by Tina Carson; artwork by JJ
My kid is an “A” student whose favorite pastime is drawing cats. They have a pet tree frog named Gremlin. They are such a rule follower that once when I parked illegally on an empty street to take our dog for a quick walk, they refused to get out of the car. They have a strong sense of social justice. But they’re not perfect. I am currently annoyed with them for shirking their dishwashing duties and failing to scoop the litter box, and I’m considering docking their allowance this week. However, having been a fairly rotten teenager myself, I’m aware that I am profoundly blessed to have a child who’s so alert to how societal expectations should be met. I’ll confess: it’s baffling at times. Where did this child come from? They were lining their shoes up inside their closet at the age of three.
The day my kid turned 14, two people I encountered offered their condolences, each saying 14 was one of the most difficult ages to parent. We all worry. Are they eating healthy foods? Are they spending too much time in their room? Do they have supportive peers? Has their unfortunate and inevitable exposure to social media melted their cognitive abilities like cheese on leftover pizza in a microwave? Are they at risk for suicidal thoughts? If they are “individuating,” which therapists assure you is the healthiest thing a teenager can do, you can be certain they will not be sharing their innermost feelings with you.
When it comes to my kid, I have an additional burden of worry because they are trans.
Early on during the coronavirus pandemic, my then 11-year-old kid, JJ, and I started taking walks together along the two-mile trail behind our house in Southern Maine. It was spring and every day that trail changed, gifting us a new discovery. We stooped to peep the ghostly mushrooms. We inspected wasp galls. We scorned the terribly behaved dogs that attempted to burst, barking furiously, through the electric fences that kept them corralled in the backyards that edged the trail. Once we had to run from a bee swarm unleashed by amateur beekeepers who crossed our path in their otherworldly garb. We were trying to find a way to be ourselves in a strange time, and we mostly did that by talking.
What I did not realize then was that my kid was reorganizing their sense of self, and that this undertaking had likely begun before the pandemic offered up its surreal solitude.
Remember when COVID first hit and we were all afraid to go to the grocery store? Back then we’d use antibacterial wipes to sanitize the freezer door handles in the ice cream aisle. I recall vigilantly acquiring foodstuffs for JJ while they anxiously awaited my return. Homeschooling JJ wasn’t easy because it was so easy. The child has always been fastidious and absurdly competent. They would complete their day’s work by the time I’d had my second cup of coffee. Even remote gym class. JJ sprinted around the outside of the house the assigned dozen times. It was then that the afternoon hours gaped before us. More often than not, we decided to take a walk.
JJ and I let our conversations meander in the same manner we’d leave the trail to follow a creek. Alongside one creek’s glittering bottom shone a flash of blue clay! We took a bucket down there and dug a bunch of it up with a plan to sculpt something out of it. (We never did.) It was during these talking walks that JJ first came out.
My kid was gay! They didn’t come out as trans at first; they came out as pansexual. But what did it mean to be pansexual? I had absolutely no idea. I had to ask JJ. It turns out it’s not the same as being bisexual. It means liking trans folks, cishet folks, nonbinary folks and, well, anybody, really. I learned all of this during our walks through the woods.
I figured having a gay kid was going to be fun. And because I’d watched every episode of Queer as Folk on DVD back in 2003, I knew from the character of Debbie Novotny that I needed to get myself to a PFLAG meeting. This was easy enough given the newfound luxury of Zoom. I watched and listened to another mother speak about her child who, in addition to being pansexual, was trans nonbinary. I nodded in recognition. JJ had taught me what those terms meant.
This mother spoke in defense of her trans nonbinary child, declaring and sharing her frustration with her family and friends, who refused to use her child’s pronouns. “Until they can respect my child’s dignity, we won’t be seeing them,” she said. This translated to me as: They are dead to us. This was serious business. Wow, those parents with trans kids sure have it tough, I thought.
