Seven years old, stealth, and scared

stealth2Oh friends, I feel like I’ve really screwed up.

I’ve tried so hard to strike a balance in my parenting, attempting to ensure my child’s safety and privacy  without instilling a sense of shame in her trans identity.  And I think I’ve done pretty well.  She has friends of all ages who are transgender and who are healthy and happy and successful. She even got to meet TV star Laverne Cox, and be told by that beautiful trans woman that “transgender is beautiful.”  I think she believed Ms. Cox.  I think she knows she’s beautiful.  I think she even feels kind of proud to be trans, like she’s part of a special club.

But I still think I’ve missed the mark.  I have been so focused on helping her maintain her privacy, on telling her, again and again, that only SHE gets to decide who “knows,” that I think I’ve made her afraid.  I wanted her to feel like she was in control.  And I wanted to protect her from people who are cruel. But somewhere along the line, things went sideways.

School starts tomorrow.  And yesterday, out of the blue, my seven-year-old said, “Mama, I want to go to a school with only transgender kids.”

What?

She’ll be going to a new school.  It’s a big public elementary school, and almost no one there knows that she is transgender.  She did tell Posey, her BFF from down the block, but Posey has been incredibly discreet.  M. asked her not to share her secret, and the kid didn’t even tell her own parents. (I did, just to make sure they were on board, and they were.)

“Are you worried that Posey will tell someone?” I asked. “Because I think she really understands that you wanted her to keep it private.”

“But what if she forgets?” M. said.

I said I’d talk to Posey’s parents, and make sure they reminded Posey about the importance of privacy.

M. shrugged.  This clearly wasn’t making her feel any better.

“What would you do if the other kids found out?” I said.

“I would have to change schools.”

Oh no. Is this what she really thinks?

“Why would you have to change schools, honey?”

“Because there might be people who wouldn’t understand.”

“And you think they’d tease you or something?”

She nodded.

“You think the teasing would be so bad that you’d have to change schools?”

“Yes.”

And that’s when I learned how afraid she is. I tried to reassure her.  “Look, honey.  Everyone gets teased sometimes – for all sorts of reasons.  Grandma got teased for being short.  I got teased for wearing glasses. But it’s not the end of the world, and ALL teasing is against the rules at your new school. If anyone teased you, your teacher would help you.  I would help you.”

She looked down and started fidgeting with the buttons on her sweater.

“I PROMISE that I will help you if any kid teases you,” I said.  “We will take care of it.”

Was any of this getting through?

I tried another tack.  “Look, honey, transgender isn’t, like, a huge deal.  It’s just one thing about you, and everyone has things about them that make them a little different. And our differences are what make us special.”

“I don’t want to talk about this anymore.”

Poor kid.  No wonder she doesn’t want to talk to her mother: I’m not making any sense!  If it’s really not a huge deal to be transgender, why the hell do we attend a special support group every month to talk about it?  If she really doesn’t need to worry about being teased for being transgender, then why have I been working so hard to help her keep it private?  Oh, the contradictions!

Here’s the thing:  We live in a liberal city.  It will probably be fine if word gets out at school that she’s trans. Probably.

I talked it over with my cousin/BFF, Anne, who is also a single mom of young children.  “Secrets are toxic,” she said. “It’s not healthy for a young child to have to keep a big secret like that.”

I saw her point.  Think of the toll that would take, to be always worrying and wondering: Who knows?  Who will tell?  Who will hurt me if they find out?  It’s as if my child and I are living in a bunker, deep underground, afraid to come to the surface because there might be bombs crashing down all around us. Armageddon may have arrived.

But what if it hasn’t?  What if we go up to the surface and find a sunny, daisy-strewn meadow where we can breathe easy at last, without fearing what might be lurking outside our stifling bunker of closely-kept secrets?

At the Gender Odyssey conference last month, I sat and listened to an older transgender man tell his story.  He was in his seventies, and had had a long and successful career in science.  He had recently lost his beloved wife of many decades.  At the end of his story, he said:  “And I’m still stealth.”  He implored all of us listening to respect his privacy.  “I can’t ever let this get out,” he said.

His words took my breath away.  All those years holding that secret. He’s had a happy, successful life, but oh, what a burden.  For his generation, there had been no other option.  But for my daughter’s generation, it’s different – sort of.

I recently met a mother at our local support group who has a young trans daughter the same age as M.  When her “son” officially became a girl last year, the kids on the playground started teasing her.  The bullying got so bad that the mother took her out of school and starting looking for a private school where her daughter would be safe.  “We can’t really afford it,” she told me, “But what else can I do?”

