3 things your child can do to help make middle school better for my trans son

My son starts middle school next week and seems absolutely fine with it. I, however, have been in a simmering state of anxiety for the last several months as I anticipate everything that could possibly go wrong. I’m sure every parent of every first-time middle schooler feels the same, but this situation is slightly different: my son is transgender.

My sweet son, Max, socially transitioned in 1st grade — changing his name and pronouns, but otherwise living life exactly the same (only much, much happier). His friends didn’t seem to care one bit, either. Actually, I think most of them already knew about his gender identity and embraced him, so when he went back to school the next day being affirmed as a boy, no one flinched. He didn’t lose a single friend after his transition, and in fact, only seemed to gain more as both his confidence and his happiness grew.

But middle school is different. Sure, Max is still going to be surrounded by his elementary school friends who have been with him even before he transitioned (and, as I said, had zero fucks about any of this), but what about all those other kids?

I tried to be proactive, and met with the middle school counselors and head principal last spring, in order to give them time to make any adjustments to his schedule and make sure he was paired with the right group of students and teachers who would support him. I briefly told them Max’s story, but mostly asked questions: do they know how to identify gender-based bullying? What happens when a student is bullied for their gender identity? How is that reported and how is it addressed? Where is Max’s safe space in school? Can he leave the classroom if he’s feeling unsafe or anxious? We figured out the bathroom thing years ago, but what about gym class and locker rooms? What practices are in place to ensure that every child is protected in that space? Especially transgender students, 75% of whom already report feeling unsafe in school?

I left that meeting feeling that my son will indeed be cared for in his classrooms, and that the teachers and staff truly want to ensure that Max will succeed in school. (How fortunate we are — according to the 2017 National School Climate Survey, 62% of queer youth experience discrimination due to anti-LGBTQ policies at their schools, and more than 4 in 10 trans and nonbinary students report that they are prevented from using their preferred pronouns at school at all.) But what about the hallways? I can have a meeting with school administrators, but I can’t sit down with every student and teach them compassion.

So, dear reader, here’s a list of three simple things I’m asking your kid to do to support Max and trans kids like him. Before the school year begins, please sit down with your child(ren) and talk about this stuff. I know it can be heavy and weird, but I’m hopeful that even just a brief conversation with your child will spare mine from having lots of awkward ones in those hallways later.

1. “Didn’t your name used to be _____?” / “What’s your REAL name?”

Some of the kids that Max went to school with before he transitioned might have ended up at a different elementary school later. Which means that some of those same kids might end up back in the same middle school as him. When they do, it’s possible that those students will have a lot of the same questions that kids in Max’s elementary school did when he began his transition too. In other words, it’s probably going to come up, and it’s going to be uncomfortable for Max when it does.

Additionally, before I knew any better, I would share Max’s birth name when I spoke with the media. Back then, Max was okay with it — as long as I made sure to mention his real, affirmed, chosen name in the same essay/speech/interview. But speaking with transgender adults who know this stuff way better than me (duh), they’ve explained to me that using a person’s “deadname” (or “birthname” as we call it in our family) can be used as a way to emotionally hurt a transgender person. Whether from an old TV interview I did or from an old memory from a friend, his birth name exists in the minds of some people, and I worry that using it will be a cruel way to taunt him without teachers even being aware that this is a form of gender-based bullying.

Hopefully, kids aren’t bullying Max by asking this question. Hopefully, they’re just sincerely curious (as has been the majority of our interactions with people in our community). Still, it can be dysphoric and stressful to be reminded of your birth name, especially in an already stressful environment like a middle school hallway.

So, parents, please instruct your kids not to ask this insensitive question. It doesn’t matter what his name used to be. What matters is his name now. And his name is Max. The end.

If Max (or your child) is asked this question by someone else, then please coach them on what to say. To repeat: it doesn’t matter what Max’s name used to be. His name is Max, and he’s got a birth certificate and passport to prove it. Then ask your child to introduce themself (and their pronouns!), and ask that other student what their name is — make this an opportunity to make a friend and grow Max’s circle of allies. The more friends and allies he has, the better!