I realize now that I truly dreaded the possibility I might have a trans kid. While I knew my kid was gay, I tried to rule out the possibility they’d be trans. That, in itself, was transphobic. At that time, I’d have said I didn’t want to be faced with the problem of pronoun changes. But what I really didn’t want to be burdened with was having my notions of gender completely undermined.
I never considered that I might be transphobic. But I also never stopped to think what being transphobic actually meant.
The reasons I didn’t want a trans child were manifold. First, their transness scared me, because I did not understand it. It also scared me because it was so out of my realm of knowing that, frankly, it destabilized my position as an authority figure. I can admit that, as a professor, I have become quite comfortable over the years being the person everyone in the room (read: students) assumes knows the most. When JJ started speaking about different expressions of gender, I barely knew what they were talking about.
The only thing I could do was listen. And ask questions. And I would argue that one of the most affirming things you can do for your trans child, friend or loved one is to listen. I cannot overstate this.
Here’s what I know now: my discomfort at the prospect of having a trans child was rooted in fear. When you pick at gender norms even a little bit, they unravel like an ill-knit sweater. This fear rose from my inability to imagine a life lived outside conventional conceptions of gender. Once you start to look at how much every aspect of your life is shaped by gender norms, you begin to see how arbitrary and unhelpful these constructs are. But norms are norms, and deviation from long and widely held preconceptions causes fear and discomfort. This anxiety and unease prevents so many of us from discovering how these ways of being and seeing have the potential to change us. Why are we not open to seeing these expressions — nonbinary transgender, genderqueer, and all genderfluid identities — as potentially liberating, rather than threatening?
I confessed to my child’s therapist, a trans man, that I’d been transphobic in the past, and he responded, with humor, that he had been too! “Haven’t we all been transphobic?” he asked.
I know now that if I’m not doing the work to actively understand the perspectives of trans people, I am being transphobic. I know now that not thinking about it because “it doesn’t affect me” was being transphobic. You may be reading this and wondering if you, too, are transphobic. I’m here to suggest that you cannot go on thinking you care, or that you actually support trans folks, without knowing that you are, inherently, transphobic.
I once thought I was the ultimate trans ally, and I did not believe I had to work for it. I believed this because we live in a culture in which, if you merely accept what is deemed different, you are deemed to have done enough. And then, if you actually go to bat for a marginalized group, you will either be mocked for being a social justice warrior or lauded for being a social justice warrior. There’s something gross about this. Shouldn’t defending the basic rights of our fellow humans be understood as a simple contribution to our shared community and well-being?
About eight years ago, I had a student who was far ahead of me in their understanding of these issues. This student was a gifted writer. To be honest, I found them very annoying, not least because they used they/them pronouns. They had adopted a male name, yet they wore eye makeup. This confused me, and I didn’t have time for it. I needed to know whether this student was male or female — not because I actually cared, but because I found it exhausting to figure out the gender cues.
Let’s call this student “Lee.” When Lee pointed out that I had misgendered them, I felt like they were playing the victim. They were constantly drawing attention to ways I’d affronted them. This struck me as narcissistic. You might say I even began to despise Lee because it always seemed they were trying to trip me up.
I thought I was politically astute, and even fairly radical, because I was a fierce feminist activist. I’d started a prominent feminist nonprofit organization that brought national attention to gender disparity in publications. I truly did not know how myopic my brand of feminism was, and while I would have weakly supported trans rights, the fact was I did not know much about trans folks at all.
Lee was simply trying to teach me.
Being an English professor, I also found the pronoun situation an affront to my dedication to proper grammar. To use the plural “they” instead of “he/her” was, according to those rules, simply wrong. I lived by the rules of “proper” grammar and taught those rules to my students. I wanted them to aspire to make their writing concise and exacting. But the fact is, language is organic and accommodating. Our language changes with our experiences. Language is one of most effective barometers for social and cultural changes.
