I had the happiest baby you ever saw. Through painful ear infections, baby Will smiled and laughed so much that the doctor's office called him "Happy Baby." When my beloved son, at the age of 4, told me that something had gone wrong in my belly and that he was supposed to be a she, I assured him that he was wrong. His dad and I were worried about his safety; our child was so very feminine in expression. We took him to a psychologist, who encouraged us to reward "boy" play and actively discourage "girl" play. So we told Will that boys did not play with Barbie dolls, and we took them away, along with anything else pink and girly. We even insisted on karate lessons, which Will hated. By the age of 6, Will was threatening suicide: "Mommy, I'm going to get a real gun and kill myself," he said to me. So back to a mental health professional we went, who told us that Will had anxiety and depression. That makes sense to us today, because we essentially had been shaming Will for feminine behavior for three years. So we learned how to parent an anxious and depressed child, but we did not learn about gender identity and expression; no mental health professional we visited educated us.
We continued to prohibit pink and sparkly things, so life at our house was pretty unhappy. Will came out in middle school as being attracted to boys. At the age of 15, we allowed Will to move his bedroom into the basement as a coming-of-age ritual, and we allowed him to decorate it any way he cared to. (Today it is the colors of a Victoria's Secret shopping bag and strewn with pompoms and beads and even Hello Kitty.) During the week-long decorating fest, Will told me he had the best of both worlds: he was a boy on the outside and a girl on the inside. Later that week, Will and I fought over something -- I cannot remember what -- and I told him, I am now most embarrassed to admit, "You can be as gay as you want, but if you go 'trans' on me, it'll be on your own time, your own money, and out of my house!"
Two months later, while sitting in my car in the womb-like atmosphere that is a car wash, I heard a program on NPR about transgender people. A 6-year-old trans girl (who had been born with boy parts) explained simply, "Something went wrong in my mommy's belly. I was supposed to be a girl," and a 47-year-old trans woman, who had just transitioned, said, "For years I thought I had the best of both worlds." Well, you know the rest.
So I reopened the conversation, finally able to listen to my child, and Will indeed wanted to go on hormone blockers and present as female. Will began her junior year of high school presenting as a girl, still going by the name "Will," and happy with either pronoun, "he" or "she." I got some good advice from my sister, who told me to take Will to place where she could see herself, so we went to a Pride celebration. Will walked directly up to the drag performers' stage and said, "That's what I want to do!" I had the Homer Simpson response: "Doh!" But if we were going to unconditionally love this child, this was our path. So for Will's 17th birthday, I took her to a Sunday drag brunch in the city, and there Will found herself. She impressed the drag queen who emceed the show so much that Will was invited to perform that very day. Introduced as Whitney Gucci Goo, she wowed the crowed. Will has been doing drag anywhere she can since that day, and I go to watch whenever I can, and for the first time in 15 years, I have my happy baby back.
It wasn't until I heard others' stories that I came to understand my own child; and with understanding finally came acceptance. I participated in a feature on In the Life in hopes that our story might resonate with other families that might be struggling with a gender-variant or transgender child, and thus help those families move through fear and into understanding and acceptance faster than they might otherwise. Because every day, every moment, that you can affirm and unconditionally love your child is precious, for both you and the child.
And the closer we as a society can come to recognizing, accepting, and celebrating our own diversity, the better we will be as a people, and the happier and healthier all our children will be.
Watch the full In the Life feature on families with transgender kids:
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