t was 2006. Gender reveal parties weren’t really ‘a thing’ yet, but gender-based stereotypes still were. Especially here in the south, where buy-in for one’s assigned “gender” roles was easy, convenient, and perpetually reinforced.
My husband and I were eager to learn all three of our kids’ sexes via ultrasound. We’d always hoped to have a child of each gender. And God — in only God’s divinely humorous way — was brilliant enough to give us 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 make the ride a little more fun!
When my third and last child was born, I’d gone into labor a week earlier than my scheduled c-section. Thank God, because this bouncing baby boy weighed in at just under 10 lbs. (9 lbs., 15 oz., to be exact). The birthing center staff nicknamed him “Bubba,” for being the biggest newborn in their nursery that month.
We’d eventually learn that everything about Bubba was big: his smile, his cry, his imagination. He was an easy baby; jolly. He loved people, was easily entertained, never met a stranger, that sort of thing. He hit all his milestones early, from holding his head up to walking and talking. And man, was he was astronomically strong.
I breastfed but also pumped so my husband could share the love, especially for those middle of the night feedings. We thought it was a fluke when Bubba could hold his own bottle of milk and feed himself at 8 weeks old, but realized it was no fluke when he insisted on holding it, independently, every time thereafter. At 15 months (long after he’d mastered running), Bubba could push his 60 lb., 7-year-old big brother in our little red wagon. From behind. Uphill.
That’s when we decided to change his nickname to something more fitting: “Bamm-Bamm.” As in, Betty & Barney Rubble’s super-strong toddler son from The Flintstones cartoon. Around age 2, Bamm-Bamm (or “BB,” for short) started growing taller and thinning out. His heftiness and domineering stature faded away, and by 2 ½, he began expressing stereotypical female, much to our surprise.
At first, it seemed just a matter of toy preference. He’d always prefer playing with big sister’s Barbies and ballet costumes over anything in big brother’s room. BB had no interest in stereotypical boy things like trucks and cars, superheroes or action figures. Not even the more gender neutral toddler options — like Duplos or Legos — could persuade our choosy child.
But. In big sister’s room, BB came alive. He’d spend hours sitting at her pink plastic vanity, applying pretend makeup and modeling runway-ready attitude. He’d gaze at his image in the warped mirror and see crystal clear something the rest of us could not see.
BB was unambiguous in his preferences.
When he was not quite 3, BB caught me off-guard with just a few words. One afternoon while playing a favorite role-playing game (Alice in Wonderland), BB grew strangely quiet. After a few moments, he snapped back and appeared to discover some revelation out of thin air — which 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 knew for certain that this was an unusual 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, “DJ Lance Rock. He my friend.”
This felt different — unsettling, in a way.
Looking back, I can see that my child had chosen each word deliberately, yet also with a painstaking caution that defied his age. As if it were both a mature statement of intent, and an apprehensive inquiry seeking some type of reassurance. In the moment, I didn’t think anything and just glossed it over with a “yes, that’s right sweetie.”
But over the next few weeks, months, and years, in my head I kept hearing it over and over:
“Mommy, you know I’m only a boy because of my parts, right?”
Like it was demanding my attention.
It was then 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 even, what 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 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 few years later, BB’s obsessions extended beyond just Alice. There were both Dorothy’s — from “The Wizard of Oz” and “The Wiz” — there was Tinkerbell (and all the pixies), and Rapunzel among several others.
BB was still obsessed with the “girly” dress up — always the “girly” dress up. Whether it was big sister’s outgrown ballet costumes, or my ratty old “mom” nightgowns, BB could work sheer magic. At age four, he could drape, fold, cinch and knot my clothes so intricately that they’d be fitted at his waist or slung over one shoulder — and I was a size 16/18 at the time.
Still, BB showed absolutely no intent to invest in typical “boys” toys, mannerisms, or behaviors.
People started to notice. They said 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 that at face value. After all, we were living in a small, conservative, “Christian” town in the south.
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 all.
Yes, we thought it was a phase.
But by the time BB was 5, I began seeing this wasn’t a phase at all; this was just the raw fabric of my child.
I started thinking I knew exactly what this was — that I had a gay son who’d eventually “come out,” saying the words, “Mom, I’m gay.” (Which could still happen; nothing’s off the table.)
As a cisgender, heterosexual person myself, who was born with all the stars lining up perfectly, so to speak, I didn’t yet understand that gender identity was unrelated to sexual orientation and gender expression. As a cishet person, I was privileged in these ways — privileged: another concept I didn’t understand yet.
Years 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 in 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 it sounds — we didn’t realize that he could. And it never crossed our minds.
Meanwhile, I continued remaining blissfully naive of the real reason why my child hated, detested going clothes shopping.
We knew by then that BB was “gender creative,” as he’d seen a TV show featuring a gender creative boy and he quickly latched on to that label. But BB had no desire to change pronouns or name.
Even still, BB “masked” in typical boy’s clothes all the way through 4th grade, and he always came home and stripped them off like a repulsive, unwanted costume. I guess he publicly suppressed his hatred of it as long as he could.
