Tag Archives: transgender child

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First Do No Harm

 

Editor’s note: This article is written by a dear friend who was our North Star when we initially came to understand our child’s needs. I’m so happy that she was able to provide her personal and professional perspective. -Melissa

First do no harm

All persons should have the opportunity to live naturally

Intervene only as much as necessary to reduce the distress to manageable levels

Jesse is a 14 year-old smart, funny, precocious girl who would rather be with friends than do homework (or do anything actually). She won’t eat anything green, is a night owl, spends too much time on her phone, and loves, absolutely adores, Taylor Swift and Lorde. She cries copious tears when she is hurt; cares very deeply about people, animals, and the earth; and is fiercely protective of her self, her friends, her family, and her puppy. She is mostly vegan, and all the way vegetarian. Oh, and she is transgender.

By the time Jesse was two years old, two profoundly meaningful events occurred that would eventually become catalysts for a long journey into a great unknown. One was her first haircut in which she told me that she wanted me to do it like “Cinder-lella.” Shortly afterwards, Jesse got into a large bag full of hand me downs intended for her newborn sister. As one might imagine, the bag was full of things pink, pretty, and sparkly. Jesse beamed in what she thought was her new wardrobe. Our approach was to gently try to help her ‘organize’ and manage her preferences, interests, needs, and identity.

Over the next several years, and despite our very exceptional ‘organizing’ skills, Jesse’s female identity continued to strengthen. Every shooting star and every birthday candle held the same wish, “Please, please…let me wake up a girl.” One night when we came into her room to say goodnight, we caught her praying. Her hands were held in prayer and she was repeating the same old wish, “Please, please, let me wake up a girl.” So, finally, we stopped managing and organizing, and right smack in the middle of second grade, we helped her make a social transition to all things feminine. We came to understand that, for her, in order to not hurt her, we would simply have to let her be who she was. So we did. We said a few prayers of our own and allowed her to be her.

Then the phone calls started. As a Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor, I had been providing therapy for a number of years. Of course, I researched treatment options for transgender children and found that at the time, the ‘best’ advise out there was to remove all things girly from the ‘boys’ life and help him be comfortable with his body. I knew, not thought or suspected, but knew for sure that this was not always going to be possible, and was rarely going to be ideal. I also knew for sure that it was going to be harmful. Especially for our Jesse and likely others like her. So I developed a treatment approach with three main tenets: First, do no harm. Second, all persons should have the opportunity to act naturally. Third, intervene as minimally as possible to get the distress down to manageable levels.

Through word of mouth, anxious parents began calling me after hearing of this unique approach to working with transgender children. Families came to me from all over the Midwest for treatment, for consultation, for advise.

While my treatment strategy was not typical for the times, it really was not ground breaking. I was simply applying sound evidence based therapy to what we thought was a new population of children. There is no approach in psychotherapy that states that it is better to “hurt them a little now to protect a better outcome later” (these words were actually said to me by a psychologist and educator in justifying the corrective approach to counseling transgender children). This statement stimulated several questions for me. First, by “hurt” how much would be OK? How much hurt in early childhood would be commensurate with the better outcome that one might envision? Does this ‘better outcome’ include trauma? Or are we specifically measuring for transgender identity? What exactly is this better outcome? All of these questions led me to develop the first tenet of my approach: First, do no harm. This is the first law of medicine and provides the basic scaffolding surrounding healing and competent care. And this applies to all persons, young and old, regardless of race, sexual orientation, gender identity, or religion. First do no harm. As I said, not ground breaking. This has been the Hippocratic Oath for many decades. I simply applied it to a very vulnerable and marginalized group: gender diverse children.

The second tenet of my treatment approach is that all persons should have the opportunity to act naturally. Lets be clear, I am not talking about people who think they are cats or people who identify as a toaster. I am talking about a typically functioning individual whose gender identity is something other than what we, in binary America, think that it should be. There is much we do not know about the brain, about gender, and identity. Cross cultural research, as well as observational studies done in the animal kingdom, suggests that a binary code, while fine for computers, is overly simplistic for gender, and, in fact, humans. Social, personality, and sexual development are complex processes and 0’s and 1’s do not really explain us very well.

