“Mommy, you know I’m only a boy because of my parts… right?”
How I learned I was the one who needed to “transition;” my child simply needed to evolve into who they were always meant to be
Before anyone asks, no, I’m not some sort of new age, millennial, hipster chic parent living in a commune, attempting to raise genderless, nameless offspring who will one day grow up and decide these things independent of their father and me. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that; it’s just not my style.) My husband and I learned all three of our kids’ sexes via ultrasound and we planned accordingly. I dressed my boys in blue, my girl in pink.
I’d always hoped to have a child of each gender. And God — in only God’s divine and humorous way — was brilliant enough to give me one of each: in 2000, a boy; in 2002, a girl; and in 2006, well… let’s just say God threw caution to the wind and decided to confuse everyone and make the ride just a little more fun!
When my third (and last) child was born, I’d gone into labor almost a week earlier than my scheduled c-section. And thank goodness he was early, because my bouncing baby boy weighed in at just under 10 lbs. (9 lbs., 15 oz., to be exact). He earned the nickname “Bubba” among the birthing center staff for being the biggest newborn in the hospital nursery that month.
We’d eventually learn that everything about Bubba was big: his smile, his cry, his physique, his imagination. He was an easy baby — loved people, easily entertained, mostly happy, never met a stranger, that sort of thing. He did everything early, from holding his head up, to walking and talking.
And man, was he was astronomically strong. I breastfed, but I also pumped so my husband could share the love, especially with middle of the night feedings. We thought it was fluke when BB could hold his own bottle of milk and basically feed himself at 8 weeks, but realized it was no fluke when he insisted on holding it, independently, every time thereafter. At 15 months, long after he’d already mastered the art of running, he could easily push his 60 lb., seven-year-old, big brother in our little red wagon from behind. Uphill.
It was at this point when we decided to change his nickname from “Bubba” to a more fitting nickname, “Bamm-Bamm,” as in the fictional, super-strong toddler son of Betty & Barney Rubble from The Flintstones cartoon; sometimes just “BB” for short.
BB started thinning out and growing taller around age 2, while also losing his heftiness and domineering stature. By the age of 2.5, he began expressing stereotypical female, much to our surprise. He’d always prefer playing with big sister’s Barbie dolls and old ballet costumes over anything big brother had in his room. BB had no interest in stereotypical boy toys, whether trucks and cars, tools, superheroes or action figures. Nor did he like toys meant for toddlers — not even the more gender neutral options — like Legos or Duplos.
But BB would spend hours in big sister’s room, sitting at her little pink plastic vanity, applying pretend makeup or fixing hair while modeling full-on attitude, runway-ready faces in the mirror. BB was crystal clear in his preferences.
When he was just under 3, we were hanging out on in the den chatting like always, when BB grew quiet and then appeared to discover some type of revelation out of thin air — which then compelled him to assert:
“Mommy, you know I’m only a boy because of my parts… right?”
At the time I knew nothing of transgender people, let alone, trans kids. But I did know that this was an unusually profound statement for my toddler to make. Maybe because he said it with a sense of purpose and finality, completely different from the playful way he might say something like, “Look at me! I a kitty cat now,” or “DJ Lance Rock — he my friend.”
This felt different — unsettling in a way.
Looking back now, I can clearly see that my child had chosen each word deliberately, yet with painstaking caution. It was both a mature statement of intent, and an apprehensive inquiry seeking some type of reassurance. In the moment, I didn’t think too much of it and glossed it over with “yes, that’s right sweetie” or something to that effect, and we carried on with our play and our chit chat.
But over the next few weeks, months, and years, I kept hearing it over and over in my head:
“Mommy, you know I’m only a boy because of my parts… right?”
Like it was demanding my attention.
It was 2008. Facebook was only just taking off — there were no secret groups or support communities online for this specific niche. There weren’t many (if any) resources available at all, and I was desperately searching how best to support this type of child, and what even was this type of child? Was there a name for it… one that wasn’t a slur?
All I knew was that I loved my BB fiercely, and nothing would change that.
So, I simply started watching and listening just a little more closely, trying to keep an open mind and not have a negative reaction, because I didn’t know what else to do.
