PRIDE: a mom’s reflection on raising a transgender warrior

I’ve always been proud of my kids. They are considerate and kind (to everyone but each other), they are helpful, they are bright, they are articulate, and they tell the best jokes. Our den is cluttered with box forts and half-finished science experiments, and our walls are plastered with their art and school pictures. They’re the best kids any mama could ask for — and that fact has never changed, even when I realized that my freckle-faced, brown-eyed first born is transgender.

When Max (as he’s called now) told me he was a boy, he was only 2 years old. I didn’t believe him. I explained that there were a million different ways to be a girl, and that we could “redefine girly” together. Eventually we let him cut his pigtails and wear Spider-Man t-shirts, and it wasn’t too long before this kid really did look like a stereotypical boy. For years, I would correct people when they’d compliment him on what a helpful “young man” he was. Proudly, I’d boast that this was my daughter, and that there was no one right way to be a girl, and isn’t this child basically the best for ignoring cultural stereotypes, blah blah blah. This continued for years before I finally noticed the way my baby would get embarrassed, and how he’d shrink a little more every time I explained that this was actually a girl (gasp!). After enough moments like this, I started to wonder: maybe the rest of the world wasn’t misgendering my child — maybe I was.

Throughout all of this, Max was insistent, persistent, and consistent in his gender identity, and patient with me as he tried explaining in a million different ways that he was really a boy. I didn’t know that the word “transgender” even existed, let alone it could be an experience that a child could have. Yet I never questioned Max’s little sister, Lulu, on her gender identity — I had no reason to, since she identifies with the gender she was assigned at birth (a term called cisgender). Despite the fact that she’s four years younger than Max, no one has ever thought to challenge her on her gender identity. So why would anyone — including myself — think it’s okay to question Max on his?

A lot of research, prayer, communication, and discernment revealed the answers that my family was desperately seeking. A rise of visibility among young transgender Americans like Jazz Jennings encouraged families like mine to start talking with each other about their gender expansive kids, free from the shame or guilt that so many of us have been told to believe — that we had somehow failed our children by “letting” them be trans. Yet nothing could be farther from the truth. Because while a 2014 study by the Williams Institute showed that 41% of trans youth have attempted suicide at least once (a number that is nine times higher than the national average), those same transgender children experience the same levels of mental and physical health as their cisgender peers when they are supported, loved, affirmed, and embraced at home and at school. By rejecting a child’s gender expression and identity, we as their parents are slowly destroying them. The decision (if you could call it that) became clear at that point — Max didn’t choose to be transgender, but my husband and I chose to love him wholeheartedly. Ultimately, it was more important to us to support our son, than to risk burying our daughter.

These things take time. This wasn’t an overnight revelation, nor a quick social transition. But after years of watching, embracing, and supporting Max in everything from sports to dress to pronouns, he gradually became the person he was always meant to be — a brilliant boy with a soft spot in his heart for cats, tacos, and ukuleles.

This Pride Month, I am incredibly proud of Max for teaching me as his mama the true meaning of unconditional love and for changing the world in the process. When I was pregnant with him, I never cared if I was having a boy or girl — all I wanted was a healthy, happy baby. Nothing about him has changed except for his pronouns. Unfortunately, there are far too many LGBTQ kids who are kicked out of their homes, disowned by their parents, and ostracized by their friends once they “come out”. According to a report by Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago, queer-identified youth have a 120% higher risk of reporting homelessness than their straight or cisgender peers. Additionally, one in 30 LGBTQ teens have experienced homelessness at some point in the last 12 months. The people who should be protecting these vulnerable children are the very same ones who are harming them. Rather than being their child’s biggest fan, far too many parents have become their child’s biggest bully. And it breaks my damn heart. Because quite honestly, if it’s hard to love your kids, then you’re doing it wrong. Full stop.

Max challenges me every day to live my truth out loud, to be a better person, to live openly and honestly, and to advocate for the vulnerable, the marginalized, and the invisible. By being true to himself he has opened the eyes and melted the hearts of people across the country, and has influenced policy as a result. When Max had anti-LGBTQ Attorney General Ken Paxton over for dinner — a man who was actively suing the Obama administration over the DOJ’s transgender protection guidelines in an attempt to strip away the visibility and safety of hundreds of thousands of trans Americans in the process — and showed him just how adorable he was with his cute magic tricks and his Pokemon collection, the entire state of Texas watched. When Max was invited to the White House to meet President Obama, the most powerful person in the world paid attention to his story. And when Max travelled to Austin last year to practically beg Texas legislators to stop bullying him and to please not pass any “bathroom bills”, a reporter saw this sweet boy — exhausted, frustrated, and crying in my arms as we I comforted him on the cold, granite floor outside of Governor Abbott’s office. That reporter took a picture that went viral, and people from literally around the world saw what happens when we treat transgender kids as political pawns in pissing contests.

Of the 30 anti-LGBTQ bills that were filed in Texas in 2017 (which, for those of you keeping score at home, is more than any state legislature in the history of this country), we were able to defeat 29 of them — and, to our great relief, not a single bathroom bill passed. I truly believe this positive outcome — in Texas, of all places! — is because of the hard work and sweet faces of kids like Max, who is part of the newest generation of a half century’s worth of LGBTQ activists.

Pride began with another transgender individual: Marsha P Johnson, a trans woman of color who was tired of living in fear and being pushed to the shadows. So when the police showed up again at the Stonewall Inn on June 28, 1969, Ms. Johnson took a stand, and in turn started a revolution that we are still fighting today. Max is one of this revolution’s youngest warriors: but instead of fists and stones, he’s fighting back with his words.

And Max isn’t the only one. Across the country, we are seeing tiny-but-fierce trans girls like Kai Shappley and Marilyn Morrison living their lives authentically and elevating the conversation about gender and what it means to be nice to each other. We have National Geographic cover girls like Avery Jackson, living in America’s heartland, and bringing visibility to an issue and experience that so few of us had thought about before she came along. And we have national treasures like Gavin Grimm, a transgender young man who sued his Virginia high school for his right to use the bathroom, and was subsequently recognized in a federal court decision for being such an important human-rights hero, that the court’s opinion will bring you to tears.

This Pride Month, and every month, I am proud of the LGBTQ Americans who live boldly every day — whose very existence is its own form of protest. And yet, Max and his peers don’t have political agendas — they’re just kids, worried about the same things that your kids are worried about: whether or not they’ll get to watch one more cartoon before bed, how much money the tooth fairy is going to bring them, and if the cat is going to be okay after eating that weird bug. Somehow, though, that very act of living out loud AND being simultaneously incredibly relatable and adorable is exactly the thing that is changing the world for the better. We saw it during the fight for marriage equality and the overturning of “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” and we’re seeing it today as we continue to fight for federal protections like the Equality Act, which would guarantee that Max could never be fired from his job or denied housing or services simply because he is transgender.

My son is just one in an army of hope, and I will follow him wherever he goes. He hasn’t led me astray yet — in fact, I and countless others are better for knowing him — and I believe that he and his peers will create a better, brighter, more equal future for us all if we are willing to give them the space they need to lead — not just during Pride month, but year round.

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