The author narrates his experience of parenting a trans child—the challenges and the joys.
Since our biological male child was 2 years old, she has insisted on wearing only dresses, having exclusively girl playmates and playing pretty obsessively with “girlish” toys. At 4 years old, she called herself a “boy girl,” and at 4½, she stated very clearly stated that she doesn’t just want to be a girl; she is a girl. When I asked her what’s more fun, to be a boy or to be a girl, she looked at me puzzled, saying that she can’t answer that question because she doesn’t know how it feels to be a boy. She doesn’t like to explain her identity to each new person she meets. For a long time, we would introduce her as a boy who just likes dresses, and often, a conversation about it occurred in front of her. This caused her stress.
We did a lot of research and consulted with a therapist who is an expert in the gender identity of children, and last summer we sent a letter to friends and family requesting that they use female pronouns to refer to our daughter. We shared research, links to documentary films about transgender people and resources for parents to talk with their kids about it.
The responses to our “coming out” announcement have been overwhelmingly loving and supportive. I have read many of the responses again and again, and I am so grateful to have such wonderful, happy and kind people in my life. My old-fashioned 87-year-old father-in-law, a Portuguese Jew, had such a sweet response that it brought me to tears. I could quote here so many other responses that were supportive and inspired by our decision to respect and accept our child. Many friends were moved to share with us their own experiences relating to gender identity. One friend, for example, recalled how her mother didn’t want to care for her hair and cut it short. This led people to think that she was a boy, which was so painful for her as a child. I made a printed booklet of all the responses we received, so that, when she grows up, our girl will always have a powerful reminder that she is loved and accepted.
But not all of it was beautiful. Some family members (both Orthodox and so-called mainstream Israelis) weren’t thrilled by our decision. We were told that we are damaging our child. Conversion therapy was recommended. My own art and theatrical appearances and my wife’s feminism were blamed as the cause for our boy’s (they kept using male pronouns) confusion about his gender. This separate email chain grew uglier and uglier; eventually, we ended a few relationships and replaced them with new chosen and loving family members I officially adopted. When I was asked to write something about the experience of being a parent of a trans child, I wrote this poem:
How to Parent a Trans Child
Just like you’d parentAny other childYou love them and feed themAnd clothe them and on their birthdayYou buy them a helium balloon.Only thing is they tend to kill themselvesIf you don’t accept themFor who they areSo you gotta work harderOn that.How to parent a trans childJust like you’d parentAny other childMy grandfather killed himselfMy father did, too, in a waySo it’s in the genesI need to work harderTo loveTo provide a sense of safetyTo eliminate shame.How to parent a gay childMy trans girl is namedAfter the kindest soul I’ve metHis family is still in denialThat he was gayReligion is sillyI love my children dearly.How to parent a childBut reallyHow to parent oneselfWhen we are loved and acceptedFor who we areWe’ll provide better careFor our childrenI’m not Mr. RogersAnd nobody taught me thatWhen I was a childWill I ever love myself?How to parent a trans childYou’ll deal with judgmentWith hate and with fearWith some assholesYou might need to endA few relationshipsLook for some role modelsThey’re thereThey’re beautifulBe more like them.You might not understand your childAnd that’s OKI don’t understand mine.
I really don’t understand my child. I don’t fully “get” what it’s like to be in a boy’s body and feel like a girl or vice versa. But do I “get” what it’s like to be a man in a man’s body? Existentially speaking, I don’t “get” any of this, so not understanding trans identity is just one small part of the larger life experience of not “getting” someone else’s experience—of having a healthy beginner’s mind that results in constructive curiosity about other people. And to be honest, when my kids throw tantrums about the smallest things or when I myself instinctively behave in a way that I rationally find wrong, I have a much harder time accepting this behavior than accepting a trans person and their request for a certain pronoun or a specific accommodation. I don’t understand what there is not to accept. If a person feels a certain way, why not respect their needs?
A few months ago, at the Jewish Men’s Retreat of Menschwork, I co-facilitated a sharing circle about gender identity, and how we can be of support to our family and community members who are gender-nonconforming. We only scratched the surface in talking about it for an hour-and-a-half. Each cisgender heterosexual man has so many emotions and questions about his own identity that arise when meeting gender-nonconforming people. I think the reason we have so much intolerance is because many men don’t talk about it and process these feelings. I can testify for myself that before having my parenting experience, I, too, was a little suspicious about this “transgender thing.” I had barely met any trans people, so I was ignorant—not intentionally, but it wasn’t something that was close to my heart.
I assume that many others who don’t interact with trans people regularly also share this experience. It will be a complicated process for society to accommodate such an expansion of our understanding of gender. The controversy about whether to allow students in schools to use the bathroom whose label matches their gender identity is just a small part of the change required in our education, health care and media in order to get rid of the outdated notion that there are only two genders. It won’t be easy, but we’ll get there, I’m sure. In the meantime, let me just say that I love my little girl so much, and I’m proud of and humbled by the gift of parenting a child who has the courage to express herself as she is. I am grateful for this great, thrilling journey that we have just begun.
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Wednesday, April 3:
Rabbi Dev Noily, My name is Dev, and my pronouns are ‘they’ and ‘them’
Anonymous, Parenting a Trans Child