A year later, BB was obsessed with both versions of Dorothy: the one from The Wizard of Oz, and the one from The Wiz. Those DVDs played daily, until they got so worn out they’d never play again. He became obsessed with Rapunzel, Tinkerbell (and all the other pixies), and Alice in Wonderland. And a handful of other princess-type characters.
Of course, BB was still obsessed with the “girly” dress up — always the “girly” dress up, whether it was big sister’s princess costumes she’d outgrown, or my old, oversized, worn-out, “mom” nightgowns. With those, BB could work sheer magic (even at age 4), cinching them fitted at the waist, or draping and tying them over one shoulder.
And still, BB showed absolutely zero enthusiasm for any form of stereotypical boys interests or play toys.
People started to notice and say things. Most usually, some form of the question, “is your husband okay with this?” (My husband didn’t really care, but no one seemed to accept this statement at face value.)
I began feeling judged.
The comments got more invasive and personal as time passed and other adults struggled to reconcile our son’s gender-bending tendencies and how (or why) we were okay with it.
Yes, we thought it was a phase.
But by the time BB was nearly 5, I finally started seeing that this wasn’t a phase at all; this was just the raw fabric of my child.
I started thinking, “I know what this is; I have a future gay son. He’s going to get older and eventually tell me: ‘Mom, I’m gay.’ And I’ll know exactly what to do since I grew up a theatre kid, and with all my gay friends in the theatre world, it’ll be just like one big happy family…”
It wasn’t that I thought my child was necessarily aware of sexual orientation and thus acting accordingly, however stereotypical that sounds. But I did (and I do) believe people are born the way they are, and part of that pre-programmed constitution includes a sexual orientation that maybe influences their mannerisms, demeanor, and even behavior. I always was a firm believer that all behavior is communication. However, I didn’t yet know about the many complexities of gender, gender identity, and gender expression.
As a cisgender, heterosexual person myself, who was born with all the stars lining up perfectly (so to speak; it’s all relative), I didn’t yet understand that gender identity was unrelated to sexual orientation and gender expression. As a cisgender, heterosexual person (cis-het for short), I was privileged in these ways — privileged: another concept I didn’t understand yet.
I had a lot to learn, which would require being intentional with reading, studying, absorbing, and digesting. Most importantly, it would require strong discipline in active listening skills, while also suppressing the urgent need to respond in any kind of knee-jerk manner, if at all. When to speak up, when to pipe down, when to not speak in the first place. I still have a lot to learn; thirteen years into this journey, I’m not ashamed to admit that I’ve only scratched the surface.
After years of trying to learn (and struggling to find resources) to support raising and affirming this type of child, I was watching something on TV about a gender creative boy. BB came in, listened a moment, and promptly announced, “that’s me!” And so, for the first time BB found a label that fit, and “gender creative” stuck.
But already, years had passed where BB endured “dressing like a boy” for school and other public places, only to come home and rip those outfits off like there was no tomorrow. He’d relax into a Disney princess costume the way I might relax into removing my bra after a long day. It’s not that we forbid him from ever wearing those things to school or in public, it’s just that — as ridiculous as this sounds — we didn’t realize that he could. It simply never crossed our minds.
Meanwhile, I continued remaining blissfully unaware of the real reason why my child hated, detested, absolutely loathed going shopping for clothes and shoes. When I’d send him to the boy’s dressing room to try on even just an item or two, he may as well have been an innocent man heading into the colosseum of imperial Rome to fight a lion, judging by the look on his face, sluggish posture, and feet, unwilling to move.
But BB “masked” in typical boy’s clothes all the way through 4th grade, always coming home and stripping them off like some repulsive, unwanted costume. I guess he publicly suppressed his hatred of these things as long as he could. By the second quarter of 4th grade, BB’s anxiety had spiraled to almost unmanageable levels. He was having panic attacks daily, for seemingly no reason whatsoever. Fortunately, because I worked in his school I was just a quick phone call down the hall, but unfortunately, this led to us also spending many hours that year in the health room.
I’d get called and I’d go sit with my child, trying to comfort but feeling absolutely helpless while he’d violently shake, sweat, cry, and try his best not to throw up, so he could just recover and move on. I was desperate to know why my child was having panic attacks over something as benign as chocolate birthday cupcakes at lunch for a friend. We’d seen therapist after therapist; none were a good match, and none could help us get this under control.
