Seven weeks from today, I’ll experience one of those big, proud, bittersweet milestones of parenthood: I’ll pack my kid a lunch, help her pick out a special outfit to wear, and cry a little as I drop her off for her first day of kindergarten.
When I was a kid, every year in late August, my mother took me “school shopping.” New shoes, a few new outfits. Maybe a new lunch box. I loved it. I was kitted out and lookin’ good in my new duds. But when it comes to initiating this ritual with my own child as she embarks on her school career, I almost forgot to do it. She needs new clothes pretty badly. Everything is too summery or too small. But I hadn’t given it a thought until now because, frankly, dressing my child has been the least of my concerns when it comes to preparing for kindergarten.
I’m not concerned about her being academically prepared: She knows her letters and numbers. Heck, the little smarty-pants is almost reading already!
What I’m concerned about, of course, is the “gender thing.” And it all seems to hinge on a single word and a single question:
“Is she going stealth?” That’s what the parents of other trans kids we know keep asking me.
Stealth. For me, the word invariably congers up a top-secret military operation. Something involving drones and night-vision goggles. But what it means in this context is this: “Is your kid going to hide the fact that she’s transgender?” If she does, then she’s “going stealth.”
My kid is five. She’s spent the last two years at a preschool run by brilliant, Buddha-like hippie teachers who should probably be running this country. If they founded a utopian commune, I’d join up. My child has been bathed in a warm bath of acceptance from the day she first showed up at the school as a “boy in a dress” to the day she became “M.,” the “girl with a penis.” The other kids at preschool took it in stride because the teachers made it OK, and because the other parents tend toward the lefty side on social issues. But this is preschool. Kids this age will buy it if you tell them that all Japanese people are born with pierced ears or that root beer cures cancer in goats. A girl with a penis? No problem. They’re blessedly impressionable.
In any case, in preschool “stealth” was never an option because M. entered the school as a boy named A. We couldn’t undo the fact that everyone already knew that.
But in September, M. will leave the gauzy cocoon that is her preschool and enter the big bad world of elementary school. There will 200 children, none of whom she has ever met. She’ll pass 10 year olds in the hallway. She’ll use the bathroom (yes, the girls’ bathroom) with second-graders and romp on the playground with fourth graders. When I think about this and about how cruel kids can be, “stealth” starts to sound like a pretty good idea. It’s what most of friends’ trans kids are doing (and it’s what many trans people must do in order to stay safe in a transphobic world).
But here’s the problem: M. doesn’t know how to hide. It’s never occurred to her. That’s because we totally lucked out: When she was barely three years old, she was able to tell me that she was a girl. And because she’s seriously strong and stubborn, she convinced me to help her live as one fairly soon after. Family, friends, and neighbors jumped on board (almost) without hesitation (and I no longer speak to those few friends who didn’t).
For her, there has been no question of hiding, no question of feeling shame or fear at the thought of being “exposed” as transgender. I don’t think she even knows what that word means. She sees herself as a “girl with a penis,” and knows that there are many others like her. When we’re out on a walk and can’t make it to the bathroom in time, she yanks up her skirt and, like her boy cousins do, pees against a tree in the parking strip, not a care in the world about whether someone might “notice” that she’s got “boy plumbing.” She may even taunt me, as she draws a circle of pee on the tree bark, “I bet YOU wish you could do this, mom. But you can’t cuz you have a vagina! Ha ha!”
So how do I approach this innocent mind with the idea of “stealth?” How do I suggest to her that she should hide something about herself without, in the act of doing so, introducing a sense of shame?
Imagine saying this to your cisgendered daughter: “Make sure no one knows you have a vagina, honey. Hide that thing, or people might not like you.” How horrible that sounds! And yet a version of this is exactly what I’ve considered saying to my child!
In the end, I’ve decided on a subtler path. I’ve spoken with her dad and with a counselor who works with trans kids, and we’ve agreed that we’ll encourage M. to keep her “private parts private,” because that’s what ALL big kids do in kindergarten. I’ve also told her that there are some people who don’t think girls can have penises, but that her dad and I don’t agree with them. Beyond that, we’ll be meeting with M.’s teachers and the assistant principal soon to talk about how they can help her (and keep her SAFE) when other kids do “find out,” because they most certainly will: Little kids use the bathroom together, hang upside down on monkey bars, change clothes when they play dress-up. Unless my little M. makes a concerted effort to be stealth, she won’t be. And I’m OK with that. I love it that she is comfortable with her body and that she is happy with who she is: “a girl with a penis.” I am not going to ask her to try to pretend to be anything other than her fabulous little proud self.
But I’d be lying if I said I weren’t pretty damn nervous about her starting kindergarten – all those opportunities for her to be judged, rejected, made to feel that she’s a flawed version of “girl” because of her anatomy, no matter how many times I reassure her to the contrary. Some harsh things are going to happen – to her and to me.
Just two short months to go… Wish me luck, friends.
*And now, a few caveats:
My child may indeed decide to go “stealth” when she’s older. And I’ll absolutely back her up on that. If we need to, we’ll change schools or move. Whatever she needs to feel good and stay safe – that’s what we’ll do.
I also want to say that I do not mean to make light of the very real need for many (if not most) trans people to be stealth in order to remain safe. Violence against trans folks is all too real and too common. I know that my child is very lucky to live in a fairly trans-friendly community. I hope someday every trans person has access to the same expectations of support and safety that she does.
And on the subject of “stealth,” who am I to say who should or should not be “stealth?” Heck, I myself am “stealth,” to the extent that I do not generally introduce myself thusly, “Hi, I’m gendermom, and I was born with a vagina.” So why should trans people be termed “stealth” if they don’t announce the history and current state of their anatomies to everyone they meet? My point is that it should be a viable and safe option for all of us –trans and cisgender people alike – to live stealth or not. And it should be up to each of us to decide what we tell others about ourselves.