. No, I’m not kidding. It usually includes a note from the pediatrician, a therapist, and supporting documents such as photos your child has drawn of themselves in their affirmed gender to show history. We’ve never had to use it, but we know people who have. That’s all that was circling in the back of my head as I thought about how to proceed. Conner’s transition was still so new that every fresh situation brought on a minor panic attack featuring the worst possible scenario before I could calm down and realize it probably wouldn’t happen that way.
Such was the case when we went to the school. I had phoned ahead and asked to speak to the person who we would be meeting with. He had a very pleasant (and calm) voice that reassured me that he was not concerned that Conner would be showing up looking like a little girl. And, he wasn’t. Mike and I both sat in on the evaluation for Conner and Murphy. I beamed when they got an answer correct, and internally cringed when they forgot what a triangle was or the color brown. I’d like to think that we were pretty normal in that regard. Neither child said a bad word (another recurring nightmare and certainly not an out of the question possibility), and both of them were fairly well-behaved. I was quite pleased with my little brood.
After the evaluation, the very nice man, a teacher at the school, suggested he give our information to the school counselor so we could work out the details of preparing for kindergarten. He correctly assumed that we would have unique concerns to address before the first day. I heard from the counselor right away and was put at ease.
After some back and forth email, we met with the principal, school counselor, kindergarten teacher, and a special education teacher who had training, I believe, in child psychology. They assured us that Conner would be treated as any other little girl. She would use the girl’s bathroom if that was her preference and go by female pronouns. It was important to the school that Conner felt completely comfortable so she would be able to learn. I hadn’t realized at the time, but our school aggressively supported diversity and was filled with staff that were passionate about embracing all cultures. The had a class called Community Cultures where they explored different nationalities, different religions, different types of families, and all forms of individual orientation. Whole school events were themed around embracing diversity and other cultures. We truly could not have picked a better school for our children.
We breathed a huge sigh of relief as we prepared for kindergarten like any other family. Book bags, school supplies, jeans, dresses, and new shoes began to pile up as the first day approached. I was mostly apprehensive about the bus because I’d never ridden a bus when I went to school. I was convinced that my kids would get off at a pick-up or stay on the bus at the school and end up in a bus garage. Yes, I lost all logic and reasoning. I see that now. But then, you’ve likely never met the Twinadoes and are unaware of the shenanigans they’ve gotten themselves in over the years. Oh, the stories I could tell. And, I probably will tell at some point.
The first day of school was very exciting. The bus showed up late but that’s been par for the course on every first day since then. They got on the bus with barely a backward glance at the woman who carried them for 35 weeks and 5 days and spent 21 hours in labor to bring them into the world. That same mother jumped in the car and followed the bus to make sure they got off okay, with the father in the seat beside, quietly shaking his head in amusement. Once we got home, however, the silence that met us was glorious! We basked in a house that remained clean for seven whole hours until the kids got off the bus and destroyed it. But that was okay because they also talked non-stop about all the friends they made, how pretty their teacher was, and how they couldn’t go back the next day.
It was a great start to the first year of school.
Image credit: photo credit: <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/73207064@N00/404321726″>Crayola Lincoln Logs</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a> <a href=”https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/”>(license)</a>
Mike and I chose to be fairly silent about what was happening in our house during the early days because we didn’t know what was happening. We had the luxury of living sixteen hours away from the closest family member and could be very selective about who we spoke to. Clearly, the neighbors knew something was up because suddenly our four year old was wearing headbands and proclaiming to the world that it was okay to wear dresses. We hit the jackpot by being situated between two of the coolest neighbors ever with equally awesome kids. They completely took it in stride like it was no big deal and told Conner how great she looked.
We also had become really close to another couple with twins a year older than ours. I’ve dubbed them “framily” because while we aren’t related I consider them family. There were many moments that I sat weeping in their kitchen, plied with coffee or wine depending on the time of day, while our kids played in the backyard. We were so blessed to have a network of support during that time while we figured out what was going on and how to proceed. I wasn’t intentionally trying to avoid my family, but I didn’t have any answers and I was a total wreck when I talked about it. So, I chose to save face a little bit until we knew more.
Once we had met with our therapist and pediatrician, I did have multiple lengthy conversations with our parents. Our whole family had recognized for quite some time that Conner was different in ways that we couldn’t quite put our finger on, so when I shared the diagnosis with them they were surprised and yet not. The specific diagnosis was a surprise, but it also cleared up a lot of questions for them. Understandably, it opened up a whole new set of questions that we are still discovering the answers to five years later.