Of course, it didn’t help one bit that BB also had an irrational and extreme phobia of swallowing pills, regardless of how tiny we broke them apart, or what food we crushed them into. We always had to request gummies or liquids when he was sick. All attempts at taking pills were harrowing, fruitless, and traumatizing — for BB and for us. So anxiety medication was out of the question, as long as my child had any say in it.
The day my child threw up (yet again) in the health room after forty-five minutes of painful, distressing panic, and then said with confidence, “Mom, I’m ready to take the pill,” I realized exactly how badly he’d been suffering.
Not long after that, BB decided to wear one of his “pretty girls rings” to school, one that he’d picked out earlier in the year. He’d already been carrying a sparkly, glittery, and very “girly” backpack all year, but this was like another level of trying out, like he was testing the safety waters. The backpack, he took off and put in the closet at school every morning; the ring would stay on unless he decided to take it off, and then, where would he keep it so it’d be safe?
He wore the ring one day, and to our dismay, we learned that his fellow 4th grade classmates had gotten over the backpack way easier than they got over the delicate, pink-stoned ring. It took BB til near the end of the school year, but he did wear it again.
Finally, BB began letting others know, “I’m gender creative” when they’d ask questions like, “Why are you so weird?” We tried to prepare him for how difficult this level of openness would be. Again and again, he attempted to explain what gender creative meant, but it wasn’t easily accepted by peers (especially here in the south, in a majority “red” state).
It was so sad and isolating for him, and it was excruciating to witness day after day. He’d talk about sitting on the buddy bench at recess — a signal that a student was in need of a friend to play with — but no one would come over and ask him to play. It broke my heart. He became more withdrawn and quiet as each day passed.
The search for and subsequent find of some kind of label and identity had been such a breakthrough for BB, who now found himself struggling to make friends. On top of that, he was also dealing with the extra burden of male classmates constantly saying “you’re gay,” (and much worse).
All the retorts and comebacks we suggested that he asked for never seemed to work in the moment. The harassing kids kept harassing. Most struggled to understand my child on any level. Many of them would ask me about it when they saw me in the halls or cafeteria at school. It was a difficult, tight line to toe — between saying what I really wanted to say, versus saying an educational but lighthearted “professional” remark so I wouldn’t lose my job.
The summer after 4th grade was when it suddenly clicked; he could wear whatever he wanted to wear, wherever he wanted to wear it. And if that meant he’d have to endure even more harassment and bullying, but it would maybe, at least, spare his internal happiness, it was worth it in my mind. His, too. So in 2016, in a highly charged political environment in the south, where a transphobic “bathroom/changing/public facilities bill” became law, a shopping trip to tween girls clothing store Justice became my child’s saving grace.
By 5th grade, BB had begun rejecting everything remotely masculine, including clothing and even underwear that appeared masculine. BB went from just wearing a sparkly “girls” backpack in 4th grade, to wearing pink & purple Twinkle Toe Sketchers, to growing a long head of hair and wearing big floral headbands, and dressing in legit girls clothing, from girls clothing stores, head to toe, 100% of the time.
My child socially transitioned in 5th grade — without me actually realizing that this was a social transition — in a public school in the south where everyone knew BB as “him,” before any desire arose to change pronouns. Since I worked there, I saw my child in this environment multiple times daily, yet I still couldn’t comprehend the level of bravery it took my baby to live that authentically.
As the year wore on, I noticed that labels and identity began being less important to BB, as we were still using (and BB didn’t object to) “he/him,” or descriptors like “boy” and “son.” But, the moment 5th grade graduation ended — and I do mean the moment it ended, like, while we were still in the cafeteria having cake and punch — that was the last time BB wanted to be referred to as “he/him/our son.”
That piece of the puzzle was made very clear that night, and I finally started understanding things on an even deeper level; I finally accepted that this — all of this, from the 4th grade panic attacks to the years-long struggles with issues like encopresis — was how gender dysphoria was manifesting itself in my child.
Unlike all the trans kids I’d seen in documentaries, my child was not “insisent, consistent, and persistent” with verbal expressions like “I’m really a girl,” “I was born in the wrong body,” or “Mommy, why did God make me wrong?”