2. “Didn’t you used to be a girl?” / “Why are you a boy now?”

Max was never a girl, y’all. He might have been assigned female at birth, but he’s always been a boy. From the age of two years old — indeed, since he could put sentences together — he’s been telling us that he’s a boy. And nearly every major scientific, medical, and mental health organization has verified that gender is formed at a very young age and that it’s determined more by what’s between our ears than what’s between our legs. In other words, Max is a boy and he always has been. The grown ups in the room just made a mistake when he was born. And sometimes adults screw things up, even though we don’t like to admit it.

Parents, please teach your children what science already knows: sex and gender are different things (and even sex isn’t a strict binary as we once thought, either). Also, and I shouldn’t have to say this, but please instruct your children not to ask other people about their genitals — that’s just gross and inappropriate anyway.

If your child happens to overhear this question directed at Max (or another transgender, genderfluid, or nonbinary student), please ask them to step up. One answer is simply, “No, Max is a boy and he always has been.” That’s factually correct and affirming AF. Then say something super rad about Max (which is like the easiest thing in the world to do anyway) to help focus the conversation about him as a person, and not him as a body with body parts. Some awesome things to bring up are:

  • He plays the ukulele and about a dozen other instruments
  • He earned his black belt in taekwondo when he was only 9 years old
  • Now he’s in gymnastics! You should see his collection of medals!
  • Did you know that he makes literally the best tacos in the world?!
  • He met President Obama and Luke Skywalker on the same night!
  • He likes cats. Like, a lot.

Is the subject changed now? Are we talking about Max as a person and not as a body? Good. Mission accomplished. Now get to class before you’re late!

3. Please tell me if you see/hear anything that might make you think my son is being bullied.

Max has always had a profound sense of justice, but he’s always been much better at advocating for others than for himself. (Unless it involves his little sister, of course. Then he can’t wait to let me know about all the ways she has personally wronged him.) Rather than telling me that people were bossing him around in the bathrooms in 1st grade, the sweet baby just held it all day so as not to be a bother — interfering with his grades, his appetite, his mental health, and his ability to focus and communicate. It took me months to figure it out before I finally sat him down and asked him what was going on. It was because of that conversation that I finally understood that he was transgender, and Max’s life has been drastically improved ever since then.

If Max wouldn’t talk to me about something as simple as bathrooms in 1st grade, what is the likelihood that he’d talk to me about something as complicated as bullying in 6th grade? I need you to tell me, because he might not. This is important.

Talking about bullying in general isn’t a standard practice among transgender kids, either. A majority of trans students (55%) say that they don’t report bullying to school staff because they either believe that staff won’t do anything about it, or that the bullying would only get worse if it was. Sadly, many of them are right: 60% of students who actually did report this type of bullying were simply dismissed by school staff and told to ignore it.

So I’m counting on you. It takes a village to raise a child, and y’all are my village. Please be my eyes and ears when I’m not there. I promise I’ll do the same for your kiddo, too.

Middle school is tough for every student. Lord knows I don’t have very many happy memories of 6th grade, either. But I at least had the advantage of fitting into the cisnormative binary — something that my son (and many others like him) won’t experience. And y’all, this child is my entire world. I worry about him every day, in many of the same ways that you worry about your children too. But in addition to the concerns we commonly share as parents, there’s another whole, complicated, stupid layer to all of this: the current president wants to give doctors permission to refuse care to my son, ban him from serving his country in the military, and erase his identity entirely. Our elected officials in the Texas Legislature filed 20 anti-LGBTQ bills this year in an attempt to legalize state sanctioned bullying. And though it’s only August, 14 transgender Americans have been targeted and murdered because of who they are. It’s stats like these that lead to such a high suicide rate among trans youth: 41% admit that they have attempted suicide at least once, in part because of the constant fear, anxiety, harassment, and bullying that they experience on a daily basis (see above). We’ve got to do something — not just for Max, but for every transgender child out there.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Having these important conversations with your kid and teaching them to be an upstander instead of a bystander could make all the difference. Please take some time today and throughout the year to talk with your awesome child about how to be even more awesome. Especially today, the LGBTQ community needs all the allies they can get.

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