Our transgender child

When my toddler declared he was a boy, I had to mourn the daughter I thought I had, and learn about the son I did

Published September 23, 2014 11:00PM (EDT)

   (<a href='http://www.istockphoto.com/profile/hd-one'>HD-One </a> via <a href='http://www.istockphoto.com/'>iStock</a>/<a href='http://www.shutterstock.com/gallery-618403p1.html'>photosync</a> via <a href='http://www.shutterstock.com/'>Shutterstock</a>/Salon)
(HD-One via iStock/photosync via Shutterstock/Salon)

In the fall of 2009, we welcomed a beautiful redheaded baby girl into our family.  We swaddled her in pink and lace, bought baby dolls we expected her to play with soon.  But Lola had other plans. Lola had no interest in dolls, instead gravitating toward trucks, cars and dinosaurs. In stores, she would ignore the girls section and go right to the boys. “I want these, Mommy!” she would say, pointing to the blue Vans with airplanes on them, and the dark blue or red flannel shirts. We were open, so we indulged Lola with typical toys for boys.  But I started to wonder, and gently ask. Was this a phase or part of my daughter’s true identity?

At around 2-and-a-half, I was in Sears with Lola perusing the children’s clothing section, when she bolted toward a wall of boy’s underwear.  “These, mommy!” she said as she grabbed a package of Spider-Man boy’s underwear.  As I later learned in Andrew Solomon’s book “Far From the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity,” swimsuits and underwear are one of the five top indicators of gender non-conforming or transgender children (children whose sex at birth/assigned gender is different than how they know they truly feel on the inside).

Shortly before turning 3, Lola started telling me, “I want to be a boy.”

“Why do you want to be a boy?” I asked.

“I want to be a race car driver” she said.

“Girls can be race car drivers, like Danica Patrick.”

But the more we talked, the more it became clear that it was not a “girl power” discussion.  It was also not a discussion about being a tomboy. Over the past few years, this is something I’ve had to explain to inquiring friends and family who are trying to understand and be helpful by telling stories of their own tomboyish ways. Yes, tomboys want to dress like boys and play as boys, but they still want to be girls (and maintain the respective body parts).  What my child was expressing was more fundamental. He truly identified as a boy.

It was a few months after her third birthday when Lola told me, with total determination, “Mommy, I am a boy.”  Lola even started to come out to my family members. During a trip to California, she said, “Uncle Dave, I have something to tell you.”

“Yes, Lola?” he said.

“I’m a boy.”

“Well, OK!” he responded, not totally surprised given the previous indicators and their shared interest in “Star Wars” and dinosaurs.

One day, after work, I switched on the TV to see Katie Couric’s afternoon show airing a special program about transgender children.  I immediately recognized our child in their stories, and it was through this show I realized the depth of the situation. Children who aren’t allowed to express their true gender identity may have issues in school or discipline problems, may turn to drugs, and some will even choose death over living a gender outside of their true self.  It wasn’t a light matter or one that could change with anyone’s insistence.

Lola’s transition began with small steps. From traditional boy toys we moved into boy’s clothes. Then the earrings had to go.  Lola started asking for a spiky boys’ haircut.  We took a trip to the local Great Clips, and I tried to explain what our child wanted to the hairdresser. Daddy was in a panic.

“But don’t you want to grow your hair long and have piggy tails?” he asked.

Lola pondered for a second and said, “Sure, Daddy, but not right now. I want spiky hair, like Kyle, the babysitter’s boyfriend.”

When the long locks fell away, Lola looked at the short spiky haircut in the mirror and exclaimed with the biggest smile, “I love it!!!” He had such joy in his face. It was the moment I became fully convinced we were doing the right thing. My child was finally living in the gender he truly felt.

With preschool approaching, we had one more transition to make.

“If you’re going to be a boy, you’ll need a boy’s name,” I said.

“How about Lola-Boy?” he asked.

I smiled.  Eventually we settled on a gender-neutral name, Sam, just in case he were ever to revert back to being a girl.  We also had to become accustomed to using the right pronouns, from she/her to he/him, or else face adamant correction by Sam.

On the preschool application, under “Other conditions we should be aware of,” we stated, “Our child identifies as a boy and we are respecting that.”  Mainly out of inexperience with the situation, I think, the preschool went along with it.  They were open to being educated on what “gender-nonconforming” meant and took a kind interest in our personal journey with a child that might end up being transgender. The experience with that preschool showed us love, acceptance and empowerment. It also showed us how wonderful a school could be for the entire family.

Transitioning for Sam was natural for him.  The harder transition was for the family. There was a sense of loss and mourning each of us felt in losing our baby girl. We gained a handsome, happy boy, but it did take some getting used to it.  At Chuck E. Cheese, a women said to me, “Are those your boys?” And it took me a second to realize she was talking to me. “They’re so handsome,” she said.

“Thank you,” I responded, but I was nearly in tears. Acceptance can be slow.

But the greatest blessing in our journey was the love, support and acceptance we received from our families.  While it took Grandma extra time to say him and he, Sam is always patient and quick to correct her.  “My name is Sam, not Lola, Grandma.”  They had realized the boy toys were exciting and the girl toys and clothes were at the bottom of drawers and closets.  We all could see what was going on; it just took a little work to accept it and change the names and pronouns to fit our new son.

