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