In this state of not knowing, it becomes critical to approach diversity issues with regard. Especially for children. I remember a time early in my process when I had a boy bodied child dressed as a princess and another boy bodied child dressed as batman. It is horrifying to me now to recall how one had to change into more appropriate attire to go to grandmas house and the other one didn’t. I can’t help but consider the impact of traumatic experiencing that this type of situation is likely to facilitate. At the very least, a child learns to develop a false self in the face of an unaccepting, critical, and dangerous world. This is one of the fundamental goals of psychotherapy for a great many number of clients: to help in the development of a true self with the goal of living an authentic and personally meaningful life. Therefore, I felt that all persons should be able to act naturally. All of our clients should be met with positive regard. It is just not up to us to tell them who they are. Who we think they are. Or aren’t. It is not up to us as therapists. For my family, it isn’t up to parents either. It is up to parents to teach values, to get the children to bed at a reasonable, to try to get them to eat something green. It is up to us to help the child develop and learn routines and structure. It is up to us to be a cook, chauffeur, tutor, manager, housekeeper, cheerleader…. It is not going to be our decision whether the child is going to have intrinsic interest in dolls, trucks, or games. Whether they will excel in gymnastics or debate team. Whether they will pursue a career in medicine or education. We can protect and guide. But for the vast majority of children, it is just not up to us to decide about orientation or identity.

Research has shown that a large percentage of gender dysphoric children may desist in their transgender identities. In a nutshell, this research concluded that many will grow out of it. These ‘outcomes’ caused significant anxiety in parents of gender diverse and transgender children. With medical technology exploding, and cross sex interventions becoming a viable option, parent’s questions and concerns regarding best practice were well founded. How do I know if my child will grow out of it? How do I support without encouraging? How do I help but not hurt? How much do I intervene? These are all valid concerns. To really capture parental and clinical panic regarding these outcomes and corresponding questions, research has also shown that suicidality for transgender youth was disproportionately high. In other words, gender diverse and transgender children, as a group, was not doing well.

However, the terms ‘gender diverse’ and ‘transgender’ are not necessarily the same and research had not yet empirically operationalized them. This research, while informative, had its limitations. So far, people weren’t yet talking about distress level as a diagnostic feature at that time. As a therapist, of course, this factor is critical in assessment and diagnosis for any mental health issue. Symptoms that do not cause marked impairment or distress isn’t diagnosed. And so this third tenet was to help parents navigate these very difficult questions and concerns. In a world where we simply don’t know, let your child’s overall wellness be your guide. Is their anxiety manageable? Are they learning to read? Or are they so distracted with gender incongruity that they can’t learn? Are they aggressive with others? How are they developing socially? This enable parents to map unchartered waters in a uniquely idiosyncratic way. Broad brush strokes simply aren’t going to be effective with this community. Nurture does have an impact. Community does have an impact. There are just too many variables. At the end of the day, we want healthy children who are well and whole. And the least harm approach to get there is to assist in the development of a true, natural, psychologically fit, and physically well self.

Back in 2010, when Jesse was right smack in the middle of second grade, we made some crucial decisions. First, we just weren’t going to knowingly hurt her. No way were we going to hurt any of our three children on purpose. Second, we were going to treat her, and of course all of our children, with positive regard, and allow them to be natural. Finally we were going to look at her overall distress/wellness as the primary guide for intervention. When we computed this fairly basic and humanistic algorithm, all of our anxiety decreased.

Today, we have three healthy children who are otherwise preoccupied with the natural emergencies of teenage life. Jesse is a remarkable, insightful, and charming 14 year-old transgirl. Our next problem? How do we get her to turn off her phone and get to bed on time. Maybe even eat something green. All things considered, these are good problems to have.

She slept most of the ride home from camp.