Instead, it was the more recent assertion of, “finally, no more he/him,” in addition to the one declaration BB made in toddlerhood, “Mommy, you know I’m only a boy because of my parts, right?” plus the communicative behavior of all those years leading up to age 10— including the complicated ball of raw, intertwined anxiety and physical symptoms that I’d thought was just my ‘nervous’ child — was really gender dysphoria. And I didn’t recognize it until a therapist specializing in all things LGBTQ helped me to see it.
It was during that same year that my husband and I decided to found and run a program for trans and gender nonconforming youth on our child’s behalf. This was where our child learned about different pronouns. This was when BB’s fierce adoption of the nonbinary pronouns “they/them” began.
Now, as a 13-year-old, rising 8th grader, BB still prefers going by “they/them/their(s)” at home and in safe places where people “get it,” however, BB never bothered throughout their 5th grade social transition to correct others who used “she/her.” In fact, BB embraced “she/her” along with “they/them,” though the nonbinary pronouns were still favored. My child came to be referred to as “she/her” by almost everyone in public, and was able to enter middle school as “she/her.” I guess because nothing makes you stand out more in middle school than having “weird” pronouns.
But also, it’s because people in our area (and many other areas around the country) still struggle to comprehend — let alone, use — “singular” they, even though they do it all the time anyway without even realizing:
“Someone left their coat here.”
“Everybody wants to feel they are appreciated.”
“If anyone wants their money back, they must have their receipt.”
“We need a new boss who is sincere in their actions.”
“Who turned in their homework already?”
“A person who has been drinking should never drive, even if they think they are fine.”
By 6th grade, BB was not indicating a desire to further transition or begin puberty blockers or anything else like that, at least we thought. We figured it may or may not happen, but we have to be open and ready for whatever if we are to love our child unconditionally.
In the summer after our child’s social transition, we went shoe shopping and the sales clerk kept referring to BB as “your daughter,” “she,” and “her.” It was really the first time it happened so overtly. I mean, a couple of times before that it happened in restaurants, but for some reason it seemed more ambiguous in those places, maybe because the whole family was there, it was noisy, and we couldn’t really be sure which one of us the server was talking to.
But it was just BB and me in that shoe store, and everyone thought we were mother and daughter. When it first happened in a restaurant, I asked them, “what do you want us to say or do when someone assumes you’re a girl and refers to you as a girl?” BB said, “Just roll with it.”
So that’s what I did in the shoe store that day. Didn’t correct anyone, didn’t bat an eyelash, just immediately code-switched and went along with using “she/her” myself for BB. On the way out to the parking lot, BB said, “Mom, that’s exactly what I meant by ‘just roll with it.’ Good job! Thank you!”
For me, “just rolling with it” originally felt so odd and foreign. I wanted to have control in these situations. I wanted to have a plan A and a plan B, and I wanted to know specifically what I would say or do if both Plan A and B backfired.
But my child wouldn’t be boxed in to any gender binary, at least not then.
And all of this is why we have a gender therapist, who has told us (with 20+ years experience counseling trans and gender non-conforming clients), we’re doing exactly what we’re supposed to do: follow the child’s lead. Don’t needle with too many questions. Let go of that control.
And I have to trust that she’s handling all the role-playing, all the what-if scenarios, and all the coping mechanisms in response to the insults and microaggressions and slander that is unique to this community of people.
Along the way of this journey, we’ve been through a lot.
We had a story go viral (plus all the overwhelming stuff that five minutes of fame brings you); my child’s portrait was painted by a prominent local artist and featured in her amazing gender exploration art show, “In Other Words;” my writing got picked up, featured, and syndicated in well-known media outlets where I’d never expected it to; we founded the playgroup and discussion program for trans youth and their parents; and my child was asked to write a short story for a book slated to be published by Macmillan — the first anthology of its kind, a book written by and for transgender and non-binary youth.
We’ve also been through a roller coaster of emotions.
My child contemplated puberty blockers for over a year with their therapist, ultimately deciding they most definitely wanted to “buy some time” with blockers — which they’ve been doing now for over a year — and we were fortuitously connected with a former HBO/Lifetime/ESPN/Hallmark producer who’s insanely talented and working with us to create a one-woman multimedia show for the stage. That producer has also just recruited a former ‘80’s child star, now film director/producer, to collaborate with us on this project.
