We don’t actually know one another that well. In most cases, I don’t know what they do for a living. I don’t know about their hobbies, their backgrounds, their home life, their personal quirks. But after this weekend, I am fairly sure that I will be connected with them – and their children – for the rest of my life.
I met many of these parents last year, when we gathered at the Washington State Convention Center in Seattle for the annual Gender Odyssey conference – my first. I cried a lot that weekend. I hugged people I had just met but who understood me and my daughter better than most of my friends do. Sometimes you just need your tribe. You just need to be surrounded by those who understand you implicitly, by those who aren’t curious about your child because theirs is just the same.
My main goal for this conference was to connect my daughter with that tribe. Increasingly, over the past six months, her eyes have been opening more and more to the fact that she is “not quite like the other girls.” She’s becoming intensely private about her privates, not wanting anyone to know that she is this thing that adults call “transgender.” And lately I’ve been phasing out the “girl with a penis” label and phasing in the more formal, official, and (to me) weighty name for what she is: transgender. I was hesitant to do so. I wanted her to have the chance to be “just another girl,” because in so many ways, that’s what she is. Whatever the explanation behind it, she’s a girl in her heart and in her mind. She sees the world through girl eyes. But the fact remains that she really isn’t just like most girls. And she is becoming more and more aware of this.
There was a session at the conference this year called “Just a Boy / Just a Girl.” It was just what I needed. The speakers called into question the wisdom of treating my trans daughter as “just a girl.” “Your kids are not cisgender,” one of them said. “And they never will be.”
This wasn’t so much of an issue for earlier generations of trans folks, most of whom transitioned much later in life. But it’s a different story for kids like mine, some of whom transitioned so early (mine did it at age 4) that they have only the haziest memories of ever living in the other gender. For the parents, it can be easy to assume that after the switch, all is well: OK, I’m cool with this. My boy is now a girl. Let’s move on.
But lately I’ve been realizing this approach isn’t going to cut it. Dr. Jo Olson, who works with trans kids in L.A., put it plainly: “You have to help them integrate their trans selves into their identity.” She spoke about the many “uber-accepting parents” of trans kids who make the mistake of never talking about the fact that their children are different. If we pretend that they’re not transgender, she said, we’re setting them up for a big fall later.
So how do I help my daughter find her people? How do I help her create a positive self-image as not “just a girl,” but as a trans girl? How do I show her that what is different about her is wonderful, and that it places her in the company of a group of extraordinary and courageous people? It takes work, I’m realizing. The same work, I guess, as it takes to raise a strong girl in a misogynist society and a strong black kid in a racist one. You have to seek out the right role models; you have to find the positive media images and show them to your child, over and over again, to drown out the constant deluge of negative messages telling them lies about themselves.
A few months ago, I found a video online. A tween transgender girl was being interviewed about her experiences of being bullied at school, and about how her parents had supported her through it. She was strong, well-spoken, and poised – wise beyond her young years. I remembered meeting her and her family at the previous year’s conference. I showed the video to M. “This girl is transgender, like you.” She didn’t say much. I showed her again the night before the conference. “This girl might be at the conference this weekend,” I said.
She was there. I pointed her out to my daughter. M. shrugged. But that evening, at a pizza party for the families, I watched M. walk up to the girl and say hi. “I liked your video,” M. said. The girl looked surprised. Then she bent down, took my daughter’s hands in hers, looked her in the eyes, and said this:
“Be strong, and be yourself, and you can do anything.”
M. looked into the girl’s eyes and nodded gravely. They parted and the girl disappeared into the crowd. I watched M. mouth the words to herself, “Be strong, be yourself…”
The next day, I found the girl’s parents. We had barely spoken before this – just seen each other at all the workshops. I told them what their daughter had said to mine. Tears streamed down their faces. They were speechless.
What else can be said?
We hugged one another, and then parted and disappeared into the crowd.