Summer ends

We had a great summer. It started with the Trans Philly Conference in June, jumped to the Columbus Pride Parade, took us to the North East for Camp Aranu’tiq, and culminated in a trip to the North Carolina beach. We were fairly ready to get book bags and school supplies ready after all of that!

If you are the parent of a transgender, gender nonconforming, agender, or non-binary kiddo, then I really hope you’ll check out the website for Camp Aranu’tiq. This is the second year that we’ve sent Conner and she always comes back pleasantly exhausted, looking like she had way too much fun, and floating on cloud nine. My favorite part about camp is that it’s just camp. There’s no planned discussion about being transgender. No counseling sessions. No agenda. It’s just kids being like every other kid at camp which is something that Conner only gets to experience for a few weeks out of the year.

Pro tip: Don’t send clothes that you don’t want getting filthy.

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She slept most of the ride home. So did Misha.

Our trip to North Carolina caused us a lot of initial stress. When HB2 came out, I was convinced that we shouldn’t go. Mike was also convinced that we shouldn’t go. Conner was nervous because she didn’t want to break the law, but she also didn’t want to miss a beach vacation with our whole family. So, I contacted Emerald Isle Realty and asked their thoughts on HB2. I didn’t tell them that we were an LGBTQ family so I was very relieved when they shared how unhappy they were by such a terrible bill. They made a point to help us feel very welcome. We decided to go ahead with the vacation and we’re really happy we did.

Conner did ask me any time she went to the bathroom if she was breaking the law. Since we didn’t use any public facilities, I told her that she didn’t. We didn’t AVOID public bathrooms because I would have happily encouraged civil disobedience, but the opportunity never came up. It was a concern that weighed constantly at the back of our minds and so any family in a similar situation will need to weigh the risks and benefits. We were surrounded by family, had no need to use a public bathroom, with a daughter who firmly passes for her gender and it still caused us almost constant concern that week.

My heart truly goes out to those families in NC who are living under the stress of HB2. We had it easy during our one week in Emerald Isle but I know that your struggle is very different and I wish I could help. We’ve donated to Roy Cooper’s campaign and we’re planning an election night party to celebrate when McCrory loses his seat. I will welcome any and all tweets and FB updates about how the election results are going that night. Champagne at the ready.

We got back from vacation and had less than two weeks before school started. Middle school. That’s right. I said middle school. How did that even happen?? I just gave birth to them yesterday and suddenly they have lockers and schedules and after school clubs. And there’s lip gloss. And blush. And Daddy is not handling that well.

She did her hair today. If you’ve followed me for awhile then you know that I’ve had to practically wrestle my kids into the shower. So this sudden realization that bodies feel better when they are clean and hair looks better when it is brushed is a brand new concept. Even Murphy is using styling product in his hair. I’m flummoxed by these babies who are, clearly, no longer babies.

Oh, and we have chickens. Because, reasons.

We bought chicks this past March on a whim that actually started four years ago when we didn’t own a house. I blame our friends in St. Paul (that’s you, Amy and Kate). But, now we have a house and that house needed chicks. And those chicks also grew up this summer and started giving us eggs.

So, be warned about the occasional chicken post.

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Sally enjoys an afternoon stroll through the gardens.

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Happy chickens = better eggs.

Another summer in the life of the McLaren family is in the books. I hope your summer has gone well and that your schools are accepting. I look forward to what this year will bring for all of us.

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The Mom that Dropped the Mic

Sometimes (okay, oftentimes) other people say things WAY better than I do. This is one of those times.

There are times that I get trapped by my own fears, by my concerns that my daughter is going to be pissed at me for saying too much, that something I say will lead someone to our front door, or that in my desire to do good, I’ll actually make a situation worse. I struggle to find the balance between being a strong voice, a loud advocate, and the mom of a real kid who has to deal with the consequences of mommy’s work showing up on the Huffington Post.

This mom is dealing with the exact same concerns and issued a freaking amazing post that had me alternately weeping in commiseration and standing on my couch yelling in agreement.

Thank you, Nola Sarina for writing a totally kick-ass post. This is the best thing I’ve read all year.