BB was angry all the time, and it wasn’t long before his anxiety spiraled to unmanageable levels. Panic attacks came daily, for seemingly no reason at all. Many times I’d sit with my child, trying to comfort but feeling absolutely helpless, while he’d shake violently, cry, and try his best not to throw up. He just wanted to recover and get on with the day.
We’d seen therapist after therapist; none were a good match. We couldn’t find any helpful resources. We were encountering problems we’d never dreamed of having with our older two.
During 4th grade, 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 and very “girly” backpack all year, but this was sort of like another level of trying out, like he was testing the safety waters. The backpack was something he took off and put in the closet at school each morning; the ring would stay on unless he decided to take it off.
He proudly wore the ring, but later we learned his fellow classmates made a big deal over the delicate pink ring. His teacher encouraged him to wear it anyway, but he never put it on again.
Finally, we found a therapist who specialized in gender and LGBTQ issues. 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.
It was sad and isolating for him, and it was excruciating to witness. He’d talk about sitting on the buddy bench at recess — a signal that a student was in need of a friend — but kept telling me 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 finding 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,” (among other words).
All the retorts and comebacks we suggested never seemed to work. Ignoring didn’t work. The harassing kids persisted. The boys bathroom became a place of fear, a place my child avoided like the plague. Bathroom issues had been something we’d always dealt with but didn’t know why, and no doctor could figure it out. It was a vicious, never-ending cycle.
The summer after 4th grade was when something clicked; my husband and I decided our son could wear whatever he wanted to wear, wherever he wanted to wear it. He was clearly unhappy “masking” in boys clothes. If that meant he’d have to endure even more harassment and bullying, at least it would, maybe, spare his internal happiness.
In our minds, it was worth it. Turns out, in his mind, too.
In 2016, amid a highly charged political climate in the south, where a transphobic “bathroom/changing/public facilities bill” became law, a shopping trip to a tween “just for girls” clothing store became my child’s saving grace.
That year, BB began rejecting everything remotely masculine, including clothing and underwear. BB went from wearing just a sparkly “girls” backpack, to wearing pink & purple Twinkle Toe Sketchers, to growing a long head of hair and wearing big floral headbands. I.e., dressing in legit girls clothing, 100% of the time.
My child socially transitioned in 5th grade without me actually realizing it was a social transition. And he did so in a public school in the south where everyone knew BB as “him.” I saw it daily, but I still couldn’t comprehend the level of bravery it took my baby to live that authentically.
The moment 5th grade graduation ended — and I do mean the moment, 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 a deeper level; I finally accepted that this — all of this, from the panic attacks, to the mood swings, crying jags, and angry outbursts, to the years-long struggles with bathroom issues like encopresis — was just how gender dysphoria was manifesting itself in my child.
Unlike all the trans kids I’d seen in documentaries, though, my child was not “insistent, consistent, and persistent” with verbal expressions like “I was born in the wrong body,” or “Mommy, why did God make me wrong?” Instead, it was more subtle (but no less real). It was communication, but it came in the form of behavior rather than words.
It was the complicated tangle of intertwined anxiety, anger, and profound sadness. It was the painful physical symptoms that I’d thought were just the psychosomatic symptoms of my ‘nervous’ child. But it was really gender dysphoria, and I didn’t recognize it until the gender therapist helped me to see it.
During that same year, our child learned about (and fiercely adopted) they/them pronouns. Whenever anyone asked, “do you feel more like a boy or a girl?” BB would always, always answer (still to this day), “I feel more like ‘just a person.’”
My child consistently refused to be boxed in to any gender binary, and for years now, they’ve declared themself “trans non-binary.” Yet, because of their female presentation, they’re always assumed cis female wherever we go, due to their expression and presentation — and they’re okay with that, too. They seem to understand society isn’t quite there yet, and they adapt by accepting female pronouns.
As 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. Gender is public, unlike sexual orientation which doesn’t necessarily broadcast itself. A person can be a “closeted” gay person if they choose, but it’s impossible for someone to transition genders with no one noticing.
Many of us parents of trans kids are also public. As such, we get all kinds of ill-informed accusations and harmful motives ascribed to us by complete strangers. It’s sometimes disheartening, but it doesn’t deter us. From walking this walk, we’ve learned what’s considered best practices in raising this type of child. We know what the statistics show about trans youth and suicide, and organizations like HRC do a fantastic job of getting word out that trans people are the most at-risk group among the marginalized to self-harm, attempt, or complete suicide.
This isn’t 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 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 youth. But even when a trans person has an inclusive family, it’s still not enough, because hatred and intolerance directed at this population is deeply ingrained in American culture. 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 — kids whose lives are full of promise and potential.
And, because we love our trans children 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 changing statistics, like, how the LGBTQ Suicide Hotline calls from transgender youth have spiked — more than doubled — under Trump’s presidency.
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” from birth, 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 core identity.
Additionally, Leelah had to mask as gay, because that was easier for her parents to accept than a trans label was. This is still happening in families everywhere today, which I’ve noticed in just talking 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, or grow 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. “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 also begged us to “Fix society. Please.”
To my own child, to Leelah, to Jay, and especially to black trans women, who comprise the majority of trans people who are brutally murdered year after year, and to all the other trans kids out there, please hang on. We’re working on it, and we won’t give up. I can promise you that.