Gender Defiant: Raising a Trans Teen

Searching for Affirmation 

Even back when I didn’t know what “gender affirming care” was, I knew JJ needed it.  So I called the gender clinic in town. They held informational sessions once a month. We’d missed the one in January, but there were open spots in February. 

Then I called Planned Parenthood. The nice lady on the phone told me that as soon as JJ turned 13, they would be eligible for treatment. I wasn’t sure what “treatment” entailed, but I was thrilled to know we’d get an expert on board. I could relax a little. JJ’s thirteenth birthday was two months away.

In the meantime, JJ asked me to buy them a binder. 

A good friend who also has a trans kid confessed that when her kid asked for a binder, she assumed they were requesting school supplies. Remember the Trapper Keeper? 

The function of a binder is to suppress the appearance of breasts through constriction. It won’t surprise you to know they are tight. As a result, wearing one can make it hard to move or breathe freely. But the binder is restricting in more ways than one — just like gender. Despite the fact they’d come out, JJ experienced dysphoria. They felt displaced within their own body, and all the more so as it entered a female puberty. 

But it’s not like you can go to Target and try binders on. They have to be purchased online. And binders are an internet shopping nightmare. The sizing is confusing. The many types are overwhelming. When the binder finally arrives, it doesn’t fit. And then it’s impossible to return. I purchased several.  

JJ had only one binder they liked. Because they it wore all the time, it was difficult to find a window of time in which to wash it. Once, we needed to catch a flight out of L.A. within hours and I could not dry this particular binder despite putting it through multiple cycles in the dryer. There we were, packed and ready to go, and this cursed binder was the one thing holding us back.

A binder is a band-aid, not a cure.  The binders I bought JJ would not solve the problem of their dysphoria. 

I was in a holding pattern back then, waiting for the gender clinic or Planned Parenthood to tell me what to do. Then JJ’s birthday arrived. They knew this meant they would finally receive gender affirming care. We were sitting in the car when I called Planned Parenthood to make the appointment.

The woman who answered the phone brusquely told me they did not perform this service for people under 16. I insisted that I had been given entirely different information when I’d last called. To this day, I am unsure what policy or law changed during the interim, and why JJ was suddenly and unceremoniously being denied.

Gone was the nice lady I’d talked to back in November. The owner of this voice had no interest in discussing how and why I might have been misled. 

“Is there anything else I can help you with?” she asked.

“Yes,” I concluded. “I want gender affirming care for my child.” And upon uttering those words, I finally knew what they meant.

JJ was sitting next to me, quiet. I couldn’t stand the fact I’d disappointed them. 

The next day, I called the gender clinic. It turned out they didn’t prescribe hormones until patients turned 16, either. And, just like Planned Parenthood, none of the people I spoke with were willing to explain why. 

I looked into some gender clinics in New York. The ones at Columbia and NYU didn’t take insurance. There were also programs that served underserved populations. JJ wasn’t eligible. 

So here’s what I did. I called my former student, Atlanta, who has a trans male child. I had worked with her a decade before, when her son transitioned. She was and still is an activist for trans folks, she lives in Boston, and she has lots of connections. 

“Why did you not call me sooner?” she asked. “You are running out of time.” 

JJ was not just facing a puberty they dreaded. They were experiencing it. My job as a mom was to help them stop it.

Within 24 hours, my friend landed JJ an appointment with a specialist in Boston. Before we finally got to attend the informational session at the local gender clinic, JJ had been prescribed testosterone by their new doctor. Things have been a lot better for JJ since then. 

But my experience still haunts me. If I, an upper-middle-class, highly educated white woman, can’t find the answers on my own, who can? This is why I worry so deeply not only for the trans kids who lack gender affirming care, but for those without adult advocates to  seek it out and arrange it for them.  

Tina Carson can be reached at

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