I was a true believer.
I was a social justice organizer and facilitator before social justice overtook the world. I was on the forefront, introducing the concept of intersectionality to progressive organizations, and having people share their pronouns. My friends and I felt we were the cool kids, the vanguard of revolutionary work to change the world, to achieve what people in the social justice movement call “collective liberation.” I was deeply committed to the work of creating another world that was possible.
Within this context, I came out as a lesbian, and identified as queer. And then I fell in love, entered a committed relationship with my spouse, and gave birth to our first son. Two years later, my partner gave birth to our second son. Having children, and experiencing the absolutely life changing love and devotion to them, was a game changer for me. And it was when, to quote Helen Joyce’s subtitle, ideology began to meet reality.
I immediately began to feel the tensions inside of me between what I felt intuitively and instinctively as a mother, and what I “should” be doing as a white anti-racist social justice parent. Because of my own experiences of perceived victimhood with my own parents’ rejection of my sexuality, I wanted to make sure I would honor my children’s “authentic selves.” I was primed to look for any clues that might suggest they could be transgender.
We raised both our sons as gender neutral as possible, with gender neutral clothes, toys, and language. While we did use he/him pronouns and others in their life called them boys, we did not call them boys, or even tell them that they were boys. We made all language gender neutral. In everyday reading of books or descriptions of people in our lives, we did not say “man” or “woman,” we said “people.” We thought we were doing the right and best thing, both for them and for the world.
At an early age, we noticed that our first son was a bit different. He was highly sensitive, and was extremely gifted. By about three years old, he started to orient more toward the females in his life than the males. Since he did not have the language, he would say, “I like the mamas.” Some of this difference we started to attribute to possibly being transgender. Instead of orienting him to the reality of his biological sex by telling him he was a boy, we wanted him to tell us if he felt he was a boy or a girl. As true believers, we thought that he could be transgender, and that we were to “follow his lead” to determine his true identity.
At the same time that this ideology was shaping my view of my son, I was also taking a very deep dive into attachment and child development. This opened my eyes to understanding the nature of attachment as hierarchical, and the fact that parents, not children, are meant to be in the lead. I began to struggle with the conflict between putting my child in the lead on gender and my deepening knowledge of my responsibility to lead and orient my child. Sadly, my commitment to ideology had the upper hand.
At around four years old, my son began to ask me if he was a boy or a girl. Instead of telling him he was a boy, I told him he could choose. I didn’t use those words—I thought I could be more sophisticated than that. I told him, “When babies are born with a penis, they are called boys, and when babies are born with a vagina, they are called girls. But some babies who are born with a penis can be girls, and some babies born with a vagina can be boys. It all depends on what you feel deep inside.” He continued to ask me what he was, and I continued to repeat these lines. I resolved my inner conflict by “leading” my son with this framework—you can be born with a penis, but still be a girl inside. I thought I was doing the right thing, for him, and for the world.
His question, and my response to it, would come back to haunt me for years, and continues to haunt me now. What I know now is that I was “leading”—I was leading my innocent, sensitive child down a path of lies that were a direct on-ramp to psychological damage and life-long irreversible medical intervention. All in the name of love, acceptance, and liberation.
About six months after my son began to ask me if he was a boy or a girl, he told my spouse that he was a girl, and wanted to be called sister, and she/her. I received a text message about this at work. On the way home that night, I resolved I would have to put all my own feelings away, and support my transgender child. And that is what I did.
With this one declaration, after months of refusing to tell our son he was a boy, we changed his entire world. We told him he could be a girl. He jumped up and down on the bed, happy, saying, “I’m a girl, I’m a girl!” (What a relief it must have been to him to actually have an identity to hold on to!). We, not him, initiated changing his name. We socially transitioned him, and enforced this transition with his younger brother, who was only two years old at the time and who could barely pronounce his older brother’s real name.
When I look back at this, it is almost too much to write about. The grief and the shock of what we did is so deep, so wide, so sharp and penetrating. How could a mother do this to her child? To her children? I truly believed that what I was doing was pure, right and good, only to later realize with horror what it could have lead to for my child. This horror still shakes me to my core.
It will not surprise readers of this site to hear that once we made the decision to socially transition our son, we received resounding praise and affirmation from most of our peers. One of my friends who had also socially transitioned her young child assured me that social transition was a healthy, neutral way of allowing children to “explore” their gender identity before puberty, when decisions would need to be made about puberty blockers and hormones. We sought out support groups for parents of transgender children where we went to find out if we had “done the right thing.” After all, our son showed no signs of actual gender dysphoria—was he actually transgender? At these support groups we were told what good parents we were. How kids on the autism spectrum (which he likely is), simply “know” they are transgender earlier than other kids.
At one of the support groups we attended, we were also told that transgender identity takes a few years to develop in children. They told us that during this period, it is very important to protect the child’s transgender identity, and therefore, you must eliminate contact with any family or friends who do not support this identity or go along with it. Yes, the gender therapist running this parent support group said this, and at the time, I believed her. Looking back, I now see this in a shockingly different light: this was an intentional process of concretizing transgender identity in children as young as 3 years old – the age of the youngest child in this group. When identity is concretized at this young of age, children will grow up actually believing they are the opposite sex. How could medicalization not follow?
The therapist also employed the same script that many adolescents use on their parents, helping parents of transgender children script letters to grandparents, aunts and uncles to declare a child’s transgender identity, and make conditions of engagement clear – you must use the name and pronouns, and embrace the new identity, or you will not have contact with the child…….
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