Upon moving to Southern California, the first local preschool we applied to was a radically different experience.  We wanted Sam to be in a Christian preschool and found one that was highly rated just down the street.  We struggled with how much to disclose, but were advised by a family support group that school principals and teachers should be aware of the situation.  Going to the preschool, we shared our story with the principal.  We went primarily to request confidentiality, as we felt that Sam’s condition and status was a private matter.

The school principal had never met a transgender child and said she’d need to confer with the church’s elders to make a decision.  When she invited us back to meet with her, the school administrator and the church pastor, my mother, who accompanied me, and I were not prepared for the decision.

“We believe that God created man and woman,” the pastor began, and then launched into a dissertation on how urges have to be controlled, for example, urges for murder or urges toward adultery — as though murder or adultery bore any resemblance to embracing one’s gender identity.  It became more of a lecture about the pastor’s issues and issues they believed Sam had than an educated discussion on gender nonconforming children.

“Aren’t there laws that protect these children from discrimination?” I asked.

“Not here,” the principal said snidely.  “We are a private school, and we don’t have to follow those laws.”

After the fact, I realized it was a debate on choice. They were assuming being transgender is a choice.  I know that my child doesn’t have a choice in this matter. It’s just the way he was born.  Don’t think we didn’t try to gently guide him otherwise until we realized the depth of the situation, because we suspected he might face additional challenges.  We tried to convince him that being a girl was fine, that girl clothes were cool, and dolls were fun.  But as I moved toward acceptance, I saw that this was deeply rooted in his being, his sense of self and identity, and it was not a matter of choice at all.

Ultimately, we saw that this preschool could potentially damage or hurt our child.  Studies have shown heavy-handed philosophies like theirs cause the child more harm than good.  We wanted a safe and loving environment for our child where he could flourish doing all the things little boys like to do. We want our child to not only succeed in school, but to thrive.  We subsequently found another Christian preschool where the principal and administrator understood that this was our child’s true identity and they were kind, understanding, respectful and loving toward Sam.  I cried with joy at their acceptance of our child; there was hope and acceptance for these sometimes-misunderstood children.

In all respects, Sam sees himself as a boy.  I can’t imagine forcing him to use the girls’ bathroom, or forcing him into girls’ sports.  He started soccer in the fall and we were thrilled to learn our soccer organization’s acceptance in letting gender nonconforming children play on the teams of the gender in which they identify.   At 4 years of age, I don’t think he would understand why we would force him to be someone he’s not; to wear a dress would confuse and distress him.  We continue to ask questions along the way to gauge if his gender identity is consistent, insistent and persistent.

“Sam, would you like for me to get you a dress?”  I’d ask.

“Oh, no, Mommy, I’m a boy and boys don’t wear dresses!” Sam would correct me.

It’s who he is and we love and embrace that.  I want my child to be happy and live his life genuinely, not pretending to be something he isn’t.  I also don’t want him to experience the pain of having to defend or prove he is a boy.  We know that in order for our child to be truly happy and live as his whole self, he needs to be able to live as a boy.  We don’t want him to be singled out at any school or be told that he is anything other than the boy he is.  We don’t want him to be distracted in school or to become a discipline case as other transgender children who are not in a supportive environment have been.

Last August, California passed AB1266, the School Success and Opportunity Act, which ensures the well-being of transgender students by allowing them to live more open lives at school, participating on sports team and using the bathrooms of the gender in which they identify.  This law has been plagued with controversy and misunderstanding from the beginning, largely because few people have heard the perspective of families of transgender children fighting to give them a chance to succeed in school and live happy, productive lives.

It has been really frustrating to hear how misinformed opponents of the School Success and Opportunity Act are.   They play on parents' fears (“There is a Predator in your bathroom!” campaigns) and don’t understand that transgender girls and boys don’t want to have any association with their assigned/birth gender.  To their core, they feel like girls or boys and can’t be convinced otherwise. The genitalia is the source of the sadness and sometimes shame.

So, what does the future hold for us?  If Sam’s condition persists -- as strong as it now appears-- we have no issue with pursuing hormone and surgical treatments.  At the onset of puberty, or, ideally slightly before (as early as 8-10), he can take puberty blockers.  Puberty blockers are hormones that stave off puberty.  They are not permanent, and should he stop taking them, his body will resume the stages of female puberty.  A more serious decision that we will collaborate with him on is around 15 when he can choose to begin cross hormones.  Cross hormones are permanent and will give him the facial hair, larger bone structure and typical male features.  They will also render him sterile, so it’s an important decision with which he will need to be totally comfortable.

Gender reassignment surgery is usually from 18 years of age onward.  While they’ve made great medical strides in converting male genitalia to female, the opposite is far from perfected.  So, we hope in 20 years, the progress will be substantial, and he will have a viable solution to the question, “Mommy, when will my pee pee look like Daddy’s?” to which I reply, “When you get older.”

We joined a transgender family support group based out of the L.A. Children’s Hospital, which has been a tremendous source of information and support in our journey. Some of the happiest children in our support group are those who have been able to express their true gender identity since becoming aware of it. Transgender adults continue to face challenges because of society’s lack of understanding, and we still worry about Sam’s future access to healthcare, medication and other necessities as he gets older.  But for now, we will work with the community, our lawmakers and school administrators to make sure our child can be in a school that accepts him as he is, that he can do well in school, in sports and extracurricular activities and that he is treated the same. Just like all the other little boys.

By T. Bisterfeldt

T. Bisterfeldt is the pen name of a real mother who wants to protect the identity of her son.

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