Being a stickler for “proper” grammar was, I now realize, short-sighted. It was also, in essence, an elitist stance. I’m still very invested in teaching my students how to write clearly. I just recognize that language can and will thwart convention to accommodate previously unacknowledged realities.
And I owe Lee an apology. Though I have no idea where they are now, this is part of that apology. It’s also a way to say I’m grateful for what they taught me.
It didn’t happen on one of our walks. I don’t actually remember where we were when it happened, which suggests it must have been traumatic for me. But it was the opposite of traumatic for my kid. They told me they now used “they/them” pronouns. They were confident and direct. Within minutes, it seemed, my kid also changed their name. I was appalled. I’d chosen my child’s name with great deliberation. It was meaningful and beautiful. How could they discard it? It felt like a wound.
But while this seemed sudden to me, I now realize it’d been a long time coming for JJ. Had I not noticed their interest in trans and nonbinary people (especially pop stars) and friends?
One of the biggest obstacles I experienced in the days and weeks after my child came out as trans was adjusting to using their new name and their new pronouns. I still trip up. But I now realize it has been far more difficult for JJ than it has been for me.
JJ has been going by “they/them” for nearly two years now, and they are still misgendered by their peers at school. Being misgendered is painful for a trans person. If you have difficulty appreciating this, as I first did, consider how you would feel if someone constantly (and casually) referred to you by the wrong name. Perhaps you’ve been addressed by a nickname that makes you uncomfortable. Perhaps someone routinely mispronounces your name. It doesn’t feel good, does it? It’s disrespectful. That is why I understand that being misgendered, whether by being referred to using the wrong pronouns or by one’s deadname, is a form of transphobia.
You know what else is a form of transphobia? Medical discrimination. I remain amazed by how difficult it was for me to find my child gender-affirming care despite the fact I’m a white, cishet woman who is highly educated and upper-middle class. I came up against obstacles everywhere I turned, from the therapist who claimed LGBTQ+ expertise but misgendered JJ, to the representative at the closest gender clinic, in Portland, who informed me JJ wouldn’t be eligible for puberty blockers and/or hormones until they were 16 (which, frankly, makes this treatment beside the point if your child hopes to avoid developing the gendered body they are actively trying to escape).
I was lucky enough to find a doctor in Boston who would prescribe my kid testosterone when they were 13. My kid stands taller now and speaks to peers and adults in an assured, relaxed manner. They smile more.
Here’s another thing you need to understand about being trans: trans folks enjoy being trans. It is who they are. There is no shame. No, there is joy. There is pleasure in being in the right body, in being recognized as yourself.
It took a long time for me to actually understand any of this. I doubt I would have ever come to understand it in the way I do now if not for the one person I love most on Earth being trans. I had to understand in order to know my child better and understand what they needed. I had to listen and learn.
It hurts in the way being a parent always hurts: you see your kid out in the world, vulnerable, and you worry. What hurts most for me, and actually scares me enough to knock me out of sleep, is recognizing that trans folks are actively discriminated against in almost every aspect of their lives, from gendered bathrooms to gendered fashion, from sports teams to housing at summer camps.
For example, before I learned my child was trans, I had no idea bathrooms could be a challenge while running routine errands with my kid in tow. Several times a year — whether on a long drive, say, or a holiday shopping trip — almost every parent will find that getting their child to a public restroom has become their urgent and newfound mission in life. This simple goal becomes very complicated when one is faced with gendered restrooms and a child who feels unsafe going into the “Women’s Room” (where, if they appear masculine, they might be perceived as threatening) or the “Men’s Room,” into which their mother cannot escort them. Wouldn’t it be miraculous if restrooms weren’t gendered?
There are a couple nongendered restrooms at JJ’s school, but they are hard to reach between classes and often dirty (JJ shared their theory that cishet boys urinate on the toilet seats and floors to intentionally defile this space). As a result, JJ doesn’t use the bathroom at school. Because they are smart, they don’t drink much water or anything else, so they won’t have to use the restroom. But this means I have a dehydrated kid, and everyone knows that’s unhealthy.
