People often ask me why I allowed my son to “choose” to be transgender. As if being transgender is a choice. I usually turn the question around and ask them why they chose to be cisgender (or, to put it another way “not transgender). It usually takes them a minute to try to process the idea that my son didn’t choose his gender identity any more than they did.
Really, though, I think a better way to frame that question is not to ask me why I allowed my son to choose to be transgender, but rather, when I did choose to accept the fact that he really is a boy? When did I finally allow him to live his truth out loud? What was it that finally made me decide to use male pronouns, call him by a new name, and stare down our elected officials in Texas every time they want to regulate where my child should pee?
To be clear: this didn’t happen overnight. When my two year old told me that he was a boy, literally the last thing I thought was that he was transgender. That word wasn’t even in my vocabulary back then. Instead I told him that there were lots of different ways to be a girl, and that if he wanted to play Star Wars instead of My Little Pony, that was totally cool. Being a tomboy was perfectly acceptable, and in fact, celebrated in our society. I wanted to help him “redefine girly” and in turn, educate the whole world on the multitude of ways to express one’s femininity.
We let him pick out his own clothes, and gradually his hair got shorter and shorter. We thought we had found the perfect balance of allowing our child to express himself without denying the fact that he was still “really” a girl.
But moms have a sixth sense. And although I was okay with him wearing Spiderman t-shirts instead of sundresses, I suspected there was something else beneath the surface. So when he was still in preschool and asked me — out of the clear blue sky — if scientists could turn him into a boy, I knew it was time to dig a little deeper.
Unfortunately, at least back then, there wasn’t a whole lot of easily accessible information for parents wondering about how to support their child’s “gender creativity.” In fact, most of the first-hand blogs and essays I read from other parents questioning the same thing used those words — “gender creativity” — instead of “transgender,” because so little information was out there and few people really believed this was possible, especially for a child. I pored over every article I could find, every scientific study, every news story, and every parenting blog, in a desperate attempt to uncover what it was that my little one was trying to tell me.
Years of research eventually uncovered two major themes. First: all of us — you and I, your neighbor, your kid’s teacher, literally everyone –has a gender identity. Ask any child from the age of 3 or 4 years old if they are a boy or a girl, and the majority of them will have an answer for you. They won’t say, “I have a penis, so I’m a boy.” They’ll just say, “I’m a boy.” These kids don’t have political agendas — they just simply have gender identities like you or me. Cisgender people like me are the ones whose gender identity happens to match the gender they were assigned at birth. Transgender people like my son are the ones whose gender identity doesn’t match the gender that was assigned to them at birth. And that’s okay, because we are understanding more and more that gender is not a binary, but exists on a spectrum, and that that sense of gender lives in the brain.
What I discovered next, though, shook me to my core — because when that gender identity isn’t valued and supported by those around us, it can have tragic consequences. A 2014 study by the National Center for Transgender Equality found that 41% of transgender youth have attempted suicide at least once. Not “contemplated” suicide, but actually tried to kill themselves. The rate of attempted suicides among the general population is closer to 1.4% — to be clear, ANY life lost this way is tragic and heartbreaking. But when more than 2 in 5 trans kids are trying to kill themselves, this is clearly an epidemic, and one that we are almost completely guilty of creating.
You see, transgender people aren’t trying to kill themselves because they are mentally ill (in fact, a 2016 study published in Pediatrics showed that trans youth who are supported in their transitions had essentially the same rates of mental health as their cisgender peers). Instead, they are suffering because of the way we are treating them. Let that sink in: trans youth are killing themselves because so many of us can’t wrap our minds around the simple idea that there just might be more than one way to know your gender identity. We’re letting our heads get in the way of our hearts. And our children are dying because of it.
Fact: there is still no federal law prohibiting anyone from discriminating against transgender people. Several states are trying to pass (or have already passed) “transgender bathroom bills” whose real purpose isn’t to protect women and children from predators, but to prevent trans people from participating fully in public life. After all, how can you buy a new dress for your sister’s wedding, meet your friends for coffee, serve on a jury, or even go to school if you can’t use the bathroom? Think about the sweet trans child who is disowned by their parents when they come out, or the trans adult who is fired from their job or denied housing simply because of who they are. Not to mention that 75% of transgender students report feeling unsafe at school and that they are far more likely to be bullied than their cisgender peers. Is it any wonder that so many these precious children become suicidal?
When confronted with my son’s insistent, consistent, and persistent avowals of his gender identity — and the profound sadness and anxiety he experienced whenever he was told he was a girl — I felt that I basically had two options. I could either allow my child to transition socially (names, pronouns, the way he dressed, and yes, bathroom use), knowing that he’s more likely to be bullied and discriminated against for being trans; or I could force him to continue to live in a way that doesn’t fit his true identity, knowing that my rejection of his gender identity could very likely turn him into another statistic. When faced with those facts, I made the easy choice: I chose my son’s life over my own fear of the unknown. I chose to let my sweet child, who was at that point not quite 7 years old, to transition halfway through his 1st grade year and go back to public school on Monday using male pronouns and a new first name. In the end, I wanted Max (as he’s known now) to define himself from the inside out, not the outside in. And I’d rather face bullying and discrimination with my son by my side, instead of bury him because I couldn’t accept the fact that his life was different than the one I had imagined for him.
I wish I had known about websites like Amaze.org when I was seeking out resources for Max years ago. Their cute, short videos geared towards children are surprisingly useful for grown-ups too. This video in particular would have been crazy helpful when Max was a wee one — for years, he would dress in superhero costumes in order to avoid wearing dresses and being called by a girl’s name. Watching this video today, it all seems so obvious to me what was really going on, but back then I was left putting all the puzzle pieces together by myself with very little help. Thankfully there are far more resources available to parents of gender nonconforming children today than ever before, and Amaze.org is working to give parents like me the tools I need to navigate Max’s future as he enters puberty and beyond. And I wonder: had I known about Amaze.org all those years ago, would we have accepted Max’s transition sooner? How many fewer tears and sleepless nights could we have saved?
Max has my eyes, his dad’s goofy personality, and his own adorable smile with teeth too big for his freckled face. He’s bright, courageous, helpful, athletic, and the most popular kid in his class. And when I look at him, I am reminded that he is just as precious and miraculous today as he was on the day he was born. Nothing about Max has changed except the words we use to describe him, but I can honestly say that I have changed for the better. My child didn’t choose to be transgender, but I have chosen to love him unconditionally.
For more resources on gender identity, hop on over to the Amaze Parents Facebook page and give them a like! This essay was graciously sponsored by Amaze.org. All ideas and opinions expressed here are my own.