Once we told our parents, we decided to share the news with the rest of our family and close friends through a letter. I’ve been upfront that we struggled. Despite being a straight ally for LGBT issues, I was completely unaware that transgender kids even existed. It had just never crossed my mind. I knew I wouldn’t be the only one of our loved ones who had no idea what being transgender meant. While it wasn’t a difficult decision to support our child, we did have to do a lot of self-education about the differences between gender and sexuality. My husband and I decided to allow our loved ones the same opportunity to examine their hearts privately without needing to give us an immediate reaction. We included an article about gender identity disorder from the Children’s National Health System as well as several links to supportive websites (many are in the resources tab). We’d also had recent family photos done at a local park to show that we looked just like any other family with a son and a daughter.
We were nervous as we handed 100 letters to the post office, but also very secure in our decision. We knew that supporting Conner was the right choice and were hopeful that our loved ones would agree with us. We’d heard horror stories from so many other parents about family fights, loved ones refusing to switch pronouns, or friends dropping off the face of the planet. We knew that was a distinct possibility but we were also prepared to discover who our allies would be.
The response was immediate and almost completely positive. I would encourage anyone at the start of this journey to withhold preconceived ideas about who will support you and who won’t. I was shocked both by who was supportive and by who wasn’t. We did lose a few friends and even fewer family members, but almost everyone was accepting. We knew that a visit home to see our loved ones would help a lot as Conner was so happy and exuberant that it confirmed every decision we’d made. We allowed our loved ones to read the letter, take time to process it, then made plans to spend two weeks back home to introduce our new family.
Here’s the letter we sent. Feel free to use it for yourself. It’s a compilation of many letters we’d seen from other parents.
Dear Friends and Family,
We hope all is well with you and allow us to apologize for sending a form letter to so many of our loved ones. Our family has important information to share and we felt a letter would be the easiest way to explain a lot of what’s been going on recently. This gives us the opportunity to share a lot of information and you the chance to react to this news privately and honestly without worrying that your reaction may offend or upset us. Don’t worry, everyone is healthy, and Mike and I are still happily married.
Many of you who have spent time with us over the past four years have probably noticed that Conner has often shown preference for toys and clothes for girls. I know we’ve giggled when he put towels on his head like hair or wore all of my sister’s bracelets and squealed over her shoes. These behaviors are often a normal part of the natural curiosity of children. However, over the past year, Conner has been showing more and more behaviors that caused us enough concern that we’ve involved our pediatrician, spoken to a number of experts across the country, and traveled to Chicago to have Conner evaluated by a therapist who works with children with gender identity concerns.
We have recently learned that Conner has a medical condition called Gender Identity Disorder (GID). I have enclosed some web links about this medical condition if you would like to read them, but in short, Conner’s brain tells him he is a girl even though he has a boy’s anatomy. The benchmark of GID is the marked distress a child feels when forced into the gender of his or her anatomical sex. Last fall, Conner tried to tell us that he was a girl, but it took us until a few months ago when Conner wanted to get rid of his penis and talked about cutting it off with a knife or scissors that we realized something was very wrong. This would be an example of the “marked distress” that indicates Gender Identity Disorder.
There are a few theories about what causes GID. Some of the tests we don’t have technology for yet. What is clear, however, is that this is not a choice. Conner is not choosing to be a girl anymore than Melissa is.
In terms of treatment options, trying to convince Conner that he is a boy does not work. We have been doing that for years and it hasn’t worked. In fact, it has caused Conner a lot of stress and anxiety, especially over the past year, because we thought his questions about why he couldn’t be a girl were an indication of confusion. For months, we kept correcting Conner and telling him he was a boy and would grow up to be a man. Instead of getting better, Conner became more and more upset. There is not a way to “correct” him without causing him more harm and that is not an option for us. We have recently decided to allow him to be who he is, a girl. This means we are letting Conner wear whatever clothes feel most comfortable. We tried to use gender-neutral pronouns, but this too caused Conner enough anxiety that we have started referring to Conner as “her” instead of “him.”
This has not been easy for us and will, no doubt, be hard for many of you as well. That’s okay. We know you love us and want the best for us-that’s why you’re getting this letter. We want you to understand what this means so that we can all be honest with each other about our concerns and our fears.
What does the future hold? Will Conner grow out of it? Will the hormones kick in and regulate? Will Conner’s brain change to support the extra bits she was born with? We don’t know. What we do know is that both Conner and Murphy are happy vibrant children that love the world around them.
Murphy has handled the changes in Conner very well. There have been a few fights over who gets to wear the sparkly pink flip-flops, who’s turn it is to play with the Barbie Princess Fairy, and who gets to grow up and be a mommy. You know, the usual sibling fights. Murphy is making out like a bandit as we have tried to show that being a girl is not better than being a boy, so both kids are sporting a lot of new clothes and toys. We couldn’t do it without the help of friends with hand me downs and resale shops.
We are not overly concerned about kindergarten. We have a lot of neighborhood kids that have been very supportive of Conner and Murphy, which is encouraging us that kids don’t care about gender as much as we think they do.
