How this mom is raising her 7-year-old transgender girl — with a little help from Laverne Cox, Janet Mock and Jazz Jennings

Salon talks to the creator of the "How to Be a Girl" podcast about parenting, school, playdates and the future

Published August 30, 2015 6:00PM (EDT)

  (AP/Reuters/Jonathan Alcorn/Kevork Djansezian/Andy Kropa)
(AP/Reuters/Jonathan Alcorn/Kevork Djansezian/Andy Kropa)

Conservative group One Million Moms has set their sites on transgender teenager Jazz Jennings, star of TLC’s show "I Am Jazz," along with her parents, Greg and Jeanette Jennings. The group claims in a petition offensively titled “God doesn’t make mistakes (but humans do)” to advertiser Mitchum that the parents “supported this decision instead of giving guidance to the confused child” and that the “pro-transgender” show is “attempting to normalize the transgender lifestyle and make it appear OK while using a young cast member to lure a young audience.”

To give them credit, they are correct in one regard: the show, and the Jennings family, have helped normalize not the transgender “lifestyle,” a code word conservatives like to use to describe people they actually want to eradicate (see also: gays and lesbians), but transgender life and the fact that transgender people exist.

But how does a parent faced with being told the child they thought was a boy is actually a girl go about best supporting, protecting and caring for their child? What kind of guidance can and should they offer so their child can emerge well-adjusted in a different gender than the parents expected?

For one perspective, look no further than Marlo Mack, whose blog Gender Mom and podcast "How to Be a Girl" explore parenting her 7-year-old transgender daughter, known as “M.,” and tackle subjects such as telling her daughter’s friends about her trans status, fashion and gender roles, and taking her daughter to meet transgender "Orange Is the New Black" star Laverne Cox. Via email, Salon asked Mack, who blogs under a pseudonym, about how she’s educated herself on transgender issues, managing her daughter’s trans status at school, and her advice for other parents of trans kids.

What was your initial reaction when M. told you she was a girl?

I was terrified. I had no context for it. A child who wants to change genders? That wasn't something that happened, as far as I knew. I was familiar with all the things that as a parent you worry about: Your child might be autistic or develop peanut allergies or asthma. But a boy who wants to be a girl? It seemed like an impossible situation, as well as a lonely one. No one in my village of family and friends had encountered a child like this. And the Internet was similarly devoid of collective wisdom. That was scary. Everything is supposed to be on the Internet, right? To cope, I told myself it was a phase. Somehow my boy would figure out a way to live happily as a boy, and all this would pass. There didn't seem to be any other solution.

Before M. told you that she was a girl, how much did you know about transgender issues, and how did you go about finding out more?

I knew as much as most people knew in 2012, which is precisely nothing. My only exposure to transgender people up to that point was from TV shows like Jerry Springer that ended with the guests throwing chairs at each other. I had never encountered any examples of a person living a healthy, "normal" transgendered life. It seemed impossible.

But I eventually found a couple of videos online that gave me a sliver of hope. One was a 2007 Barbara Walters story on "20/20" about Jazz Jennings. Today, in this post-Caitlyn-Jenner era, Jazz is a teenager with her own reality show on TLC. But eight years ago, even with the help of Barbara Walters, no one was paying much attention. I think the common perception at that point was that people like Jazz were exotic exceptions, someone you might actually know, but certainly not your own child.

The other video that profoundly affected me was Janet Mock's "It Gets Better" video. I just couldn't believe how "normal" she seemed. I confess that I was shocked and relieved and delighted to see how much she looked like a "real woman." Please don't judge me for admitting that. In the years since first seeing beautiful Janet's video, I've learned that "passing" is neither an option nor a goal for every trans person. But at that moment back in 2012, as a terrified mother with a 4-year-old "son" who seemed hell-bent on becoming a girl and (I feared) a social outcast who would end up on Jerry Springer with a chair being thrown at her... I needed Janet Mock. I needed to see a transgender person who made me feel safe, who seemed familiar, who looked "normal."

I also got a lot of hope and information from a local support group for parents with kids like mine. For the first time I was with people who knew what I was dealing with. My story was remarkably similar to many of theirs: little boys who seemed to find it intolerable to be boys, little girls who insisted they weren't girls.