But let’s talk about another sobering reason I was afraid to have a trans child: the fear of the harm that might come to them for being a trans citizen of this country. All parents fear for their children. But the parents of trans kids quickly learn that their children face adversity around every corner.
It’s not only all those hateful folks who are destroying the lives of trans folks by taking away their right to use the restrooms that feel right for them, or denying them the medications that keep them in their right bodies. It’s also those seemingly progressive publications and their editors and contributors that we (and I speak for myself) depend so much upon, the way they propagate trans-hate while appearing harmless. The New York Times, my favorite newspaper, has lately had me reaching for the Klonopin.
Take a closer look at their articles and opinion pieces. You’ll find there are people who seem oddly invested in determining trans rights. I wonder what’s in it for them?
Pamela Paul, a Times opinion columnist, is a revealing example of someone who appears reasonable on the surface but slides her anti-trans agenda into my side like a knife. Last December, I was so excited to dip into Paul’s piece about the 50th anniversary of the album Free to Be … You and Me. Its songs and skits embodied the dreams of the late 1960s and ’70s: we were all equal, feelings weren’t things to be ashamed of, and it was OK for boys to like dolls. The album and its companion book pressed against gender binaries, and I recalled the enormous relief my generation experienced by simply having these binaries questioned. There was one song in particular that I played over and over when I was a kid: “It’s All Right To Cry,” performed by Rosey Grier, the football player. “Crying gets all the mad out of you,” Rosey sang. Crying was my form of self-care.
Seeing the title in the heading of Paul’s column — “Free to Be You and Me. Or Not.” — I prepared to sink back into those groovy ’70s feelings — who doesn’t appreciate a little nostalgia nowadays as a reprieve from the news? But what I thought would be a celebration of the album’s transgressive affirmations turned out to be an anti-trans sandwich with Free to Be as the bread.
Right in the middle, Paul argues that despite the social progress the record helped us achieve, “Now we risk losing those advances. In lieu of liberating children from gender,” she wrote, “some educators have doubled down, offering children a smorgasbord of labels — gender identity, gender role, gender performance and gender expression — to affix to themselves from a young age.”
You know what makes me want to cry these days? People who think they know what is best for my kid without knowing my kid. People who think they have the right to make decisions that impact the lives of other people when they do not understand their circumstances. Politicians like Greg Abbott, Ron DeSantis and Marjorie Taylor Greene, who have no understanding of the experience of trans folks and their loved ones, and who seek to destroy the lives of trans children and their families because they are unwilling to open their minds and consider a lived experience different from their heteronormative one.
We could speculate as to why Paul cares enough to write lengthy opinion pieces about transgender people, or why she wrote 2,000 words in a Times piece defending J.K. Rowling without even a passing mention of the increasingly devastating legislation trans folks wake up to every day. But it would be rude to suggest this woman fears that the category of woman could actually be merely a construct and, therefore, mutable. Let’s give Paul a break. She just doesn’t know. She doesn’t know how much it hurts to see the reality of your loved one denied in the pages of your favorite newspaper.
My kid once described to me the feeling of gender dysmorphia as a split between the soul and the self. A metaphysical nausea. When you know your child’s right to live as themselves is continually being denied, you feel nauseous too. Your kid who has never hurt anyone. And why must their true self be denied? Seriously, how does my kid being trans affect Pamela Paul or anyone else, for that matter? It’s all right to cry. As the mother of a trans human, you can bet I cry!
To be the parent of a trans kids in our culture is to suffer for them and for yourself. One’s child is labeled deviant. You are labeled deviant for trying to support your child. You fear for your and your child’s physical safety (which is why both of us are using pseudonyms here). Meanwhile, you try not to bring this up with your kid, even though they have no doubt read about the violence against trans youth and adults on their iPad, because your kid mainly likes to talk about their cats, Tinkerbell and Linus. Like any parent, you are happiest when your kid is calm and happy. So when do you talk to your kid about their safety? And what do you tell them?