We will be getting some help with educating the school where our kids will be attending this fall. We’re just as excited as any family getting ready for the first day of kindergarten. Of course, we do have concerns and we’re not unaware of the potential for teasing. However, we believe that supporting both of our children to be who they are is more important that forcing them to conform to the expectations of others to avoid teasing.
We plan on visiting soon. You should be aware that Conner will be dressed like a little girl and we will refer to her as being a little girl. We ask that you also refer to Conner by her name or as “she” and “her” especially in her presence. I have included some recent photos of our kids at the park so you can see that our family remains as normal as we ever were.
We welcome any questions about this, as education is the key to understanding. You are all very important to us. We will not welcome ridicule, criticism, and sarcasm. We trust that you will respect us as a family navigating through life with a child who has a medical condition. I ask that you call us with your questions instead of bombarding our parents. Our parents have also only recently heard this news as we wanted to speak to experts, get second opinions, and have Conner evaluated by a therapist before making big announcements. Our parents are still dealing with their own emotions so I ask that you respect their privacy during this time and not overwhelm them with questions they can’t answer. Mike and Melissa are happy to engage in discussion about this and answer any questions you have. Thank you for your love and support.
Mike and Melissa
photo credit: <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/57565555@N00/3196058783″>Rural Mailbox</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a> <a href=”https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.0/”>(license)</a>
When I last wrote, I was describing the day that I thought we might have to take Conner to the hospital because of how upset he was. It had been building for weeks despite our efforts to assure him that there were all kinds of ways to be a boy. He didn’t have to like footballs and Nerf guns. It was okay to be a boy and like pink sparkly items, to wear dresses, or to play with dolls. Conner would spend a day or two telling the neighborhood children that he was a boy who liked dresses, but then he would go back to telling them that he was really a girl and his name was Lisa.
A week after Operation Tinkerbell Panties (henceforth, known as OTP), we drove six hours to meet with an amazing therapist, Sharon Black, LCPC. She was wonderful and at once made us feel less isolated and confident that all would (eventually) be well. She met with us twice over the weekend for several hours at a time. She confirmed that Conner showed strong signs of Gender Identity Disorder (now called Gender Dysphoria) and wrote a letter with her recommendations to our pediatrician.
We worked together as a group, parents and therapist, to come up with a plan that Mike and I were comfortable with. We decided to allow Conner to lead us while still creating boundaries. Instead of throwing out all the boy’s clothing articles, we simply added in a few girl clothing items to the dresser and allowed Conner the choice. We stopped forcing the issue of calling him a boy and instead reinforced that we loved him no matter who he was.
“Mom-mom, I’m not a boy,” he would say. “Conner, I love you no matter what. It doesn’t matter to mommy and daddy. We want you to be yourself. Be who you are.”
This initially took a lot of pressure off. We were able to maintain things for several weeks. It wasn’t long, however, before Conner began insisting that we recognize him as a girl. He became quite insistent that we stop referring to him as “he.” So, we tried removing all gender pronouns.
I dare you to try it for one day. It is NOT easy.
Again, this bought us a little time, but before the week was out, Conner became quite insistent that we start calling him “she” and “her.” He had been telling us for months that he was a girl, and wanted us to recognize him as such. So, after a discussion with our therapist and our pediatrician, we introduced our daughter into the world two weeks before her fifth birthday. We kept the name Conner for several reasons though she wanted us to call her Lisa Tinkerbell. I was NOT going to call my daughter Tinkerbell. We wanted to move as slowly as we could to see if Conner was going to remain feeling like a girl. And, we wanted to maintain some boundaries. I thought the name Conner was really cool for a little girl. She didn’t push the name change very hard and we were relieved. When I see my child, I see someone named Conner no matter the gender identity.
We crafted a letter to send to our family and friends. I will post it to a menu link (once I find it) so it’s available for others to use. We drafted it from a combination of letters used by other families so I can’t really claim that it’s ours.
Both the kids were excited about their upcoming birthday. Murphy had been giving us a list of desired birthday gifts for weeks. Conner was, as usual, fairly silent on the issue which surprised me. We flopped down on the bed one afternoon to discuss it.
“Conner, what do you want for your birthday?” I asked.
“I don’t know. What does Murphy want for his birthday?” Conner replied.
“He tells me he wants a really big Nerf gun that shoots lots of darts,” I told her.
“That would be okay,” she told me.
“Really? That’s what you want for your birthday?” I asked her.
“Sure, that would be fine, “she said.
I thought about it for a minute trying to figure out why she hadn’t asked for something more, well . . .girly.
“Conner, if you could pick out any toy from any aisle in the store, the boy’s aisle or the girl’s aisle, what would you pick?” I asked her.