This happened just across town from the school my daughter will be attending.  Will it happen to us too?

I want to tell her to not be afraid.  I don’t want her to live in constant fear of discovery. I want to tell her that it’s going to be a field of daisies, and that yes, maybe there will be bees hiding in some of those flowers, but that we’ll survive those stings.

On the other hand, I don’t want her to be the target of every playground bully looking for someone to pick on.  And once this information gets out, there’s no putting it back.  These are the same kids she’ll be with in middle school and high school. One day, these sweet little second-graders will be 13.  I remember being a 13-year-old girl in the social shark tank of eighth grade, and I wasn’t trans, but it still wasn’t pretty.

In nearly every area of my life as a parent to a transgender kid, I’m making this up as I go along. Almost everything we do feels like a first, and right now I’m frankly sick-and-tired of being Pioneer Mommy:  When she starts second grade at a new school this week, my daughter will be the first (identified) transgender child to ever attend the school.  When I told her pediatrician that she was transgender, he asked me to explain exactly what that meant.  When I went to the courthouse to change her name, the judge signed the paper and then shook her head and wished me luck with these “uncharted waters.”

Yes, there are other parents I can turn to.  The courage and wisdom of the moms and dads in our local support group takes my breath away.  There are also some also wonderful online resources and forums. I’m so grateful for that.

And yet, even the most seasoned parents of transgender kids have just a few more years in this game than I do.  At best, we have maybe a decade of data, all of it anecdotal, all of it passed among us like rare gems mined at great effort out of an alien landscape no one told us even existed.

And there is no inter-generational knowledge base.  I can’t ask my mom or my aunts how they dealt with this issue when they were young mothers thirty years ago. They can’t pat me on the hand and say, “Don’t worry, honey.  Here’s how I handled your cousin Billy and look how well he’s doing now.”

My mother is my biggest supporter and is devoted to her transgender granddaughter, but when it comes time to answer the transgender questions, the only honest answer she has for me is, “Oh, sweetie, I just don’t know.”

And neither does her daughter.  And that’s what’s so hard. I just don’t know.

I’m so sorry, M., if I’ve made you afraid.  I’m trying so hard, but I know I’m making mistakes.  I’m learning alongside you.  When you get mad or feel I’ve let you down, please remember that. 

I promise you I’ll never stop fighting for you and for a world in which there’s no reason for you to be afraid. Just like Laverne Cox said, you are beautiful, just as you are.  If only the whole wide world knew how lucky it is to have you in it.

61 thoughts on “Seven years old, stealth, and scared

  1. You as a mother have a very serious problem. Stop trying to cover up your child’s private parts. It’s weird. So what if your son wants to look pretty? You need to deal with that. Stop telling them to hide their genitals. It’s weird. Also I dont really know if your son believes they are a girl, or simply is trying to rationalize the things they like.

    I’m responding because I listened to your Podcast on Love & Radio and I was concerned for both of you. I grew up in San Mateo, California with loving liberal parents in a multicultural city. My friend stephanie in preschool would walk around with a construction hat and asked to be called bob. (This was the late 80’s early 90’s no no, not a bob the builder reference)

    Listening to your podcast you made it clear to your son that they liked things that was all girl’s stuff, and when you imposed the insidisous question, “Do you think it’s okay for boys to like those things.” His response was a completely logical response of “Well I’m a girl then.” It makes sense.

    You HAVE to deprogram your kid to stop thinking about genders. Who cares what they wear! None of it has to be boy or girl specific. When I was a kid, boys wore flannel and girls didn’t. Now girls wear flannel. Boys didn’t wear tight pants, now they do. Before I was born PINK was a boy’s color and blue was a girl’s color.

    Relax on the pronouns! He hasnt even hit puberty yet. He has NO sexual orientation at all and is now terrified of his own genitals! Just chill!