That’s what’s hard about having a trans child. Other than that, they are the same as any other kid. Adorable, goofy, ornery, annoying, and sometimes wise beyond their years. Remember the day you brought your kid into the world? The newborn, unrecognizable yet, at the same time, utterly familiar. That was your kid. That will always be your kid.
I encounter a lot of misconceptions around trans issues, so I try to help others understand. Ask me any questions you like! (My e-mail is at the end of this story, and I’ll be writing a monthly column about parenting trans kids in future editions of The Bollard). For example, I was surprised to learn that taking testosterone is not the ordeal you might think it is. Also, it poses no health problems worse than facial acne during the first year. Rather, as an article in a 2019 issue of Current Problems in Pediatric and Adolescent Health Care asserts, “[s]tudies in both adolescents and adults have repeatedly shown that gender affirming hormones, including testosterone, reduce depression rates and improve symptoms of anxiety.”
My child, should they decide to detransition, simply needs to stop taking the testosterone. This is extremely unlikely, given that, according to the American Psychiatric Association, “only 3% of trans youth experience some regret.” My child’s reproductive organs will not have been affected. I have a friend whose adult trans son recently conceived and gave birth to a baby.
I first started writing about what it’s like to have a trans kid because I wanted to make amends. I recognized that if I had not had a trans kid, I would still likely be making assumptions about what it means to be trans — most which would be wrong, and many of which would be hurtful. I would have continued to assume I was an advocate (all while patting myself on the back) despite not having made one iota of effort to understand what it means to be a trans person. I would be transphobic without even realizing it.
I have felt the pain of hearing my child’s identity dismissed in casual conversation with close friends. “When did it happen?” they ask. “When did they make this choice?” But it was — if you know my child, and if you listen to trans folks — never a choice. It wasn’t a switch that got turned on. This was who they always were and will always be. And, besides, when you get right down to it, it’s nobody’s business but their own. I have come very close to telling these friends who feel entitled to an explanation for my child’s transness to fuck off. Because it is hurtful, rude, and, deep down, disrespectful of the person I most honor in this world: JJ.
But I don’t tell my friends to fuck off. We have to learn to talk about this stuff! And my friends’ transphobia is more about the culture that has shaped our views of others and ourselves. When you start to look at the construct of gender through the eyes of a trans person, especially trans nonbinary folks, you have a sudden and disconcerting moment in which you realize you have been fooled your entire life into believing gender is actually a thing.
From the beginning, I’ve been very afraid to talk about what it means be trans, because I amnot trans. But I try to talk about it because I want the world to know my child is simply my child. A friend who also has a trans child wisely told me, “Trans kids are just as annoying as non-trans kids.” I know firsthand how intimidating the conversation around gender identity can be — and I still mess up all the time — but I want all the good folks out there who really do have it in their hearts to support trans people to feel free to ask questions and come to better understand transgender experience and terminology.
That’s why I’ve written this. I want to share an experience that I find unique, but that I have learned is not very unique at all. Isn’t that how it feels to be a parent? When I gave birth to my kid, I couldn’t believe every single person I saw on the street had their very own mother. That every person you see was once someone’s baby. But this column is not just my story; it’s JJ’s. It’s a story about how a child changed their mother, and made her better. And how this child made the world better for their mother.
I had a hard time coming up with a title for my column. My editor suggested we call it “Gender Free: Parenting a Trans Teen.” I asked JJ what they thought about that. Did they think of themselves as “gender-free”? Their response was adamant: “I’m not gender-free, I’m gender-defiant.”
You can see just from that statement how my child changes my world every day. So “Gender Defiant” it is and shall be.
Tina Carson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.