“Really, mom-mom?” she asked, her eyes bright, voice incredulous. “Any aisle?”
“Any aisle,” I assured her.
Holy cow. I was unprepared for the onslaught of items. A Barbie, a princess dress up kit, a make-up kit, pretend jewelry, a pink (it had to be pink) electric keyboard, a Hello Kitty doll, a pink bedspread, more dresses, barrettes for her hair. She became so animated and excited that it was completely infectious. I assured her that I would do the best I could and went to break some expensive, though not unexpected, news to my husband.
We actually had a lot of fun buying birthday gifts for the kids. I was prepared for it to be a repeat of The Dress shopping experience, but we had a blast. It was typical for our families to send money in lieu of shipping actual gifts, so we had a nice little collection going to make the fifth birthday a memorable one.
And it was memorable. I have this fantastic photo of Murphy holding a Nerf gun the size of his body, and Conner sitting on the couch next to him dressed in a princess gown, complete with tiara, playing on her pink electric toy keyboard. To this day, it remains one of my favorite birthday photos of them.
I experienced a lot of guilt, initially, that I had never considered taking my kids down the pink aisles at the store. It hadn’t ever crossed my mind to do so and Murphy never expressed an interest in those items. Conner may have asked once or twice though I can’t remember her ever making a big deal out of it.
Conner was never really a child that demanded a lot of attention in comparison to her brother. She wasn’t quick to anger though once she did get angry it was quite an outburst. She rarely threw temper tantrums. She was infrequently the instigator in twin shenanigans. Our family used to laugh that Murphy was the first one to attempt a new feat and Conner would learn from his mistakes. It’s really hard to have two children at the same level of development and not make comparisons. But, all in all, and for lack of a better term, Conner was my easier child. She was my snuggly little bug who loved to sit on Mommy’s lap and listen to stories, my child who rarely made waves.
So, it was with complete surprise to the rest of us that Conner blossomed into a carefree, albeit opinionated, little diva that summer. We would stand back and watch her go toe-to-toe with her brother over toys, what game to play next, and when it was not okay to touch her stuff. She initially insisted on wearing only dresses and fancy shoes, but she also loved to play hard outside and quickly realized that pink shorts allowed her to express her fashion sense and still play like she wanted to. We joked that the princess had escaped from her tower and she was not going back in.
I won’t go into a lengthy description of how we mourned the loss of our son. To be honest, we really didn’t have a prolonged sense of loss. We missed the Conner we had known, sure. But, we were so blown away by the child that was blossoming before us that it quickly put to rest any doubts that we weren’t doing the right thing. Her happiness was so evident that even her pediatrician was stunned by the transformation. Knowing it was the right decision helped a lot. Yes. I missed my little boy.
But, I would absolutely rather have a happy daughter than a suicidal son.
I want to be completely clear. We were probably on the verge of hospitalizing our child because of how distressed she had become because of her discomfort with her male body. This was not a choice that Conner made. Looking back, Conner had been leaving us clues for as long as I can remember. She did not choose this. We did not choose this. Conner wasn’t’ born a boy. Conner was born transgender. I have the benefit now of retrospection which is why I can say that with confidence. Many years ago, we made the decision to love our child unconditionally and allow her to lead us in the direction she needed to go which was terrifying, but the alternative was worse. The options before us were drugs or a dress. The choice was clear. Not every family needs to transition their child and I usually encourage parents to start with the smallest changes necessary to bring their child out of distress and to be open to following their child’s lead. It looks different for every family and should be done with the help from a knowledgeable therapist and a supportive pediatrician.
I’d like to talk a little bit about Murphy’s response to all of this.
Initially, Murphy seemed to adjust much faster than the rest of us. He seemed unsurprised by Conner’s declaration that she was a girl. It didn’t seem like it fazed him at all. We attempted to give Murphy as much attention as Conner was getting during the time of transition. We didn’t want him to think that it was better to be a girl than a boy, so he got a lot of fun new items too. It was not a cheap summer.
As the months wore on and Conner remained a girl, Murphy began to grieve the loss of his twin brother. He would barter with Conner that he would give her one of his favorite toys if she would turn back into a boy again. She would give him a big hug and tell him that she’d pretend to be a boy for a few hours if it would make him feel better. We had many discussions that it was completely okay to miss his brother. We encouraged him to talk about it, we had him see a therapist for a short time, and we allowed him the room to cry and share his anger and sadness. We discussed how important it was that everyone had the right to be whatever and whomever they wanted to be. But we also gave him the time he needed to adjust. It was a confusing and stressful time for all of us, and I can only imagine how stressful it was for my son to lose his identical twin brother.
About six months after Conner transitioned, Murphy decided to wear a dress to kindergarten. It was during a particularly rough patch for him. We didn’t make a big deal out of it at all and assumed that it was his way of trying to feel closer to Conner. Apparently, several of the classroom girls and a few boys complimented Murphy on his outfit, but by that evening he decided that jeans were more his speed.