  2. I just found your blog this evening and have spent hours (about 3 of them) pouring over every archived blog from the begining till now, and I have to tell you I am struggling in my own way to address this issue with my child. Ash is 5 years old, and was born a boy. But Ash is different in many way, first of which is that Ash has a brain malformation that causes seizures, some delays physically and cognitively, and poor motor skill. In addition to this Ash learns things differently, so its hard sometimes to be sure he understands a concept. But about 2 years ago his daycare ran out of clothea for him when he had an accident and sent him home in a bright pink pair of capri shorts, and he fell in love. Then he asked at christmas time for a power rangers costume and an elsa princess dress, so we bought both. Then he began some days to say he was a girl and others a boy. Then he began to insist on buying girls clothes and toys. Now he is always insisitant that he is a girl, but doesn’t understand pronouns so we still use males ones. He wears his hair in pig tails, and dances around in his pink bedroom with his babydolls and superheros. He attends a public school in a large city in a conservative state, but the school requires uniforms, so we decided that since his older brother was at the same school that at least for now, we would tell him he had to dress in the boys uniform at school, but could wear whatever he wanted to any other time. Now I have to decide how we procede from here… and I dont know what to do. My significant other is concerned that if we allow him to present as a girl he will be beaten up, and he is already so different because of the medical issues that he doesn’t want to add more differences. I worry that he may be right, but that we may be harming Ash is more significant ways by telling him he has to present one way sometimes and only be himself in the evenings and on weekends. All of our family and friends are supportive, but I just dont know what to do. And we dont know any other families with transgender or gender fluid children. I would love any support or advise you could give.

    • I feel you Cassie and wonder what Kevin would have to say if he were actually in your (our) situation! If only it were so easy as to “chill”. No offense, Kevin, we get it about the shame and secrecy of hiding the genitals and getting away from perpetuating gender separative thinking, and that the gender world is ever transforming… however, none of that really helps when it’s your kid, who’s 8! And no matter how you try and undo the gender norms created in his head, society continually and aggressively builds them right back up, every single second he walks out my front door!!!

      People who are not struggling with the issue personally, especially my supportive friends, try desperately to comfort me and support me and to be liberal in there ideal of the gender changing world and say many of the things you said above, Kevin. And it all comes from the best genuine place for sure, and it’s all in the best attempt to say, it’s gonna be ok, it’s no big deal, let him wear the dress and be happy, who cares!. And geeze, we absolutely and whole heartedly AGREE WITH YOU 100%!!!!! Unfortunately….when it’s actually YOUR child (especially your SON) who wants to be or at least dress, as the other gender (because no matter how much I explain to him that there are more than two choices and it’s a spectrum and he does not have to fit one category or the other) it’s a COMPLETELY different reality!!!! Trust me, I am cool with my boy in a dress, and a bikini, and ear rings, and pig tails, and so is he. And he loves his penis and being a boy and also may want boobs in the future and wants to birth his own baby. And I am totally cool with this, 1000%, and I beg you to believe that I approve of my kiddo just the way he/she is to the inner depths of my soul!!! The ONLY problem is navigating his existence in the beautifully “chill” world you described above- cuz it doesn’t exist! It’s my battlefield, actually. And perhaps the literal death of kids like ours, or at least the cause of their shitty self esteem and crazy suicide and depression rates. So ya, give us a break. We are not trying to bring shame or guilt to our already underdog kids, we are simply and desperately trying to figure out the right thing to do 100% of the time. And here is never an easy answer…not because of us, but because of the gaping trench between our 100% acceptance and societies true place with gender fluidity. Is the world more liberal now than when only boys wore flannel? Sure, if you say so Kevin. It’s awesome out there. If only it truly were.

      As for Cassie…. I feel you! And I am in a similar boat with a kid born with a penis who wants to wear dresses. He can be himself with us always and when we are just out and about and he is “passing” for society so no one comments about why the boy wants to buy the princess umbrella, I know you know what I mean. But, us too….when it comes to school he is not allowed to wear the dress as we live in a conservative place (I know I know, just move to a liberal place-so easy-not!) anyway, we struggle too and HATE that we have to say no to this and also wonder what it is doing to his psyche. He knows we love and support him 100% but he has also had to learn that not everyone in the world does and that he actually can’t be himself just everywhere…which is a shit message!!! I don’t know Cassie, I have times where we cruise and think things are fine and then I have times where I kinda hit myself on the head and go “What the hell are you doing to him??? Let him wear the dress and do what he wants always and deal with it!!!! DUH!!!!” But that reality is EXTREMELY FRIGHTENING because we worry that his social life would be instantaneously changed and that of course he will be teased and bullied and maybe worse as we all know the stories… So, I really dunno. I think the true answer is opening a school for Trans kids and supporters of trans kids only! I’m tired of Home schooing being the only safe option-further isolating our isolated kiddos, ya know? So, wanna open a school together? I am a teacher and school counselor after all! 🙂

      Would love to hear how you and yours are getting on and share our experiences. If you are feeling it, email me sometime at brennacreamer@gmail.com.

      Cheers.

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