My child was born with a vagina. Maybe he’ll always have one. Maybe he’s not a he. Maybe next year he’ll “be a girl again.” Maybe, maybe, maybe.
His last haircut came with these instructions: “I want it bald at the bottom; then prickly; and spiky on top.” Spot-on description from a six-year-old if you ask me.
This is his third high-and-tight haircut. As a four-and-a-half-year-old “girl,” she started asking for the first — a hairdo like her preschool friend Emmett’s — in the spring of 2015. I didn’t rush out and get 57 months of hair chopped off, but I did collect subsequent requests every couple of weeks, until I knew it wasn’t a fluke.
The afternoon before her 5th birthday, Lu squirmed under a purple plastic cape as the hair stylist pulled her hair into a ponytail, which she then snipped off unceremoniously and handed to me.
The clippers came out, shearing off her straight, dark-blond locks to a quarter inch in the back; then the stylist trimmed and styled the top till it was a close match to the pics we’d brought from the Internet of three short-haired little boys.
“What do you think?” I asked Lu back at home as she stood in front of the full-length mirror. “Well,” she said, very matter-of-factly, “good. I don’t look as pretty, but good.” This statement was made dispassionately, the loss of “prettiness” not even of interest, not a value of hers. She never expressed a single moment of regret, nor a single moment of shyness introducing it at her party the following day.
Dressing for her birthday that next morning, I asked her to wear the adorable dress I’d scored for three bucks at the thrift store: fine-waled corduroy with puffed cap sleeves and a pattern of blue and green circles. It wasn’t what she’d been about to grab, but she was okay with this concession for her amazing mommy. (It’s remarkable how popular you are when you’re a mom. At least to one person. And at least occasionally.)
That was the last time she wore a dress.
Fast forward a couple months. The first week of kindergarten finds me confused about how to respond to Lu’s teacher when she asks, “Which bathroom do you want Lucy to use?”
Huh? Huh. I cocked my head and looked at this kind woman, thinking. Well, huh. I… don’t… know? I mean, heck, I’ve never thought of it.
“Because she’s been using the boys’.”
“Oh.” I’m stunned, but calm: “Well, what’s the school policy about that?”
“I think it would be okay, but, you know, I honestly have no idea,” said Mrs. A.
After school that day, I grabbed a beer for me and a popsicle for Lu and we sat in the backyard under the snowball tree. I asked her about the bathrooms and which she wanted to use. After some back and forth with the pros and cons, she decided that since she had a vagina she would use the girls’ bathroom for now.
But, she said, “Mom, I think when I was a baby a witch came and took my penis and gave me a vagina.”
What didn’t strike me until many months later was this realization: Lu had never had to choose a bathroom before. Preschool had single use, non-gendered bathrooms, as did everyone’s homes, and in public she went in with me. When first given the choice, she’d gravitated naturally to the boys’.
We’d never promoted a super-girly agenda for Lu, offering both “boy’s” and “girl’s” clothes and toys for her out of both practicality (free hand-me-downs) and our rather egalitarian skill sets (I used power tools and my husband did his own laundry, and vice versa). This bathroom discussion was likely the first consideration Lu had given to a hard-and-fast version of “his versus hers,” and the black-and-white, binary-gendered social rules most of us have lived by for most of our lives, if not all.
But when she saw a boy going into that bathroom, at the very least she certainly didn’t know she shouldn’t. And, at most, she already felt solidly like a he in heart and mind.
The bathrooms proved to be no problem for the rest of kindergarten. First grade was a different story. A month in, Lu got a urinary tract infection. I asked her if she was peeing when she needed to. She said some girls in the bathroom had told her she couldn’t be in there because she wasn’t a girl. So Lu had been holding her pee all day, trying to sneak into the bathroom when she thought it was empty. Having accidents. Getting a UTI.
My heart broke. My rage flared. Imagining scenarios in which my small child hangs uncertainly in the hallway as the girls went in and out, till the bell rings, the bathroom is still in use by the “girls” and Lu has to return to the classroom without relief. I want to cry again at the vulnerability, uncertainty, and embarrassment of my little kid.
The school was good about it. Found Lu some one-person bathrooms in another wing, and offered use of one of the staff bathrooms as well. We are so fortunate to live in a progressive part of a progressive state, and our school district has an Equity in Schools coordinator. She was very receptive to discussing the bathroom situation and the fact that Lu’s teacher had asked the students to make self-portraits with either a pink shirt if they were a girl and a blue shirt if they were a boy.