M. sounds like she’s been very sure she’s a girl since she first told you. Has that conviction ever wavered?

In the four years since she first told me that she was a girl, she has never wavered in the vehement proclamation of her girlhood. Not once. Not ever. Not for a millisecond. After she told me she wasn't a boy, I spent the better part of a year trying to convince her that she was probably just a boy who liked "girl stuff," and that she could be any kind of boy she wanted to be. I filled our world with examples of boys who liked princesses and men who wore pink, but to no avail. It just wasn't enough for her to have access to girl stuff and be allowed to “act like a girl." It went deeper than that. The day she finally convinced me was when I asked her, "Do you still want to be a girl?" and she said, "No, Mama, I still am a girl."

You’ve written about how you’ve introduced M. to the broader world of transgender people, via books like "I Am Jazz" and YouTube clips of transgender tweens and teens, and taking her to meet Laverne Cox. Why is this important?

Everyone wants to be special, but no one wants to be the only one. We're social animals. We need a tribe. One day on the drive home from school last fall, she asked me if there was a school she could attend where everyone was transgender. This kind of broke my heart. I hadn't realized how isolated she felt as the only trans kid at her school (as far as I knew, anyway). I told her no, there wasn't an all-trans school, but how about we set up a play group for transgender kids? She loved this idea. We started meeting earlier this year and have been meeting once a month. I invited some transgender teens to join us and serve as role models.

I've also shown her some videos of Jazz Jennings and other transgender kids and teens. She seems to enjoy that. And she loved meeting Laverne Cox. But I think she was more excited by the fact that Laverne Cox was famous and glamorous than the fact that she is trans. I actually try to avoid showing her much media with trans people in it because I don't want her to think that being transgender is a big deal, that trans people are so different and special that they all need their own TV show. While I'm thrilled that there are TV shows with positive portrayals of trans folks, I think my 7-year-old needs to focus more on being a little kid than on being trans.

So instead I'm trying to normalize her experience by making sure that we have a lot of transgender people in our lives. I have adult transgender friends who serve as honorary aunties and uncles to her. The fact that they are transgender is just one thing she knows about them; it's not the most important thing to her. She's much more interested in whether or not they can build anything cool out of Legos.

There’ve been people in M.’s life, such as her friend Sophie, who’s her age, and your mother, who’ve accepted her as trans instantly. Why do you think some people have embraced her so immediately, while others have had more of a struggle?

I've been remarkably lucky. Almost all of my family and most of my friends have accepted this and embraced my child as a girl. There are a couple of hold-outs in the extended family. They seem to think my child's just spoiled and controlling and that her dad and I are getting taken for a ride. But everyone else has been pretty great. I think that's because she's so clear about it. She's never wavered in her insistence that she's a girl. And she seems to be so happy as a girl. It's hard to question something that makes your child (or your grandchild or your niece) so happy. The family members who don't accept her haven't spent as much time with her. They don't really know her. If they did, I think they'd see it differently.

Young children are the best about it. I think they take their cues from the adults. If you tell a child that a girl can have a penis, and that it’s normal, then they accept it and move on. That’s been the case with every young child we know who has learned about my daughter. They’re remarkably uncurious about it. They say, “Okay, got it,” and then the kids get back to playing.

You were able to start M. at a school as a girl without all her classmates knowing she’s trans. Why did you choose to do that? Is this something you would recommend for parents of trans kids?

She entered kindergarten two years ago at a new school where no one knew she was transgender. We told the staff, but didn't tell any other parents or their kids. Her dad and I didn't think anyone needed to know. She's very private and discreet about her trans status, so no one found out and it wasn't an issue.

I leave it up to her to decide who gets to know that she's transgender. Unfortunately, she's already aware that some people might tease her for being trans, and she's worried about that. So she is very careful about whom she tells. She told me that she waits to see if it's someone she trusts before telling them. She told her best friend, Sophie, in kindergarten. Sophie has kept her secret for two years. Sophie was only 5 years old when my daughter shared this with her. Five years old and she knew what it meant to be a loyal friend. That just blows me away whenever I think of it. I'll always be grateful to little Sophie.

