A June issue of People magazine featured the story of a tween girl dressed in pink, with the headline: “Boy to Girl – One Child’s Journey.” Inside, a six-page article tells the story of 12-year-old Nikki (formerly Niko), who, like my child, announced to her parents at a very young age that although she had a penis, she knew without a doubt that she was a girl.
The story is all too familiar to me: A child who is miserable in the gender assigned to her at birth, who is consistently and insistently drawn to the clothes and toys and friends of the opposite gender, and who eventually prevails on her reluctant parents to be allowed to live in the gender that feels “right” to her. It’s my child’s story, too.
I showed the People magazine story to my 5-year-old and explained that Nikki, like her, has a penis and used to have a “boy name” until she told her parents they’d made a mistake. “She sounds nice,” my daughter said. “Where does she live? Can I meet her?”
This is not the first time there has been respectful media coverage of transgender people. A full decade ago, Jennifer Finney Boylan, a transgender English professor, appeared on Oprah to talk about her transition as a woman in her 40s and a parent of two young children. Her memoir, She’s Not There, became a best-seller in 2003. In 2007, Barbara Walters profiled 6-year-old Jazz, a child who had apparently been born male but was living happily as a girl.
Jennifer and Jazz caused stirs, but then the news fizzled out. After all, Oprah Winfrey and Barbara Walters feature all sorts of people we might admire but don’t particularly relate to or consider to be completely human — rock stars and supermodels and former presidents. It was easy enough to view these people as fascinating one-offs. They were rare and exotic and perhaps worthy of our sympathy, but they were certainly not representative of a significant branch of the human family – certainly not anyone we might know.
But in the past year or so, something has changed.
Stories like those of Jennifer and Jazz are popping up in the mainstream media on a fairly regular basis. In January, Walters did another interview with Jazz, now 11 years old, about being a trans tween and starting to date boys. The following month, Katie Couric interviewed several transgender children and teens on her talk show. In March, the New Yorker profiled a female-to-male transgender teen named Skylar who had a double mastectomy at age 16.
Just last week, a transgender first-grader made national headlines when the Colorado Civil Rights Division ruled that she had the right to use the girls’ bathroom at school. Two weeks before that, Anderson Cooper introduced Americans to Kristin Beck, a former Navy SEAL who has just published a book about coming out as a transgender woman.
Something is going on here.
My theory (and my hope) is that we have arrived at a tipping point, with a critical mass of stories coming at us through our TV sets and newspapers and Facebook posts that, taken together, are bound to give birth to new thoughts: Maybe these people really are out there in significant numbers. Maybe that little girl on Barbara Walters wasn’t the only person like that.
I shudder when I think what it would have been like five years ago. Had my child been born just a few years earlier, my local support group for parents of trans kids wouldn’t yet exist. None of these articles about kids like mine would have been written, and none of these TV profiles would have been broadcast. My child and I would have been on our own, groping around in the dark. I would have thought that perhaps my son was gay. And I would have tried to convince my child that she really was a boy and tried to help her come to terms with that identity, because the world didn’t have a way to welcome a girl with a penis. According to the stories and statistics, by the time she was teenager — if not before — she would have been severely depressed and very likely suicidal.
But all that is changing, especially in large, liberal cities like the one I call home. Now there are conferences and even summer camps specifically devoted to kids like mine. Last year, Vice President Joe Biden was quoted as saying that transgender equality is “the civil rights issue of our time.” A few weeks ago I gave some money to a Kickstarter campaign to help fund the brand-new Transgender Studies Quarterly, the world’s first academic journal devoted to transgender issues.
And a smaller yet equally important change is occurring in the types of conversations I’m having with people about my transgender daughter. I used to encounter one of two responses: Either they would try to convince me that it was “just a phase” and that I was likely harming my child by supporting this “gender confusion,” or they were supportive of my approach but were shocked and fascinated by the very idea of a transgender person, let alone a young child. If I only had a three-dollar bill for every time I’ve heard someone say, “I’ve never heard of that.”
Over time, I have developed several stock responses: “Didn’t you know what gender you were as a child?” “Gender is between the ears, not between the legs.” “Hard numbers are difficult to come by, but it’s probably around one in 500.”
I still use these phrases fairly regularly, but thanks to all the recent media coverage, things are shifting slightly. These days I’ll often hear, “I read an article about that somewhere.” Or, “I think I saw a thing about a kid like that on TV.”
These conversations are among the many heady moments I’m experiencing lately. Taken together, they convince me that I’m watching the world change right before my eyes: Discussing hormone blockers with other parents of trans kids at my support group. Hearing my neighbors effortlessly shift their pronouns from male to female at my child’s request. Seeing a child like mine on the cover of a magazine that’s sold at every grocery store check-out stand across the nation. Watching my 5-year-old giddily join the “other girls” to play dress-up at preschool, her biggest worry that someone else might grab the sparkly princess gown before she does.
GENDERMOM lives with her young trans daughter in a large American city and blogs about their life at GenderMom.com.