Slowly, over about a year, Murphy adjusted to having a sister. It seemed that whenever they reached a new developmental milestone, Murphy had a few days of sadness and grief. These days, however, Murphy is Conner’s biggest advocate at school. They have the type of relationship that I expect most twins have. They yell at each other, then they hug and make up while they scheme plots to overrun the grown-ups.
In the beginning, it felt like gender issues were a constant and demanding presence in our household. As the months slipped by, however, life returned to a new normal. Gender issues are a quiet background hum underneath the hectic tune of our busy lives. Issues crop up, but they aren’t always gender-related. Life moves forward and sometimes we seem downright boring. I say this to all the parents out there who may have found this blog in their search for answers with a child who is gender non-conforming or transgender. The beginning can be terrifying and uncertain.
Did that take you back to the Sound of Music? You’re welcome. How can anyone be unhappy singing songs from the Sound of Music?
But, honestly, I was just using the catchy start of a song to introduce the beginning of our journey. Our family story starts with the birth of identical twins which were brought into this world as undramatically as a twin birth can be. So, you know, 16 people, two incubators, and me cursing in a surgical suite. All of which is completely worth it when the end result is this magical combination.
We dubbed the first year of their life as “The Sleepless Year” and while I wish I could give you details of their growth and development, I just don’t remember it. We might have been the inspiration for The Walking Dead except we were happy zombies covered in the human gore of spit up and baby poop rather than blood and brains.
As toddlers, Murphy was pretty happy with balls, trucks, and firemen. Conner would play with those things too until my (very fashionable) sister walked through the door. Then, Conner was pulling off my sister’s bracelets, necklaces, and high heels and clomping around the house dressed to the nines. I have scads of photos for proof. My husband and I both thought it was cute and interesting in that what’s-happening-here kind of way, and decided not to make a big deal out of it. We were striving to gain progressive parenting street cred after all. Open book honesty, I began wondering if Conner would grow up to be gay. He took so much joy out of beautiful sparkly things and in my ignorance, it was the only connection that I came up with.
Right before the kids turned three we moved to the Twin Cities for my husband’s job. It was about six months later, on a visit back home, that my children learned that girls and boys have different bodies. I was changing the diaper on my four-month old niece and Conner came over to help. His little eyes bugged out when he realized that my niece was missing a very important piece of anatomy that he had. Actually, his favorite piece of anatomy. It was a delicate conversation explaining to my three year-olds that girls did not have penises. Yes, it was okay to feel sorry for them. No, it was not okay to show them yours.
What followed were months of Conner quizzing every person we met about the anatomy in their pants. It was horribly embarrassing. He also started asking daily why he had a penis and asking when it would go away. Everyday I told him that his body was perfect just the way it was because he was a boy. This became a ritual on the way to the babysitter’s house every morning for months. I’d never heard of this happening to any of my friends and didn’t know what else to do. I was hoping this was a phase all the while ignoring my mommy “spidey sense” telling me that something more was going on.
It was a few months into four years old when Conner asked for a dress. I immediately felt a clenching sensation in my chest that had become more and more familiar over the preceding months. When I asked him why he wanted a dress he explained that dresses were pretty when the skirt swirled out like a princess. We had spent the past several months seeing a soft blanket made into many different versions of a glamorous dress but the skirt could never swirl. My husband and I had a lengthy conversation about The Dress. My husband occasionally wore a Utilikilt and he wondered if this was Conner’s way of being like daddy. We were a little apprehensive but decided to go with the flow and not make a big deal out of it. I asked a few of the mother’s I worked with if their son’s ever asked to wear a dress. A few said their boys would try on a sister’s dress every now and then so I tried to tell myself not to worry. But, deep inside, I suspected this was related to the questions about being a girl and I began to worry.
It was a hard day looking for a dress. For my son.
I decided to be open and honest with you here at Non-Conforming Mom. It’s been tough to write about this. I sailed through the part about their birth, The Sleepless Year, and early toddler days. But I’ve been staring at the computer screen for hours trying to write about the next few months. I don’t want to over dramatize it, but at the same time, I want to convey how we felt as honestly as possible. I know many parents will read these words and I want to be genuine.
Shopping for a dress was really difficult. Much harder than I had anticipated. I went by myself expecting to cross it off my to-do list between running to the post office and picking up something for dinner. You know, no big deal. But I went from one store to the next feeling like every eye was on me-that woman who was buying a dress for her son. Obviously everyone in the mall knew I had two boys and had no occasion whatsoever to be shopping for a dress. What would they think? Then, there was the actual finding of the dress. Is this dress to pink? Too frilly? Not frilly enough? Does the skirt swirl? What if this starts something? And, then I would tell myself how silly I was being. Who cared if someone saw me buying a dress? Why shouldn’t I buy a dress? Screw you for judging me for buying a dress. Why was I even self-conscious about this? It was just a dress.