My daughter is going to start second grade this fall at a new school where no one “knows.” She’ll be enrolled as a girl. The teacher and the school counselor have been told, but no one else. As a parent, I’m constantly walking this tricky line: On the one hand, I want to encourage her to be proud of who she is. On the other hand, I want to protect her from the bullies. These are the same kids she’ll encounter in the social shark tank that is middle school. And once the cat’s out of the bag, there’s no putting it back.

After several years of blogging, you launched your podcast "How to Be a Girl," where you also include M.’s voice and even interview her. Why did you choose to include her voice? Does she understand what you’re doing with the podcast?

I’ve told her that I made a “radio show” about us, and that I use a “pretend name” so that no one will know who we are. She liked the idea of people knowing about us (I think she’s proud of it) but was very glad to hear that I didn’t use our real names. I include her voice because I think it’s a powerful thing for people to hear: This young child explaining how it feels to be her. I hope that hearing her voice will help change some hearts and minds on this issue. She’s a powerful advocate for herself and others like her.

On the podcast you talk about dating as a single mom and how M.’s status as transgender has affected your selection process. Can you talk more about how M. being transgender has affected your adult relationships, romantic and otherwise?

About a year ago, I was perusing a dating website and came across a profile of a guy who looked really cute and sounded like a good fit for me. But the very last line of his profile said, “No trannies, please.” I felt like someone had punched me in the gut. I was about to send him a message, but after reading that, there was no way I was going to contact him. How could I do that to my daughter? But this question came up again when I was actually dating someone. He told me that he’d never date a trans woman, and I felt really conflicted after that: Could I keep seeing him? Was I betraying my daughter in some way by dating a man who wouldn’t date someone like her? I’m not seeing him anymore (we weren’t a great fit anyway), but I still wonder about these questions. I don’t know how to answer them.

A recent podcast of yours tackles some of the research on transgender kids, including a faulty study claiming that for 80 percent of kids, it's just a phase. M. is participating in a new study about transgender kids to help researchers learn more about them. Why are you having her be in the study?

Yes, she’s part of a study at the University of Washington in Seattle called The TransYouth Project. These researchers are flying around the country to interview kids like mine and their parents. They’re planning to interview us every year, tracking my child as she gets older, goes through puberty, navigates high school, and leaves the nest. I think this study is truly historic: It’s the first-ever long-term longitudinal study of kids like mine, members of the first generation to live cross-gendered lives from a very young age. They’ve already published their first set of results, which found that transgender girls like mine were psychologically indistinguishable from the non-transgender control girls in the study. It’s pretty fascinating and extremely validating for me as a parent, because it backs up what I’ve been witnessing in my child for years.

What’s been the biggest challenge you’ve faced as the parent of a transgender child?

The fear about what might happen. All parents worry, but I suspect I worry more: Will the new neighbors let their children play with mine if they find out? Will the kids at school figure it out and start teasing her? Will she hate her body (even more than many girls do) when she’s a teenage girl with a penis? Will anyone want to date her? Will it break her heart when she realizes that she can’t have kids of her own? (No, she doesn’t know that yet.) Will the world get it together in time for her to have a safe, full, happy, “normal” life as a transgender adult?

What advice would you give to a parent whose child is starting to either question their gender or insist they’re a gender different from the one the parent assumed they were?

Don’t freak out. Listen. Keep an open mind. Most children who explore gender in nontraditional ways aren’t transgender. But if your child is transgender (or gay or left-handed or autistic), there’s nothing you can do to change that. And nothing you do will make them become transgender. It just doesn’t work that way. So find a good support group, keep the conversation going with your child, and tell your kid every day that you will love him or her no matter what. I don’t think you can go wrong if you do that.

By Rachel Kramer Bussel

Rachel Kramer Bussel is the author of "Sex & Cupcakes: A Juicy Collection of Essays" and the editor of more than 70 anthologies, including "The Big Book of Orgasms" and the Best Women's Erotica of the Year series. She teaches erotica writing workshops online and in-person, writes widely about books, culture, sex, dating and herself, and Tweets @raquelita.

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