(What the hell?! Lu would never have drawn herself with a pink shirt, but she did in order to avoid questioning or ridicule. I hate so much that she had to compromise her identity for this assignment. I hate that she knew to do it.)
Both the Equity in Schools coordinator and the principal acknowledged they needed staff training on gender, and, explained they’d spent the past four years getting more solid on racial identity issues and now needed to refocus on other areas of diversity. (Kudos to our school, by the way, which does a good job with both race and class issues, in my opinion). The principal said he would speak to the teacher.
By now you’re wondering when I’m going to get the point where Lu becomes a boy. Hey, get in line: Lu is wondering the same thing.
One day, Lu asked me, “Mom, when am I going to be a boy?”
This is one of those questions I bet no one expects to answer. “I don’t know sweetheart. Just keep seeing how you feel.”
“But I am a boy.” Well, that’s a pretty clear statement. This kid knows.
Several months ago, I found a picture of Lu getting that first haircut, at the in-between, lopped-ponytail, blunt-bob stage. Showing it to Lu, he asked, “is that when I was a girl?” Wow, again. Which begs me to wonder: does he perceive that haircut to be a virtual sex reassignment surgery (or rather, the more appropriate phrasing used now, of gender affirmation surgery)? Was that her intent? Was THAT the day of transition in his mind?
I’ll stick to male pronouns now, but let me just say this: I don’t believe transition is a switch you flip (or a haircut you get), especially in a loving and accepting and curious household where a gender nonconforming kid is not being suppressed, ostracized, or forced to conform to their assigned gender at birth.
In these families, the kid has room to move and think and express their concerns to their parents, and can take their time getting solid in various aspects of their identities. Or remain fluid. They don’t need to run away from home, or move to a new city as an adult in order to begin living in the gender identity that fits their hearts and minds.
Tom Petty has always been one of Lu’s favorite musicians, and perhaps one of just a handful she could name at four years old. When the preschool teacher asked the four-year olds their favorite songs for a class booklet, other kids listed “the ABC’s” or “Yankee Doodle” (seriously, some kids still know this one?), while Lu cited “the Apartment Song” from Petty’s Full Moon Fever (which likely the teacher didn’t even know.)
So a couple weeks after Petty’s death last fall, Lu asked if he was still dead. Yes, I confirmed. “Well,” he said, “What happens to him now?” I said that I didn’t know, giving some common theories on the subject, including that some people believed part of the person — the spirit or soul — was reborn in another being.
Lu replied, “I wish I could die so I could be born in a boy body.”
Many, many months before this, Lu asked when he was going to get his penis. And, though lacking one, tried with varying success to pee standing up, a practice repeated on and off for months. (I’m glad to report that the urine mayhem has been curbed for a good while now.)
Lu had a resurgence in interest in breastfeeding a while back. Hell no, I said. You’re six and that well has been dry for five years now, buddy. Still, he’d sneak a nuzzle or a pat at my breast once or twice a day. On the bike trail one day, I thought I’d see if this interest in boobs would extend to his own body.
“How would you feel if you grow breasts when you get older?”
Zero hesitation and a voice rife with dismay: “I’d cut ’em off, Mom! I’m a boy!”
“Okay, okay, no problem, just checking.”
Apparently this idea of developing additional girl parts percolated in Lu’s head, and one night while we were lying in bed after reading our bedtime book, Lu said in anguish: “I don’t want to grow up to be a lady, Mom. That would be humiliating.”
Again, my heart cracks open. My baby. Humiliated. Heck no. I tell him that there is medicine he can take so that he won’t grow breasts. He’s relieved. Falls asleep. Similarly, when I ask if he’d ever consider wearing a dress again, like in a photo we see, he pauses, kind of smirking it off dismissively, “no! That would be so embarrassing.”
It’s messy. It’s not easy. We’re all still transitioning, or just living in limbo indefinitely. We say he and we say she, depending on the week, the day. We say “Lu;” we use other, more boyish names upon request, to try them out. We say son, rarely daughter, sometimes kiddo, or “my child.”
In public and around strangers, Lu strongly prefers to be introduced and referred to as male. He’s admonished us dozens of times for slipping up and using a female pronoun either in public or at home. Like the time fairly early on when we were heading out for gelato with my mom, Lu’s grandma: “Look at us!” I say, “just three ladies heading out for a date.”
“Mom!” Lu says, “two ladies and a boy!”
