My husband and I have two daughters, 3 and 5 years old. The girls are in constant motion, jumping on the trampoline, turning the couch into a playground or racing their baby doll strollers from one end of the house to the other. Glittery hair accessories litter the hallway between their rooms. They love to paint and swim and play soccer and sing songs from the movie “Frozen.”
Our oldest, Violet, has a great belly laugh and a quick wit. When she grows up, she wants to be a marine biologist and a rock star. She loves magic tricks and twirly dresses and princesses and superheroes. She is the most nurturing big sister a mom could ask for. She also happens to have been born a boy.
Ever since the age of 2, our son wanted to wear dresses. When his little sister was born, he didn’t understand why friends and family sent dresses for her and not for him. He begged us to buy him one. We didn’t think much of it. He hadn’t really taken to dolls, and he loved cars, trains, construction and the color blue. He was, in every other way, a typical boy.
For over a year, he wore his one dress everywhere he could. Everywhere, that is, except at school. As our son grew from a toddler to a young boy and continued to wear dresses, the looks we got in public shifted. It wasn’t cute anymore. It was just curious. It occurred to us that our son was creative and feminine, but it never dawned on us that he might not be a boy at all.
Soon he began to talk about growing his hair long. He was enamored with princesses and mermaids and talked about one day being a mommy. At school, he played the part of a stereotypical boy — “Star Wars” obsessed and into Power Rangers.
But at home, the dress would go on immediately and his manner of play would soften. He lived for weekends, when he could wear a dress or hair accessories without worrying what the boys at school would think.
“There are lots of ways to be a boy,” we said.
We encouraged him to wear whatever he felt comfortable in and be himself at school. But we were missing the point, and his anxiety became worrisome.
On a shopping trip to Target this past spring, he spotted a girl’s bathing suit — “Little Mermaid”-themed with ruffles and glitter. “Oh mama, can I have that one?” he begged me. His little face shone and then wrinkled at my hesitation. I fought back the tears and panicked. What was I supposed to do? Wearing dresses was one thing, but a girls’ bathing suit felt like it was crossing a line. I immediately wondered how we would explain it when we showed up for the kids’ weekly swim lessons at the YMCA. I thought about the long summer ahead and texted my husband: “He wants a girl’s bathing suit. What do we do?” My hands shook as I awaited his reply. It came within seconds: “Get it.” The tears came hard. I was flooded with love and admiration for my husband but mostly with fear. We were certainly coloring outside of the lines now.
When we first asked our son why he liked to wear girls’ clothing, he explained to us, “I’m a boy and a girl,” as casually as though he were declaring he liked ketchup and mustard. At home, he asked us to call him a girl’s name he loved, Violet, but at school he reined it all in. Putting on his boy persona, which felt more like an act every day, took a massive toll. He told us that, when he got to school last year, he wanted to begin living as a girl. And she did.
Violet is transgender. She is biologically a male, but in her heart and mind she is a girl. If you ask her when or how she knew she was a girl, she can’t pinpoint an answer. It’s not something that just happened to her one day. It’s a truth that has emerged for her over time. A common misconception is that gender identity (the gender you know yourself to be on the inside, regardless of your body) and sexual orientation (whom you’re attracted to) are one and the same. Parents of young children fear that accepting transgender kids in our schools means bringing a sexual dialogue into the classroom.
Gender identity, in fact, has nothing to do with sex. It’s simply about who we see when we look in the mirror and whether or not our reflection matches who we are inside.
Doctors, psychologists, teachers and parents all know that it is developmentally appropriate for preschool-age children to explore gender norms through imaginative play. Even cisgender children — that is, not-transgender children, who identify as the gender a doctor labeled them at birth — like to try on new names sometimes. When I was 6, I begged my family to call me Sara after the then-popular Jefferson Starship song, and a dear friend of mine changed her name for a good portion of her college career.
So how can parents be so sure that their young transgender child isn’t just engaging in a whim?
In some ways we can’t. As parents, we are constantly making decisions with and for our children, and we won’t know how some of those decisions turn out for many years. Likewise, how our children express their gender can change over time as they move through the world. But the medical and mental health community agrees that it is critical to affirm young children’s preferred gender when children are consistent, insistent and persistent about who they are. Violet is exploring different ways of being a girl, but she is certainly all three.
Now that she’s secure in her girlhood, Violet doesn’t always dress in a traditionally feminine way. Like many girls, while she still loves her sparkly dresses, she also is comfortable in her old cargo shorts and a superhero T-shirt. Essentially, it’s not about what she wears on the outside but who she is on the inside.
Having a trans child means a lot more worry and more than a few awkward conversations when we run into people who we haven’t seen since before the transition, but it doesn’t change anything about how we operate as a family. We are, in every other way, a typical household. Violet must say please and thank you, clean up her toys, help her little sister and brush her teeth before bedtime. Dinner is made, the floor swept, the laundry folded, the children tucked in each night.
Above all, Violet knows she is loved. She is free to dream about her future without worrying that who she is might prevent her from having one. Other transgender youth aren’t so lucky.
For transgender children who are not supported by their families and communities, the statistics are scary. Forty-one percent of transgender youth attempt suicide. Many others are victims of violent crimes. Transgender youth of color are at particularly great risk. With the hateful rhetoric from our governor on people of color in Maine, I fear for the plight of the doubly marginalized in our state.
The hard work protecting our children starts with us: Mainers modeling real family values, creating loving, accepting homes that will bolster kids with confidence, self-respect and a firm belief that they are not a disorder or disease. We can use our voices and our votes to stand up to discriminatory policies that seek to hurt the transgender community.
Earlier this month, our daughters started preschool together. It was the littlest one’s first time going to school, and Violet’s first time going as Violet. We wrote a letter to the other parents explaining her transition. The director of the school promised to stand with us no matter what. Maine has anti-discrimination laws, but it is clear to us that her actions were based on a moral imperative to support each and every child in her school rather than a legal mandate.
Maine has a legacy of transgender activists, including the Maines family, whose compelling story about their transgender daughter is told in “Becoming Nicole: The Transformation of an American Family” by Pulitzer Prize winner Amy Ellis Nutt, and transgender author and former Colby College professor Jennifer Finney Boylan. They’ve paved the way for us, but there’s a lot more work to be done.
The same day our letter was sent out, a federal judge sided with a discriminatory lawsuit brought by the State of Texas along with 11 other states, blocking President Barack Obama’s directive requiring schools to let transgender students select the most appropriate bathroom for themselves. Gov. Paul LePage personally signed on, demonstrating both his bigotry and his blatant disregard for a 2014 ruling of the Maine Supreme Court in favor of transgender bathroom rights.
In preschool, all of the children share a potty, so Violet doesn’t need to worry about the hanging balance of bathroom laws just yet. But that day will come for our family all too soon. I shudder to think of the day our daughter learns that her very existence is questioned by those who spread hatred in the name of “family values.”
Those aren’t my family values. Are they yours? Thankfully, Violet is shielded from that painful discussion for now. Her biggest concern about coming out at school? “Mama, can I still play ‘Star Wars’ in a dress?”
One of Violet’s teachers put it beautifully. She said that nurturing Violet at school and having fun with her would be the easy part. The rest is up to everyone else. I hope one day we will see every child for who they really are and not which bathroom they choose. Transgender kids are by all accounts normal, in that they desire and deserve the same consideration and protections given to any child. From my view, those are family values and a fundamental human right.
Emily Wedick is a freelance writer and business development consultant living in South Portland with her husband, David, and their two daughters. She was born and raised in Central Maine.