I left you all with a cliff-hanger last week: M. had announced that she wanted to tell her best friends in her first grade class that she’s transgender, and her teacher and I were scrambling to figure out how this was going to work. M. didn’t want any other kids to know – just her crew: Kevin, Ana, and Claire. M.’s teacher, Patricia, charged right into battle mode: She called up the guy who runs our support group for parents of young transgender kids and grilled him on the best way to support M. and the kids she wanted to tell. She attended a training session about transgender kids in schools (last-minute, after hours, on her own time, even though she has her own small child waiting at home for her!) that happened to be taking place last week at another local school. She called me to discuss strategies. She ran various scenarios by M. and the two of them came up with a plan together.
My job, I realized, was to get in touch with the other parents. I was pretty sure that Ana’s parents knew, because I think M.’s dad had told them when the kids had a play date, but I hadn’t ever had a chance to talk with them about it. I didn’t know about the others. It’s a school that attracts very socially progressive parents, which is a big reason why we picked it, but I was still pretty nervous. What if they weren’t cool with it? What then?
I sat down and wrote this email:
Dear parents of Kevin, Ana, and Clare,
Hi, this is Marlo, M.’s mom.
I wanted to write you all a note because you may be getting some questions from your kids this week about M.. Some of you know (I think?) that M. is transgender. She was born male, but has never identified as a boy. As soon as she could talk, some of her first words were, “I’m a girl.” She’s lived full-time as a girl since she was four years old, and is quite private about her transgender status. In fact, she’s asked us not to tell anyone without her permission.
Last week, however, she decided that she wanted her “close friends” at school to know. She already told her pal Sophie when they were in kindergarten last year, and now she has decided that she really wants her buddies Kevin, Ana, and Clare to know as well. I asked for Patricia’s help in finding a way to share this information with your kids in an age-appropriate way. Patricia plans to read a book to the class called “I Am Jazz,” (http://www.amazon.com/I-Am-Jazz-Jessica-Herthel/dp/0803741073) about a transgender girl whose story is very similar to M.’s.
M.’s hope is that her friends not share this information with other kids, but I’ve told her that it can be easy for kids her age to forget. I also don’t want your children to feel burdened by a secret that might be hard not to talk about. Patricia is planning to explain to your children that M. “wants them to be the first to know because they are her really good friends,” and that M. would like to be the one to tell people herself. Instead of referring to this information as “secret,” I prefer to talk about “privacy,” as secrets tend to be associated with shame and fear.
I explained to M. that her friends may not know what the word “transgender” means. I asked her how she would explain it to them. She said, “I’ll tell them that I was born as a boy but that I’m a girl in my heart.” When I asked her why she wanted to tell these three friends, she said it was because she wanted her close friends to understand who she really was. That made a lot of sense to me.
I’d appreciate you not sharing this information with other families at school, out of respect for M.’s wish for privacy. If any of you would like to talk with me about any of this, I’m more than happy to chat, answer questions, etc. There will be a training for school staff about transgender issues later this month, and I’m hoping that the school can also host an informational evening for parents in the new year. I’ve learned so much from this experience with M., and am always happy to share what I’ve learned, so please don’t be shy about talking to me about it! M.’s dad is also very open and happy to chat. I’m so grateful that M. knows kids like yours – they have obviously been wonderful friends to her, and have made her feel safe to share this with them.
I re-read the email about eighty times, hit send, and then held my breath.
And here’s how it all went down:
That afternoon, Patricia read “I am Jazz” to the kids during story time. Apparently she’s already read them quite a few other books that dealt with gender roles and stereotypes, and this one didn’t seem to impact the kids much differently than the others. She reported that there was general approval of the plot and characters and it was deemed a good book with a nice story. (“I think it’s because I do talk with them a lot about gender, about biases, and about not judging people who are different,” Patricia said, “So they just took it in stride.”)
Later, Patricia gathered M. and the three friends together for a private talk. M. took the lead, telling them that she was transgender and explaining it something like this: “When you are born, your body is a boy or a girl. But when you turn three years old and can talk, you can tell your parents if they got it right about which one you are in your heart. And I’m a girl in my heart, so I told my parents.” Patricia explained that it was about respecting M.’s privacy, and the kids seemed to get that. She also talked about how important it was for good friends to be allies and help each other out. “Some people don’t understand about transgender, and some of them may ask questions that aren’t appropriate or that don’t respect privacy. If that happens, you can be M.’s ally by explaining about privacy and respect – like we do with other issues when kids aren’t being nice or appropriate. Or you can just come get me to help talk about it with those kids.”
Isn’t this AWESOME??!?!!!?!?
Then I went online and read the email that Patricia had sent to all three kids’ parents:
M. had a conversation with her friends today and I was there in case she needed guidance. M. explained in her own words what transgender means. Your kids have had a lot of conversations about gender in our class and so there were no big questions. I have always felt that gender topics are important to talk with children about and always find ways to talk about it in class. Today, it was really evident that these conversations need to happen more – especially with younger kids. One of them said something like, “Well, gender doesn’t matter, it’s who you are and what you feel.” Wow! I Also introduced the word ally to them and told them that when M. is ready to share with more people some kids may have questions about it. We all agreed that they can remind people that there are things that are private and that with conversations like that, they can to ask a teacher for help. Kevin brought up name calling and said that if anyone call anyone names (not just with M.), that they will make sure to take a stand against it. Your children are amazing and I can’t say enough about how honored I am to work with them everyday!
And then I got these three emails:
Marlo, I am so happy to get your note and glad M. feels comfortable sharing with her friends and feel proud that Claire is among that group. Claire mentioned the conversation to me. We discussed the difference between privacy and secrets (she used the word privacy and asked me to be private too).I find it amazing M. had the language for this degree of self knowledge at such a young age and am certain it reflects upon you and her dad for honoring her individuality. She is a lucky girl. Thanks for reaching out and for the heads up so I can best answer any possible questions in the way M. would like.G.
Marlo,I really appreciate your taking the time to reach out to us and share this information about M. It’s so nice to know that she feels close enough to Kevin to want him to know. We’ll be sure to answer any questions he might have and to help him understand that this is something she’d like to keep private.T.
Thanks, Marlo! As you say, we’ve been aware for awhile and of course are so happy that M. found wonderfully supportive parents and an amazing school that can support her being who she is. I don’t think Ana knows but I’m positive that she’ll be happy to know, and we’ll help her understand the privacy issue. Ana has been talking about the Jazz book a lot – she really liked it.M.
After dinner, I asked M. about all this. “Did you tell your friends today about being transgender, like you and Patricia had planned?”
“Yes!” she beamed.
“How’d it go?”
And then she refused to utter another peep about it. “It’s private,” she said.