Lu loves when people recognize him as a boy, and doesn’t correct them. If someone witnesses this who has known him as a girl…well, that’s tricky. Usually, he just lets it slide, but sometimes he feels like he needs to moderate the situation and say he’s a girl, to make the longer-term acquaintance comfortable.
Sometimes he is ready to transition names and pronouns with certain family friends, and then backs down at the last minute, embarrassed to draw this attention to himself. Unconsciously, he responds to the burden, the weight of re-educating everyone around him. Lu’s therapist says this is why transitioning fully at school may take a while: the dozens of people to tell and to correct — or not — when they slip up.
I love this kid desperately. And I’ve grieved my daughter, whom I’ve lost. Perhaps only a parent of a trans kid can understand. It’s the same beautiful child. And it’s a different beautiful child. There are new possibilities, and there are others that are no longer an option.
It’s also heartbreaking to think about some aspects of Lu’s future. There might be surgeries, which will find me electric with anxiety in the waiting room. He will be outed by other kids, some of whom will be cruel. There will be the woman in the pool locker room who said Lu should not be in there with me. But he can’t be in the men’s, either.
There will be this: “do you want to go to an overnight camp for a week with your friend, Ezra? Or would you miss us being away from home that long?”
Lu: “Sure! That sounds fun. I would be okay without you.”
Me: “How would you feel if they want you to sleep in the girl cabins?”
Pause. Lu: “Um, no. No thanks.”
A lump rises immediately to my throat at the stoicism of this decline. The acceptance of this limitation that gender-normative kids will never face.
I want to scream at the injustice of having to interpret my child to the world in so, so many scenarios. That he is limited by these considerations. I know the system will catch up. I know right now “they” don’t know what to do with transgender kids in all these situations.
But then I see footage in the Katy Couric documentary Gender Revolution about North Carolina’s House Bill 2 which dictates which bathrooms trans kids (and adults) can use. At a school board meeting, one uneducated politician says “we will not allow our [cis-gendered] children to be endangered by some liberal agenda.”
Tears of rage give in to gravity.
This is my child. My child is not a liberal agenda. My child will not endanger your child by peeing next to him. In fact, your children are more likely endangering my child with their inherited prejudices.
Heck, I don’t blame your unfamiliarity. Even on the bloodier end of the bleeding-heart spectrum, I had zero clues about trans-gendered kids. My knowledge base was this deep: I knew of a couple trans kids in our university town of nearly 60,000. Not much to go on.
You learn something deeply when you need to: cancer protocol, how to make funeral arrangements, that those horror stories of feeling split in half by childbirth are true. And good things too: like how your child can be happy and trans if he knows you care. But, HB2-proponent, ignorant politician: this is when you need to learn about transgenderism. When you’re ready to make a law that affects a group adversely, roll your sleeves up and get in there and learn about that group.
Lu is so lucky. Lucky to be healthy. Lucky to have us as parents — if I do say myself, which I do, since we love him and are trying our best to figure all this out as we go. Lucky to live in this progressive community, where many of our friends are watching out for him specifically and people of all types in general. Lucky to live now, rather than in an earlier time.
Evolution and revolution are happening. By the time Lu would need puberty blockers, doctors will know a lot more about them, and there will be more data on the long-term effects. Transgenderism will be more accepted and more understood. We’ll know rather than speculate whether an excess of sex hormones in the second and third trimester is what causes changes in the brain resulting in transgenderism. It will be common knowledge that, like being gay, it’s not a choice.
Currently, researchers estimate that about one in every 2,000 people is transgender. Considering that a person is 20 times more likely, then, to be a psychopath than to be transgender, I’d say we totally lucked out to get Lu as our kid.
Still, it’s messy. We’re learning as we go. We’re trying. We’re loving our kid and taking it day by day.
We don’t know what we’re doing. Maybe my freak-outs are too intense when he hasn’t put on his socks after the first nine requests. Maybe I let him get away with too much, because of the gray areas he has to navigate in everyday life. And will continue to face.
But I do know this: When Lu says “I know you’ll always love me no matter what,” I know I’m doing okay. We are doing okay.
The Transgender Child: A Handbook for Families and Professionals by Stephanie Brill and Rachel Pepper
Parts and Hearts: A Kids (and Grown-Ups) Guide to Transgender Transition by Jenson J. Hillenbrand
Who Are You?: The Kid’s Guide to Gender Identity by Jessica Kingsley Publishers
I Am Jazz by Jessica Herthel
And for guidance and encouragement in getting to know people different than you:
Braving the Wilderness by Brene Brown
Please share your favorite books and videos in the comments!