The hurry-up-and-wait portion of all of this — from the pause period of my child’s puberty blockers, to the endless tasks of being a public advocate, to the snail’s pace of working to create transformative art through live theatre, that will one day, hopefully, allow me to escape my daily grind job, and better support my family financially — is quite emotional indeed.
It’s tireless, constant, overtime work. It drains you of your resources. It’s mentally and physically exhausting. It’s definitely not for the thin-skinned or undisciplined. But I wouldn’t trade any of it for a second.
Having known my child for over a decade now, it all makes perfect sense to me, but I can understand why others hearing our story — which is just a small window into our very complex lives — think that we are not being parents. Those who think like that simply don’t know. They don’t know how much time, money, and effort we’ve spent on therapy for the whole family.
They don’t know how much blood, sweat, and tears we’ve put into our own research and workshop attending, or how many nights we’ve stayed up comforting a child screaming in anxiety over things we now know were caused by gender dysphoria.
And all this while attempting to give an equal amount of attention, care, support, and of course love to our other, older two children, who each have immense joys and sorrows of their own.
I can also understand that people think trans children are confused over gender. I probably thought like that too, before walking this path myself. It took a long time for me to get it, but gender dysphoria is not the same thing as “confusion.” Our TGNC kids aren’t confused. They know exactly who they are, but often, they simply lack the vocabulary or the cognitive ability to explain it so that us adults can understand it. And that’s rightfully frustrating for them.
There’s also a perception that gender is an “adult” topic, that children are too young to know or understand these things. Part of the flaw in that thinking is the assumption that gender identity and sexual orientation are the same. They aren’t. If everyone were to think about their own gender story, they’d likely respond they didn’t know when or how they knew they were male or female; no parent had to sit them down and tell them. They just knew, and they somehow had that internal sense of identity from a very young age.
The same is true for transgender people (and I use “transgender” as an umbrella term, meant to encompass anyone who’s not cisgender, including non-binary folks.) They’ve always known. Just like you’ve always known who you are at your core.
And though it may seem like it, there are not more and more of them popping up everywhere all of a sudden; this isn’t a new trend or phenomenon. Native Americans have always had “two spirits,” whose gender identity exists beyond binary male or female. Two spirits have been some of the most respected and revered people in the tribe. Many, many other cultures and religions around the world recognize more than two genders as well.
The reason it seems that we’re hearing more trans people’s stories now is because we have the internet, experience forming support groups and movements on social media and in person, and a whole generation of parents who watched their LGBT friends get kicked out of their homes in the 1980s for being LGBT, and we realize the amount of harm that did.
We want to do better. It’s as simple as that.
And for all the grief both the internet and social media get, they are capable of connecting people like never before. The internet is ultimately helping because it’s the one bridge that is able to finally connect this community of people, who have existed forever, but who otherwise wouldn’t have ever likely met one another. The internet is also driving awareness of trans issues with lightning speed, in an unprecedented manner.
As a parents raising trans youth, we have to be their advocates. It’s not something any of us ever asked for or imagined we’d be doing. Many of us, up to this point, have led lives of being peacemakers, avoiding confrontation at all costs. But, as we’ve all learned, it’s kind of impossible to be a “silent” advocate. Plus, gender is public, unlike sexual orientation which doesn’t necessarily broadcast itself. It’s pretty hard for someone to transition genders with no one noticing.
Many of us parents of trans kids are public. As such, we get all kinds of ill-informed accusations and harmful motives ascribed to us by complete strangers. What I wish people could understand is that when they have their initial knee-jerk reactions, this is where they need to just take a step back, make conscious efforts not to judge, and trust that us parents raising trans kids have done our research and homework — enough to have earned the equivalent of a Master’s degree on the topic — and we do actually know what we’re doing.
We know what’s considered best practices in raising this type of child, we know what the statistics show regarding transgender youth and suicide, and we know trans people are the most at-risk group of marginalized people to self-harm, attempt, or complete suicide.
This is not because they’re “confused.” It’s because of gender-based victimization, discrimination, bullying, violence, being rejected by family, friends, and community; harassment by intimate partners, family members, police and public; and discrimination and ill treatment at health-care systems. These are the major risk factors that influence the suicidal behavior among transgender people.