 

 

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This isn’t the same thing as pretending your child is a dog

I want to address some common questions or arguments that I see frequently when the topic of transgender children gets brought up.  There’s been a lot of media coverage this week on transgender children and while I know better than to read the comments, I sometimes can’t help myself. I was really happy to see a lot of supportive comments but I saw several versions of the same few questions being brought up and thought I’d give our response.

My child tells me they are a dog. Does that mean I should start letting them eat out of a dog food bowl and go to the bathroom outside?

I actually see this kind of thing with my 4 year-old nephew all the time. Except, he’s a Transformer. Or a rock. I love it when he decides to be a rock. Even better is when he transforms into a rock. And, sometimes I’ll call him Optimus Prime or Bumblebee. My own child also went through a phase where she wanted to be Mater from the Cars movie. She also wanted to be Dora the Explorer for awhile. My son was Superman, Batman, Captain America, and a Mighty Morphin Power Ranger. Hell, my husband tells me he’s a ninja on a near-weekly basis. These were fun little exchanges that passed in a reasonable amount of time (except my husband really is convinced that he’s a ninja).  It never caused distress, and my kids seemed to understand that they weren’t actually these characters.

There were several differences between my daughter telling me she was Mater, and my daughter telling me she was really a girl. Looking back, we saw evidence from about 18 months of age that Conner identified as a girl. At the time, we just thought she loved pretty sparkly things. At two years old and in daycare, I remember the teacher laughing because Conner ALWAYS wore the mommy costumes in dress-up. At three, when Conner realized that girls and boys had different body parts, she quizzed everyone for months about what pieces and parts they had that distinguished them into the categories of “boy” and “girl.” Then, EVERYDAY, for MONTHS, Conner asked when her penis would go away and she would wake up and be a girl. As we explained day after day that she was a boy, she became more and more withdrawn, more distressed, more anxious. When she decided to try to cut her penis off, we knew we had to intervene. This was not a quick decision based off of a few days of fantasy on Conner’s part. She had consistently told us that she was a girl. She was very persistent despite our multiple (MULTIPLE) conversations that she wasn’t a girl. And, over time, she developed a significant amount of distress at being told she was a boy. When we started the process of allowing her to transition, it was either put her on medication, or put her in a dress. We did it under the direction of a therapist and with the support of our pediatrician.

Isn’t 4 years of age too young to make these kinds of decisions?

My child didn’t make a decision to be a girl any more than you are making a decision to be a man or a woman. Could I convince you that you were a different gender? Even if I told you every day for months that you were a different gender, you would argue and tell me that you weren’t.

Gender identity is formed by around the age of 3 and concrete before the age of 5. Our society strongly conforms to a gender of either boy or girl, and our kids are bombarded with those messages from the moment they are out of the womb and placed in pink or blue onesies.

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There are still many social taboos that steer our children away from enjoying opposite gender items. Just take a stroll down the pink aisle at your nearest toy store. Give a boy a doll when he’s standing with a bunch of dads and see what happens. If a child is telling you persistently over a span of time that they are a different gender, then you should listen because that child is overcoming countless social values that have taught them that it’s not okay to like opposite gendered items.

I also strongly believe that every family needs to evaluate their particular set of circumstances. As I discussed in an earlier post, we follow guidelines established by a mental health professional. Again, they are:

1. First, do no harm.
2. Everyone has the right to be who they are.
3. Make as small of changes as possible to bring your child out of distress

For us, that meant a full transition because our child was in extreme distress. We started with the occasional girl’s t-shirt and telling her that it was okay for boys to like dresses. When that wasn’t enough, we slowly added articles of clothing until she made it clear that we needed to change the pronouns we used to address her. We went as slowly as we could to evaluate how she was responding. Just because one family on NBC Nightly News needed to transition their child doesn’t mean another child will need a full transition. It’s an intervention that needs to be individualized to the child. I am fully supportive of transitioning a child as early as necessary if they are showing signs of distress or discomfort. I give my child Tylenol for pain, and when the pain stemmed from gender dysphoria, then I gave her the appropriate intervention as dictated by medical professionals.