Yes, I was just a paragon of the freedom-of-gender-expression movement right there, folks.
I ended up buying two dresses; one for each of my children. I thought if I bought them each a dress it would somehow lessen the significance associated with giving Conner something so feminine. I was equal parts nauseous and anticipatory about how it would go over. I knew Conner would be thrilled about the dress which both scared and touched me. We want to make our children happy and I knew, beyond anything, that Conner would love this dress.
When I got home, I casually tossed the dresses to each of them. Why make a big deal, right? Murphy threw his on right over the jeans and long sleeve t-shirt he’d spent the day in. It was off in less than a minute; no exchange of conversation.
Conner took the dress and, as fast as his little hands could manage it, whipped off his jeans and shirt. He ran upstairs in his underwear and came back down wearing a sparkly headband I didn’t even know he had. He put the dress on and twirled. And he twirled. And he twirled. And he twirled.
It was in that moment that I realized how unhappy my child had been.
This beaming child twirling in the living room was not one I recognized. I didn’t know this happy carefree child. My child was quiet, pensive, a bit of a wallflower. He didn’t dance with glee. If you saw him with his brother you wouldn’t have remembered him. If you saw his picture, he’d be the twin without the smile. He wasn’t sad, per se, but he certainly wasn’t this. This bright glowing wisp of happiness dancing through my living room.
That day marked a change in how Conner dealt with his boy’s body. Over the next several months, we watched as Conner became more and more unhappy. He wore the dress every evening with a towel on his head like long hair. He asked more insistently when he would wake up and be a girl. When we talked about how great it was to be a boy, he cried. He drew pictures of himself in a puffy pink gown with long blond hair to the floor. He stopped touching his penis, even in the bathtub. He hated to be seen without underwear. He told the neighbors that his name was actually Lisa Tinkerbell.
And, then one day in early spring, I was on the way to Target with both of the kids. Murphy was talking about being a grown-up and getting to make his own rules. He wanted to have a goatee like daddy and work for the same company. Conner chimed in that he couldn’t wait to be a mommy and have a baby in his tummy. When I reminded him that he was a boy and would make a great daddy someday, he started to cry and told me (again) that he was a girl. I told him (again) that he had a penis which made him a boy. And then he told me that he wished his penis would go away. He was crying. I was crying. And I realized that I didn’t know any gay man who didn’t love his penis. This was something else.
I went home to Dr. Google and searched “my son wants to wear dresses” and “my son tells me he’s a girl.” I read terms like gender variant, gender non-conforming, transgender, transsexual, pink boys. It scared the shit out of me. I sat at the computer screen and sobbed as I read stories about boys who wore towels on their head like hair, wrapped blankets around their bodies like dresses, and told their parents they were girls. I watched a 20/20 interview with a transgender child named Jazz Jennings.
And, then I kind of freaked out. In my head, the whole ugly path of my child’s future unfolded. Teasing from peers, getting beat-up by bullies, dressed in drag and made fun of for the whole of his life. And I sobbed. The big ugly wracking sobs that shake your body and leave you with a horrible headache for days. I was literally nauseated at the thought that my child was transgender. I told you, I’m giving you the truth. I wanted to throw up. I was effing terrified. I recalled every death of every LGBT teen that I’d ever heard of. Every suicide. Every kid on drugs. Every drag queen.
I saw my child with long hair and a beard and I sobbed.
My poor husband was at a loss. He told me to stop looking at the computer because what I was reading was clearly upsetting me. He told me that Conner was going through a phase and we should just ignore it. He dove deeply into the farthest recesses of his man cave of denial and set up camp there.
I started calling specialists from one coast to the other. Children’s National Health Center, Gender Spectrum, TYFA, I called them all. I told them what was happening to our child who was getting more and more distressed by the day. I heard the same message from all of them: your child needs to be seen by a healthcare professional and evaluated for gender identity disorder.
In my relentless online search for what we should do while I searched for a therapist, I found two main options. The first, was to reinforce to my child that he was a boy. Be firm. Take away the pink, the dresses, the traditionally feminine items that brought him so much joy. Tell him how great it was to be a boy, downplay my part in family decision making, and make daddy the central figure in our home. Well. . .that was bullshit. We’d been telling him he was a boy for almost five years and clearly things were getting worse. His only joy were the girl items and I was supposed to take those items away?
The second option made me only slightly less uncomfortable. Your child says he’s a girl? Make him a girl. Change his name, throw out all the boy clothes, call him by female pronouns. Whoa, I wasn’t sure we were ready for all of that either.