These factors penetrate them literally everywhere.
We know that a loving, accepting family is often the line between life or death for trans kids. But even when a trans person has an all-accepting family around them, it’s still not enough, because hatred towards this population is so ingrained in our society. We need look no further than the stories of trans youth like Jay Griffin or Leelah Alcorn to know we’re not doing enough for these kids.
And, because we love our trans children so unconditionally, and we want them to live, we fight to educate others and to support our trans youth. We are in tune with the politics of the day — because we have to be — and we’re highly aware of statistics like how the LGBTQ Suicide Hotline calls from transgender youth have spiked — more than doubled — under Trump’s presidency.
This is in direct correlation with today’s political climate, one where the President of the United States has surrounded himself with advisers and cabinet members who are notoriously racist, openly homophobic and transphobic, xenophobic, misogynistic, sexist, criminal, and more.
We have a political climate in which it’s perfectly acceptable for a rich white man who brags of sexual assault to get elected President, and not only not have to give up his personal Twitter account, but also is allowed to use it for issuing mandates such as the transgender military ban.
The death of Leelah Alcorn, one of the most infamous trans youth suicides, sheds light on so many issues still surrounding transgender youth and the micro (and macro) aggressions they endure. She took her life because she felt no sense of hope. It’s almost as if in 2014, she could foresee what this country would go through politically, how the pendulum would swing too far the other way, reversing tireless efforts of social progress — typically by those who aren’t even affected by it — by the time she would be graduating from college. Indeed there are many days now where things seem hopeless, but we have to find a sliver of hope somewhere, somehow, and hold on to that.
It’s ironic that strangers accuse parents like me, who advocate for our trans kids, of being child abusers simply for allowing our children to explore their gender, and for advocating publicly. That’s one of the common, misinformed armchair diagnoses we get labeled with.
The world needs to shift its collective mindset just a bit. Unconditionally loving a trans child exactly as they are, embracing that mindset, and advocating for them is quite the opposite of child abuse. A parent has to have a very mature sensibility and understanding of unconditional love in order to let go of their own wants, needs, and desires for their child’s life, and their own need for control over their child’s life.
This type of parenting is not for the weak.
Leelah’s parents said in interviews they “loved (him) unconditionally,” but during those interviews called Leelah by her dead name of Josh, and refused to use female pronouns when talking about their child.
This is not showing unconditional love.
Their child took her own life because her parents refused to acknowledge her gender dysphoria, tried sending her to “conversion therapy,” and even in death they continued to disrespect her in that way.
Additionally, Leelah had to mask as gay, because that was easier for her parents to accept than trans. This is still happening in families everywhere today. In my advocacy, I’ve talked to numerous adults who tell me that coming out as gay, even when it didn’t feel quite right, was just easier than having to admit they were transgender.
Ultimately, what I learned (and what I think society needs to learn and understand) is that trans kids don’t “transition” so much as they simply evolve into who they were always meant to be: their most authentic selves. Rather, it’s everyone else in the trans kid’s life who has to transition — to deliberately change rigid, fixed mindsets, to learn new pronouns and names, to move out of comfort zones, to intentionally unlearn old habits, and so on.
In her suicide note, Leelah pleaded for her death to be counted in the number of transgender people who committed suicide that year (2014). “The only way I will rest in peace,” Leelah wrote, “is if one day transgender people aren’t treated the way I was, they’re treated like humans, with valid feelings and human rights. Gender needs to be taught about in schools, the earlier the better.” She begged us to “Fix society. Please.”
To my own child, to Leelah, to Jay, and to all the other trans kids out there, please hang on. We’re working on it.
Martie sir-ROY (she/her) writes a variety of social commentary. She’s a top writer in both Culture and LGBTQ for Medium, editor of Gender From the Trenches, and has been a featured contributor for HuffPost, Scary Mommy, NPR affiliates, SiriusXM Insight, and others. A wife, proud mom of three teens, and trans advocate, Martie founded & facilitates S.E.A.R.CH., a program of her local LGBT Center for Trans and GNC youth & their parents. Connect with Martie on Twitter, Facebook, or follow her website & blog.