Another important point is that none of the interventions done for a young child are permanent. Hair can be cut or grown out, clothes can be donated and purchased. Hormone blockers aren’t brought into the equation until puberty (Tanner Stage 2 for my medical professional friends) and all they do is halt puberty. If a child’s brain and body become aligned, then medication is stopped and natural puberty takes over. There is NOTHING irreversible until the individual is well into their teenage years.

What if they change their mind later?

This is a valid concern because it does happen.  If a child changes their mind, then they go back to appearing as their biological gender. It’s as simple as that. And, if their gender identity and biological sex match up, then you simply explain that to questioning friends and family. “Hey, everything aligned. Phew. Guess I won’t have to buy him boobs for his high school graduation present.” Sometimes the body and brain do seem to connect and then life goes on. And, by allowing your child to express themselves naturally, you’ve shown them unconditional love and acceptance. How can that be bad?

Some children are gender fluid and may want to wear traditionally accepted boy’s clothes one day, girl’s clothes the next, or a combination of those items daily. I think it’s much harder to be a gender fluid individual (and that child’s parent) because our American culture is so focused on binary gender roles, meaning either a boy or a girl. Our society gets uncomfortable when we can’t figure it out, as evidenced by the Saturday Night Live skit with Pat, the androgynous office worker. If that’s you or your child, then I’m sending you an extra ounce of love and courage because your skin certainly does have to be thicker. Might I recommend the blog, Accepting Dad, to you where he talks about his gender-variant child with grace and humor.

Why would I allow my child to transition now? Shouldn’t I wait until they are older?

That depends on your specific situation as I mentioned above. Maybe you can get away with telling your child that it’s okay to be a boy and like dresses. I’d definitely start with that. Maybe your daughter looks cute with a super short haircut and it’s enough to satisfy her. You’ll have to work with your therapist and pediatrician to evaluate if your child’s level of distress is enough to warrant making more changes. I want a happy healthy child. If that means dresses, then so be it. Again, we measured transition based on level of distress. We got away with baby steps for a few days, maybe a week, and then we had to move to the next stage of transition.

God doesn’t make mistakes. Your child was born a boy and he will always be a boy.

I’m not religious. I was raised religious and I’ve read the bible probably more than most Christians I know. I’ve even taken a Comparative Religions course because it was important to me to understand the history of Christianity. I occasionally go to my parent’s church because I love the beautiful community of believer’s there who love and support us. Religious beliefs should be something that gives you comfort.  I’m not sure why some people get so offended by transgender or gender-variant children and believe that they are an affront to God or that their parents are doing something wrong. Religious beliefs shouldn’t be used as a weapon against others, and certainly not against children. I’m not sure what I believe about God, but I don’t believe he made a mistake in the case of my daughter. I believe she is beautifully made just as she is: transgender.

Clearly, these parents aren’t setting any kinds of boundaries with their children.

My kids wish! We have rules just like any other family. My kids have been trying to talk us out of the “no screen time until the weekend” rule since they started school. They’ve gotten off easy as we’re homeschooling the rest of the year due to a recent move. But, I fully expect the usual freak out in late August when that rule goes back into effect. Even with the transition, we didn’t let our daughter change her name to Lisa Tinkerbell. We have very strict rules about play dates, sleepovers, and personal behavior. Why in the world do people think we don’t set boundaries? With twins? Are you crazy??

A child wouldn’t come up with this on their own. The parent is telling them they are a different gender.

I almost didn’t put this one on here because it irritates me the most, it’s clearly written by people without children, and it’s almost too ridiculous to warrant a response.

I have pretty much been fruitless in my endeavors to convince my children of anything. Here’s a list of things I can’t convince them of:

1. Deodorant is a necessary part of personal hygiene
2. Vegetables taste great
3. Underwear should be changed daily
4. Bathing should occur multiple times a week
5. Swords aren’t to be played with in the house
6. Getting caught playing Minecraft after bedtime is not worth getting grounded over
7. Asking me a million times to get a cell phone is not a good way to change my mind
8. That child you met for 30 seconds at the park is not your best friend
9. That stranger we met at McDonald’s does not want to hear about when I had my gallbladder removed
10. Hot dogs are not a health food

Do you really think I could convince my child to change genders? Really?