Was there a middle ground? Something individualized to our family? I mean, my husband was still telling himself that this was a phase. I couldn’t find anyone close to us who specialized in gender issues, and I was ready for CPS to come knocking down the door any minute. Our very conservative babysitter was freaking out and all I could tell her was to stop talking about gender until we figured out what to do.
I’m not sure how we came by our therapist’s name. She was six hours away but I didn’t care. Her approach was something we could live with because it allowed us room to work with Conner. These were her three principles:
First, do no harm. Loving your child is never the wrong answer.
Second, everyone deserves to be who they are.
Third, make the smallest changes as possible to bring your child out of distress.
We had an initial phone consultation since we lived so far away and made an appointment to see her in two weeks. It was a few days later that I came home to find my puddle of a husband in front of the computer searching for “boys who want to wear dresses.” He had also come to the realization that this wasn’t a phase and Conner was getting worse. He felt the same way I did that there had to be a middle ground that was right for our family. We were hanging on for our appointment to arrive. We had purchased two girl’s t-shirts for Conner because it seemed to help him not be so upset.
A week before our appointment, Conner had an incident at the babysitter’s house where a child was teasing him about wearing a girl’s t-shirt. The babysitter made things worse by telling Conner that he could never actually be a girl, he could only pretend. When I came to pick the kids up that evening, Conner immediately told me what the babysitter said. It was the last time the kids ever went to her house.
I had never seen Conner so upset. He was agitated. He couldn’t sit still. He was babbling over and over, “Take me to the doctor to make my penis a ‘gina like a girl.” He was pacing through the house. My husband came home and we decided to spend the weekend as a family, go to the park, go out to lunch, shower the kids with love and attention, try and distract Conner from focusing on his body. When my husband ran to the chiropractor Conner asked if the doctor could turn his penis into a ‘gina. When we got in the car to go to the park, Conner asked if we were going to the doctor. When I picked up the phone, Conner asked if I was calling the doctor. When we were at McDonald’s, Conner told a child there about his concerns and was told that he should cut his penis off. So, we had to hide knives and scissors to keep our child from hurting his body.
I was ready to take him to the hospital when I thought I’d place a call to our therapist on the off chance that she answered on a Saturday. She did, and immediately suggested that we go and buy pretty sparkly panties to put that offending body part in. She gave us the words to say to calm Conner down. She offered to clear her schedule with her family the next day if we needed to drive to see her emergently. Instead, I told her to give me a few hours to see if we could get Conner to calm down.
I went to Target and bought the sparkliest Tinkerbell panties, pinkest shorts, and glitteriest top I could find. I bought a pink nightgown and pink frilly socks. I bought pink sparkly shoes. I bought Murphy something cool that I can’t remember so he wouldn’t think that being a girl was better than being a boy. I bought a bottle of wine. It was not a cheap trip. But, it did the trick. Conner immediately calmed down after a discussion and a change of clothes.
Let this be a lesson to us all. Sometimes, all you need are some kick-ass Tinkerbell panties to make it all better.
I need a break after all of that. So, I’ll continue with our story in the next post. Time to open a bottle of wine.
Moving to a new state is incredibly stressful. It doesn’t matter who you are. Even in the best case scenario where someone comes to pack up your stuff, put it on the truck, and unload it for you (which is amazing, by the way) it’s super stressful. There’s the process of finding a new place (rent or buy?), figuring out where the essentials are (every mom needs a place where she can take two hours to “get a gallon of milk”), possibly finding a new job for one or both of you, and adjusting to the community culture in your new neighborhood. When you have school age kids, the additional dimension of finding a good school just adds another layer of fun. When one of your children is transgender, the prospect of moving becomes a nausea-inducing nightmare.
My husband has a job with a fairly mobile company. It isn’t required to move around, but it can be a fun perk. My kids have built tunnels under feet of snow and they are currently digging sandcastles and learning how to avoid jellyfish. We love that we’ve given them these opportunities, which weren’t available in the state of their birth. But, as we move forward with our family and our lives, I’m feeling the call to return to my roots where we have the love and support from our families as we head into the often-troublesome teenage years. For us, those years will include medications to suppress my child’s natural hormones and eventually, to give her the cross-gender hormones to avoid secondary male characteristics such as facial hair and a deep voice. My daughter is already an emotional drama queen so the idea of giving her estrogen, frankly, has us fleeing to our families to help with what I’m sure will be an adventurous journey. In my head, I picture my little girl, eyes in a perpetual roll, with a curling iron in one hand and her brother in a choke-hold with the other. I’ve heard the stories of the teenage years from friends with daughters. I was a hormonal, disgruntled, emotionally distant teenager once too. Not to mention that we have her twin brother to contend with though his induction into the teen years has me much less stressed. Maybe that’s a huge oversight on my part. I’ll have to get back to you on that in a few years.