Worry

I just spent the past 20 minutes crying over Leelah Alcorn. It’s not the first time I’ve cried over her story and I doubt it will be the last. I’m gearing up to talk to a large group of people and some of the subject matter will be the barriers to medical care for transgender individuals. I read Leelah’s story because it reminds me (in little daggers to my heart) why I put myself out there and why I share our story. I worry so much for my daughter and for those like her.

The Florida House (and now the Florida Senate) has proposed a bill that would deny my daughter the right to use the woman’s bathroom. The basis of the bill is to protect the safety of women in bathrooms who might be in a stall next to a man intent on harming them. But, if the bill passes, then who will protect my 9 year-old daughter when she enters the men’s room? If the bill passes, it would trickle down into schools. We no longer live in Florida, but we have many transgender friends who remain.

I worry about my daughter for so many reasons. The National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs reports that 72% of LGBT homicides in 2013 were against transgender women. Attempted suicide rate in the transgender community is approximately 41%, while in youth up to age 20 it could be closer to 50%. Those are statistics that no parent should have to worry about.

So, I’m going to continue to advocate and teach. I’m going to do my best to educate the health professionals whom I work with about transgender issues. I’m going to talk to schools, write this blog, and continue to share our story. My daughter is precious. She loves big. And immediately. If you know her, she loves you. I don’t want her beaten down by a society that isn’t ready for her. I want her to have sleepovers, and school dances, and dates. I want to worry for my daughter like I will worry for my son. Like others get to to worry for their kids. That the date won’t call, that the dance will suck, that the sleepover made them so tired the next day that they puked. I don’t want to have the worries that she’ll be forced to use the men’s room (over my dead body) or that her date will harm her, or that the pressure of being different will push her into suicide.

I never thought that this would be our path. I never thought these would be the issues to keep me up at night. But, I love the people I’ve met through this experience. I can’t say I wouldn’t change things if I could. If I could wave a magic wand and make my daughter a biologic female then you bet your life I would. But, instead, I’ll advocate and teach. I’ll educate, I’ll talk, I’ll blog.

This mom isn’t going anywhere.

LEELAH

Image found at Equality Ohio.

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The reason why my car needs detailed

Editor’s note: If you have a weak stomach, you may not want to read this.

We made it! We went from sunny warm south Florida to the cold snowy north last week. My husband and son left a week early while Conner and I stayed to pack until the movers arrived.  We’ve been staying with my mom and dad while we get the new house (a rental) ready and until the moving truck arrives with all our stuff.  It’s been so much fun hanging out with family. Within days, I had watched my nephews, dropped my niece off at school, and had a big family birthday celebration. It’s been wonderful!

But, let’s be honest, moving sucks. So do road trips.

The drive from point A to point B was epically bad. Conner and I spent the night on air mattresses which is a complete misnomer if air doesn’t stay in the mattress. Conner’s had to be re-inflated twice before we even turned the lights out. She slept horribly. Therefore, I slept horribly. The next morning was like a real-life game of Tetris as I attempted to get two cars worth of stuff into the back of my mini-van as well as the daughter, the dog, and the 16 year-old cat. I drugged the cat as she’s been known to meow for 12 hours straight during car rides and that was a great decision because the drive from Florida to our stop in North Carolina will go down in McLaren family lore.

Conner has cyclic vomiting syndrome which is just as much fun as it sounds. In a nutshell, she wakes up horribly nauseated and vomits violently until it runs its course. It isn’t associated with a gastrointestinal illness and it frequently evolves into a migraine. We’ve discovered over time that fatigue is a strong trigger for it. She slept terribly the night before we left and when she woke up feeling great, both of us thought she was in the clear.

We were wrong.

About an hour after we left, she noticed that her stomach hurt. We both decided to ignore it. Denial is a wonderful coping mechanism. A few minutes later it got worse and her head started to hurt. These are classic early warning signs and I knew we were headed into trouble. Of all the things that made it into the car, a puke bucket was forgotten. All I had was a pizza box with two slices of some of the best pizza in south Florida.

Of course I ate the pizza. Let’s not be silly.

I handed the box back to her in the nick of time and I swear that the force of her puking practically propelled my seat forward. My kids are champion pukers and this one sounded like it was in a class all its own. All of a sudden, she starts shrieking that the box is leaking and to pull over. Thankfully, we were on the highway in a stretch of big fields so I was able to safely pull completely off the road. I jumped out of the car and opened her door.

It was like a scene out of a movie. I grabbed the leaking pizza box and ran over to the passenger side of the car to drop it in the grass. She had stopped throwing up but the damage was done. She was covered in vomit. COVERED. It was dripping off her chin, all down her t-shirt, on her pants, and it even filled a shoe. Like, completely filled a shoe. She handed me the shoe and I had to pour it out on the grass. Pour it into the grass, people. I dug through our belongings and found a clean t-shirt. She mopped up the best that she could and I’d like to personally apologize to whomever stumbles across the pizza box full of vomit and the t-shirt that I left at the side of the road.

We traveled about 30 minutes up the road to a rest stop to try and clean her up a little more. She had to walk barefoot into the rest station bathroom because her shoe was soaked with vomit. So, I’m sure she’s now picked up flesh eating bacteria. We got into the bathroom and they had no paper towels. Wonderful. The other women in the bathroom carefully backed away from us because Conner looked like she was about to erupt into vomit at any second. I looked like I had just faced war and lost. We brushed off her pants as best as we could with toilet paper and she washed her hands and face. We trudged back out to the car of vomit and I cleared a clean place for her.

The temperature was steadily dropping as we headed north and I knew I’d have to stop and get her another pair of shoes. I only packed the tennis shoes because she’d grown out of her snow boots and flip-flops weren’t practical in the north in early March. About six hours into our drive, I stopped just south of Jacksonville. Yes, you read that right. We hadn’t even made it out of Florida yet. I left her locked in the car and ran into Target and bought new shoes, new pants, a long sleeve t-shirt, new socks, new underwear, a puke bucket, Ibuprofen, and Dramamine. Then, we stopped at a gas station where I insisted she put the new shoes on before walking into the gas station bathroom (we have standards, people) and she changed clothes. I thoroughly drugged the poor child and we headed on our way.

We were about 20 minutes south of the Florida/Georgia border when the dog threw up.

I freely admit that expletives were uttered. And our car smelled awesome.

While there were no more episodes of vomit from any living creature in the vehicle, there were many many stops for pee breaks, to let the cat out, the let the dog out, and to get out of the stench. It took about 14 hours to get to our stop and I would like to thank my sister-in-law emphatically for the best pornographically dirty martini that I’ve ever had. Never was an alcoholic beverage appreciated more.

The drive from North Carolina to Ohio the next day was easy. The child was drugged, the cat was drugged, and the dog was drugged. The scenery was beautiful and we were surrounded by snow and mountains yet the highways were clear and easy to drive on. Best of all, it was a puke free day. Winning!

Since our arrival, we’ve been surrounded by family and loved ones. We’ve been cleaning and painting and getting ready for our moving truck to show up. There’s been no more puke but my car is in serious need of detailing. I pity that person. I really do. My niece asked not to get back into my car because it smells bad. They don’t make enough Febreeze to fix the damage done to the upholstery.

I’ve included a photo of the dog and the child after both had emptied their bellies and collapsed in exhaustion. I should have added a photo of me enjoying the hell out of that martini.

Needless to say, we are thrilled to be home and look forward to getting settled.

 

 

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How do we open hearts?

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.

Telling family and friends

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.

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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.

With Love,

 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>

Let’s start at the very beginning. A very good place to start.

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.

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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.