As we tentatively start the process of moving to another part of the country (again) there are several factors to consider. As the parent of a transgender child our first concern is schools. Maybe that’s how it is for parents of gender conforming children but I bet our reasons are way different. While I care about the quality of the education my child is going to get (and I do, I have a doctorate and plan to be a lifelong university geek), the immediate concern is if the school has policies that protect lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender children and what does that actually mean to them? Can my daughter use the girl’s bathroom? Will they use her preferred pronouns? What will they do when she starts telling classmates that she’s transgender? Because she absolutely will. Do they have a strict anti-bullying policy that includes LGBT issues? Beyond the policies, is this type of school where she’ll be accepted, not just tolerated?
Not only will I have to scour the internet to try and find this information on school websites, I will have to call to see if schools have a counselor that is familiar with and comfortable having a transgender student on their roster. I’ll call out to the parents of transgender children in the area to find out what the REAL story is as far as bullying and acceptance. And, when the day arrives to sign them up, I’ll cut off the circulation to my husband’s fingers as I clench his hand until I can personally gauge their reaction.
At our current school, when I let them know that our daughter was transgender, the receptionist didn’t even bat an eyelash before patting my hand and telling me that it wouldn’t be an issue at all for the school. When I burst into tears with relief and actually got lightheaded and had to sit down, she handed me tissues and shared a story of acceptance to calm me down. Then, we all started singing Kumbayah in a circle. Well, not that last part. But, our story isn’t like a lot of others. We’ve been really lucky so far-really lucky. A tiny part of that is due to researching the schools, but most of that has been dumb luck and what I hope is the changing tide of acceptance we are seeing towards LGBT youth.
Once we’ve established that a school sounds like a safe and enriching environment, then we can look at academics. My other child is in a gifted program and has ADHD. He does best with a challenging academic course and a teacher who is willing to work with him on days when medication isn’t quite cutting it. So, finding a school to balance both of their needs is exhausting and often leads to popping antacids, ingesting questionable amounts of wine, and trying to talk myself out of panic attacks. And truly, you can do all the research, phone calls, and meet and greets and still end up in a bad situation. We’ve avoided it, but I know so many parents that haven’t.
This time, because we’re moving back to family, we’re looking to actually settle down. That’s been an almost mythical word in our household vernacular associated with buying a house, painting some walls, maybe even-gasp-buying a tree or something. So, the stakes in finding a good school system are even higher. We’ve avoided buying a house because we’ve wanted to remain easily mobile. But, times, they are a changing. And this mom is ready to plunk it down for a while. If I can get beyond the trauma of finding a school, then we can move on to the fun of finding a house. For us, this means trying to find an area where the neighborhood culture will be accepting of our family. I’m hoping a realtor can be of use in that regard because the terms “liberal” and “crunchy” don’t show up on Zillow’s search engine.
Maybe I sound like a psycho control-freak mom. But, with the statistics telling me that 41% of the transgender community has attempted suicide (not just thought about it, but attempted it) I know that we need to surround our daughter with an environment that is loving and supportive of her.
My middle and high school years seemed pretty average and there’s no amount of money you could pay me to go back. As a matter of fact, one of my favorite aspects of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (the series) is that her high school was on something called a Hellmouth. Literally, high school was the mouth of hell. I think many of us can relate to that. And, yes. I just referenced Buffy the Vampire Slayer. You wish you were as cool as me.
Many of my friends have needed to move their child from their school to a safer environment. Some have found more accepting schools. Others have chosen to home school. I have to believe that the flood of states accepting gay marriage and the increased recognition of gender nonconformity in our population is leading towards overall acceptance. But, I’m also realistic. I’ve been in rooms where people used derogatory language about the LGBT community in my presence with the knowledge of our family situation. I know that anti-bullying is not the same as accepting. I know that a group of girls may not bully my daughter, but that doesn’t mean that they’ll let her into their clique. I wish my daughter were the type to be able to disregard the feelings of her peers with an indifferent toss of her little blond head. But, my daughter is fully aware with every cell in her body that she is different. She already feels apart from them. Different. She desperately wants love and acceptance from her peer group. She wants to fit in.
And, while I can do all the research, make all the phone calls, and prepare her in the best ways possible, it comes down to our culture as a nation, as a community, to love and accept those who are different from us. And I can tell you that it starts at home. Have the conversations with your kids about kindness towards others. Show them through your example. And, if a gender non-conforming child ends up in your kid’s classroom please reach out to that parent and let them know that you are accepting. Give them an encouraging word. Offer a play date. Encourage your child to be friendly. And if your child ends up being friends with one of mine, I can assure you that they will have forged a bond with two siblings who are fiercely loyal and protective of their allies. And, truly, you’ll have the undying appreciation from an over-stressed mother.